I’ve been more than hesitant to even attempt to tackle the musical monolith that is the Beatles in Truly Great, even though they are the one easy and obvious choice to be included herein. Numerous questions run through my head whenever I think to write anything remotely associated with the Beatles. Has what I’ve written been expressed or discussed before? Most assuredly the answer to that is yes. Is there any new insight that can be considered revelatory about the band? Most assuredly the answer to that is no. So why tackle it? Why bother to write about the Beatles? Purely and simply put, it is because humans live in a culture of storytelling and in the world of pop music, there is nothing more mythic, more fascinating, or more legendary than the Beatles. What other band can boast book after book written about them, compilation after compilation that become instant bestsellers, or have their music covered time and time again? No other band has really come close to the extraordinary captivating power of the Beatles. Michael Jackson has the screaming fans and the controversy, the Rolling Stones the longevity and ability to change with the times, various bands the name recognition, but no one combined every aspect of rock stardom like the Beatles. I truly believe that more people, when asked what the names John Paul mean, would answer `half of the Beatles’ as opposed to the name of a pope, to put a twist on a Beatles controversy that started with one of John’s offhand comments to an interviewer. So why now? Why discuss the most talked about band in rock history at this time? There are two answers, one is timing, the other is that there’s no such thing as timing when it comes to the Beatles.
December of 2005 marked the 25th anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and the year was also the 40th anniversary of Rubber Soul, the album that stood as the major turning point in the sound of the band. As such, there was a glut of Beatles and Lennon merchandise hitting the shelves. Considering how still amazingly fresh most of the Beatles’ material is, I’m amazed that near half a century has gone by since the band formed. One piece of merchandise that I latched onto recently was the audio version of Bob Spitz’s book Beatles: The Biography. Versatile character actor Alfred Molina performed the reading masterfully. If you’ve seen the book, you know that it’s a massive undertaking at just under a thousand pages. I’m not usually one for shortcuts, but the audio only came in an abridged format. While I found the biography fascinating, there was one overarching disappointment. I had driven my way (literally, I listened to it while commuting to and from work) through four discs and the Beatles still hadn’t invaded America. Meanwhile, the last disc of the set powered through their last three albums, the breakup and the solo projects at super speed. I found that I entered the audio book far more interested in the individual lives of the Beatles post-breakup than I originally had been about the Quarrymen, the Top Ten Club in Hamburg and the various fifth Beatles such as Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe. (The Rock Snob’s Dictionary has a great piece on the `real’ fifth Beatles, put in order of importance, justly getting it right by naming Brian Epstein and George Martin first and second respectively.) I cared more about how one continues on from being in the most popular rock band in the world and then suddenly not being in one. I wanted to hear more about Paul’s penchant for everything pop, Ringo’s attempt to be both an actor and an artist (not just thought to be the Beatles’ drummer), John’s continued songs of peace, protest, and primal scream therapy, and most specifically George’s vastly underrated work, his concert for Bangladesh and the subsequent collaborations with Bob Dylan, Roy Orbison and Jeff Lynne which would eventually become the Traveling Wilburys.
The combination of the biography, with no musical cues whatsoever, and the Anthology, which was mostly archival performance footage interspersed with anecdotal information, was perfectly seamless. If only they could be made into one long piece. After going through all of this information and also re-listening to nearly ever Beatles song and album I could get a hold of, I ended up finding a new appreciation for the Fab Four’s early work, the Roy Orbison-like beauty of “Please Please Me,” John’s hoarse screaming at the end of a long day of recording which ended up as the final version of “Twist and Shout,” Paul’s sincere and touching cover of a song from The Music Man, “Till There Was You.” Maybe it took the big picture, the juxtaposition of the Beatles’ music with everything else on the radio, but suddenly the `early work’ was more important to me than it ever had been. As the information filled my brain I began to more fully understand the power, the importance and the incredible congregation of talent that was the Beatles. Stories of how particularly famous songs like “A Hard Day’s Night” and “Yesterday” were written in hardly any time at all, sometimes within hours.
The Beatles’ cheeky wit and sharp sarcasm was the trademark to their charm. The four were never taking anything too seriously, mugging for the camera whenever possible, and answering reporters’ inane questions with hilarious and ridiculously appropriate answers. One of my favorite bits from the biography had George Martin asking the four after their first recording session whether there was anything they didn’t like. “Well, your tie for a start,” was George Harrison’s reply. Martin almost became incensed until he saw a slight smirk beginning in the corner of Harrison’s mouth, at which point everyone started to break up. They got on famously after that. I admired the fact that they were all so close and got along like brothers, as opposed to the tales leading up to their demise, and the string of factors involved. It broke my heart as I listened and watched, 35 years after the fact, as their great relationships started to crumble, tensions began to grow, and they all soon resented each other. Really, the question that remains isn’t what broke up the Beatles, but what was the beginning of the end? Was it Brian Epstein’s death? Was it Paul’s need for control in the aftermath? Was it George’s pull towards Eastern spiritualism? Was it Yoko’s hold on John? Did it start with John and George staying in India with the Maharishi when Paul and Ringo left? One thing for sure, nobody ever blames the breakup on Ringo. In fact, people are more apt to blame outsiders such as Yoko (not that she didn’t play her part), than they are to seek answers within the Beatles.
The Beatles’ run of twelve albums between 1963 and 1970 is absolutely unparalleled and extraordinary. The pure and catchy pop rock genius of Please Please Me and With the Beatles of course made them famous and kicked off Beatlemania and proved that a rock band could not only be excellent musicians, but also innovative and popular. The soundtracks for A Hard Day’s Night and Help, along with the accompanying films, made the four movie stars, increasing their stock, but also providing more timeless songs in the Beatles canon. Beatles for Sale continued the streak of albums with classic covers and Lennon / McCartney originals, among them the great “I’ll Follow the Sun” and “Eight Days a Week.” And then began the biggest changes in a band in the shortest period of time, from the starting gun of Rubber Soul in 1965 to the big farewell on the rooftop in 1970’s Let it Be. The seven albums they released in those last six years (not including the soundtrack for the animated Yellow Submarine) were groundbreaking and were the first Beatles albums I felt I had to own. And right in the middle of it all was the huge double album, simply called The Beatles, but most known as The White Album. Interestingly, George Martin, Ringo and George all state in the Anthology that it probably should have been two separately released albums or just whittled down to one. I know I’ve read that a lot of people think “Rocky Raccoon” and “Bungalow Bill” are throwaway tracks but I couldn’t disagree more. Paul sums it up best by retorting, “It’s good, it sold, and it’s the bloody White Album, so shut up!”
I’ve seen poll after poll, list after list and survey after survey exhausting the concept of what is the best Beatles album with varied end results. My own personal favorite is / was Abbey Road for a few reasons. For one, it was one of my first albums on vinyl. For another, it was the perfect combination of true Beatles collaboration and individual artistic vision that would spill over into the individual solo projects. The harmonizing on “Because” is a great example of the first, while the George Harrison tracks are the best in his Beatles career (save maybe for “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”), the patchwork mosaic of short songs by Paul and John were all told in their singular voices, yet flowed seamlessly, all resulting in the dueling guitar solos in “The End.” Although it was not the last one released, it was the last album recorded, and there is an ultimate sense of finality involved. Even calling a song “The End” and having it be a truly collaborative effort with one of the most profound and simple expressions of love ever written carries a weight (pun intended) not found in any other Beatles song (although cases can be made for “The Long and Winding Road” and “Two of Us”). “And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make” can now pretty much stand up with Shakespearean quotations.
After resisting looking at anything pre-Rubber Soul, my immersion into everything Beatles has forcibly removed my blinders, sending me to seek out the original five. What I also discovered was that I had largely ignored particular aspects of the members’ solo work. I had previously only owned most of John Lennon’s albums. I was more familiar with Paul McCartney’s Wings material as I was growing up as a child. I only recently, and criminally, started to get into George Harrison and Ringo Starr’s work. All Things Must Pass is pure genius, and songs of Ringo’s such as “It Don’t Come Easy” are quite often overlooked and underrated. But it’s usually only because the individual work is compared to that of the Beatles, to which no one, even its members, should ever be compared. The Beatles are way too far past any real comparisons. There is no way to realistically use them as a point of reference any more than you can use Van Gogh’s “Starry Night” as a reference for any other paintings. Even with the Shins and their jangly Beatles harmonies, Franz Ferdinand and their Beatlesque dandy clothes, energy, humor and stage setup, and Oasis and their near ripoff homage songs, there is no way that any of them can even come close to the mythological behemoth that was the four lads from Liverpool. The truth is that no other band will ever be as big, as respected, as adored as the Beatles, and that’s how it should be. And ultimately that’s why they’re in Truly Great. I just wonder why it took me this long.