“The blues is a chair, not a design for a chair, or a better chair… it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not chairs for looking at or being appreciated. You sit on that music… We didn’t sound like anybody else, that’s all. I mean we didn’t sound like the black musicians because we weren’t black. And because we were brought up on a different kind of music and atmosphere, and so ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘From Me to You’ and all those were our version of the chair. We were building our own chairs.”
—John Lennon, 1970, Lennon Remembers: The Rolling Stone Interviews
[ONE VERSION OF THE CHAIR]
1940: John Lennon and Richard Starkey (Ringo Starr) born, to working-class families in Liverpool, England (as are Paul McCartney and George Harrison, in 1942 and 1943, respectively).
1953-’54: Rock and roll, formerly “race” music, begins breakthrough into white America.
1955: January—Bill Haley’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll” (a white American cover of a song by black bluesman Joe Turner) makes British charts. June—John, almost 15, playing with his rock/skiffie group, the Quarrymen, meets Paul, almost 13, at Liverpool church social. Their partnership begins. [Some sources date this meeting in 1956.]
1956-’57: First English Elvis release. American rock hits and British rock imitators proliferate in England. John favors Elvis (“Nothing really affected me until…”); Paul, Little Richard. They perform with Quarrymen, write songs, appear occasionally as a duo (“The Nurk Twins”).
1958: George, a 15-year-old guitarist influenced by Chet Atkins, Buddy Holly, and Scotty Moore, joins Quarrymen; group name changed to Johnny and the Moondogs (later Silver Beatles, after Buddy Holly’s Crickets, then to Beatles).
1959: Stu Sutcliffe, Liverpool art student, joins Silver Beatles on bass.
1960: Liverpool “Merseybeat” scene forming on Beatles’ model (emphasis on rhythm and big beat). Pete Best, a drummer, is added, as Beatles leave for first of many all-night gigs in Hamburg, Germany.
1961: Beatles commute between Hamburg and Liverpool’s Cavern; record “My Bonnie” in Germany. Sutcliffe leaves group to paint. November—Brian Epstein, Liverpool record-store owner, seeks out Beatles at Cavern, his interest cued by request for “My Bonnie.” December—Epstein becomes Beatles’ manager.
1962: Epstein writes to journalist that his group “would one day be bigger than Elvis,” becoming only manager in rock and roll history to use this line and be right. January—Beatles fail audition with Decca, win poll as top group in Liverpool. April—Sutcliffe dies of brain tumor. August—Beatles signed to EMI, but Capitol refuses American option. In move still shrouded in mystery, John, Paul, George and Epstein replace Best with Ringo Starr, drummer for Liverpool “beat” (after “Merseybeat”) group Rory Storm and the Hurricanes (Storm later dies in apparent double suicide with mother). Final Beatles lineup: John, rhythm guitar (harmonica, organ, piano); Paul, bass (piano, organ, guitar); George, lead guitar; Ringo. drums. October—”Love Me Do,” written by John and Paul in 1957, released in U.K., peaks at Number 21.
1963: January—”Please Please Me” released, reaches Number One. “Beatlemania” hits Britain. Mass hysteria reigns among youth. February—”Please Please Me” released in U.S. on Vee-Jay label, no chart action. May—Please Please Me, Beatles’ first album, released in U.K., holds Number One spot for 30 consecutive weeks, replaced by With the Beatles, which remains at Number One for an additional 22. “From Me to You” released in U.S., reaches Number 116 in August, drops off chart two weeks later, falling short of Del Shannon’s version of same tune, released in June, which peaks at Number 77. July—first Beatles album released in U.S. on Vee-Jay as Introducing the Beatles. No chart action.
1964: January— “I Want to Hold Your Hand” released in U.S. on Capitol with $50,000 in publicity from label; reaches Number One February 1st (January 17th in Cashbox). February—Beatles appear on Ed Sullivan show. April—Beatles assume first, second, third, fourth and fifth positions on Billboard singles charts; Meet the Beatles, Capitol’s version of With the Beatles, becomes best-selling LP in history up to that time. “Beatlemania” hits U.S. Mass hysteria reigns among youth. DJs claim “fifth Beatle” status. British Invasion begins. August—Beatle film, A Hard Day’s Night, opens to extraordinary critical and popular acclaim; first major American tour begins. December—Ringo’s tonsillectomy inspires worldwide vigil.
1965: Beatles gain fourth, fifth and sixth Number One LPs, followed by Rubber Soul, hailed as artistic breakthrough, in December. American response to British rock renaissance includes Byrds, Lovin’ Spoonful, Dylan’s move to rock, beginnings of San Francisco sound, and the Monkees. August—second film, Help! released.
1966: Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde, Rolling Stones’ Aftermath, and Beatles’ Revolver (hailed as “avant-garde,” showing influence of Motown, Mamas and Papas, and Timothy Leary) all released, as Big Three of rock attempt to top each other. August—Beatles make what will be last concert appearance, in San Francisco: return to England to make album to top all toppers. John meets Yoko Ono, avant-garde conceptual artist. Age of media psychedelia—dope, love, peace, Eastern religion—begins.
1967: February—Beatles release “Strawberry Fields Forever,” hailed as “psychedelic” because of backward music at fade. June—on eve of San Francisco’s projected mass hippie Summer of Love influx, Beatles release Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, superpsychedelic LP that tops all toppers. Paul announces Beatle LSD use. August—Brian Epstein dies of pill overdose. Beatles, on retreat with Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, Eastern religionist, announce they will manage themselves. Gleam appears in religionist’s third eye. December—Beatle TV film, Magical Mystery Tour, bombs in Britain; first real Beatle failure.
1968: February—Beatles leave for India to receive instruction from Maharishi. Beatles complain of bad food; Ringo leaves early. May—John and Paul hold press conference in U.S. to sever relationship with Maharishi and launch Apple Corps., Ltd., new company meant to handle Beatles affairs and aid deserving artists. Move subsequently proves disastrous. November—Beatles release The Beatles (the “white album”) with mostly solo vocals.
1969: John and Yoko marry. Yoko seeks “fifth Beatle” status. Beatles decide to “get back” by recording “roots” album in order to recapture fading sense of combined self; Abbey Road appears instead. John forms Plastic Ono Band with Yoko on vocals; releases include “Give Peace a Chance.”
1970: Paul releases solo LP, with self as sole if not solo musician; press kit includes self-interview critical of other Beatles. April—Paul announces departure from Beatles. May—Beatles, effectively defunct, release “get back” LP as Let It Be, with accompanying Let It Be film. December—Paul sues to dissolve Beatles.
1970-1975: Beatles pursue individual careers with good financial but erratic artistic success. Paul forms new band, Wings, with wife Linda Eastman. John and Yoko release albums focusing on primal therapy, politics, self, and old rock and roll. Ringo makes movies and hit singles. George organizes Concert for Bangladesh (1971) and seeks better way.
1976: Wings begin first American tour. EMI rereleases 23 Beatle singles in U.K.; all make charts. Rumors of one-shot Beatle reunion spread, spurred by alleged $30- to $50-million guarantee. Beatles equivocate. Offers raised to $250 million.
1979• As Seventies draw to a close, Beatles refuse U.N. Secretary General Kurt Waldheim’s plea that they reunite to play charity concert for Vietnamese “boat people.” However, all four meet to plan suit against film of a theatrical production called Beatlemania.
[ANOTHER VERSION OF THE CHAIR]
“We were driving through Colorado [and] we had the radio on and eight of the Top Ten songs were Beatles songs. In Colorado! ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ all those early ones.
“They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid… But I kept it to myself that I really dug them. Everybody else thought they were for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction where music had to go… in my head, the Beatles were it. In Colorado, I started thinking but it was so far out I couldn’t deal with it—eight in the top ten.
“It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before.”
—Bob Dylan, 1971 Anthony Scaduto’s Bob Dylan
On February 9th, 1964, I was in college in California, a rock and roll fan with creeping amnesia. I remembered Chuck Berry but not the guitar solo in “Johnny B. Goode.” The excitement, the sense of being caught up in something much bigger than one’s own private taste, had disappeared from rock years before. There was still good stuff on the radio—there had been “Heat Wave” by a group called Martha and the Vandellas the summer before, “Be True to Your School” by the Beach Boys a few months after that, and even “On Broadway” by the Drifters—but in 1963 all of it seemed drowned out by Jimmy Gilmer’s “Sugar Shack,” the Number One song of the year and perhaps the worst excuse for itself rock and roll had yet produced. Rock and roll—the radio—felt dull and stupid, a dead end.
There had been an item in the paper that day about a British rock and roll group which was to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show that night: “The Beatles” (a photo too—were those wigs, or what?). I was curious—I didn’t know they had rock and roll in England—so I went down to a commons room where there was a TV set, expecting an argument from whoever was there about which channel to watch.
Four hundred people sat transfixed as the Beatles sang “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and when the song was over the crowd exploded. People looked at the faces (and the hair) of John, Paul, George and Ringo and said Yes (and who could have predicted that a few extra inches of hair would suddenly seem so right, so necessary? Brian Epstein?); they heard the Beatles’ sound and said Yes to that too. What was going on? And where had all those people come from?
Back at the radio I caught “I Saw Her Standing There” and was instantly convinced it was the most exciting rock and roll I’d ever heard (with Paul’s one/two/three/fuck! opening—how in the world did they expect to get away with that?). Someone from down the hall appeared with a copy of the actual record—you could just go out and buy this stuff?—and announced with great fake solemnity that it was the first 45 he’d purchased since “All Shook Up.” Someone else—who played a 12-string guitar and as far as I knew listened to nothing but Odetta began to muse that “even as a generation had been brought together by the Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Nite,’ it could be that it would be brought together again—by the Beatles.” He really talked like that; what was more amazing, he talked like that when a few hours before he had never heard of the Beatles.
The next weeks went by in a blur. People began to grow their hair (one acquaintance argued with great vehemence that it was physically impossible for male hair—at least, normal male hair—to grow to Beatle length); some affected British (or, when they could pull it off, Liverpool) accents. A friend got his hands on a British Beatles album unavailable in the U.S. and made a considerable amount of money charging people for the chance to hear John Lennon sing “Money (That’s What I Want)”—at two bucks a shot. Excitement wasn’t in the air; it was the air.
A few days after that first performance on the Sullivan show I spent the evening with some friends in a cafe in my hometown. It was, or anyway had been, a folk club. This night one heard only Meet the Beatles. The music, snaking through the dark, suddenly spooky room, was instantly recognizable and like nothing we had ever heard. It was joyous, threatening, absurd, arrogant, determined, innocent and tough, and it drew the line of which Dylan was to speak. “This was something that never happened before.”
It was, as Lester Bangs says in his survey of the British Invasion, not simply a matter of music, but of event. Dylan had heard the Beatles in New York before his Colorado revelation; I had first heard them on the radio in early 1963, when “Please Please Me” was released in the U.S., liked the record, disliked the followup, then forgot the group altogether. It was only in the context of the Beatles’ event that their music was perceived for what it was.
The event was a pop explosion; the second, and thus far the last, that rock and roll has produced.
A pop explosion is an irresistible cultural upheaval that cuts across lines of class and race (in terms of sources, if not allegiance), and, most crucially, divides society itself by age. The surface of daily life (walk, talk, dress, symbolism, heroes, family affairs) is affected with such force that deep and substantive changes in the way large numbers of people think and act take place. Pop explosions must link up with, and accelerate, broad shifts in sexual behavior, economic aspirations, and political beliefs; a pervasive sense of chaos, such as that which hit England in 1963 with the Profumo scandal, and the U.S. in the mid-Sixties with the civil rights movement, the Kennedy assassination, and later the Vietnam war, doesn’t hurt.
Now, it has been argued, by British critic George Melly, that a pop explosion merely “turns revolt into a style” (poet Thom Gunn’s line on Elvis, originally), but in fact pop explosions can provide the enthusiasm, the optimism, and the group identity that make mass political participation possible; a pop explosion is more than a change in style even if it is far less than a revolution, though it can look like either one—depending on who is looking, and when. (Not that “changing the world” in the political sense of the term is never a “goal” of a pop explosion, if such an event can be said to have a goal beyond good times; still, a pop explosion changes the world by affecting the moment, which means that the world retains the capacity to change back, momentarily.)
Enormous energy—the energy of frustration, desire, repression, adolescence, sex, ambition—finds an object in a pop explosion, and that energy is focused on, organized by and released by a single, holistic cultural entity. This entity must itself be capable of easy, instantaneous and varied imitation and extension, in a thousand ways at once; it must embody, suggest, affirm and legitimize new possibilities on all fronts even as it outstrips them. This is a fancy way of saying that the capacity for fad must be utterly profound.
And, at its heart, a pop explosion attaches the individual to a group—the fan to an audience, the solitary to a generation—in essence, forms a group and creates new loyalties—while at the same time it increases one’s ability to respond to a particular pop artifact, or a thousand of them, with an intensity that verges on lunacy. Ringo’s shout of “All right, George!” just before the guitar break in “Boys” becomes a matter of indefinable and indefensible significance; styles on Carnaby Street outdo the pace of the pop charts and change literally by the hour. Yet within it all is some principle of shape, of continuity, of value.
This principle was the Beatles. As was so often pointed out in the mid-Sixties, the sum of the Beatles was greater than the parts, but the parts were so distinctive and attractive that the group itself could be all things to all people, more or less; you did not have to love them all to love the group, but you could not love one without loving the group, and this was why the Beatles became bigger than Elvis; this was what had never happened before. And so it began. The past was felt to dissolve, the future was conceivable only as an expansion of the present, and the present was defined absolutely by its expansive novelty. Towering above Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, a score of British groups, American groups, Mary Quant, the Who, whatever and whoever sprung up day by day, the Beatles seemed not only to symbolize but to contain it all—to make history by anticipating it.
The first pop explosion, beginning in 1955 and 1956, began to yield to normalcy by about 1957. The Beatles’ event, beyond all expectations save perhaps their own, intensified not only in momentum but in magnetism, reaching more and more people with greater and greater mythic and emotional power, for at least four years. The Beatles affected not only the feel but the quality of life—they deepened it, sharpened it, brightened it, not merely as a factor in the cultural scheme, but as a presence.
Their event reached its height, and in many ways its effective end, with the release of Sgt. Pepper on June 2nd, 1967. For months, rumors had swept the pop world that the Beatles were engaged in an historic project that would sum up, and transcend, all that had been accomplished in the previous four years. In February a single, “Penny Lane”/”Strawberry Fields Forever,” was released (if this extraordinary music was merely a taste of what the Beatles were up to, what would the album be like?) and then, in the spring, tapes leaked out. A strange, maddening song called “A Day in the Life Of” was played on the radio and quickly withdrawn. Tension and speculation grew. It was said (correctly) that the new LP had taken 700 hours to record, as opposed to 12 hours for the Beatles’ first; that it included astonishingly experimental techniques, huge orchestras, 100-voice choirs. Stories began to appear not only in the pop press but in the daily papers. The record, unheard, was everywhere.
Then the announcement was made. The record would be released for airplay on Sunday midnight, one week before appearing in the stores; any station putting the disc on the air even one minute before the assigned air time would find all forthcoming prerelease airing privileges forever withheld. The fact that many stations habitually went off the air at Sunday midnight in order to service their transmitters, was of no consequence—or perhaps, from the perspective of Brian Epstein and the Beatles, it was a challenge. At any rate, the stations stayed on. They played the record all night and all the next day, vying to see which station could play it the longest, putting in calls to John and Paul in London that never went through, tracking every last second of the endless final chord of “A Day in the Life” (no “Of,” as it turned out), generating an unprecedented sense of public euphoria, excitement, satisfaction, and joy.
Almost immediately, Sgt Pepper was certified as proof that the Beatles’ music—or at least this album—was Art. But what mattered was the conscious creation of event—the way in which the summing-up-the-spirit-of-the-times style of the music (which for the most part has not survived its time) was perfectly congruent with the organizing-the-spirit-of-the-times manner in which the album was released and received. Which is to say that Sgt. Pepper, as the most brilliantly orchestrated manipulation of a cultural audience in pop history, was nothing less than a small pop explosion in and of itself. The music was not great art; the event, in its intensification of the ability to respond, was.
“The closest Western Civilization has come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815 was the week the Sgt. Pepper album was released,” Langdon Winner wrote in 1968. “In every city in Europe and America the stereo systems and the radio played, ‘What would you think if I sang out of tune… Woke up, got out of bed… looked much older, and the bag across her shoulder… in the sky with diamonds, Lucy in the…’ and everyone listened. At the time I happened to be driving across country on Interstate 80. In each city where I stopped for gas or food—Laramie, Ogallala, Moline, South Bend—the melodies wafted in from some far-off transistor radio or portable hi-fi. It was the most amazing thing I’ve ever heard. For a brief while the irreparably fragmented consciousness of the West was unified, at least in the minds of the young.”
And so it seemed as if the world really did turn around the Beatles, even if the truth was that this music, as opposed to this event, represented that point at which the Beatles began to be formed more by the times than the other way around. In the next few months Brian Epstein would die, and the Beatles, who had unified the young, would themselves begin to fragment—anticipating, as usual, the fragmentation that in years to come would separate the audience they had created. Still, if Sgt. Pepper was an ending, it was an ending that has never been matched. It was perhaps in the nature of the game that it would be all downhill from there.
[A THIRD VERSION OF THE CHAIR]
Or, what about the music. Since the Beatles disbanded a virtual consensus among rock critics has emerged to argue that the music of the Beatles, enjoyable as it may have been, stands now as distinctly inferior to that of the Stones, Dylan, or even the Byrds or the Beach Boys; the Beatles are conventionally portrayed as imitative, lightweights, yea-sayers, softies, ordinary musicians, vaguely unhip, unimaginative lyrically, and, above all, “clever”—that is, merely clever. You know—the Beatles just wanted to hold your hand, while the Stones wanted to pillage your town. Etc.
There is some truth to this argument. While Andrew Loog Oldham, the Stones’ manager, urged his boys to flaunt their rebellion, Epstein had the four mop tops clean up their act; he got rid of their grease-and-leather Cavern image and put the Fab Four into matching stage suits. Rebellion was fine as long as tactics were restricted to wit; pissing on a garage (or, as some Stones legends have it, a garage attendant) was definitely out. The Stones wrote from an insistently sexual and aggressive blues tradition; the Beatles worked mostly in the more polite and circumscribed milieu of pop, as defined not only by rock tunesmiths Carole King and Gerry Goffin but by the earlier professional romanticists of Tin Pan Alley. The Beatles’ optimism prevailed even when they tried to sound desperate (“Help!”), which sometimes made them sound sappy; the Stones’ sullenness prevailed even when they affected optimism (“We Love You”), which usually made them sound all the more attractive.
Which only proves, I think, that comparisons of the Beatles and the Stones (or Dylan or Elvis or any other true titan of rock) are pointless. I cannot make an argument that the Beatles were better at being the Stones than the Stones were (though I can point out that it was the Beatles who opened up the turf the Stones took as their own—there was no possibility of a Left until the Beatles created the Center). The argument that seems to emerge from a close listening to the Beatles’ music, on the other hand, is this one: by 1962 the Beatles’ mastery of rock and roll was such that it was inevitable they would change the form simply by addressing themselves to it. Unlike the Stones or Dylan, the Beatles came up through rock; as they went on, extending (if not deepening) their mastery, they defined rock, to the degree that it made sense to speak of “Yesterday,” a ballad accompanied only by acoustic guitar and strings, as “rock and roll,” simply because the disc was credited to the Beatles. And unlike Dylan, and possibly the Stones, at least until 1966, the Beatles had no fall-back position. They were rock and roll or they were nothing. As such, they were, at their best, the best.
Their pop explosion, after all, was not kicked off simply by assassination and PR. You could hear it, and what you heard was a rock and roll group that combined elements of the music that you were used to hearing only in pieces. That is, the form of the Beatles contained the forms of rock and roll itself. The Beatles combined the harmonic range and implicit equality of the Fifties vocal group (the Dell-Vikings, say) with the flash of a rockabilly band (the Crickets or Gene Vincent’s Blue Caps) with the aggressive and unique personalities of the classic rock stars (Elvis, Little Richard) with the homey this-could-be-you manner of later rock stars (Everly Brothers, Holly, Eddie Cochran) with the endlessly inventive songwriting touch of the Brill Building, and delivered it all with the grace of the Miracles, the physicality of “Louie Louie,” and the absurd enthusiasm of Gary “U.S.” Bonds. Three of the Beatles wrote, all sang lead, and they played their own music; in sum, they communicated (and generically insisted upon) absolute involvement (it was only after the Beatles that “rock groups” had to make their own records and write their own songs). Rock, which in the course of the Fifties had changed from a personal inspiration and affirmation to a process that allowed the most marginal of commitments, became, in the shape of the Beatles, a way of life.
Consider the Beatles’ history. In 1955, John and Paul were playing something approximating rock and roll before they had ever heard of Elvis Presley (the same probably cannot be said of Buddy Holly); they seem to have written their first hit before they heard “That’ll Be the Day” (even if “Love Me Do” would not be released until almost four years after Holly’s death). In other words, when the Beatles signed with EMI they were not merely in touch with their roots; in a significant and probably unique sense, they were their roots. They were not only a product of the pre-Beatles era of rock, they were a version of it. Accompanying the shock of novelty so many experienced on first exposure to the Beatles in 1963 or ’64 was a shock of recognition, which bespoke the Beatles’ connection to the whole history of rock and roll up to that time: the Beatles had absorbed that history because—year by year, playing and listening and writing, in Liverpool and on the bottoms of British tours and in Hamburg—they had, albeit invisibly, made it.
No one else could touch this sort of mastery, and the result was that elusive rock treasure, a new sound—and a new sound that could not be exhausted in the course of one brief flurry on the charts. That sound was best captured in the Beatles’ 1963 recordings of “Please Please Me,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” their version of the Shirelles’ “Boys,” the incandescent “There’s a Place,” “It Won’t Be Long,” “All I’ve Got to Do,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “All My Loving,” George’s brooding “Don’t Bother Me,” “Little Child,” and their cover of Barrett Strong’s “Money,” plus such 1964 cuts as “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Anytime at All,” “I Should Have Known Better,” “Things We Said Today,” “I’ll Be Back,” “No Reply,” “Eight Days a Week,” “Every Little Thing,” and “What You’re Doing.”
The beat, first of all, was not big, it was enormous. The entire performance orchestrated it, was built around it (listen to “There’s a Place”). At the same time, there was a lightness to almost every tune, a floating quality, a kind of lyrical attack that shaped but did not lessen the rhythmic power of the numbers. This quality, which can be heard in its most spectacular form in the segues in and out of the middle eights, was perhaps the most important thing John and Paul learned from Goffin-King (and from Ellie Greenwich, Jeff Barry and Phil Spector); it was written right into the compositions, and put across through head arrangements and in the use of rock group dynamics so fluid and intelligent that for years they made nearly everything else on the radio sound faintly stupid (listen to “Every Little Thing,” “Anytime at All,” “What You’re Doing”).
Though none of the Beatles made anything of formal instrumental virtuosity—Eric Clapton would bring on that era—the playing on the records could take your breath away (Ringo’s drumming on “There’s a Place,” or the piano rumble, supported by bass, drums and rhythm guitar, that cues the vocal on “What You’re Doing”). But more than anything else it was the singing that made these records what they were. John and Paul’s vocals—and the four Beatles’ unpredictable screams, yeah-yeah-yeahs, and head-to-head 0000s—communicated urgency first and foremost. Regardless of lyrics, the singers made demands, reached, got, went after more, blew away all that stood before them. They were exhilarated, exuberant, joyous; but all that joy was rooted in determination, as if those nihilistic nights in Hamburg had not just added an edge to the Beatles’ music but had lighted a fire in their hearts. In 1964, the freshness of the Beatles’ vocal assault was the sound of pure novelty; today, one hears a lovely, naked emotion in those early vocals, a refusal to kid around, to cut the corners of feeling, and a will to say it all, that was not to be heard in rock and roll from any other white performer until Bob Dylan released “Like a Rolling Stone” in the summer of 1965. This spirit surfaced in more obvious form later—consciously and with great craftsmanship, in “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Yer Blues” and “I’m So Tired”—but it was there from the beginning. In a sense it was the beginning.
Of these first recordings, it may be that “Money,” an unforgiving triumph of the intensity of which rock and roll at its strongest is capable, was the greatest. (All votes for “There’s a Place” will be counted, however; in some ways the best of the Beatles throughout their career was either a synthesis or a refinement of these two recordings.) Linked to the rock past, “Money” made Barrett Strong’s 1960 original sound quaint; Strong’s version of the song (not to mention the Stones’) is to the Beatles’ as Ricky Nelson’s “Stood Up” is to “Hound Dog.”
Surging forward after a quick, ominous piano opening, the lead vocal was all John. He sang with a greater fury than possessed him before or since (the wails of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, the 1970 “primal scream” LP, are contrived by comparison), and with a clarity and insistence he may not have matched until that same post-Beatles album, with the last few lines of “God” perhaps the most sublime singing in all of rock and roll. It was an insistence aimed not inward but at external reality itself (“I came out of the fuckin’ sticks to take over the world,” John was to say later); just as only the deaf, or the dead, could resist the utopianism of Paul’s vocal on “All My Loving,” only a fool could listen to John sing “The best things in life are free/But you can keep ’em for the birds and bees,” or hear him explode in the final choruses with “Now give me money—a lotta money—I want to be free!,” and not believe that every word was the truth. Add to this the screams, the blistering double 0000s, and the chants of “That’s . . . what I want” (the menace of the claim is in the pause), all from Paul and George in a manner of complete dementia; the unbelievable metallic harshness of the band; and a total performance that for all the control inherent in a classically simple rock structure sounds ready to blow up in a listener’s face at any moment, and the result is a record that keeps virtually every promise rock and roll ever made (the rest of them were kept by “There’s a Place,” “Eight Days a Week,” and “What You’re Doing”).
Mixing the lyricism of “There’s a Place” and the force of “Money,” the Beatles’ mastery of rock in their first two years of recording was absolute. Without really testing the limits of the form as they had worked it out in the early Sixties, they continued to prove that mastery through 1965, with “Ticket to Ride,” the brilliant “Help!,” its little-known flip side, “I’m Down” (an astonishing piece of hard rock with a crazed Little Richard vocal from Paul), and “Day Tripper.” Still, given Dylan, the Stones, and the Byrds, there was no question that other rockers were testing the Beatles’ limits, even if they were not, and so at the end of 1965 the Beatles turned around and dumped Rubber Soul on the market.
Though it can be argued that the Beatles’ first four LPs, in their British configurations (Please Please Me, With the Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night and Beatles for Sale) were as good as Rubber Soul, it may not be worth the trouble. Rubber Soul was an album made as an album; with the exception of “Michelle” (which, to be fair, paid the bills for years to come), every cut was an inspiration, something new and remarkable in and of itself.
In terms of lyrics, the Beatles were still writing about love, but this was a new kind of love: contingent, scary, and vital in a way that countenanced ambiguities and doubts earlier songs had skimmed right over. “In My Life” was as moving and precise a song about friendship as rock has produced; “Girl,” though deceptively straightforward, was a good deal more sophisticated than Dylan’s “Just like a Woman.”
If the emotional touch was harder, the musical touch was lighter. This music was seduction, not assault; the force was all beneath the surface, in the dynamics of “I’m Looking through You” (which were so striking that many fans delighted in listening to the stereo version of the tune with the vocal track turned off) and in the other numbers just mentioned. It was the Beatles’ most attractive album, perhaps their glossiest, and at the same time their most deeply satisfying. To this listener, it was unquestionably their best.
From this point on the story is not so clear. What was clear, though, what was clear in retrospect even on Rubber Soul, was that John and Paul were no longer the songwriting team they had once been. Consistently, John’s songs described struggle, while Paul’s denied it; Paul wrote and sang the A sides, John the Bs. Mapping out the directions that have governed their careers since the Beatles disbanded, John was already cultivating his rebellion and his anger; Paul was making his Decision for Pop; George was making his Decision for Krishna; and Ringo was having his house painted. All of the Beatles were attaching themselves to the fads and passions of the time, to drugs, transcendence, coats of many colors, the paraphernalia of psychedelia. And as the Beatles became one with the times, merging with them rather than standing above them, they became, musically and in every other way, harder to see truly. The wholeness of the group, the music, and the very idea of the Beatles began to break up, even as “The Beatles,” as cultural icons, media personalities, and phenomena, became more exciting than ever. Thus at the time it was obvious that Revolver, released in 1966, was better than Rubber Soul, just as it was obvious Sgt. Pepper was better than both put together. The times carried the imperative of such a choice—though it was not really a choice at all, but rather a sort of faceless necessity. The only road, after all, was onward.
Such a choice does not seem so obvious now, and of course the necessity has faded. Revolver retains the flash its title promised, but little of the soul its predecessor delivered. Compared to either, Sgt. Pepper appears playful but contrived, less a summing up of its era than a concession to it.
In the final two and a half years of Beatle groupdom, the four remained charming with “All You Need Is Love”; took a fall with Magical Mystery Tour; offered a stunning preview of post-Beatles music with the white album; wrapped up their career with the erratic, overly professional Abbey Road; and stumbled off the stage they had raised with a botched release of the antiprofessional Let It Be.
Out of that sad ending several recordings stand with the best the Beatles ever made. Save Paul’s shimmering “Penny Lane,” and his bruising “Helter Skelter,” all were John’s work, and in truth they may have little of the Beatles—the Beatles as something more than four people who sang and played—in them. Still, to this writer, “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Yer Blues,” “I’m So Tired” and “Don’t Let Me Down” are each richer than Sgt. Pepper’s best cut, “A Day in the Life”; in every case, John seemed to be getting closer to the essentials of his soul, which might be identified as a refusal to settle for anything short of perfection combined with a clear understanding that perfection does not exist—a dilemma that, given the history of the Beatles era and the years since, is something more than one man’s hangup.
[THE CHAIR IN PIECES]
Since 1970, the Beatles have carried on, and it has taken real courage to resist the calls, increasingly intense, to accept a certain defeat and reunite for one last time, or perhaps for longer than that. I think the truth is that the Beatles have accepted that they cannot, in any form, become what they were. John and Paul particularly are engaged in the ultimate pop process of reinventing themselves, and in a manner that defies, or redefines, pop, since pop calls in the moment and their efforts will likely last their whole lives. Today, the Beatles oscillate between genius and self-parody, and only one who does not understand the game that is being played would hope for some final, perfect synthesis. Perhaps what matters is that symbolically or in action, the Beatles, who saved the game close to 20 years ago, have no alternative but to work to keep it going.
[THE CHAIR RECALLED]
“[The blues] is a chair, not a design for a chair, or a better chair… it is the first chair. It is a chair for sitting on, not chairs for looking at or being appreciated. You sit on that music… We didn’t sound like anybody else, that’s all. I mean we didn’t sound like the black musicians because we weren’t black. And because we were brought up on a different kind of music and atmosphere, and so ‘Please Please Me’ and ‘From Me to You’ and all those were our version of the chair. We were building our own chairs.” —John Lennon, 1970
The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll
Revised 1979 edition (ed. Jim Miller)