A specter is haunting Europe.
Or, rather, two specters, each of approximately equal consequence. The first is that of the Loch Ness monster, a phenomenon (or, if you like, a non-or quasi-phenomenon) that over the last year has kept the presses rolling on particularly slow days. Since the public will sit still for a non- or quasi-story only so long, however, pressure has been growing; while it is presently uncool to disbelieve in the corporeality of this specter, if proof is not soon forthcoming it may shortly be just as uncool not to disbelieve. Thus, a great deal of money (most of it American) and some fairly bankable reputations (most of them British) are committed to establishing, now and forever, and, especially, quickly, whether “Nessie,” as the British prew likes to call her-him-it, is in fact a giant newt, a reformed plesiosaur, a Scottish version of the American elephas roseus, or, as has been claimed by a few notably courageous observers, the remains of an old movie set.
Specter number two is of course that of a Beatles reunion. The pressure on the Beatles is perhaps even more intense than it is on the Ness monster. Readers of this publication probably do not need detailed reminders of the recent events that have made Beatle intentions, or the lack of them, common currency throughout the rock & roll-speaking world. One need only mention the weird spectacle of teenage Beatles fans-after-the-fact in convention assembled; the late appearance of 23 old Beatles singles in the British charts (“It won’t be long, methinks,” writes English rock critic Simon Frith, “before the Beatles hold every place from one to 20, and our lives, according to a prophecy I read in 1964, will then be over”); promoter Bill Sargent’s nebulous “950 million guarantee” for a one-time closed-circuit TV concert; or the apparently ironclad commitment of $3000 (upped to $3200 a few weeks ago, after the initial offer failed) for a four-song spot on NBC’s Saturday Night. (Saturday Night producer Lorne Michaels may have added to the lure of his bid, however, when he stated that if the other Beatles wanted to “pay Ringo less,” it was perfectly all right with him.) As with the Ness monster, the appearance of the Beatles could take many forms. Most likely would be the one-shot concert or the one-shot recording deal, or a surprise entry into the Rolling Thunder tour (with Joan Baez adding that special something to, say,”I Am the Walrus”). A one-shot-performance theatrical movie, as opposed to the TV scam, has real potential, and there have been rumors of a plan to kidnap the Beatles and force them to perform at gunpoint before a home video unit, with the tapes to be either auctioned off to the TV networks as a legitimate “news item” or else bootlegged through ads in the back pages of Rock Scene.Of the two specters the odds favor the emergence of the Beatles over that of Nessie, if only because there isn’t a whole lot anyone can do about the Ness monster except sink infrared cameras into the bowl of peat soup that is Loch Ness, or wait. We cannot really expect Nessie to care very much one way or another about her-his-its box office draw.
The case of the Beatles is different—if only subtly—because together or separately they not only attempt to stay in touch with the needs and desires of their audiences, but ultimately find ways to respond to them as well. And that means that as artists they finally define themselves (understand themselves, perceive themselves) not simply in terms of some inner vision of the self and the world (see Erich Heller’s The Artist’s Journey into the Interior, or Lennon Remembers), but also in terms of how their audiences define them (see “Silly Love Songs,” or “Instant Karma”). At its best this is a nice process, tense and dialectical, with lots of room for invention and surprise, but one of its consequences may well be that since the Beatles can say no forever without finding anyone to believe them, the time will come when they will cease to believe themselves. Short of this, it’s even more likely that demand for a Beatles reunion will turn into a rock-hard expectation of same, making it extremely difficult for the ex-Beatles to carry on their careers as individuals. They may not be able to do their own work (to perceive themselves or their audiences with any sort of clarity and confidence) if the audience refuses to perceive them as they have struggled, since the breakup of the group in 1970, to be perceived.
It is in such a context, then, that Capitol Records—which recently reacquired control over original Beatles recordings—has released a two-record repackaging called Rock ‘n’ Roll Music (it is expected to ship platinum—i.e., 1 million units—and that just for starters). This album, oriented toward the harder stuff, to the obvious exclusion of anything resembling a ballad or even the Rubber Soul material, is not going to make the Beatles’ resistance to their own ghost any easier.
The set demonstrates how inventive, unforced and pluralistic the Beatles’ approach to rock was, and thus points up how forced, self-conscious and narrow their present work on their own has come to be. The album also demonstrates that while the Beatles as a unit seemed to play rock & roll in the same spirit in which they walked or talked, they now play at it in a spirit of self-parody; their music is schtick as opposed to groove, a comment on their respective personae as perceived by the audience and then accepted and refined by the individual Beatles. Whereas the Beatles once took a song and, dealing with the imperatives both of the song and the group, discovered their music as they worked out the song, each Beatle is now an autocrat, and the music is dictated by the artist to his backing musicians. Or at least that’s what it sounds like, because (save for a few exceptions, like “Well Well Well,” “It Don’t Come Easy” and “Jet”) what the music sounds like is a band on the run from itself.
So Rock ‘n’ Roll Music is an upsetting reminder. We have been trained (by our own prejudices, but also by Paul, who has been responding to, and laying back on, our prejudices) to think of Paul as too cute to fight (his signature, unfortunately, is not the screams of “Jet” but the “Oh, no” in “Silly Love Songs” or the prissy “You know you did you know you did” in “Live and Let Die”); here he is from ’64 and ’65 singing his guts out on Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” “Kansas City” (working off the insane Richard version, not the restrained Wilbert Harrison original) and the monumental Lennon-McCartney “I’m Down.” We might think of Ringo as an appealing jerk (after “The No-No Song,” anyway—why, Ringo, why?), but on Rock ‘n’ Roll Music his job on the Shirelles’ “Boys” shows us that he came out of a classic mold of rock singers—those whose power is rooted in their lack of talent, not lessened by it. Some may see George as a preachy bore; his guitar playing as presented on this reissue has a strength and verve his solo career makes virtually incomprehensible. John may appear today as a man whose soul has been cannibalized by introspection and vitiated by public display; what one is offered on Rock ‘n’ Roll Music is not the dissection of John’s soul but its sound, and what that sound says is, Here I am, torn up and torn down but committed absolutely to the sound of my voice, and if that sound makes you grin (“Anytime at All”), fine, and if it turns you to stone (“Money”), tough shit.
All right, you ask, what’s all that have to do with a reunion? Nothing, of course. There’s not a reason in the world to think that were John, Paul, George and Ringo to get together today they’d do much more than bump into each other. Yet when geniuses collide… whoever said pop dreams were rational? Hearing what the Beatles did, one can hardly suppress the desire to turn artifact back into process.
Rock ‘n’ Roll Music is just the beginning. Capitol has plans for more extensive reissues, backed up by a promotional campaign that includes everything from TV ads to a 20-minute Beatles film intended for use in record stores, and should “Got to Get You into My Life,” the single picked from Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, move on the charts, more will follow. Suddenly, the Beatles will be ubiquitous.
Bob Dylan’s great achievement of the last couple of years has been to escape his past without denying it. The Beatles are not so canny. A full-scale commercial revival of their past will end by denying them—denying that they still exist—and there will be nothing they can do about it. “When you die in an airplane crash,” John said recently, “which is what a lot of rock & roll people do—well, given the way their past is now threatening to overtake them, in a few months it may seem to the Beatles that they might as well have followed Buddy Holly, for all the difference it makes.
When I first heard Capitol was planning a set of Beatles hard rock, my first question was whether they’d put “Lies” on the album; they didn’t, but then Rock ‘n’ Roll Music is not quite the straightforward “real rock” assemblage it pretends to be. Almost half of it is more like The Beatles Sing ‘American Graffiti.’ Rather than coherently documenting the Beatles’ often underrated mastery (and transformation) of the big beat, Capitol has unbalanced the album by collecting every cover of a Fifties or early Sixties rocker (save for the Marvelettes’ “Please Mr. Postman”) the Beatles released, and—as if the Liverpudlians had sprung full bloom from Happy Days—decorated the inner sleeve of the LP with a ’57 Chevy, a jukebox, Marilyn Monroe, a hamburger, and a glass of what is probably meant to be Coke but given the lack of a logo could just as easily be some nonmythic drink like Royal Crown Cola. The Beatles sing your (or, at least, their) favorite oldies!
Well, not quite. These songs were not “oldies” to the Beatles when they recorded them, which is probably why they don’t sound like “oldies” now. These songs were simply their music. Ian Hoare’s comment in The Soul Book is worth noting: “In Liverpool the groups were keeping the rock & roll faith. This is not to say they were ‘revivalists,’ though they did play a lot of relatively obscure Fifties material, but that their repertoires suggested an awareness of a rock & roll tradition. And the contemporary representatives of that tradition were generally seen as the new R&B artists.” Thus the Beatles covered the Cookies along with Carl Perkins; thus they were insistent about making sure everyone knew where their music came from. When they covered “oldies” or unfamiliar black material they were less paying homage than attempting to attach themselves to a tradition as they perceived it; rather than reviving something that was dormant (even if in the minds of their fans outside of Liverpool it was dormant) they wanted to become a visible part of something they considered to be alive and well. And given that John, Paul, George and Ringo had been playing rock & roll, and the same songs they recorded as the Beatles, since the mid-Fifties—playing them year in and year out in Liverpool, Hamburg and up and down Great Britain—no other perspective made any sense. That we must now suffer a “Beatles revival,” as if they were dormant, is bad enough; for Capitol to present the Beatles’ own music as a revival within a revival—as if the Beatles were—among other things Sha Na Na five or six years early, and today a phenomenon of nostalgia doubled—is too much.
That said, let’s look at the songs. Of the 28 included on Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, 12, including all seven on side two, are cover versions; by the time we get to side four we are into the ’66 through ’69 period, when the Beatles had ceased to work with other people’s material (they actually stopped in ’65, with Rubber Soul). Some of the material, original and otherwise, is just fair (John’s graceless tributes to Larry Williams and Chuck Berry numbers, that weren’t that good to begin with; George’s dull stab at Carl Perkins’s “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby,” George’s “Taxman,” “Birthday,” “Get Back”), but taken as a whole this album sounds wonderful. Songs I’d never appreciated (“Drive My Car,” though I seem to be alone here) take on a whole new life; songs I’ve always loved (“Anytime at All”) emerge with a beauty that seems almost beyond the powers of human artifice. I have quibbles with the selections (where’s “There’s a Place,” “Day Tripper,” “Yer Blues”?) but the mix works, and in its best moments (sides one and three, where the styles are most various) it undercuts all the revivalist impulses by making the Beatles sound new.
I don’t want to talk much about the later material; “Back in the U.S.S.R.” is still funny and good rock to boot, “Helter Skelter” is frighteningly intense (given the Manson context in which we are now forced to hear it—talk about the audience affecting the meaning of the artist’s work!), “Revolution” sounds sappy and powerful at the same time, “Got to Get You into My Life” is why the Beatles’ optimism deserved to be more popular than the Stones’ pessimism—and so on. But the early stuff, and the covers, deserve some comment.
In Lennon Remembers, John says something to the effect that the Beatles’ best music was behind them by the time they began to record (George—or Paul—makes a similar comment in Let It Be); he felt the roughness was gone, and the force. Such an opinion cannot be credited. It is impossible to imagine the Beatles, or anyone, taking pure rock beyond the performances they gave when they cut Barrett Strong’s “Money,” “Long Tall Sally” and “I’m Down.” The Beatles’ version of the latter tune, especially on the last choruses, has so much drive it sounds like a studio trick; you can almost feel George’s fingers cutting into the strings, his playing is so hard. In the final chorus, the band comes up with the musical equivalent of shifting into second at 70 miles an hour—the tension of the performance increases so brutally it seems the group will get out of it only by exploding. At that point they end it.
“Money,” cut in ’63, may be the greatest recording the Beatles ever made. Certainly it stands with “Like a Rolling Stone” and “Gimme Shelter” as the most unforgiving and uncompromising piece of rock set down in our time. John’s singing is straight; there seems to be no nuance, no style, no “approach,” simply an absolute unity between the singer and the song. Yet in this performance is all the anger and resentment and, to get philosophical for a moment, will to power, that drove him from ’55 through “I’m So Tired” and still drives him today: the heart of his art, his motive and his means in one. “The best things in life are free/But you can keep ’em for the birds and bees”—Berry Gordy wrote those lines, John Lennon sucked them in and spit them out, and they are among the most staggering, threatening lines in all of rock & roll. The band—all drums, bass, blatantly ominous piano and rhythm guitars—keeps the pace. The performance gets bigger and bigger; the volume seems to rise all by itself; and there are few moments in any music as menacing as that moment—repeated over and over again—when Paul and George lower their heads to the mike to chant over John’s cry for money, “That’s… what I want.” They sound half out of their minds and they sound as scary as the pictures of the Stones on the back of their first album looked. “All that lean green,” Barrett Strong murmured when he cut the song; “I WANT TO BE FREE,” was John’s change on the line. The hell with imagery; this was a matter of life and death.
“I’m Down,” the flip side of “Help!,” released in ’65, has never appeared on LP before, and Capitol deserves credit for including it here. This is all Paul; his best Little Richard vocal plus George’s electric metal guitar and astonishingly rough drumming from Ringo. The sound he gets tumbles right over the song as if he has discovered how to knock over garbage cans on the beat, and it’s Ringo who gives the cut a kind of invisible syncopation that makes it stand out from virtually all other attempts at blind fury rock. Paul sounds so manic by the fade—“I’m dowwwwwwwwwwwwwwn on the ground!”—it’s hard to understand how they ever got him back on his feet. Simply one of the most exciting rock records of all time.
And against all this—with a mention for first-rate versions of Carl Perkins’s “Matchbox,” Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and Larry Williams’s “Slow Down”—perhaps two Beatles originals can be said to represent the group’s own contribution. I think “I Saw Her Standing There” and “Anytime at All” are better than the later material anyway. As for the former—well, if Berry Gordy’s lines took one side of rock as far as it will go, “She was just 17—if you know what I mean” is just as perfect. For that matter, Paul’s intro—a quick count of one/two/three/fahhhh!—is one of those rock & roll epiphanies that captures the spirit of the music as well as the guitar line in “I Want You Back” or the complete works of the Who.
And “Anytime at All.” This is merely one of many Beatle “pop songs,” another ode to eternal love (“Anytime at all, all you gotta do is call”). Along with “Things We Said Today” and “I’ll Be Back” it suggests the sophistication that was evident in the Beatles’ music by mid-’64, a strain that would grow right into Rubber Soul. As opposed to something like “Money,” or for that matter the cuts from Revolver and the “white album” included on Rock ‘n’ Roll Music, the thrills of this tune are in the melodic changes—the way John sings them and the way the group as a whole orchestrates them. It’s a performance of pure grace. One leaves it feeling nothing in the world could be so lovely, even for a moment,
Help! ends with credits rolling over picture after picture of John, Paul, George and Ringo, mugging, frowning, back front sideways, fey, coy, cute, irresistible. The very last frame of Help! is a shot of John, grinning. It seemed to me, as I stared at John’s face, that he was smiling out over a whole generation, and in the 11 years since I first saw it I have not been able to banish that image from my mind. Since I found out, perhaps minutes after leaving the theater, that things could never be so simple, there has been as much pain in that image as joy. In the utopia of that smile of John’s the Beatles’ promise came alive, and in that utopia, since utopia means “no where,” it also faded beyond reach. Which is where, outside of their music, “the Beatles” are now—beyond our reach or their own. Should the four of them play together one last time, no smile so good will come of it.
Rolling Stone, July 15, 1976