BeatleData: They Should’ve Known Better (06/13/77)

The Beatle resurgence continues apace, as it has for some time now, and the recent release of The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl—13 tunes recorded in 1964 and ’65—is only a part of of it. These days Beatle presence not only has scope—in the last months numerous radio stations, AM and FM, have programmed All-Beatle Weekends and offered complete Beatle collections as the prizes in their Beatle Quizzes—it has depth. Last year we received reports that the majority of those attending the now drinstitutionalized Beatle Conventions (in Boston, New York, and San Francisco) were teenagers—that is, fans too young to have followed the Beatles when there were Beatles—but there seems to be an even younger audience coming up behind them. Aside from the odd Phil Spector track and a 20-volume “Let’s Pretend” series, my seven­-year-old daughter and her friends listen to little but the Beatles. They know the music—my daughter’s favorites are “Michelle” and “I Am the Walrus”—and they hear the Beatles as utterly contemporary, drawing no distinctions between “Drive My Car” and the latest from Stevie Wonder. What is more, the kids are initiating themselves into Beatle history, Beatle myth. “Why did the Beatles break up?” I was asked during a recent car-pool excursion. What do you say to a seven­-year-old? “Irreconcilable ego conflicts, honey”? “Daddy,” I was asked a few weeks ago, with no preamble whatsoever, “Did you know today was George’s birthday?” I got the distinct impression she and her friends had been celebrating the occasion at school; I was thankful they hadn’t been given the day off. For that matter, at the year’s final school meeting, my daughter’s teacher apologized for the fact that her students “hadn’t really moved beyond the Beatles.” I could not figure out what she meant. Moved beyond to what, I wondered. Vivaldi? Or “Ballad of a Thin Man”?

These strange circumstances have given me new enthusiasm for the numerous artifacts of Beatledom that have appeared in the last weeks. The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl has been the most publicized (the AM stations I listen to have been playing it track for track), and for good reason: It is not merely an artifact, but fun to listen to. It is also a shock. Twelve or 13 years after the fact, the great scream that floods this album sounds bizarre; there is a craziness here, captured best in the self-parodying remarks Paul and John address to their audience, knowing full well that no one will ever hear them, that recalls the unbelievably intense good feeling one experienced at a Beatle concert. Words like “celebration” just do not touch it.

The music is very lively. There were no monitor speakers, and thus Beatle voices and Beatle instruments go flat, miss notes, blow changes. Tempos are speeded up. And yet there is a force in the music, a spirit of delight, that makes sense of all the screaming. The screaming sounds bizarre only at first; after a time, it seems like the only proper response.Beatle music as it was when no one screamed, but instead threw up or pulled knives, is set forth on an even more interesting album—a double LP—called The Beatles Live! at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany; 1962, available at present only as a German import (on Bellaphon), but presumably soon to be marketed in the U.S. The Beatles tried to stop the release of this set—it was originally taped on a home recorder with a single mike, and, in the time-honored tradition, the Beatles claimed the poor sound would damage their reputations—but it is all there is of their neolithic era, their period of flat-out rock, and the sound, save on a few cuts, is perfectly listenable. As for the performances, they range from good (“Be-­Bop-a-Lula” features not a Beatle but a German waiter) to awesome. “I Saw Her Standing There,” “Sweet Little Sixteen,” and “Twist and Shout” are not like anything we have previously heard from the Beatles—rough, pointed, unforgiving, explosive. There is a fabulous guitar intro by George to “Roll Over, Beethoven” and big, solid drumming from Ringo throughout (though this performance was recorded well before Ringo replaced Pete Best as Beatle drummer, he often sat in with them in Hamburg; his characteristic overplaying on the cymbals is clear evidence of his presence here). There are dry spots; the 26 cuts include, for example, “I Remember You,” “A Taste of Honey,” and others less than memorable. There is also “Talkin’ ‘Bout You,” not exactly the sort of song one associated with the Beatles, and Paul’s sprightly introduction of “Besame Mucho” as “a special request from Hitler.” Plus a fair amount of obscenity, not all of it from John. I think it’s a great record.

The man responsible for the release of this album is Allan Williams, the Beatles’ semi-official manager during their Li­verpool and Hamburg days, and he tells the story behind the Hamburg music in The Man Who Gave the Beatles Away (co­authored by William Marshall, the book was published a couple of years ago by Macmillan; there is no U.S. paperback, but it should be easy to find in remainder piles). It is some story. Remember when, back in ’65, the Rolling Stones were busted for pissing on a garage wall? Try this, from Hamburg, early ’60s:

A whole flock of nuns were passing down the street below Manfred’s pad when the Beatles spotted them. Oh dear God, that was it.
“Come on, boys, let the girls see what we’re made of.”
“Do what?”
“Get your cock out, man, let’s baptize ’em.”
“You don’t mean it.”
“I do.”
“Piss on a nun?”
“Piss on a nun, a flock of nuns.”
They did it, too.

Williams, a born small-timer who today drinks to cover his losses, knows he could never have kept up with the Beatles, let alone taken them to the top, but his tale is full of might-have-beens and almost-weres; it’s his story as well as the Beatles’. A club owner in Liverpool, a hustler, his version of Beatle genesis is filled with gang-fights, gun battles, starvation, whores, thieving German club managers, and two arrogant, simpering young punks—John and Paul. He portrays them as dishonest, disloyal, vul­gar, vicious, and, perhaps with his libel lawyer looking over his shoulder, lovable.

Williams got hold of the Hamburg tapes a few years ago, and tried to get the Beatles to go in with him on their release (Williams figured their worth at $20 million; I doubt if he will sell 100,000 copies, given the unpro­fessional sound). His description of his bargaining session with George and Ringo (“Ah, you always were a tight-arsed cunt, Ringo”) is brutal, both to the Beatles and to himself. He is a bitter man, but he has written what is, by a long way, the best book on the Beatles. It comes with an endorsement by John Lennon, who claims not to remember any of it.

More interesting than the Beatle past, to some, is the Beatle future, the subject of two new works of fantasy: Welcome Back Beatles, a one-time newsprint magazine by Howard Blumenthal and Christopher May (Stories Layouts & Press Inc., $1.50, distributed by Curtis), and Paperback Writer: A New History of the Beatles, by Mark Shipper, former editor of Flash magazine and presently author of the notorious Pipeline column in Phonograph Record Magazine (Marship Publications, Box 3555, Los Angeles, California, 90028, $5.95). Both posit a Beatle reunion in the near future. Welcome Back Beatles takes up the story late in 1977; for reasons too complicated to detail here, the Beatles reform, journey to Iceland to cut their new LP (though the booklet is mostly illustrated with smudgy old photos of the Beatles, this section features travelogue pics of Iceland with the Beatles dropped into them). With the release of the album—“O”—the Beatles imme­diately top the charts for over a year. One cut is “discussed by a prominent music critic as ‘the finest tribute to true romance, indeed love, since man first touched woman.'” (That “indeed love” is a pretty good touch in itself.) But this is only the beginning. Soon, the first 10 places on the LP charts are filled with Beatle product. After, as Blumenthal puts it, “the Iceland era ends,” the Beatles return to solo work; years pass. Finally, they “get it together” for the great concert all the world has been expecting: “The Beatles for Hunger,” an all-day all-night performance at the foot of the Alps in Switzerland (nice shot of the Matterhorn here). Each Beatle plays solo for hours; then they reform, play their way through countless oldies and early Beatles material, “Yesterday,” all of Sgt. Pep­per’s, and then, on the verge of moving into their biggest hit of all time, “Bandeau Velor” from “O”—Paul collapses from a heart attack. Doctors gather backstage. There is a delay of several hours. John, Ringo, and George return to end the show. But just as George is about to take over the vocal on the Beatles’ greatest song, there emerges from the wings “the pale and drawn, ghostlike body of… ”

After this heroic performance, Paul re­tires to a ranch in Montana, his health broken. Heather McCartney’s album makes the top 10.shipper-coverMark Shipper’s Paperback Writer is a far more ambitious project: a complete, 232-page re-imagining of the history of the Beatles from their Liverpool days through the last months of the ’70s, illustrated with made-up album covers, posters, and beautifully captioned old photos (the caption to a shot of the Beatles getting off a plane notes that “this TWA airplane has gone on to become a valuable collector’s item among rabid Beatlemaniacs”). As with all of Shipper’s work, the humor is incessant, sharp, and usually nasty; he takes a reader through every stage of the Beatles’ career, twisting each period until it has become a revelatory parody of itself. At the some time, the book leaps straight out of the lunatic fringe of current Beatle-obsession. Here is Shipper on the final droning chord of “A Day in the Life,” which he notes will play eternally on a manual turntable: “There has risen a strange cult of Beatle­maniacs (the Drones) who listen to the Drone for years at a time… The Drones publish a periodic newsletter where they compare experiences and share information on the art of Droning…”shipper05Along with such gems, and a number of hilarious running jokes, is real empathy for the Beatles, and anger at what we, as fans, may be doing to the Beatles by refusing to let them drop their old identities. In Ship­per’s version, when the Beatles finally regroup, in 1979, the result is disaster: The reunion album is unlistenable, their concert tour collapses, and, to fulfill their last contractual obligations, they are forced to end their comeback as an opening act for Peter Frampton. Their billing:

Special Guest Stars
(‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ She Loves You,’ etc.)

Worst of all, though they fool themselves long enough to find themselves humiliated before the world, the Beatles see it coming. In a marvelous scene, Shipper shows us John and Paul, working together on songs for the reunion album after years of sepa­ration and, horribly, finding themselves unable to write a line.

“Yeah,” McCartney recalled. “I re­member when we finished ‘There’s a Place’ you brought all the waitresses up to the room to hear it, and you were bragging about how it was going to be number one in a year and we’d never have to take shit from Klaus [Reepervon, owner of the Star Club] again.”

“Right. But they didn’t believe us. No­body believed us,” Lennon said, the old rage coming back. “We showed them, though. We showed all those bastards.” Lennon sunk back into the couch. In only a moment his face, so animated seconds earlier, had taken on the vacant look that McCartney recognized as depression.

“What’s wrong, John?”
“Nothing. Nothing important.”
“Something’s bothering you. What is it?”
“I hate talking about the old days, that’s all.”
“Because what I remember most is never a specific thing, it’s always a feeling I remember.”
“It’s a feeling I never get anymore… It’s that feeling of satisfaction from know­ing that someday you were just going to dump on everyone who’d been dumping on you. You know what I mean?”
“I used to dream—well, you must have had the same dream, so you probably felt the same way—of making it, really making it.”
“Sure. That great day when we could tell the world to ‘fuck off.'”
“… And that dream used to fuel me…”

shipper04The last pages of Shipper’s book—the aftermath of the Frampton concert—are so bitter, so depressing, that they should warn off all those who still clamor for One More Time. But they won’t. The clamor will continue, and I am almost ready to believe that in the next few years the Beatles will have to move toward the fulfillment of what has now become perhaps the most widely shared fantasy in rock and roll. I am delighted with the new Beatle albums, with the chance to listen to music I’d almost forgotten or never heard at all, and I have gotten great pleasure from Paperback Writer: It may be the finest novel ever written about rock and roll, and it is certainly the funniest. But after listening to the records, reading the books, tossing out trash like Growing Up with the Beatles, and giving up on All Together Now, the nearly 400-page Beatle discography that you can now buy in stores that will never carry Paperback Writer, I am convinced of one thing. When this shared fantasy turns into hard fact, the event will be regretted for as long as it was anticipated.

Village Voice, June 13, 1977

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