Monday, November 26, 2012

A bit of pretentious fun

Can the meaning of The Beatles be summed up in alphabetical order while at the same time making an interesting compilation? The answer is almost. Here goes:

A Day in the Life

Start with a biggie, A Day in the Life is the pinnacle of The Beatles career, according to Ian MacDonald no less. Revolution in the Head practically invented modern rock scholarship, so we should pay obeisance. It came at a point in The Beatles recording career where graft and intuition were in seemingly perfect balance.

Before sound recording recorded music was sheet music. The combination of this and sound amplification expanded the horizon of musical expression; small groups performing together with the possibility collective inspiration, a happening as it was known in the sixties, evanescent moments captured for mass reproduction. The modern musician’s dilemma is between knowing enough to express oneself, whilst not allowing music theory (and standard recording practice) to stifle one’s imagination.

Sequenced at the end of Sgt Pepper, two minutes longer than any Beatles song so far released, with a complex score and involving more musicians than ever before, it appears to be more portentous than it actually is. Each of the verses is literally about something different. Combined with the orchestral production, culminating in the final titanic chord (neither of which was planned when the basic elements of the song were recorded) they seem to hint at a struggle for emancipated perception, to transcend the mundane and violent world. It feels revolutionary, despite some of the lines being humorous babble.

Bungalow Bill, the Continuing Adventures of

I told you it would be difficult. Of course there are other Beatles songs beginning in B, but I want to use them elsewhere. The Continuing Adventures of Bungalow Bill was written at the Maharishi’s camp in Rishikesh by John Lennon. It was recorded late in the sessions for the White Album. Lennon later described it, quite astutely, as a “teenage social-comment song and a bit of a joke”. That it is.

It’s the story of a rich, young American at the camp who took breaks from meditation to go out game hunting. Is that hypocritical? Maybe. The song’s not great, although the chorus is catchy in an irritating way. The White Album itself is like the entire process of record-making laid bare, the rejects and the jokes and the half-formed masterpieces find their place on a double album.

Bungalow Bill is also interesting as it is the first Beatles song released to have a woman’s voice on it.

Can’t Buy Me Love

A slightly obvious choice, but features at a pivotal point in The Beatles’ pivotal film, A Hard Days’ Night.

The film itself is an inspired piece of bluff. Like many other jukebox musicals, Hard Day’s Night is about nothing. It exists to set up the band members as definable, bankable personalities, the sarcastic one, the charming one, the shy one and the down to earth one. Much of their post-touring career was dedicated to busting the image created by this film.

But there’s a cheeky, satiric quality to the film. It is set amongst a typical Beatles touring day, with Paul’s Grandfather as a McGuffin, causing unusual things to happen. Individually and as a group, they run casual rings around everyone they encounter, various figures of establishment, the old man on the train, the pressmen, the doormen, TV producers, Teen culture svengalis, all are perplexed and routed by The Beatles wit and verve. Laving aside the actual backgrounds of some of the members, in the film they represent a rising working class, confident, breezily assuming control and rewriting the rules. As much as this was ever the case we also remember this was before the crisis that mired the second Wilson government, before the bitter struggles of the seventies and eighties.

Against this the Beatles are presented as stuck on a hamster wheel (the old guard are still in charge). They go from a train to a room to a car and a room and a room and a room. They hardly get time to rest. Brian Epstein stipulated that the script must not have a love interest. The film plays on this, I think, by having no female characters with any meaningful dialogue. Women flit past the screen before the lads can so much as talk to them. The film’s sole moment of peril comes when Ringo is incited by Paul’s Grandfather to leave the band for the afternoon, in which time he does more or less nothing.

There is one moment of collective escape. Having caused a ruckus with the TV director by casually wandering on stage to play a song, the band are about to be locked in their dressing room; instead they sneak down a fire escape:

“We’re out” yells Ringo, which is the cue for Can’t Buy Me Love. The Beatles lark about on a playing field for two and a half minutes before another authority figure approaches, the groundskeeper.

“I suppose you realise this is private property?”

The Beatles slope off, though unrepentant:

“Sorry we hurt your field, Mister”.

Drive My Car

This song was the final product of The Beatles brief joke song strategy. As they recorded Rubber Soul they were looking for a way out of their lyrical impasse, running out of variations of love songs. The better songs from the Help sessions, such as Yesterday or Yes It Is, might have been a solution. Both songs touched on mortality and memory. This returned in a big way with In My Life. Before then they had a run of songs that, if they were not exactly funny, had lyrics with a set up and pay off. In Drive My Car the stereotypical roles in sexual banter are reversed by the end, the girl turns out to be sly, deceptive charmer.

Eleanor Rigby

This was a song begun by McCartney but finished by a committee. It is a brilliant song with an exceptional lyric. Not much time needs to be spent on it here, except to say it shows The Beatles were remarkably loveless in 1966. This was their most brutal lyric of the year, a stark description of people wasting their lives in dedication to empty social/religious rituals. It is also an intensely visual lyric, written in the present tense, e.g. “look at him working”. They are like a set of directions, in keeping with Paul’s then current interest in filmmaking.


We had to go off-piste at some point. There were few Beatle instrumentals issued. They performed plenty in their early career. Later on they recorded dozens of instrumentals, most did not see the light of day. For example, Revolution in the Head describes how in 1967, three days before the band started a formal recording of George Harrison’s It’s All Too Much, they spent an afternoon working on a 16-minute jam, perhaps inspired by Piper at the Gates of Dawn, which was recorded in Abbey Road at the same time as Sgt Pepper. The jam was not that inspired however as they never returned to it1.

It’s common to say that a drug inspired relativism set in at this point. It was certainly about. The cultural embrace of ‘random’2 had a socio-political dimension. It was a rejection of the military-industrial prerogative that saw the whole of post-war society strictly ordered, like a giant barracks, with unearned class privilege and persisting racial and sexual bigotry. Gambling with reality by dropping LSD was the ultimate act of randomisation.

I also think after the tension of completing Sgt Pepper there was the release of the Summer of Love. This is palpable in Flying, which is built on 12-bar blues changes but is a gentle, idyllic sounding tune. It served as an interlude in the Magical Mystery Tour film. Typical of how the film was made, Flying was set to pilfered stock footage, various shots of cloud and Arctic wasteland3, which was given psychedelic tints. None of this came across in the first broadcast, in black-and-white, on Boxing Day 1967.

1. Jam based composition makes much more sense in the digital age. It is must easier to edit and combine digital bytes, as opposed to analogue tape.
2. A side note: musicians may no longer flip through the I Ching at random to find a lyric. There is one remaining prominent cultural figure who uses games and systems as an aide to creation, namely Brian Eno, another product of the former Art School system.
3. Taken for the film Dr Strangelove.

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