.. st pairing on disc. Although their songwriting styles were increasingly contrasting, there were still striking similarities, as both songs were about the Liverpool of their childhood. Lennon’s lyrics to ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, however, dramatized a far more complex inner dialogue, characterized by stumbling qualifications (‘That is, I think, I disagree’). Musically, the songs were similarly intriguing, with ‘Penny Lane’ including a piccolo trumpet and shimmering percussive fade-out, while ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ fused two different versions of the same song and used reverse-taped cellos to eerie effect.
It was intended that this single would be the jewel in the crown of their next album, but by the summer of 1967 they had sufficient material to release 13 new tracks on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Sgt. Pepper turned out to be no mere pop album but a cultural icon embracing the constituent elements of the 60s’ youth culture: pop art, garish fashion, drugs, instant mysticism and freedom from parental control. Although the Beatles had previously experimented with collages on Beatles For Sale and Revolver, they took the idea further on the sleeve of Sgt.
Pepper, which included photos of every influence on their lives that they could remember. The album had a gatefold sleeve, cardboard cut-out figurines, and, for the first time on a pop record, printed lyrics. The music, too, was even more extraordinary and refreshing. Instead of the traditional breaks between songs, one track merged into the next, linked by studio talk, laughter, electronic noises and animal sounds. A continuous chaotic activity of sound ripped forth from the ingenuity of their ideas translator, George Martin.
The songs were essays in innovation and diversification, embracing the cartoon psychedelia of ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’, the music-hall pastiche of ‘When I’m 64’, the circus atmosphere of ‘Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite’, the eastern philosophical promise of ‘Within You, Without You’ and even a modern morality tale in ‘She’s Leaving Home’. Audio tricks and surprises abounded, involving steam organs, orchestras, sitars, and even a pack of foxhounds in full cry at the end of ‘Good Morning, Good Morning’. The album closed with the epic ‘Day In The Life’, the Beatles’ most ambitious work to date, featuring what Lennon described as ‘a sound building up from nothing to the end of the world’. As a final gimmick, the orchestra was recorded beyond a 20,000 hertz frequency, meaning that the final note was audible only to dogs. Even the phonogram was not allowed to interfere with the proceedings, for a record groove was cut back to repeat slices of backwards-recorded tape that played on into infinity. While Sgt.
Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band topped the album charts, the group appeared on a live worldwide television broadcast, playing their anthem of the period, ‘All You Need Is Love’. The following week it entered many of the world’s charts at number 1, echoing the old days of Beatlemania. There was sadness, too, that summer, for on 27 August 1967, Brian Epstein was found dead, the victim of a cumulative overdose of the drug Carbitrol, together with hints of a homosexual scandal cover-up. With spiritual guidance from the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, the Beatles took Epstein’s death calmly and decided to look after their business affairs without a manager. The first fruit of their post-Epstein labour was the film Magical Mystery Tour, first screened on national television on Boxing Day 1967.
While the phantasmagorical movie received mixed reviews, nobody could complain about the music, initially released in the unique form of a double EP, featuring six well-crafted songs. The EPs reached number 2 in the UK, making chart history in the process. Ironically, the package was robbed of the top spot by the traditional Beatles Christmas single, this time in the form of ‘Hello Goodbye’. In 1968 the Beatles became increasingly involved with the business of running their company, Apple Corps. A mismanaged boutique near Baker Street came and went.
The first Apple single, ‘Hey Jude’, was a warm-hearted ballad that progressed over its seven-minute duration into a rousing singalong finale. Their next film, Yellow Submarine, was a cartoon, and the graphics were acclaimed as a landmark in animation. The soundtrack album was half instrumental, with George Martin responsible for some interesting orchestral work. Only four genuinely new Beatles tracks were included, with Lennon’s biting ‘Hey Bulldog’ being the strongest. Harrison’s swirling ‘Only A Northern Song’ had some brilliant Pepperesque brass and trumpets.
Although ‘It’s All Too Much’ was flattered by the magnificent colour of the animation in the film, it was not a strong song. With their prolific output, the group crammed the remainder of their most recent material onto a double album, The Beatles (now known as ‘The White Album’), released in a stark white cover. George Martin’s perceptive overview many years later was that it would have made an excellent single album. It had some brilliant moments that displayed the broad sweep of the Beatles’ talent, from ‘Back In The USSR’, the affectionate tribute to Chuck Berry and the Beach Boys, to Lennon’s tribute to his late mother, ‘Julia’, and McCartney’s excellent ‘Blackbird’. Harrison contributed ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’, which featured Eric Clapton on guitar. Marmalade took ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ to number 1 in the UK, while ‘Helter Skelter’ took on symbolic force in the mind of the mass murderer Charles Manson. There were also a number of average songs that seemed still to require work, plus some ill-advised doodlings such as ‘Revolution No.
9′ and ‘Goodnight’. The Beatles revealed that the four musicians were already working in isolated neutrality, although the passage of time has now made this work a critics’ favourite. Meanwhile, the Beatles’ inability as business executives was becoming apparent from the parlous state of Apple, to which Allen Klein attempted to restore some order. The new realism that permeated the portals of their headquarters was even evident in their art. Like several other contemporary artists, including Bob Dylan and the Byrds, they chose to end the 60s with a reversion to less complex musical forms.
The return-to-roots minimalism was spearheaded by the appropriately titled number 1 single ‘Get Back’, which featured Billy Preston on organ. Cameras were present at their next recording sessions, as they ran through dozens of songs, many of which they had not played since Hamburg. When the sessions ended, there were countless spools of tape that were not reassembled until the following year. In the meantime, a select few witnessed the band’s last ‘public’ performance on the rooftop of the Apple headquarters in Savile Row, London. Amid the uncertainty of 1969, the Beatles enjoyed their final UK number 1 with ‘Ballad Of John And Yoko’, on which only Lennon and McCartney performed.
In a sustained attempt to cover the cracks that were becoming increasingly visible in their personal and musical relationships, they reconvened for Abbey Road . The album was dominated by a glorious song cycle on side 2, in which such fragmentary compositions as ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’, ‘Polythene Pam’, ‘She Came In Through The Bathroom Window’ and ‘Golden Slumbers’/’Carry That Weight’ gelled into a convincing whole. The accompanying single coupled Lennon’s ‘Come Together’ with Harrison’s ‘Something’. The latter song gave Harrison the kudos he deserved, and rightly became the second most covered Beatles song ever, after ‘Yesterday’. The single only reached number 4 in the UK, the group’s lowest chart position since ‘Love Me Do’ in 1962.
Such considerations were small compared to the fate of their other songs. The group could only watch helplessly as a wary Dick James surreptitiously sold Northern Songs to ATV. The catalogue continued to change hands over the following years and not even the combined financial force of McCartney and Yoko Ono could eventually wrest it from superstar speculator Michael Jackson. With various solo projects on the horizon, the Beatles stumbled through 1970, their disunity betrayed to the world in the depressing film Let It Be, which shows Harrison and Lennon clearly unhappy about McCartney’s attitude towards the band. The subsequent album, finally pieced together by producer Phil Spector, was a controversial and bitty affair, initially housed in a cardboard box containing a lavish paperback book, which increased the retail price to a prohibitive level.
Musically, the work revealed the Beatles looking back to better days. It included the sparse ‘Two Of Us’ and the primitive ‘The One After 909’, a song they used to play as the Quarrymen, and an orchestrated ‘Long And Winding Road’, which provided their final US number 1, although McCartney pointedly preferred the non-orchestrated version in the film. There was also the aptly titled last official single, ‘Let It Be’, which entered the UK charts at number 2, only to drop to number 3 the following week. For many it was the final, sad anti-climax before the inevitable, yet still unexpected, split. The acrimonious dissolution of the Beatles, like that of no other group before or since, symbolized the end of an era that they had dominated and helped to create. It is inconceivable that any group in the future can shape and influence a generation in the same way as these four individuals.
More than 30 years on, the quality of the songs is such that none show signs of sounding either lyrically or musically dated. Since the break-up of the band, there have been some important releases for Beatles fans. In 1988 the two Past Masters volumes collected together all the Beatles tracks not available on the CD releases of their original albums. The first volume has 18 tracks from 1962-65; the second, 15 from the subsequent years. Live At The BBC collected together 56 tracks played live by the Beatles for various shows on the BBC Light Programme in the infancy of their career. Most of the songs are cover versions of 50s R standards, including nine by Chuck Berry. The first volume of Anthology, released in November 1995, collected 52 previously unreleased out-takes and demo versions recorded between 1958 and 1964, plus eight spoken tracks taken from interviews.
The album was accompanied by an excellent six-part television series that told the complete story of the band, made with the help of the three remaining Beatles, and by the single release of ‘Free As A Bird’, the first song recorded by the band since their break-up. This consisted of a 1977 track sung by Lennon into a tape recorder, and backed vocally and instrumentally in 1995 by the other three Beatles and produced by Jeff Lynne. It narrowly failed to reach number 1 on both sides of the Atlantic, as did the slightly inferior ‘Real Love’ in March 1996. The reaction to Anthology 2 was ecstatic. While it was expected that older journalists would write favourably about their generation, it was encouraging to see younger writers offering some fresh views. David Quantick of the New Musical Express offered one of the best comments in recent years: ‘The Beatles only made – they could only make – music that referred to the future.
And that is the difference between them and every other pop group or singer ever since’. Anthology 3 could not improve upon the previous collection but there were gems to be found. The acoustic ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ from Harrison is stunning. ‘Because’, never an outstanding track when it appeared on Abbey Road, is given a stripped a cappella treatment. The McCartney demo of ‘Come And Get It’ for Badfinger begs the question of why the Beatles chose not to release this classic pop song themselves. In the course of history the Rolling Stones and countless other major groups are loved, but the Beatles are universally and unconditionally adored.
Bibliography fdda Music Essays.