Are the Beatles still underrated?
If Lennon and McCartney had never met, Britain would have been more boring and less colourful
As Paul McCartney did not quite sing on the opening of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, it was fifty years ago today that the Beatles broke up. The news of their split, which had been rumoured for months, was officially announced by McCartney on 10 April 1970, leading to much angry vilification of him. It has subsequently been accepted that the band had essentially ceased to exist thanks to John Lennon telling the others in September 1969 that he wanted a ‘divorce’, and that legal wrangling, thanks to the Beatles’ grasping new manager Allen Klein, eventually forced McCartney’s hand. The ensuing court cases went on for years, fuelled by angry sniping by the former members in the press, and veiled attacks upon one another in their solo projects. (The exception, naturally, was Ringo, who remained on good terms with all of his former bandmates.) Their first album, Please Please Me, had been released seven years before. In the interim period, they had changed the world.
At the time, it seemed as if the acrimonious circumstances of their dissolution would define the band’s reputation for decades to come. Yet subsequently, they began to seem old hat. As the emergence of new trends in music – such as punk, heavy metal (which the Beatles arguably invented on ‘Helter Skelter’) and glam rock – made the world’s biggest act seem like a relic of a former time, it became fashionable to belittle them. Many made an elaborate show of preferring their extant rivals the Rolling Stones and to advance the once-unspeakable heresy that they hadn’t been anything like as influential or brilliant as they supposedly were.
Variants on this argument have continued for the past half-century. Despite the way in which the band was lauded by Oasis and many of the Britpop movement in the mid-90s, the Beatles were a heritage movement by then, beloved by those who had been around in their heyday, and regarded with awe by those who grew up hearing the stories about them. And today, their reputation is fixed in aspic. John Lennon of course was beatified after his assassination in 1980, with the unsavoury aspects of his personal and professional lives subsumed to a narrative of him as a visionary and sage. George Harrison’s untimely death in 2001 saw him forever preserved him as a Hare Krishna-loving mystic. McCartney’s continued dedication to writing and performing has seen him mocked, in Smash Hits’ description, as ‘Fab Macca Wacky Thumbs Aloft’, even down to the scripted banter he delivers between songs. And as for Ringo, now a knight of the realm, his most recent album, 2019’s What’s My Name, reached an unimpressive peak of 99 in the UK charts. The mean scoffed that the title sounded less like an exhortation than a bewildered entreaty.
If the Beatles are underrated, it is because there is no accurate way to account for their place in history
Two down: two to go. The Beatles are the most commercially successful act that ever existed, with 600 million albums sold worldwide, countless cover versions of their work and a place in cultural history that has never been matched by any other band. One can even visit a museum devoted to them in their home city of Liverpool, the Beatles Story, where one can buy anything from Beatles-branded teddy bears to large model submarines: yellow, naturally. But just as McCartney these days seems less a rock star than a representation of the British state itself – complete with his knighthood, extraordinary fortune and order of the Companion of Honour – so his band have now become as much part of the country’s heritage as the Liver Birds or, indeed, the Abbey Road studios.
Yet for many younger people, the Beatles are of no more relevance to their lives than Gilbert and Sullivan. Sergeant Pepper taught the band to play nearly 53 years ago; the same distance from now as the beginning of WW1 was from then. The bestselling acts of today – Drake, Taylor Swift, Rihanna and the like – come from musical traditions that owe little or nothing to their music. Of Britain’s two most successful acts of the past few years, Adele has not been inspired by the Beatles in any meaningful fashion, and only Ed Sheeran could be said to carry on any kind of musical tradition akin to theirs.
Sheeran appeared in an amusing, self-deprecating cameo as himself in Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’s Beatles-themed romantic comedy Yesterday last year, during which he pronounced himself the Salieri to Himesh Patel’s hapless, untalented Mozart. The joke was that Patel’s character achieved heady success by being the only person on earth who could remember their songs, and thus achieved unparalleled fame by performing cover versions of the Beatles to audiences who had never known their music.
The film did not entirely work, and one reason that the more negative reviews gave for its failings was that it seemed unlikely that modern audiences would be especially excited by the music of the Beatles, and certainly not on the scale that the film suggested. Curtis and Boyle, the critics suggested, were confusing their own love and appreciation of the band with how those half their age would regard them. Some went even further, displaying their own bias in the process. It was possible to respect what the Beatles had done, they argued, and understand the veneration that a sixty-something man (always a man) would have for them, but for the average millennial, the band was as remote and irrelevant to their lives as the work of George Formby. Perhaps it’s time – and you can hear a couple of them suppressing a smug chuckle at this point – to ‘let it be’.
I first became interested, even obsessed, by the Beatles when I was a teenager. I found a copy of the so-called ‘Blue Album’, the compilation of songs that the band released between 1967 and 1970, and listened to it obsessively. Here was, in John Dryden’s words on Chaucer, God’s plenty. If you wanted sumptuous orchestral balladry, psychedelic Lewis Carroll-ish madness, epic anthemic rockers and whatever their masterpiece ‘A Day In The Life’ was, it could all be found here. At a time when the music press was shouting about whatever nonsense Oasis had produced, this was the real thing. I spent happy hours listening to the wonderful compilation, and then I realised that I had to expand my horizons. I had to go off to the albums, and to see what could be found there.
I am not an uncritical admirer of the Beatles’ work. For most people, the so-called ‘Red Album’ of their singles will do absolutely fine as an introduction to the first few albums, and admirers of their work can begin with Rubber Soul, the transition album where their true genius became clear. There is then a great run of superlative work – Revolver; Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band; many brilliant one-off singles – and then the whole thing became derailed with the death of their Svengali and manager Brian Epstein in August 1967.
It is no coincidence that their first release without Epstein, the so-called White Album, was a strange patchwork of brilliance and irrelevance, containing both ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ and ‘Revolution 9’. And thereafter the writing was on the wall. It was less than three years between Epstein’s demise and the band breaking up, and arguably they never worked together as a coherent entity thereafter, instead producing a variety of very accomplished songs largely as solo entities, with the others as session musicians.
Despite, or perhaps because it was their last album, they all raised their game for Abbey Road
There was self-indulgence, as in the McCartney-conceived experimental film Magical Mystery Tour. There was absurdity, as in their attempt to open a range of commercial ventures under their Apple company banner, all of which failed spectacularly because of the sketchy characters that they employed. There was the disruptive presence of Yoko Ono (who gets a spectacular kicking in Craig Brown’s excellent new Beatles biography One Two Three Four, ruthlessly exposing her as a liar and fraud) and, to a lesser extent, Linda Eastman. There was a sense of torpor, as seen in the substandard songs that eventually made it onto their final album Let It Be. And there was the grim, glum sense that they had gone from world-conquering heroes to a disaffected group of has-beens in less than a decade, with the whole shebang collapsing around them before they were 30.
Yet there was also Abbey Road, their finest album, in the wings. It was recorded deliberately as a swansong, with an understanding from its participants that this would be the last time they worked together. Despite or perhaps because of this, they all raised their game. Lennon’s contributions, including ‘Come Together’, ‘I Want You (She’s So Heavy’) and ‘Because’, were some of the best songs he ever wrote while he was in the band. Harrison’s ‘Something’ showed the dawning of his greatness as an artist, which would then be triumphantly realised on his post-Beatles triple album All Things Must Pass. Ringo’s ‘Octopus’s Garden’ would deservedly became a standard children’s song. And McCartney, by now the de facto leader of the band, pulled out everything, coming up with everything from an incongruously jaunty songs about a serial killer (‘Maxwell’s Silver Hammer’) to the justly celebrated trio that ends the album, ‘Golden Slumbers’, ‘Carry That Weight’ and ‘The End’.
McCartney was still a young man, but the experience of being in the Beatles had changed him forever, as it had altered the perceptions of all of them. As the four of them sang in unison ‘You’ve got to carry that weight/Carry that weight, a long time’, they were effectively declaring the epitaph of the band. Many of McCartney’s late songs – ‘Let It Be’ and ‘The Long and Winding Road’ – were suffused with a world-weariness that was entirely at odds with the optimism and vivacity of ‘Hey Jude’, recorded only a year before. He knew that there would be another lifetime after he left the band, but that everything he did would always be viewed through the prism of the decade that he spent as a Beatle. Perhaps he even had a presentiment that, one day, he would be singing songs he wrote half a century before to tens of thousands of ecstatic fans, dividing the audiences up by sex to sing along to the chorus of ‘Hey Jude’.
If the Beatles are indeed underrated, it is because there is no accurate and satisfying way to account for their place in musical history. The combination of the four of them, with the invaluable production and orchestral arrangements of George Martin and Epstein’s commercial know-how, was alchemy of a kind that rarely happens in rock music. The Rolling Stones lost Brian Jones and Bill Wyman; the Who saw Keith Moon and John Entwistle both die before they got old. Neither band was adversely affected by the change in personnel, at least in terms of their commercial potential. But the Beatles would have been unthinkable without Lennon, McCartney, Harrison or Starr. Long after Lennon died, there were a couple of singles produced for the Anthology project in the Nineties, which reunited the surviving Beatles, but the songs, which were embellished versions of Lennon demos, were curios and oddities, not proper canonical works. They could never have reunited.
If John Lennon and Paul McCartney had never met at a school fete in July 1957, the history of British music would undoubtedly have been entirely different. But it is not hyperbolic to suggest that the history of Britain would have been an altered one, too; a more boring and less colourful one, devoid of the wit, gusto and, of course, unforgettable songs that the Beatles produced. Which is why Yesterday ultimately got it wrong, suggesting that the country would only have been slightly altered by their absence. We would all have been poorer for it. So, if we mourn the fact that their dissolution on 10 April 1970 robbed us of many more wonderful songs, we should remain grateful for what we have, in undoubtedly the greatest canon of popular music in the world. And sometimes, especially when all seems lost, it could cheer us all up to be reminded of that once again.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try three issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £5Subscribe