The Beatles: occasionally fab four

Their output was more mixed than many critics would like to believe

Sacred Cows

This article is taken from the May 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

In his review of The Beatles (aka “The White Album”) published in the Observer in October 1968, the filmmaker Tony Palmer hailed Lennon and McCartney as “the greatest songwriters since Schubert”. The White Album, he insisted, “should surely see the last vestiges of cultural snobbery and bourgeois prejudice swept away in a deluge of joyful music making”. 

Palmer was not the first, nor will he be the last, commentator to abandon critical faculties in order to claim a place on the “right side of history”. The previous year Kenneth Tynan declared the release of Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band a “decisive moment in the history of western civilisation”. 

It’s a pattern with Beatles LPs — that frustrating mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous

There are those who still cling to that claim and, as the gushing response to Peter Jackson’s Get Back, an eight-hour film of salvaged material from the 1969 Let it Be sessions, suggests, the popularity of the Beatles and the affection in which they are held shows no sign of abating. But Palmer’s Schubert comparison is a telling one, not least because The White Album does contain one Schubertian masterpiece: Paul McCartney’s “Blackbird”.

A comment, it is claimed, on the US civil rights struggle, “Blackbird” was inspired by JS Bach’s “Bourée in E minor”, a piece for lute with which McCartney was acquainted. No other song distils his melodic genius down to its purest form and even the lyrics are a notch above the Beatles’s often banal musings. 

The problem, apart from the fact that Schubert wrote scores of superior songs, is that The White Album — a double LP which is best edited down to a shortish two-sider — also contains what might be McCartney’s nadir: “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”, a song of “desperate levity” so hated by the other band members, that they vetoed its release as a single. Its irritatingly ingratiating melody took it to number one anyway, covered by Marmalade.

It’s the pattern with Beatles LPs — that frustrating mixture of the sublime and the ridiculous. Even Revolver — widely regarded as their masterpiece — contains a couple of duffers, courtesy of George Harrison. Similarly, his contribution to The White Album, along with the portentous “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, is “Piggies”, a grimly twee attack on bourgeois conformity that undermines all the trippy sentiments of peace and love and karma that Harrison preached to his immature end. One is reminded of the Twitter trolls who remind us to “be kind” while spewing misanthropy left, right and centre. 

Nowhere is this inconsistency as striking as on Sgt Pepper. Despite its treasures — McCartney’s “She’s Leaving Home”, a heartbreaking narrative of intergenerational misunderstanding set to a rising melody of instant memorability; and “A Day in the Life”, perhaps their finest hour, with verses by Lennon, detached and dreamy (“I’d love to turn you on”) married to McCartney’s jaunty middle section celebrating banality and routine (a psychiatrist could make much of it) — the rest is mediocre: “When I’m Sixty Four”, “Lovely Rita”, “Fixing a Hole”, all fine and dandy, but Schubert? Sgt Pepper has aged horribly in its psychedelic whimsy, especially in comparison with its great contemporary, the Beach Boys’s Pet Sounds. 

It was stateside that the flaws of the hippie experiment, of which Sgt Pepper was the touchstone, were first diagnosed. Bob Dylan had opted out of 1967’s Summer of Love to retreat to Woodstock in upstate New York surrounded by the group of gifted musicians who would become The Band. There he would lay down the Basement Tapes, immersing himself in the music of the “Old Weird America”, to return to the public gaze with John Wesley Harding, a chorusless album of radical conservatism, austerely out of time. Dylan had seen where the future lay and it was in the “authenticity” of the past, of tradition, of blues and country. 

Almost simultaneously, another band, closer to home, The Rolling Stones, had come to similar conclusions and abandoned their own embarrassing experiment in psychedelia — Mick Jagger always had superior business acumen — to embark on a feat the Beatles never managed: a run of five LPs with barely a dud track among them, beginning with Beggars Banquet, all leering swagger, amoral when not immoral, released at the end of 1968.

What we are seeing in Get Back is a band in search of similar authenticity, harking back to their Hamburg days, which is why Harrison’s introduction of Billy Preston to the sessions, a friend from that era, is an inspired one. Preston adds structure to the chaos recognised by McCartney, who chastises Lennon in front of the camera with a dose of managerialism: “What you need is a schedule.” 

They are the words of a man destined to sit atop the British establishment, a knight, a Companion of Honour, and yet a creative mystery, one that the Irish poet Paul Muldoon, in collaboration with Macca — their tome, Lyrics, is £75 when not on discount — has done little to shed light on. For there are few more perplexing puzzles than why the man who at 23 wrote “Eleanor Rigby”, at 26 wrote “Hey Jude”, as well as “Blackbird”, “She’s Leaving Home” and numerous other gems should have offered so little post-Beatles. 

We should be careful not to confuse the joyfully diverting with the divine

Perhaps it is that he and Lennon were primarily performers rather than composers. The four get their mojo back one last time on the Apple Corps roof, playing among other tracks, “Get Back”, which McCartney had literally performed into existence in Abbey Road as Ringo and Harrison looked on, one in admiration, one in envy. On that roof in Savile Row, eyed by wary coppers, their beginning became their end.

Perhaps it is, after all, to the composers of the Austro-German tradition that we should look to understand the McCartney conundrum. In Richard Wagner’s meditation on the art of song, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Hans Sachs considers how few artists manage the leap from youth to maturity:

In joyful days of youth
When first our souls are captured
In joy of love enraptured,
When hearts are beating proud and high,
The gift of song is given
To all by kindly Heaven:
’Tis spring that sings, not we.

Through summer, fall and winter’s chill
When cares of life are pressing,
Though marriage brings its blessing,
Children and business, strife, ill-will,
Only those who still have kept then
This gift of song from Heaven,
Then masters they will be.

Throughout his three score years and ten, Wagner surpassed each previous monumental work. Schubert, dead at 31, produced 600 songs, including at least two  lieder cycles that we truly can call “decisive moments in the history of western civilisation”. 

What Palmer might think now of his comparison of Lennon and McCartney with Schubert we’ll never know. But it offers fair warning: whatever our sentimental attachments, we should be careful not to confuse the joyfully diverting with the divine.

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