Saturday, September 12, 2009

Every Generation Gets the Beatles it Deserves

I was unusual among my friends in liking the Beatles. But my love for them went back to when I was eight or nine and the two double albums 62-66 and 67-70 had been bought into the house a joint present for me and my dad. I took them away and never gave them back. Far more than the music of the mid-seventies they appealed to me. There was plenty to like, from the kiddy-friendly movie "Yellow Submarine", to early singles like "Can't Buy Me Love" that you could sing loudly, to more sophisticated fare. Quite early on I made "A Day in the Life" my favourite song, not knowing that this "obscure" track had received universal critical adoration since the day it was released.

Yet I'd say my generation, born at the end of the sixties, is the least smitten with the band. We came of age in a world of synthesizers, drum machines and floppy fringes and to be honest the authenticity of the Beatles was part of the problem. It's later generations that craved the simple pleasures of the original guitar combo. I was probably as interested in the "story" of the Beatles as the band itself - and waded through Philip Norman's "Shout!" preferring the picture book approach of the American-perspective "Beatles Forever." (Norman's choice of title said it all - naming his book after someone else's song - the book seemed more interested in the money than the music.)

But every generation gets the Beatles it deserves (as I wrote in a previous post). I've always found it hard to imagine the Beatles being anyone's favourite band, for two reasons - firstly their wonderful diversity makes them a difficult band to love wholesale, and secondly, unless you were "there" at the time, how could you possibly have a personal connection with this band? The Beatles, after all, were for everybody. I gave up on them for a bit in my teens, preferring the music that my parents couldn't and wouldn't love, the Cure, Joy Division and Cocteau Twins. Saying the Beatles is your favourite band seems a little on the perverse side, like having Shakespeare as your favourite writer; yes, yes we know they are good, but what about your own view? And to be honest, apart from Liam Gallagher, I don't think I've ever heard anyone call them their favourite band. The Clash, Joy Division, Led Zeppelin, Adam and the Ants even...but not the Beatles.

In the early seventies it wasn't yet clear what a sudden decline there would in the quality of their solo work. You could easily make a passable Beatles album out of the best of "All Things Must Pass", "Ram" and "McCartney", "John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine", and accompanying singles. Yet by the time the "red" and "blue" albums came out there was a need to remember them at their best. Despite their faults, those two albums "cherry picked" the albums, and included the best of the non-collected singles and b-sides, and songs that had been hits for other people, such as "Obla-di Obla-da", "Michelle" and "Yesterday" became canonical. If the Beatles had suddenly reformed in 1976, their nostalgia set would likely enough be drawn from those 8 sides. Ironically, apart from the old slavish devotees like ELO, the "influence" of the Beatles own sound was hard to find in the seventies and eighties.

That they had fallen out of favour was even clear when Lennon was so tragically murdered. "Double Fantasy" was a world away from being a Beatles album, it was an adult, not an adolescent work, and Yoko Ono was a key component of the record. It was a mild critical and commercial success before he died, and then it was his solo records, "Imagine" in particular, which were revived. It wasn't John the Beatle that we remembered, but the John of the Amsterdam bed-in, white pianos, Yoko Ono and "Give Peace a Chance." Had he lived, its hard to see the eighties being kind to Lennon. The Geffen label he'd signed to saw many of the 70s artists David Geffen had given contracts to, such as Neil Young, Joni Mitchell and Donna Summer, release the most disappointing records of their careers.

The key "Beatles" record of the era was a novelty, the illegal bootleg that became Stars-on-45, a medley of the best bits of a dozen or so Beatles records was one of the biggest records of 1981. All we needed, it seemed, was not love, but the hooks we still heard at wedding discos. The late seventies and early eighties saw EMI treat the Beatles as poorly as any other back catalogue artist, with compilations albums called "Beatles ballads" or or compiling their movie songs.

It was the CD that saved them, as it did so much of the record industry. Re-issuing the catalogue was what financed the late 80s record industry, and the Beatles albums were the jewels in their crown. Realising that many of their best songs never made an album, "Past Masters" 1 & 2 swept up the debris, and briefly, "Sgt. Pepper" was back in the charts again. By the nineties, the CD reissue industry had become more and more bloated - it was not just original albums, but box sets and deluxe editions that the fans craved (or at least: that they'd buy.) Whereas every band worth its salt has had a boxset released, the Beatles canonical status meant that everything they ever did was worth a release. Combining a TV series, a glossy book, and a series of double CDs, the archives were raided to give us the Beatles, once more, this time as historical artefact.

Into the new century, with the internet age upon us, the contemporary fan wanted something simpler, and the single CD "1", collecting their number ones on one packed disc became one of the best selling CDs of the new decade. Here, in an age where people were starting to listen to songs as downloads or on MP3 players, the front cover was a vague design that had no connection with the band it contained. Its phenomenonal success seemed to imply that the Beatles would remain with us forever, even if, like ABBA or Queen, they were now reduced to a "canon" of twenty songs or so.

What then to make of the remastering of the original albums, from the original tapes, and, for completists, mono and stereo versions? This Beatles reissue programme seems like one last attempt to make money out of the catalogue, given that the recordings begin to go out of copyright in 2012. In other words, for EMI to keep selling their music their needed to be a new "digital remaster." Yet aware that people consume songs in games as well as on the radio, the Beatles Rock Band reinvents the band as animated moptops for the first time since "Yellow Submarine." Whatever your thoughts on their music, you can't deny we get the Beatles we deserve.


Unknown said...

Great post Adrian! I'm fascinated by the prospect of a constant drip-feed of Beatles songs making a bid for freedom as they trickle out of copyright. Even they're oldest tunes seem far too new to sit alongside zipfiles of Little Dorrit, The Time Machine and White Fang, the books everyone's got on a dusty memory stick somewhere but which they never read.

In 100 years will everyone have The Compleat Beates zipped up somewhere in their own corner of the cloud, with all their other acknowledged classics. Collected and collated but seldom played? Somehow, I think a different fate awaits this set of songs. We're more likely to hear jingles along the lines of And Your Bird Can Singstar, than seeing kids stepping up to recite passages of Martin Chuzzlewitt on X Factor 2079.

Adrian Slatcher said...

Some are already public domain, I think. Everyone I mentioned "Twist and Shout" to thinks the Beatles wrote it... I guess they're the extremist example of the artist being associated with the song & the recording, so that association may last longer. I'm sure many people don't realise "Knocking on Heaven's Door" or "Blowin' in the Wind" are Dylan songs, and the same will slowly happen with those Beatles songs that are in our folk memory; the Beatles brand will just keep them "proprietary" for a bit longer. (And, to be fair, in most cases the definitive version is by the Beatles, not always the case with Dylan.)

Tim F said...

Talking of ELO, Jeff Lynne is always banging on about the fact that Lennon told him "ELO are what the Beatles would have sounded like in the 70s if they hadn't split up." The problem is, Lynne still hasn't grasped that Lennon didn't mean that as a compliment.

Adrian said...

Good point, Tim. Very funny

version control geek said...

Great post~ I was born 10 80s, and I thought they were my idols forever.