The Beatles: Songs and Lives

Bob Spitz: The BeatlesThis week I finished re-reading The Beatles: The Biography by Bob Spitz, the best biography I’ve read of the group that defined music, culture, and style in the Sixties: the era I grew up in. I’ve read several other bios in the past, both of the band and of the individual members, although there are many more in print that I haven’t read. But this is the only one I’ve re-read. And it was well worth it, to recall in such detail those years.

Almost all of the other books about The Beatles I owned have, over the years, been lent to friends, given away, or sold. But in looking through my remaining library, I found I still had four books about the Fab Four, and I thought I might comment on them.

The Beatles played such a major role in my early years — and indeed in the early years of my contemporaries — that it’s difficult to overstate their importance. I first heard them and bought their records in 1963 and ’64, and have owned every album they ever released until sometime in the 1990s. I still have most of them on CD nowadays. Many of their songs still pull at the strings of memory when I hear them today, taking me back to the years when I first heard them as a teenager. High school dances, flirting, first kisses, rock and roll, first guitar, and all that.

It’s not simply the nostalgia (although there is plenty of that): the Beatles were the cosmonauts of pop culture, journeying into new, unexplored areas with every album; influencing everyone from politicians to other musicians, creating and recreating pop music. It’s hard to describe to younger people the thrill of hearing a new Beatles’ album for the first time, or the delight and wonder of it when you put the needle onto the first track.

Nothing like it had ever been heard before. And then the next album they’d go further, into new sounds, new structures, pushing pop music into art. They inspired thousands of other musicians to soar to new heights, too. 

I learned to play the guitar because I listened to The Beatles and wanted to be like them, to share the exuberance of making music myself. I bought my first electric guitar in 1965*, the year they released Ticket To Ride (and also the year of Bob Dylan’s Like A Rolling Stone) because the song was just so terrific, the guitar so astounding, that I wanted to learn how to play it for myself. (I sort-of did learn it, but it was never a tune that got much play in the subsequent years when I played in a garage band or in local jam sessions, but, amusingly, I still play Like a Rolling Stone and other folk and folk-rock tunes from that time).

I still have several Beatles’ songbooks in my library, those with music, chords, and lyrics; I quickly translated many of their songs to the ukulele when I started playing that instrument, and later when teaching uke to local players. But here are the four books I wanted to comment on:

The Beatles, The Biography by Bob Spitz, Back Bay Books, Little Brown & Co., 2005; large trade paperback, 984 pages). An excellent biography that ranges from their youth to the breakup. I read it first back in ’06 or ’07 as I recall.  It’s bittersweet, knowing how it will all end. It’s a bit like reading about the Titanic: it starts with such hope and promise and ends badly. But the voyage in between is exciting and nostalgic. And then comes the bitterness: the end is uncomfortable and divisive, some of which you saw in the final film, Let It Be, that documented their last recording sessions. The friendships, the creativity, the hostility, the madness of Beatlemania, the sex and drugs, the dramatic rise and fall; it’s all there, like a Shakespearean play.

Despite some negative reviews, and criticisms of minor factual errors, I still recommend this as a superbly readable biography of the band. There are other, more recent biographies available that have received good reviews as well, and I might read them in the future, too (suggestions welcome).

The Beatles BookThe Beatles Book, by Hunter Davies, Penguin Random House, 2016, paperback, 1066 pages. This is an encyclopedia de re Beatles, divided into sections on the people in their lives, the places, broadcast and cinema, and their music. The latter has subsections on their albums and their songs (arranged alphabetically). Every song they wrote and recorded is reported by composer, performer, date or recording and release, with a short review and a rating from one to ten, and finally a single-line quip. It’s also loaded with photos of events, memorabilia, and people, including the Fab Four (several of which I had never seen before).

I got this book for the material on the music, but the rest is quite interesting for trivia buffs. Davies does not cover the songs the Beatles didn’t write but performed and recorded (like Roll Over Beethoven, Please Mister Postman, and Chains), and gives short shrift to the US album releases (which originally differed in number and order of songs). Nor does he cover (or even mention) the Anthology release and its songs (a serious oversight). Davies includes appendices with a UK discography, chronology, bibliography, and places to visit, plus an index.

Revolution In The Head 3rd ednRevolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, by Ian Macdonald, updated second edition, Pimlico, 1998, large trade paperback, 474 pages. This covers in considerable depth every Beatle song ever recorded, including those not written by them from the point of view of a musicologist. As such, it has more technical detail about chord and musical structures, keys and arrangements, than other reviews. However, this is often overbalanced by his critical comments about the music itself.

I had the first edition when it was released in ’94, and read it from cover to cover, thinking it was great at the time, even though I disagreed with a lot of his views. But when I got the updated version, and re-read it, I found myself at odds with both the author and most of his reviews. I can’t help but think he didn’t like either the Sixties or the Beatles. I gave up reading his preface and introduction because I found them intellectually pompous, haughty, and fusty. Insufferably so. He seems to take little or no joy from the music or from the era and scolds those who do.

Macdonald includes a chronology that shows the Beatles in situ with contemporary political and cultural events and issues, a glossary, discography, and separate indexes for keywords and their records. Songs are arranged by chronological date in order of recording, with their composer, performers, recording date, producer and engineer(s), plus UK and US release dates. He also includes all the songs recorded but not written by the Beatles. Plus he covers two of the songs (Free As A Bird and Real Love) from the Anthology release. A third edition was released in 2005.

Complete Beatles SongsThe Complete Beatles Songs: The stories behind every track written by the Fab Four, includes full lyrics, by Steve Turner, Dey St., William Morrow, 2015, large hardcover, 352 pages.

This one is arranged by album, then by songs on that album (UK releases). There are essays on the Beatles, their time, song histories, and the recording sessions. Each song gets a lengthy review with writer, length, UK and US releases, plus all the lyrics — but only those written by the Beatles (covers are only mentioned in the discography). Does not list performers. Lots of photographs to highlight the text, and plenty of trivia to delight fans. Turner includes several songs from the Anthology series.

To compare styles and presentations, let’s look at excerpts from the three authors describing some of the songs. Davies and Macdonald tend to be at odds with one another over their perceived value or popularity of the songs, with Davies generally more upbeat and positive. Turner tends to be more chatty and less critical and sometimes doesn’t talk about the music itself but rather offers only the stories behind why it was written.

For example, here’s an excerpt from Macdonald on Lovely Rita:

Rooted in egoism, Lennon’s prejudice was hardened into dogma by Yoko Ono, who cleaved to the postmodern theory that objectivity is illusory and all creativity inescapably self-referential. Too practical to fall for such anti-social solipsism, McCartney was healthier in his outlook, if often shallower. Lovely Rita is a good example — a silly song in many ways, but imbued with an exuberant interest in life that lifts the spirits, dispersing self-absorption… Plastered with the ubiquitous Sgt. Pepper tape-echo, the track was subjected to much varispeeding, ending up in E flat major, a brass band key not much used in pop.

Davies:

The notion of a fair maid and puns on the word meter — i.e. meet her — amused [McCartney’s] fertile brain. Don’t say the Beatles tunes did not reflect life around them. The music itself reflects life gone past, with its jaunty, honky-tonk, music-hall rhythm and all four of them trying their hand, and mouths, at paper and combs, just to add to the silly noises. (7 stars out of 10).

Turner doesn’t discuss the recording or the music but rather comments at length on the background about meter maids and a particular one who had ticketed McCartney for parking at an expired meter and might have been the inspiration for the song.

Here’s Macdonald on Ticket To Ride:

A bitter, dissonant mid-tempo song with a dragging beat… As sheer sound, Ticket To Ride is extraordinary for its time — massive with chiming electric guitars, weighty rhythm, and rumbling floor tom-toms. Among the first attempts to convey on record the impact achievable live by an amplified group… Though it had appeared in half a dozen Beatle songs, the word ‘sad’ here carries a weight graphically embodied in the track’s pedal tonality and deliberately cumbersome drums. There is, too, a narcotic passivity about Lennon’s lyric…

And Davies:

One of their early classics, which went to No. 1 in the UK and the US and was also loved by the critics for its rich, inventive, electric guitars and also the rich lyrics, just waiting there to be analysed…. At 3 minutes and 12 seconds it was their longest track so far. usually their songs had run for around two and a half minutes. Now considered to have been their first psychedelic record. (9 stars out of 10)

And Turner:

…this is the first Beatles’ track to feature an insistent, clanking riff underpinned by a heavy drum beat and it used an innovative fadeout with an altered melody.

Macdonald on Here Comes The Sun:

…departs from its play-in-a-day simplicity only for the warmth of a major seventh on the second repeat of the title-phrase in each chorus. (The metrical irregularities of the chorus and middle derive largely from arpeggiated triads.)… the main colour comes from Harrison’s rather wobbly Moog synthesizer, played on the slide-ribbon and overdubbed before the final mix on the 19th. Prettily atmospheric (and made wispier with varispeed), the result is a little too faux-naif to appeal to those lacking the requisite sweet tooth.

And Davies:

Not many words, but a pretty, sweet, cheerful song. (7 stars out of 10)

Turner again discusses the origin of the song without critiquing the sound or the production, mostly writing about how Harrision wrote most of it while walking around Eric Clapton’s garden, finishing it on holiday a few months later.

Finally, Macdonald on A Day In The Life, a song that for all three authors receives their longest reviews and commentaries:

A song not of disillusionment with life itself but of disenchantment with the limits of mundane perception. A Day In The Life depicts the ‘real’ world as an unenlightened construct that reduces, depresses, and ultimately destroys… At one level, A Day In The Life concerns the alienating effect of ‘the media’. On another, it looks beyond what the Situationists called ‘the society of the Spectacle’ to the poetic consciousness invoked by the anarchic wall-slogans of May 1968 in Paris (e.g. ‘Beneath the pavement, the beach’)… the two rising orchestral glissandi may be seen as symbolising simultaneously the moment of awakening from sleep and a spiritual ascent from fragmentation to wholeness, achieved in the resolving E major chord… A Day In The Life represents the peak of the Beatles’ achievement. With one of their most controlled and convincing lyrics,  its musical expression is breathtaking, its structure at once utterly original and completely natural.

And Davies:

…widely considered the Beatles’ greatest ever song, the best produced, most inventive, most moving, often described as their masterpiece or pop music’s version of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land… The music has been endlessy analysed, the sliding crescendos that fill the 24-bar gap taken to pieces and the instruments identified… (9 stars out of 10).

And Turner:

The two separate songs — John’s about random events as viewed in newspapers, Paul’s about going to school in 1950s Liverpool — would have been fairly inconsequential on their own. The genius of the finished production was the stitching together of the two songs to create separate movements and the use of the orchestral glissandi between the sections and at the end. This arrangement changed it into a piece about two levels of consciousness or two ways of viewing the world: the mundane observations about car crash and early morning routines being interrupted by the sound of approaching transcendence. By “turning on,” the world of boring detail (“oh boy”) is transformed.

So you can easily read the differences in style and approach, which is why I have and refer to all three books when I want to read about the Beatles’ songs: to compare and contrast the individual views and information (similarly I own several copies of books by foreign authors but each translated by different people). Admittedly, I do this less often these days than in previous years, but some evenings when we pour a glass of wine before dinner and, feeling nostalgic, we put on a Beatles’ CD and sing along, it’s fun to read the reviews and the histories of the songs that we grew up with.

~~~~~

AnthologyPS. I also have Anthology, by the Beatles (Chronicle Books, 2000, 364 pages, coffee-table hardcover), but that’s a different sort of book. It’s really an oral history taken from interviews and conversations with the Beatles and some of their closest associates, with a lot of photos and artsy pages to liven it up. No discography or chronology, although the chapters are arranged by year or groups of years. A must for Beatles fans, and it pairs well with the album release and TV specials of the same name, but it is somewhat difficult to read in places because of the overprinted art, not to mention the large format.

* 1965 was a banner year for music, with albums and singles released by The Animals, Herman’s Hermits, the Zombies, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, The Pretty Things, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan, Chad & Jeremy, Them, The Byrds, The Moody Blues, Beau Brummels, The Hollies, Judy Collins, Joan Baez, Manfred Mann, The Turtles, The Paul Butterfield Blues Band, The Yardbirds, The Kinks, The Lovin’ Spoonful, James Brown, The Who, Peter Paul and Mary, and, of course, The Beatles, among many others. All good reasons for a young teen to want to learn to play music.

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