In the review of the Sunday papers on yesterday’s Andrew Marr Show, Sarah Baxter, deputy editor of the Sunday Times, picked out of the Sunday Telegraph a story about The Beatles. Apparently it still irks Sir Paul McCartney that John Lennon’s assassination elevated him to “James Dean” status and made him, as it were, Head Beatle. As if these terrible events outside the Dakota in New York had been some kind of career move. I was – still am – a huge Beatle fan and, like any other aficionado, can remember what I was doing when I heard of Lennon’s murder. For the record, I was a medical student, travelling between Edinburgh Royal Infirmary and Monkland’s Hospital in Airdrie. It came on the car radio. I wasn’t entirely surprised. It seemed to me that Lennon had assumed – unwittingly for all I know – a kind of Messianic status that made him peculiarly vulnerable to attack.
Do you know that experience in which something that happens to be on your mind turns up in the Sunday papers? The Beatles had been on my mind, for a rather odd, and tenuous, reason. I’ve spent the last few days on the Moray Firth, in glorious summer weather. I took a walk from Nairn, on a path by the Nairn River, to Cawdor. I said to the hotel receptionist, “I’m just going over to pay my respects to the Thane.” She looked blank. And as I took that beautiful woodland walk I found myself whistling a wistful tune that hasn’t crossed my mind for years. Lennon’s threnody to his mother, Julia.
The Thane of Cawdor was, of course, king hereafter. I don’t care to revisit The Scottish Play but I’ve just reread J Wilson Knight’s essay on Macbeth in The Wheel of Fire – Macbeth and the Metaphysic of Evil. Wilson Knight understood Macbeth as Roman Polanski understood it. I went to see the Roman Polanski film of Macbeth in 1971, and within a minute of its start I knew I was going to be confronted with a terrible vision of absolute evil. By the end of the film I had an inkling of the meaning of the word “catharsis”. The purgation of pity and terror.
Roman Polanski was married to Sharon Tate. She was brutally murdered in 1969. The murderer is reputed to have scrawled on the wall, in blood, at the murder scene, the words “Helter Skelter”. Helter Skelter is a track on the twin LP compilation officially entitled The Beatles, but commonly known as the Double White Album.
The Beatles were an extraordinary phenomenon. Their time in the sun was brief. Beatlemania erupted in 1963, and by 1966 they had left the stage at Candlestick Park, entered the recording studio, and turned recluse. Their explosion on to the scene was inexplicable. The demo tapes they sent to Decca aren’t that impressive. If I’d auditioned them then I doubt if I would have taken them on. They did covers of ancient songs like Besame Mucho and The Sheik of Araby. There’s a basic competence no doubt achieved through the endless Hamburg gigs. But nothing terribly original. There’s something in their early rendition of Money – a kind of upbeat, nervy intensity.
Then something happens. Aspects of it can be described, but it cannot really be explained. The tempo slows down, and the incessant beat is accentuated. And there is the unique and unreproducible mix of McCartney’s lyric tenor voice, and Lennon’s, a voice of harsh, desperate passion. And, most crucial of all, they started to sing their own music. George Martin their inspired producer at Parlophone got them into a studio where they pretty much produced an album in a day, full of simple and ingenuous songs like Ask Me Why and P.S. I Love You.
With the Beatles came out on November 22nd 1963 – not exactly a slow news day. (Aldous Huxley died, et al.) Its opening track, It Won’t be Long is utterly extraordinary. It closes with another rendition of Money and a chance for Lennon to lacerate his voice as he did with Twist and Shout.
Then comes A Hard Day’s Night and I remember being completely beguiled by its final track, I’ll be Back, which was a deliberate contrast to the rabble-rousing finales of the previous two LPs.
I think probably the first side of A Hard Day’s Night shows The Beatles at the height of their powers. There’s a popular notion abroad that the Beatles’ late work is the greatest. The idea is that Sergeant Pepper was ground breaking, revolutionised popular music, set the bar, and took it to new heights. I see it as quite the opposite – the commencement of a descent into an abyss that is as inevitable and unstoppable as the group’s extraordinary rise. There’s already a hint of it in the last track of Revolver. Lennon called it his “Tibetan book of the dead” phase. Things are beginning to go a bit psychedelic. This reaches an apotheosis at the end of Pepper in A Day in The Life, which culminates in a huge improvised orchestral cacophony. Where will they go from here?
Answer: The Double White Album.
I haven’t listened to The Double White Album for years. I thought to revisit it for purposes of this blog, but, to be honest, I can’t face its unremitting bleakness. From Back in the USSR to Good Night – “nothing is but what it is not”. Everything is sarcastic. This is music of absolute despair. It can only head in one direction. In the penultimate track, Revolution 9, we descend into a heavily drugged world of fleeting impression and psychedelic madness. The final track is a kitsch version of how a TV transmission service might close down. Its cynicism is complete.
The early stuff is the best. It is encapsulated in its own time and in the world of vinyl. And nobody other than The Beatles seem able to perform it. All these covers of Yesterday by lush string orchestras – they don’t really work.
It seems to me that The Beatles were as surprised as anybody else by the extraordinary roller coaster ride of their brief career. Like the characters in Macbeth, they seemed to have no control over events. Yet it is to their credit that they somehow got together to get back to their roots in Let it Be, and express some kind of farewell in Abbey Road. In You Never Give me Your Money, and Golden Slumbers, there’s a kind of fin de siècle frailty, the poignancy of damaged people remembering the past.
Did Helter Skelter cause a murder? Of course not. You might As well say Gotterdammerung caused The Third Reich. Of course that’s rubbish. As Mark Twain said, Wagner’s music is much better than it sounds.