I remember when John Lennon died. I was in a Land Rover, being driven to school by a friend’s Dad, who ran a farm outside of Sawbridgeworth. He was a huge rugged being of flesh and flecks of straw, with thick wiry hair and the leathery weather-beaten skin of those who live perpetually out-doors. The news came on the radio and this farmer, massive bloke, with enormous craggy hands – started to cry.
I heard the news today – oh boy.
The Beatles didn’t loom large in my early life. My parents had been too old for them, my sister and I too young. I was raised on a diet of Bing Crosby and Noel Coward until someone (probably a cousin) took pity on me and gave me a record of late 70s hits. When I arrived at boarding school in the early nineteen eighties I had accumulated a proud collection that consisted of just three LPs. One of those was that first record – an early compilation called Rock and Roller disco on the Ronco label – that seemed to have nothing to do with roller skating disco music. The other was David Bowie’s life changing Changes One and the third was a collection of Beatles Number 1 hits that confusingly included ‘Love Me Do’ – which had never been a number 1.
I hated boarding school at first – largely because I was fucking miserable. I missed my home, my dog, my parents and my sister. I even missed the Bing Crosby records. I hated sport, I hated Latin, I hated the older boys and lived in fear of them. I lived in even greater terror of being beaten. I didn’t understand what the hell was going on and I loathed the lack of silence and privacy. I’d by now transferred the three albums onto TDK tapes and in between listening to the Sunday charts, like everyone else back then, I played those three records over and over and over again.
Now the Beatles have become an all pervasive part of British cultural history it’s easy to forget that in the early eighties the group had fallen out of fashion and become a bit naff. It was the music of everyone else’s parents’ generation. In the era of the New Romantics, Boy George, Duran Duran – outrageous fashion and big hair – The Beatles were not a band to be name checked. Schoolmates even mocked me, the way that schoolkids do, for liking something old and obvious.
As the eighties progressed I conformed. I got into music that every other self-conscious teenage boy was buying and I invested in a few other Beatles albums along the way – the ‘Blue Album’ and Hard Day’s Night. But it was only after watching the 20th anniversary documentary of the Sergeant Pepper release that I came out of the fandom closet and set out to collect the lot.
This was now around 1990 and everyone was disposing of their record collections in order to switch to CDs. You could pick up vinyl super cheaply and I was aided and abetted in this by the old hippy in the indoor market in Canterbury. Having worked out what I was doing that magnificent bloke put the Beatles and Bowie albums aside and then flogged them to me for three quid – nodding sagely and approvingly at my choices – like some extra-curricular professor of tuning in and dropping out.
And so, thanks to him I discovered these albums fluidly. Each purchase filled me with the sort of unmitigated joy that original fans must have had the first time about. I played them. I played them again. I played them until the grooves ran shallow. Help, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road – Revolver – Sergeant Pepper – what invention what progression what melody, poetry, ideas – brilliance and wit. I was evangelical about it. The covers themselves were art – and they hinted at possibility – of looking at life so very differently. And yes there are/were misses and failures – and there are many more than is often acknowledged. But even the Beatles failures are interesting.
The band’s recording career only lasted from September 1962 to late 1969 – a period of seven years – but in that short time-frame they took the base format of pop to levels and heights achieved by no other band since. You know that. Of course you do. Everyone does now – it’s a cliché to even commit it to paragraph.
The last Beatles album I collected was The Beatles – more commonly known as The White Album. I left it to last because it felt like homework. A lot of the songs are – or were back in the eighties – obscure. Some of them are challenging on a first or even second listen. One of them is akin to torture. But on display here is the full force of the talent and creativity of the band – and it almost overwhelms. It is their masterpiece. Lennon’s fingerprint is thick on it. The sardonic So Tired – the rollicking cow bell driven Everybody’s Got Something to Hide, the scorching Yer Blues. McCartney’s stretch from the laid back I Will and Mother Nature’s Son, to the finger blistering Helter Skelter and Harrison’s Dylanesque Long, Long, Long – this is the Beatles at their very peak.
But there’s a bigger reason as to why The White Album matters and what lifts it apart. And it rests in their least listened to – but most provocative – track.
On what was originally the fourth side of the album – on the penultimate listing – sits Revolution 9. An eight minute soundscape of madness – a bad acid trip – an exercise in situationist art – a ‘what the fuck is that’ rendered in semi-ordered chaos.
While essentially the work of Lennon, Harrison and Ono – and of course the engineers at Abbey Road – Revolution 9 was actually a continuation on a theme begun by McCartney who had been interested in Stockhausen’s sound experiments and had created his own Carnival of Light to which Revolution 9 (we are told) owes a debt in January 1967. So the track is very much in keeping with what the band were up to at the time and it as much a Beatles song as Hey Jude or Across the Universe.
If you’ve never heard it it’s almost impossible to describe. Heavy breathing. An orchestra warming up. Whistling noises. Ono whispering “when – you are naked” – screams….. snatches of music….. it is creepy, compelling and brilliant.
Heavily influenced by the much maligned Yoko Ono – if it had been produced by her, or any other contemporary avant garde artist this extraordinary trial by noise would probably have ended up in a cupboard in a vault in the Tate – dragged out occasionally and greeted with bemused grins. Instead – it sits as a track on a Beatles album that has gone on to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Indeed – within days of its release this cavalcade of weird would have been heard by millions of people. Very few if any of those people would have been exposed to such work – if they hadn’t been Beatles fans – and more crucially – if the Beatles themselves hadn’t pushed and exceeded the limitations of their medium – turning pop music literally into art. Since then – how many more have been exposed to this testing piece of acoustic experimentation? It’s an extraordinary thing that lifts the Beatles beyond the limitations of rock.
It’s easy among the tacky merchandising and re-re-releases to traduce the Beatles to product and jokes about the Frog Chorus. They were in fact quite probably the most important artists of the late Twentieth Century in any medium. That Revolution 9 was produced by the same band who sang Love, Love Me Do just five years earlier is why the Beatles – despite their over exposure – will continue to matter long, long, long into the future.