Can you separate the music of The Beatles from their place in popular culture? Jon Bounds listens to all of their records — one after another — in an attempt to find out.
I’m fairly sure you don’t need to own any Beatles records. In an average week we must all walk through at least one, and although there would be some statistical bunching it probably wouldn’t take 10 years before you’d heard everything but the rarities.
But that would be part of the problem; music like nothing else crystallises place and the past. Your reaction to The Beatles’ music is not just coloured by but woven in with the people, things and places you remember like psychogeographic tartan. One you can pull over your knees and comfort yourself within on a long journey. There’s no real way you can listen to them and just think about the sound.
A couple of years ago I listened to every Elvis record, in order, in an attempt to confuse myself and to be able to disassociate the cultural baggage from the sounds it made. It worked, and I ended up loving Elvis all the more. So I set up my stereo, my room and my mind, and sat down to listen to every song released by The Beatles, in release order (only UK released singles and LPs, no live versions, demos, or other archive). It worked out at about 190 tracks, and just over nine hours.
The early recordings do hit you with freshness, it’s not just that they are so direct, they are not played — with the exception of Love Me Do — as much as some of the later records. Please Please Me, in just a second over two minutes, is the template for our idea of 60s pop. The decade had so much more to offer, but it’s that moment that you know things are changing — under the harmonies you can almost hear Philip Larkin undoing his flies.
Seven tracks in and there is a moment of pure joy — in Boys, which was a new one on me — when a shout of “Go, George, go!” preludes a dancing guitar part that prepares you for the first “yeah yeahs”. It primes you to take this band to your heart and nothing can stop you.
By Eight Days a Week there’s nothing for it but to be up dancing round the kitchen. Like Vimto, they’ve got you.
The rest of the second album, Beatles For Sale, is less of a bang, it’s weighed down with rock and roll covers and seems more old fashioned than what’s gone before. In Everybody’s Trying to be my Baby I hear Gene Vincent’sRace With the Devil, but it turns out to be a version of a song by Carl Perkins. The Beatles were planted in rock and roll, but they soon had to grow up and out — or we wouldn’t be taking about them now.
It’s hard to think that they are anything but John Lennon’s backing band at this point — he sings, or takes lead vocals anyway, you get the feeling that it’s his choice of song and his choice of style. They are hamstrung by format in a way that other bands — who make their big leaps forward before they’re really worked out what they’re doing — aren’t. The Beatles are slowly adding their personalities into the songs.
What they do have is a supreme confidence and clarity. Essex poet Martin Newell, a contemporary of John Cooper Clarke, of whom you’d have also heard if your partner was from the Wivenhoe end of the county, has a poem called Chaanng that starts “We are haunted by the sixties/The opening chord of Hard Day’s Night/Hangs frozen in the cold night air”. The songs do come in like a drenching of cold water that clears the head, and now they are letting me listen to them afresh. Newell talks of how people who weren’t there now have to “fall in love at second sight” and that’s still the problem; the music is fine but the band aren’t mine.
Ticket to Ride and Drive my Car back on to each other for me, a lyrical clash between the girl they are letting go — who has a bus pass — and the one they want, who has her driving licence sorted.
Paperback Writer is a lyrical handbrake turn for popular music, it’s a song that lets everything go through as subtext. The written half of a pop song would never be the same — they are really flying now. And as we hitRevolver something happens; I have a bit of a headache and it does seem that I’m getting new perspectives on long familiar tracks.
I’m Only Sleeping is what we’re told LSD must be like. It forms a cultural shorthand for our short-handed culture.
Jeff Lynne’s ears prick up at the strings at around this point, and ELO are formed. Thank God.
On Sgt Pepper my fresh ears let me see that it’s Lucy In the Sky, not Being For the Benefit of Mr Kyte, that is the novelty record. Mr Kyte is timeless, but Lucy now sounds like Peter Lawford looks in 1968’s Salt and Pepper: made up for, but out of place in swinging London.
We now get some classic singles. It’s clear that whatever the content this band are great, but listening to “the white album” without the weight of history doesn’t help it any. It, to my ears 120 songs in, is shit. It’s the sound of men with no direction, picking up everything they can and letting us all hear it. It’s the only time in the day of The Beatles that I’m close to giving up. It’s not John or Paul who stop me, it’s George; While my Guitar Gently Weeps soothes.
Abbey Road is the white album’s experimentation working right; after a double album where lyrics, ideas, tunes and usable production never all collide, they do here again and again.
I was tweeting as I was listening, and there were three types of response (four if you count the 20 or so people who just unfollowed). Pedantry (do you have the mono or stereo versions and other questions), telling me that they liked particular songs most, or placing the records within the context of their lives. Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, derided by popular opinion, was a school choir favourite song for people of roughly my generation. Someone told me how they used to sing every song in order to themselves while waiting for night buses. I assume they picked up each time where they left off, or they wouldn’t ever have got to Let it Be*.
But the thing is it’s almost impossible, more than any other band to look at them without context. The Long and Winding Road is the B842, and knowing that changes everything. Content and context just won’t prise apart.
But I don’t want to separate them really; too many memories would be tarnished. In My Life made little impression on me before it was played at a friend’s funeral, but each and every time I hear it I’m transported to being unable to stand, weeping uncontrollably as others filed out of a modernist church.
I think of The Beatles in a similar way to how I think about cricket or Doctor Who; I’m fascinated by their place in — especially English — culture, love how entwined into our very fabric they are, but most of the time I don’t want to watch, play or listen. They are English culture, or at least a prism through which we can examine it.
There are alternative histories, conspiracies (Paul being dead is just the start), serious articles that pull the group’s first solo materials together as if they were a “lost” album. No other artist or group of artists have taken and withstood such examination, and none are likely ever to come close.
There’s a theory about how ghosts might inhabit our world that talks about waves of feeling we create that are recorded by buildings and other structures. By existing, our emotions embed themselves into the physical world, music and emotion are intertwined and the music of The Beatles has stuck fast in our bricks and mortar.
There’ll never be another Beatles, but I’m pretty sure we could recreate them from their echoes, their traces in our world. By and large that would be a good thing to do.
Which is why when I listen to Free as a Bird — constructed by Paul, George and Ringo, from a Lennon offcut in the 90s — I smile, I like it, it feels like home, I feel fine. It was worth doing.
*Most tracks were from the 2009 remasters, but generally who knows or really cares?
Rubber Soul was and remains my favourite Beatles LP.