To me it’ always been about the songs, and what they meant to me. I’m sure it’s the same for you. It’s about listening to When I Saw Her Standing There—and the joy of actually seeing her standing there. It’s about listening to She’s Leaving Home, and completely unexpectedly, feeling a lump in your throat, even though you have no comparable experience to relate to—until many years later. It’s about trying to sing She Loves You in the bathroom, and discovering, on the last ‘Yeah’, that you cannot really sing. It’s about listening to Come Together, and cringing at the thought of his disease, and wondering with a shiver what a ‘Joojoo Eyeball’ really could be.
Perhaps the full significance of The Beatles comes home to all of us when we view it through the lens of the death of John Lennon. Many individual deaths have affected many people across the world, from Princess Diana’s to Michael Jackson’s. But so many of us remember that awful evening in 1980, when that man walked up to John Lennon in a park in New York. That man whose name we will not mention because that’s precisely why he did that sick and awful thing—so that people would remember his name. He walked up to John with a copy of Double Fantasy and asked him to sign it. John smiled and signed it, partly because over the years Paul had drilled into his head that it was important to be nice to fans, even if he didn’t feel like it, and partly because he was fundamentally a nice person. That person took his autograph and then shot him, because he wanted to be famous.
That terrible night, in 1980, tens of millions of people felt deeply sad, from Kabul to Connecticut. Partly it was because they really loved John, and his music had touched them on a deeply personal level, and he’d never really hurt anyone at the end of the day, and he deserved much better. But for many of us, in the recesses of our hind brain, there was this little voice which told us, with a dull, indisputable finality, “Now they’re never going to get together again.”
But maybe that’s too much like Chronicle of a Death Foretold. Maybe the end is not the right place to start. Maybe, like Julie Andrews ordered us to do, we should start at the very beginning, because it’s a very good place to start.In 1957, John Lennon was regularly getting kicked out of the Quarry Grammar School, founded in 1926, for sundry offences, including ‘Throwing duster out of class window’, ‘Gambling on school field during house match’, and, my personal favourite, one word, ‘Insolence’. This is all verifiable truth, because it’s all in the school records. Perhaps it’s not surprising, because his mother Julia, whose blood flowed in his veins, and about whom he wrote one of his simplest and most heartfelt songs (Julia), used to do her housework wearing her knickers on her head, just because she felt like it. Clearly, the fruit didn’t fall far from the tree.
Meanwhile, in a nearby school, James Paul McCartney was once more the head boy, having been the head boy in every class he had attended so far, an excellent student, and much loved by all his teachers, although the more perceptive ones noticed he was rather too charming, and frequently got himself out of tight spots thanks to his sheep’s eyes and his gift of the gab. He was a tricksy one, our Paul.
Two more different personalities cannot be imagined. But although they didn’t even know each other yet, suddenly synchronicity kicked in. They both discovered Elvis Presley. They both badgered their local guardians until they got a guitar. And once they got a guitar, that guitar took over. They both played it day and night, with no one to teach them, learning the hard way. They played it in the bathroom. They played till late at night. That guitar became their life. And all of this happened individually, before they actually met each other. They were a few miles from each other, united by guitar, like a Liverpool version of the Corsican Brothers.
In 1958, Paul joined the Quarry Men, John’s band. Paul had worked harder at it than John had, and he knew more chords. Once he was in, he brought George Harrison, who was all of 14 at the time. George had one thing in common with the other two. The moment he got a guitar, he started playing it till his fingers bled. He wasn’t as talented as the other two, but he worked at it with grim determination. John could see that the boy could play, and he’d furtively put on his spectacles to figure out what chords George and Paul were playing. He didn’t like being second best.
So John, Paul and George were playing together by 1958, as the Quarry Men. Then they became Long John and the Silver Beatles, and finally in, 1960, The Beatles. Which is why this is their 50th anniversary. John was the early focal point, with his undeniable character and stage presence. John could have been the king of the heap, surrounded by friends and hangers on. Or he could have let Paul and George fully into it, knowing that he would be less of a king, but they would be a better band. He chose to be a better band.
Where did Ringo fit in? Until just before 1963, when The Beatles hit the big time, their drummer was Pete Best, described by a local paper as ‘mean, moody and magnificent’. He was good, but didn’t share the other three’s strange sense of humour. In Ringo, though, they found a kindred spirit. Well before they were famous, the other three existed in a state of dynamic tension. Ringo played referee. Whenever John fought with Paul, or George was miffed with John, Ringo was there to soothe ruffled feathers, and to remind them that they were friends first and musicians second.
So much for group dynamics. What about the music? The white hot core of The Beatles was the songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney. It’s quite simple, really. In the history of mankind, there have been never been better creators of music than them. This included a stream of hits for other people, such as the Rolling Stones, to whom they gifted their first hit – I Wanna Be Your Man.
Lennon and McCartney wrote songs and created music in three distinctly different ways, and their rivalry was always at the heart of it. One way was writing songs eyeball to eyeball, sitting in a hotel room or the back of a bus, which is how they did songs like Can’t Buy Me Love, She Loves You, and Please Please Me. The second way was when they just pretended to be a team, but actually wrote the songs individually, and then played and recorded them together, like Yesterday (Paul) and Across the Universe (John). The third way was when they both had little bits and pieces, and they were too lazy to finish them, so they magically put them together, like Day Tripper and A Day in the Life. John and Paul had an unwritten agreement: whoever had contributed more to the song would then sing it, while the others would do backing vocals. They used to argue hotly about it, and it gives their harmonies on these songs a fierce edge, as if each one is saying, “Listen to me. Listen to ME.”
This spirit of competition was what really drove The Beatles, and George was very much a part of it. He spent years as the grumpy younger brother, treated very off hand by Paul and John, and grudgingly given a song or two. He complained bitterly and often, and even walked out during the making of The White Album. It’s true that songs like Something and Here Comes the Sun were things of beauty. But it’s worth remembering that George’s first post Beatles solo effort, All Things Must Pass, was a majestic triple album consisting entirely of songs which he wrote while he was with The Beatles, but had been rejected by John and Paul. The quality of his material declined rapidly after this point. It was the competition that drove them. When else, ever, has the whole been so much greater than the sum of parts?
The Beatles were great performers. You could write a book just on their performances. The Royal Command Variety Performance in London in 1963, for example, where the 19 other acts included the dancing pig puppets Pinky and Perky, and John asked the Royals to rattle their jewellery. Unlike Queen Victoria, the Royals were quite amused.
Their first three years of fame involved enormous amounts of touring, because they needed the money. Thanks to a bum deal struck by manager Brian Epstein, The Beatles were getting 1 per cent royalty on their records. Despite this, their income was so high they were being taxed at 94 per cent by the UK government. This meant that The Beatles effectively got to keep 0.06 per cent of the total revenue earned from their music—a situation about which a bitter George wrote his first hit song for the Beatles—Tax Man (‘So it’s one for me, nineteen for you…’). This was the lead track on their 1966 Revolver album, which also included the kindergarten classic Yellow Submarine, Paul’s brassy, upbeat, Got To Get You Into My Life, and John’s enigmatic and spacey Tomorrow Never Knows, the title being a phrase Ringo used often.
The upshot was, they had to tour, so they travelled the world and had many adventures, culminating with a legendary concert in 1965 at the Shea Stadium in New York, filled with 55,000 screaming fans, by far the biggest show anyone had ever done till then. They’d come a long way in three years, from backing a stripper named Shirley at the New Cabaret Artistes Club on Upper Parliament Street. But as musicians, they were demoralised. The constant screaming of teenagers could blank out the sounds of a jet plane flying overhead, and they could barely hear themselves play. On one occasion, Ringo was too wasted after a 72 hour binge to actually play the drums—and no one noticed. In 1966, after being bullied by Imelda Marcos (they refused to play for her guests) and burnt in effigy across the US Bible belt (after John said, injudiciously, that they were more popular than Jesus), they hung up their touring boots.
They never played together again as a band, except one memorable afternoon on the roof of the Apple building. Which left them at rather a loose end. John would rather have spent it on the sofa, but he decided to make the effort, before Paul took over everything. Particularly after Brian Epstein’s death, it was Paul’s energy and enthusiasm that pretty much kept The Beatles together. We should all be grateful, because the next thing they did was Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and nothing was ever the same afterwards. Even the album cover was unique, featuring Karl Marx, Marlon Brando and Laurel and Hardy. Gandhi was removed from the original cover for fear of disturbing Indian sensibilities. It’s unlikely Gandhi would have minded, and he certainly would have been a much better spiritual advisor than Mahesh Yogi, about whom John later wrote Sexy Sadie.
The end wasn’t far away, sadly. It began one day in 1967, when a little, dark haired Japanese woman walked up to John Lennon and silently handed him a little card with a single word: ‘Breathe’. Thus began one of the great romances of the 20th century. It also made John start thinking about life beyond The Beatles, and consider bigger issues like world peace. He sponsored Yoko’s Half Wind Exhibition, which consisted of items cut in half, such as half a chair, half a shoe, and half a toothbrush, and obligingly joined her inside a bag in Amsterdam, in an effort to get war-mongers to drop their weapons and climb into bags. Not a bad idea, if you really think about it. A bag is a lot cheaper than an ICBM.
The Beatles stayed together for a couple more years. They made The White Album, and Abbey Road, and Let It Be. As well as killer singles like Hey Jude and The Ballad of John and Yoko. Only John and Paul played on this last track, because the others flatly refused to have anything to do with it. Ever obliging, Paul pitched in with John and laid down the drums and the bass, giving the song its cheerful, muscular rhythm.
The White Album was a colossal success, but it was made in a miserable atmosphere, with a lot of fighting, with John fighting to drop Paul’s Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da because it was embarrassing, and Paul fighting to drop Revolution No 9 because it was incomprehensible (true on both counts), and George fighting with everyone else. Even Ringo once walked out, because he was bored.
Paul tried to recapture their old spirit by suggesting they do a live album, which led to Let It Be (released in 1970, after The Beatles broke up), but that didn’t work either. Not that we should knock it, including as it does the title track, and Get Back, which features a boss vocal from Paul, a cheesecutter sharp solo from George, and what John later said was the best rhythm guitar he ever played in his life. Forget about the songwriting, The Beatles were one helluva good rock band.
They wanted to end on a good note. So John temporarily suspended his Peace Campaign. George took a break from recording chants of the London Radha Krishna Temple. Ringo came back from Hollywood. They came together for the last time, in the middle of 1969, to make Abbey Road. They all knew it was the last time, somewhere in their hearts, and they all worked hard to bring back that old feeling, which is why we have Here Comes The Sun and Come Together.
Trust Paul to have the last word, though. At the end of the day, the reason so many of us love The Beatles is very simple, and it’s explained in the last words, of the last song, on the last album The Beatles ever recorded together:
And in the end, the love you take / Is equal to the love / You make