by / September 10th, 2009 /

The Beatles – Remastered and Reappraised

Anyone who has any love for any tiny fraction of the millions of hours of pop music that has come out since 1970 has to have a tricky relationship with The Beatles. The Clash’s staggeringly incorrect prediction that ‘phoney Beatlemania has bitten the dust’ was an early expression of this; another was the Sex Pistols’ sacking of Glen Matlock in February 1977. His offence? He was quite fond of the Fabs. It could not have been that Joe Strummer and Johnny Rotten saw nothing at all in the Beatles. That’s really, really hard to do. Almost every violent reaction against The Beatles is a reaction to the cultural shadow they cast rather than to the music itself. It can also be a reaction to their idiot fans: in July 2009’s BBC Music magazine, an acclaimed classical pianist called Murray Perahia was asked his opinion of pop music. Perahia smirked: ‘The last people to do anything interesting were the Beatles’. No Bowie; no Kraftwerk; no Off the Wall; no Murmur; no nothing. No clue. Amazing.

Yes, The Beatles were a ‘great little band’. Half the time, they were astonishingly brilliant. Just as it’s hard to imagine how the likes of Perahia, supposedly passionately devoted to music, could so casually and incuriously dismiss forty years of abundant, febrile creativity, so it’s hard to imagine that any pop lover could actively dislike the Beatles’ songs in and of themselves. Lester Bangs’ great line that ‘I can guarantee you one thing, we will never agree on anything as we agreed on Elvis’ was misdirected; we agree much more readily on John, Paul, George and Ringo.

But there is nothing more tedious than continually to be told by people whose musical knowledge begins at Penny Lane and ends at Abbey Road that the greatest music ever made happened during a closely defined period between 1965 and 1969, and that’s all there is to it. You may debate which of the Beatles albums is the greatest album ever made; you might throw in Pet Sounds or What’s Goin’ On as a wild card; but that’s about it. And so millions of people of my generation and the next, who could not actually hate the Beatles, do so. Because if a culture’s high watermark happened before you were born, then you have to reject that culture, or live encased in nostalgia for a time you never knew.

Rejecting the Beatles, of course, is not easy. It’s like rejecting Santa, or God. Six-year-olds know who The Beatles are; they know even before they know that they know. My nephew Conor knows -Yellow Submarine’, and knows it’s by The Beatles. He taught it to his sister Emma. They sing it at school. They don’t sing -Sympathy for the Devil’ or -Sunday Bloody Sunday’. The argument has been made, and is made here again, that -Yellow Submarine’ is the most important Beatles song, for this reason. It is the number one reason why the hegemony continues. (-Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, taught in primary schools in the UK, is right up there.) Like McDonalds, the Beatles get them early. Generations of kids have internalised the Beatles at the same time that they learn their first language; these songs become a lingua franca of their own. They are the template, the songs by which all others are judged; they are, even, the ‘entry-level drug to happiness’.

Deciding not to like the Beatles after this indoctrination takes an enormous effort of will. It’s like disowning the warm glow of childhood memory. It’s tough to do, and you need a good reason to do it. (If the Beatles don’t catch the kids themselves, then Sesame Street does it for them. Personal favourites: -With a Little Yelp from My Friends’, -Letter B’, and Floyd’s auteur-like take on -Blackbird’.) None of this, it should be noted, makes -Octopus’s Garden’ any less of an abomination.

It’s questionable, then, whether you can even judge The Beatles away from all the baggage. How much of what you feel, when you hear them, is the song? How much is the multiplicity of associations your mind makes with each one? How much is the story of the band, and our awareness, that they could not have had, of how it all worked out? How would -Across The Universe’ now sound (-Nothing’s gonna change my world’) if the Dakota had not happened? You never know. For now you can only attempt opinions.

To start with, Lennon/McCartney didn’t really begin to hit their stride until Beatles for Sale. The albums before this work, at this stage, as historical documents. They are of their time. -All My Loving’, -She Loves You’, and -I Want to Hold Your Hand’ work when you see them on the Ed Sullivan Show on Anthology or the Maysles Brothers’ documentary. These songs are perfectly structured, the model for rock’n’roll writing ever since, but there’s not that much going on underneath, and you’d want to be pretty stuck for something to do to put on With The Beatles for pleasure.

On Beatles for Sale, things moved on and Lennon moved ahead. McCartney was still stretching cute conceits a little thinly (-Eight Days a Week’), while Lennon was learning to turn emotions other than twee optimism into number one hits, with -I’m A Loser’ and -No Reply’: ‘I tried to telephone / You said you were not home / That’s a lie’. Lennon held the lead through Help! and Rubber Soul. Paul’s best work on these albums was -I’ve Just Seen A Face’ and -I’m looking Through You’ – fantastic tunes, but a touch generic; John, though, hit a rich seam. It may have been what Gift Grub’s George Martin calls the jazz cigarettes, or the confidence of emerging from Paul’s shadow, or Dylan’s influence, but his songs here – -Help!’, -In My Life’, -Norwegian Wood’, ‘You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away’ – are perfect, enthralling, diverse pieces of work. You forget that John was 24 when he recorded -In My Life’ – like Lester Bangs said of Astral Weeks, there are lifetimes there.

With Revolver, the drugs really kicked in, and perhaps coincidentally Paul began to draw level. For the next few albums, what John got from hallucinogenics was a mixed blessing. Along with a willingness to tweak song structure that sometimes worked incredibly well (-Strawberry Fields’, -A Day in the Life’), and sometimes very poorly (-Revolution 9′) he also developed an unfortunate fondness for drug references as the point of the song (-Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’) and for unapologetic doggerel; -I Am The Walrus’ is just not that great. John’s peak as a Beatle comes just around the first half of side two of Revolver, with -And Your Bird Can Sing’ and -She Said She Said’; and sticking the latter’s coruscating riff and first couplet (‘She said I know what it’s like to be dead’) immediately after -Yellow Submarine’, to frighten the kiddies, was a genius move.

What Paul got in the late period that you don’t find before is empathy. Early on, he tries too hard on -Eleanor Rigby’. The strings are too knowingly dignified, the line “Wearing the face that she keeps in a jar by the door” is way too pleased with itself, and the chorus… well, yes, there are lonely people out there, but getting a pat on the head from Beatle Paul won’t help. -For No-One’ improved matters, the unobtrusive French horn making much of the difference. By -When I’m 64′ however, his work is getting incredibly affecting, without letting on that it is. This is a love song that could only be written by a stoical northern Englishman – you won’t get melodrama – but it’s every bit the declaration of eternal love that -God Only Knows’ is. ‘I could be handy mending a fuse…’ The arrangement is pristine. -When I’m 64′ is unimprovable; it’s the soul of Sgt. Pepper.

The last couple of albums are in some ways the hardest to disentangle from the story of the band. Abbey Road‘s -I Want You (She’s So Heavy)’ isn’t just a song, it’s famously the last song they did in the studio together. (It’s kind of a tiresome dirge.) Harrison’s -I Me Mine’, off Let It Be, is the last song recorded by any Beatle as a Beatle. The sting of that is lessened by its being a typically dubious effort by George. (-Taxman’? You’ve got to be kidding. And -Within You Without You’, in the middle of Sgt. Pepper: most skipped over song in pop history.)

Let It Be is a shambles. (Let It Be… Naked, not much better, isn’t included in the current set of releases). How they ever returned to a studio after the awful muck of -Dig A Pony’ and -Maggie Mae’ is a mystery, but they did, for Abbey Road; at least, Paul did. John had essentially left. -Come Together’ is fine, but his heart is in the confessional songwriting that started in Rubber Soul, passed through the White album’s -Julia’ and -Yer Blues’, and would culminate in the Plastic Ono Band’s -Mother’. He’s saving up his songs. (George is still around. -Here Comes the Sun’ is OK.)

Paul, meanwhile, turned in, on Abbey Road, one of the all-time great Side Twos, to complete an album no-one should not have. From -Because’, with its beautifully, consciously ill-fitting three-part harmonies, on, it’s his baby. The band was breaking up: with the eyes of the world on him, and the weight of history, and aware of it, he put together a suite of songs that is stupendously inventive and ambitious, and epic and taut at the same time, and wildly moving. -Golden Slumbers’ is one of few songs that you can say: if this doesn’t raise a tear, there’s something wrong with you.

And -The End’ is the end, and it’s a painful one. Paul went, within five years, from head-nodding along to -Can’t Buy Me Love’ to something approaching hard-earned wisdom: ‘And in the end / The love you take / Is equal to the love you make’. Simple, true, poetry. As much as -Yellow Submarine’ explains why the Beatles are still so loved, why we can’t and won’t get rid of them, so does the unironic, unafraid, emotional connection of moments like these. John and George talked a lot about spirituality; Paul, on Abbey Road, and -When I’m 64′, and -I Will’, and -Blackbird’, lived it. The Beatles had humour, and heart, and melody. When Paul got going, they had more. They had amazing grace.

Please Please Me / With the Beatles / A Hard Day’s Night / Beatles for Sale / Help! / Rubber Soul / Revolver / Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band / Yellow Submarine / The Beatles (White Album) / Abbey Road / Let It Be / Magical Mystery Tour / Past Masters are all out now on EMI.

  • I realize that the times we live in are just too damned weird to focus any degree of attention on a rock ‘n’ roll band that released its final recording forty-years-ago last month – two of whose members are gone from our midst. Think about it. In 1969, at the height of all that was going on then, any columnist who would have devoted a entire page to the greatness of the Paul Whiteman Orchestra would have been laughed out of the business. But this isn’t just any band we’re talking about here. With the exception of the President’s address to a joint session of Congress last night, I didn’t spend much time yesterday focusing on affairs of state. September 9, 2009 belonged to the Beatles.

    Yesterday marked the long-awaited release of a box set containing all fourteen albums recorded by the Fab Four between the years 1962 and 1970. What makes this package different from what has previously been available is the fact that the engineers at EMI (the studio in London where they did most of their work) have digitally remastered the recordings from the original multi-track tapes. It was like listening to them for the first time all over again. The Beatles have never sounded better – I didn’t even think that was possible!

    Let me attempt the impossible and sum up the Beatles’ message in one sentence: We are the makers of our own dreams. That works for me.

    Dream. Dream away.

    Tom Degan
    Goshen, NY

  • Aidan

    Excellent article. I don’t agree with all of it, but excellent article.

  • Robin

    I guess I’m stuck often. I’m 29. I listen to “A Hard Day’s Night” and “With the Beatles” a lot. I also listen to Porcupine Tree. Your article is very interesting and on point about later generations reactions to the Beatles (Clash, etc) and how The Beatles indoctrination starts early. And reappraisals are necessary, however it’s YOUR reappraisal. Perhaps many other Slate readers will agree with you, and that’s great, but not everyone on earth does. I believe some of your sentences should have started with, “For me, I Want to Hold Your Hand…” rather than applying it to everyone as if we all feel the same way you do.

    I respect your opinion, please don’t make it mine, and please don’t assume I’m somehow unevolved or socially inept because I like the early Beatles. I was also a music major and am a classically trained vocalist and can tell you the so called “simple” songs like “And I Love Her” are not as simple as they seem. This idiot is now going to listen to Rubber Soul.

  • review = opinion. invariably. To have to write ‘in my opinion’ before every line would make it very dull, dont you think?

  • Sean C

    Im not as sold on the remasters.

    I can see little difference, but it’s not 20 quids worth of a difference. I feel they’ve essentially sold to the older, higher earning, folk (i.e. the people who ‘pay’ for music) something that they can not deny.

    I’m a big fan, but I can’t help feel they’ve gone a bit further than LOVE or ONE here.

  • DTMT

    What exacly does remastered mean? Is it just a digital cleanup of the master tapes or have they remixed from the original tapes (using production notes?). I’ve only heard a few things on radio but I’m slightly disturbed. I understood that george Martin is almost deaf at this stage of his life. Giles (his son) works with him now. Also, a bit like the Let It Be remaster, I feel Pal’s inluence all over the place. The Bass lines are definitely more prominant in a number of recordings and some of the vocals sound a bit unconnected. Did anyone think John’s voice in Tomorrow Never Knows is further back in the mix? I could be wrong and haven’t listened enough yet, but have they messed too much with these?

  • DTMT

    That’s Paul’s, Paul’s influence and by Let It Be remaster I mean the Let it Be Naked release.

  • Niall Crumlish

    Aidan, thanks – I’m curious what you didn’t agree with.

    Robin – I think it’s clear that the piece is opinion. James is right. There’s no way it can be anything else. It’s based on 20 years of a “tricky” relationship with the band, and haering the songs thousands of times, with an intensive ten-day refresher course since Phil asked me to do this piece, but it’s opinion.
    Half way through the piece I clarified this: “It’s questionable, then, whether you can even judge The Beatles away from all the baggage… For now you can only attempt opinions.”
    And there was nothing ad hominem in what I wrote about listening to early Beatles for pleasure – I don’t know where you got “unevolved and socially inept” from. I’m sure those songs are as complex as you say they are, but I’m not a musicologist. (And the only time I use the word ‘simple’ in the piece, it’s as a compliment.) I’m interested in the emotional content of the songs, which is an inherently subjective judgment. My take on Paul’s developing empathy or otherwise is highly personal, and as written.
    Thanks for the comments, and I hope you enjoyed that spin of Rubber Soul.

  • Prentice McHoan

    Yeah, I hate ‘Taxman’ as well. Nothing more boring than hearing rich musicians complain about not having enough money.
    Even though it’s doggerel, I do like ‘I Am The Walrus’.

  • Padraig

    Just to note that Eight Days a Week is a Lennon rather than McCartney song (to the extent that you can definitively separate the earlier stuff). It’s quite a similar song to A Hard Day’s Night, I always group them together. And I love them both. I tend to favour the early-to-mid period Beatles… I think the synergy is the real attraction and that dissipates later on. Doesn’t mean that Abbey Road isn’t amazing, of course.
    Agreed with the general point about McCartney being initially, and with notable exceptions, a step behind Lennon in terms of the quality/maturity of his songs, and then becoming the real leading light from, I think, Sgt. Pepper on. Probably no coincidence that Lennon was completely out of his mind a good deal of those few years. I reckon Revolver is where we see them almost at the same peak of excellence.

  • Just another note that Paul has claimed some part of the writing credit for “In My Life” something that I think John acknowledged in an interview that is bound to be on the interweb somewhere. “I Am The Walrus” is a smashing some – c’mon! Also John wrote one of his best songs (“Happiness is A Warm Gun”) during his supposedly less fruitful latter Beatles years. Oh and don’t dismiss the first 3 albums so readily. Some crackers on there, “Any Time At All” from A Hard Days Night being one of them. Having said all that, this is a very good article – nicely done!

  • Niall Crumlish

    Padraig, Barry,

    Fair points all. And well spotted re Eight Days a Week – to the extent, Padraig, as you said, that you can separate the early stuff. I think I prefer the later songs where the authorship is more clearly defined, but you can hear, or imagine you can hear, the influence of the other in subtle ways. (Possibly as in ‘In My Life’, as Barry notes.)
    For example, I always liked the way that the slightly annoying positivity of ‘Getting Better’ is tempered by John’s “Can’t get no worse”; and there’s the story Paul tells in Anthology about playing ‘Hey Jude’ to John for the first time, before it was finished, when John insisted that he leave the awkward line ‘The movement you need is on your shoulder’ in the song.
    Even in Abbey Road, where they were very much doing their own thing, there’s a synergy in the way the songs fit together. It’s hard to imagine side two of that album, conctructed and directed by Paul as it was, unleavened by ‘Mean Mr. Mustard’, or those unbelievable opening acoustic guitar chords of ‘Polythene Pam’.
    Barry, thanks for the specific recommendation re ‘Any Time At All’. I will go back to it.

  • Paul Dunn

    Opinion is one thing; facts are another. You talk about the rise of Paul and how he eclipsed John on Abbey Road, side 2, with the absolute brilliance of a song like “Because”. Well hello, that’s John’s song…