Saturday 7 January 2012

Could the Beatles be saved?

The main thing that broke up the Beatles was leadership. When the Beatles first began, John Lennon saw the group as his band, and no one disputed it, at least not openly. Early on there was even a notion to call themselves Long John and the Silver Beatles. Lennon retained his good pal Stu Sutcliffe as bass player, ignoring McCartney’s objections that Sutcliffe was clueless as a musician. And although the formal reason for Pete Best’s ouster from the band was his poor performance at the Parlophone audition, the fact is that the other Beatles were already thinking of firing him, and a key reason was probably that Pete Best was acquiring his own independent heart-throb following among the fans, a role which Lennon saw as his own. The fact that Best’s fan base went mental when Best was fired, and tried to rough up the remaining Beatles on the street, would have confirmed Lennon’s suspicions that Best could threaten his control of the band. It couldn’t have been a complete accident that Best’s replacement, the entirely homely Ringo Starr, was no threat to compete with Lennon for the girls.

During the heyday of Beatlemania, Lennon retained his central role. He did a lot of the writing and lead singing. And the Beatles had help running the store in the early going: George Martin taught them to be recording artists while Brian Epstein tried, with very uneven results, to manage their tours and finances. But during the middle Beatle period, two things happened: first, the Beatles, more and more successful and confident of their own abilities, began to listen to Martin and Epstein less and less, making more decisions among themselves. And second, as Lennon withdrew into a quasi-depressive period on and off, from around 1965 through 1967, Paul McCartney began to challenge Lennon’s leadership of the band. The success of Sergeant Pepper, based on a McCartney brainstorm, was followed by a year in which McCartney proposed a number of projects which greatly irritated the other three: the wildly amateurish Magical Mystery Tour, repeated attempts to get the band back on tour, and the decision to move to a new studio space so they could film themselves creating new music, an effot which only served to showcase the growing dysfunction in the band, for all the world to see.

Lennon grew more hostile to McCartney’s growing assertiveness, and was joined in this sentiment by George Harrison, who was irritated by McCartney’s treatment of him in the studio and by the resistance to recording more of Harrison’s songs. Harrison and Lennon got artistic backup from Phil Spector who, among other things, radically changed McCartney’s songs without consulting him, especially Long and Winding Road. Harrison and Lennon also sought business guidance from the incredibly abrasive Allan Klein, ignoring McCartney’s efforts to get his new in-laws to manage their affairs instead.

Meanwhile, Lennon had always taken the stance that it had been his band all along, and accordingly he would decide when it disbanded. When he advised McCartney that he intended to do just that, and was keeping his decision a secret for contractual reasons, McCartney struck back, preemptively announcing his own departure from the band. Lennon and Harrison lashed out at him publicly, and then tried to block McCartney’s efforts to release his solo album and leave their Apple label.

Lennon’s shock at McCartney’s action may have been exacerbated by the fact that he seemed to be in denial; after several years of fame during which the few people who got close to him were not the sort to tell him things he didn’t want to hear, he seemed to be oblivious to the effect that his actions had on others, or to McCartney’s growing dismay at Lennon’s behavior and his “leadership”. Once Yoko Ono entered Lennon’s life, he abandoned his wife and son and took up housekeeping with his future wife. McCartney sympathized with John’s wife Cynthia and he adored their son Julian – in fact he seemingly spent more quality time with Julian than Lennon did. When McCartney wrote Hey Jude, the song was meant as a gesture of support for Julian and his mother, vis-à-vis Lennon and Yoko. In a way it expressed defiance against Lennon. But Lennon insisted on interpreting the song to mean that McCartney was tacitly accepting Lennon’s imminent decision to shut down “his” band, of which McCartney was merely a junior member. Lennon also ignored McCartney’s other implicit criticisms of Yoko in songs like Get Back, and his slam against Lennon’s buddy Allen Klein in You Never Give Me Your Money.

The Beatles also found other things to argue about, especially as 1967 rolled into 1968 and 1969. Brian Epstein had always been an inept business manager, but his death in 1967 left the Beatles with no business guidance at all. Barely able to manage their existing musical ventures, they decided to expand outward, into producing, publishing, fashion, electronics, and so on – Apple Corps. They hoped that their undeniable genius in art would betoken equal competence in business.

That this did not pan out, was due in no small part to the fact that they let very few people close enough to give them advice, and some of the few who made it into the inner circle were spectacularly unfit to provide advice, like the Maharishi, and of course Allen Klein and a con man named “Magic Alex”. A series of “grownups” such as George Martin and consultants from the business sector tried without success to urge the Beatles to rein in their excesses, both in business and in art, but they just didn’t want to hear it. The generation gap was never wider than during this period, and the Beatles, like their fans, resisted taking advice from the old guard, confident that they could do better.

Accordingly Apple Corps was run by the aforementioned Klein and by their former roadie Neil Aspinall. The “electronics division” was “led” by “Magic Alex” who kept promising all sorts of magical innovations like musical wallpaper, which never seemed to materialize in the real world; in the end the division lost around half a million dollars. Their Apple Boutique was run by a couple of hippies known collectively as “The Fool” and by one of Lennon’s childhood pals; it lost $300,000 with incredible speed, in part due to rampant theft, and was shut down. Apple Publishing published…one book. This Apple chaos only added to the friction among the Beatles.

It was only during this period in 1968, when McCartney’s bold musical schemes were failing, and when their business ventures were going sideways, that it finally occurred to the Beatles and their fans that the invincible quartet, despite four magical years in which they seemingly could do no wrong, were indeed capable of failure and error.

They also had a clear and growing divergence of musical taste. During Beatlemania the Beatles were all united in the desire to write simple, marketable pop songs, which was indeed all they were capable of, early on. But fame gave them the chance to explore new directions, and they didn’t all want to go the same way. McCartney explored more experimental artistic directions than he is given credit for, but his musical tastes in the actual studio still ran heavily toward pop; he drove Lennon to despair with a series of relentlessly Edwardian “cute Beatle” numbers such as Penny Lane, Lovely Rita, When I’m Sixty Four, Your Mother Should Know, Martha My Dear, Ob La Di, Honey Pie, and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer. McCartney was quite open in his preference for this twee stuff: “I would have liked to have been a writer in the Twenties, because I like the top hat and tails thing.” What McCartney called “top hat and tails”, Lennon condemned as “granny shit”.

McCartney was more charitable toward Lennon’s work, although he ground his teeth when Lennon forced the inclusion of Revolution Number 9 on the White Album. And all the while Harrison was campaigning to get more of his own songs released, finally getting four songs into the massive White Album and two big hits on Abbey Road.

Adding to the musical friction was the fact that McCartney was emerging as the most talented musician, by far. Early on, McCartney was persuaded to take up the often-thankless bass-guitar job, although he was a better guitarist than Lennon and arguably as good as Harrison; he may have taken on this subservient role partly to stay on the good side of the more dominant Lennon (and perhaps to prevent Lennon from hiring another no-talent dunderhead like Sutcliffe). As the sessions moved forward, McCartney showed more and more ability, playing guitar solos that Harrison couldn’t handle, teaching Ringo Starr how to play the drums on Ticket To Ride, filling in on drums when Ringo was staging his occasional “work stoppages”, and leading the way in exploring keyboards – all while writing the textbook on bass guitar which bassists are still cribbing from today. This afforded him confidence which occasionally veered into arrogance, especially in his dealings with Harrison.

In addition to the power struggles and the pressures of business and art, were the very forces of time and space conspiring to increase the friction and the tension. During the Beatlemania years they were writing and recording around 20-30 songs a year, touring, filming, managing the media, and everything else, an absurdly frantic pace of production. So exhaustion can be added to the growing list of factors contributing to the final collapse.

Even when they stopped touring, they merely traded one prison for another: instead of being locked in hotel rooms while screaming fans stalked outside, they were now locked in the less-than-hospitable confines of the Abbey Road studios, with poor living accommodations, lousy food, and growing artistic and emotional pressures – and again unable to leave the studio, because the fans awaited. As long as they remained Beatles, they would be, in effect, hunted.

Also, for their last year as a band, Lennon introduced his girlfriend into the studio without consulting anyone. She entered what had been their private refuge from all outsiders, she altered the power dynamics by giving Lennon a new ally while also causing friction between Lennon and the other three, she interfered with the artistic process (chirping and moaning along in a couple of White Album songs), she helped push Lennon into artistic areas which the other three didn’t want to explore, and she made Lennon think seriously about life after the Beatles. She also reflected the growing desire of all the Beatles to get on with family life outside the Beatle world. By introducing Yoko into the Beatle world, Lennon was indicating clearly that he still considered the Beatles to be his band, and he would introduce new people and new artistic ideas into the mix whether the others liked it or not. McCartney initially tried to make it work – he even let Yoko sing backup on Birthday, early on – but ultimately she changed the dynamic in the studio, permanently.

Add to this the fact that McCartney was not nearly as progressive in his attitudes toward women as one might expect: his lengthy relationship with Jane Asher collapsed because he was incapable of managing a romance with an independent-minded girl who insisted on pursuing her own career. Likewise his attitude toward the female contribution to his art was quite chauvinistic – one of the last points of friction that led to his departure from the band was Phil Spector’s decision to add female voices to Long And Winding Road, which McCartney explicitly said he never would have accepted on a Beatle record (although he made an exception for Yoko’s contributions to the barely-serious Birthday). So when Yoko arrived in the studio and began inserting herself into the Beatles creative process, conflict was inevitable.

So, could the split-up have been avoided? If they had been receptive to good advice, could someone have sat them down and steered them back on track? Here are a few things a “wise uncle” could have told them:

First, slow down! From the summer of 1968 through the summer of 1969, they recorded the White Album, filmed and recorded Let It Be, recorded Abbey Road, and popped out four songs for the Yellow Submarine project, and a bunch of singles like Hey Jude, Revolution and Get Back. That’s what, fifty songs in a year? A song a week? All while dealing with two marriages, and Apple Corps, and everything else. Instead perhaps they should have taken half of that year, got out of that awful studio they hated, and just gone in four separate directions, to forget about the Beatles, go live a real life with real people, wives and kids – otherwise you have nothing to write about. And think long and hard about whether they wanted to make more music at all, and if so, what kind, and with whom.

Second, move to New York or LA for a while. Live in a community that is used to dealing with celebrities without smothering them, talk to entertainment pros, get new ideas.

Third, hire business professionals and listen to what they say.

Fourth, release all that artistic pressure by doing side projects, perhaps an album for each member. So each of them gets one project for which he is boss and can steer the ship as he likes, and do all those songs that drive the other Beatles up the wall. George could have unloaded his gigantic catalogue of compositions (as indeed he did with All Things Must Pass) and McCartney could have gotten a lot of his “granny music” out of his system without bothering Lennon with it. I think a key point of friction, especially with respect to McCartney’s more gratingly poppy music, is that Lennon not only had to listen to the stuff, he had to learn it and play it, over and over and over. A perfect example was Ob La Di: after playing it dozens of times, Lennon couldn’t stand it anymore, stomped out for a joint, and then returned to play the piano part more forcefully than before. He insisted that that was how the song should be played, and got his way. Lennon possibly would have found McCartney’s sillier work more endurable if McCartney had gone off to record it with the Badfinger boys instead, leaving Lennon out of the process. So if the Beatles had each recorded an album of material without the other three, a lot of conflict could have been avoided.

Fifth, mix up the line-up? Here’s one bizarre idea. The Beatles were a band of guys who liked to experiment, but with a bass player who wanted to do pop. The Beach Boys were a band of guys who wanted to do pop, but with a bass player who wanted to experiment. What if McCartney and Brian Wilson had swapped bands for an album each?

1 comment:

Tom Betz said...

Woulda, coulda, shoulda.

Nice piece, and nice to see you back!