My post earlier in the week about how I was pissed off by way in which The Beatles were dismissed in a history book by Simon Jenkins prompts me today to post the Introduction to the Omnibus Press book A Beatles Diary, by Barry Miles, in which he sets out their accomplishments with the eloquence of a writer who was there at the time, stressing their role as pioneers which, so many years later, is sometimes forgotten amidst the acclaim for their music.
Miles, of course, befriended the group and would go on to act as Paul’s official biographer in the book Many Years From Now.
The Beatles were ‘a Sixties group’, encompassing the entire decade, literally beginning in 1960, when they went to Hamburg, and ending in 1970, when Paul sued to end their partnership. Other groups, like The Shadows, lived through it, but they hailed from the previous era and managed to hang on indefinitely. The Beatles both reflected the enormous changes in society during the Sixties and were themselves catalysts for that change. They came together during the era of ‘How Much Is That Doggie In The Window?’ and ‘The Deadwood Stage’, and went professional at the time of The Avons’ ‘Three Little Girls Sitting In The Back Seat’ and Ricky Valence’s ‘Tell Laura I Love Her’. By the time they broke up, Jimi Hendrix, Brian Jones’ Rolling Stones and Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd had been and gone. The Beatles were both precursors and survivors.
They started it all, entering the music business when the BBC had a monopoly on radio, and the industry giants EMI and Decca dominated the record charts. Before The Beatles, an American would have been hard pressed to name one British singer or group; after The Beatles, British acts occupied a large percentage of the American charts. They paved the way for The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Animals, Herman’s Hermits and scores of other groups that constituted “The British Invasion”.
Pop music, as it was known in the days before “rock”, was seen as part of show business: to their bosses at EMI, there was little difference between The Beatles and Alma Cogan. They were on the cusp between music hall and MTV, playing variety shows along with hoofers, jugglers and comedians, though there is no recorded instance of them following a performing dog act. It is unlikely that U2 would consider sharing top billing on a TV show with a glove puppet, but The Beatles did. Pop groups were regarded as variety acts, and in these pages The Beatles can be seen playing Saturday Night At The London Palladium, and Mike & Bernie Winters' Big Night Out, along with Arthur Askey, Bruce Forsyth, Morecambe & Wise and the like, where they were expected to take part in skits as well as play their latest single.
Live performance was more important to The Beatles than to many present day acts because that was how they made their money, at least in the early years (as it is today but that’s because record sales are plummeting, another story altogether). Their royalties from EMI were so derisory that the greatest benefit of having a record in the charts came from the ability to charge more for live performances. No-one expected to make serious money from record sales, but with records in the charts you could play a lucrative summer season in a seaside resort and a sold-out Christmas panto. The Beatles did all of this after their initial success. Of course, all that would change. Indeed, they sold so many records that even on a farthing per record each they were able to get rich, and when it came time to renew their contract with EMI they got their own back by driving an incredibly hard bargain.
Their work-load was astonishing: more than 800 hours on stage in Hamburg, 275 performances at The Cavern alone. On top of that, manager Brian Epstein experimented with bookings, trying out new markets, booking them into a public school here, a débutante dance there, three weeks at The Paris Olympia, Carnegie Hall in New York. Brian was determined to present them as a class act. Looking through the chronology it is fascinating to see who else was on the bill, particularly in the early days. At The Cavern, with its origins as a jazz club, they were often as not sharing the bill with one or two traditional jazz bands. Trad jazz enjoyed a period of popularity just as The Beatles were getting going. It was a peculiar business, bearing little relationship to its supposed origins in Twenties' New Orleans. All its original practitioners were either dead or in their seventies and eighties. Acker Bilk headlined in bowler hat and striped waistcoat and The Temperance Seven were cool and languid in a smooth flapper style that owed little to a New Orleans street band. This was what The Beatles were up against. Not great competition admittedly, but their energy and belief in themselves and their music saw them through, blowing their rivals off the stage one by one, first in Hamburg, then Liverpool, then London and finally the world.
Why The Beatles and not, say, Rory Storm & The Hurricanes who already featured Ringo Starr? The answer lies in their extraordinary ability as composers. It was fortuitous that Lennon and McCartney should meet because not only were they rock‘n’roll fanatics, but they were also both already writing songs. The chemistry between them worked perfectly and together they composed an extraordinary body of work. The Beatles recorded 184 original songs (some of which were by George) without which they would almost certainly not have enjoyed such world-wide success. It was remarkable that they wrote songs at all, coming from their background, but what made The Beatles unstoppable was the momentum they created in their work, striving to make each album and single different, relying not on a tried and tested blues format or a series of traditional pop hooks, but experimenting with harmonies and rhythms, changing tempos and even tagging on whole new melodies. Songs poured out of them, so many that they didn’t need to use singles on albums to fill the space. In the modern era, up to three years or more often elapse between album releases by top recording acts, but The Beatles – the top act in the world – managed to release 12 original albums, including one double, in the eight years between 1963 and 1970, not to mention around 30 non-album tracks, including many of their biggest and best loved hit singles. Astonishingly, the third member of the group, George Harrison, also flowered as a songwriter. To George’s chagrin, Frank Sinatra always introduced ‘Something’ as “a Lennon and McCartney composition” and George didn’t get his full due until after the group split up. Even Ringo wrote the odd song.
They heralded the singer-songwriter, hastening the collapse of the Brill Building and its commercial song writing teams. Before The Beatles it was rare to sing your own material: Elvis never wrote a song. After The Beatles it was seen as a sign of weakness if you didn’t sing your own stuff. As old time rocker Jerry Lee Lewis said, referring to the demise of Bobby Vee, Bobby Darin, Bobbie Vinton and all the other Bobbies as The Beatles wiped the board clean: “Thank God for The Beatles, they cut 'em down like wheat before the sickle.”
They turned touring upside down too. Before The Beatles there were no stadium concerts: after they filled Shea Stadium to its 55,000 capacity – the biggest rock‘n’roll audience ever assembled at that time – the American stadium tour became the norm for a world-class act. The Beatles toured America with two roadies and a driver, playing hockey arenas and baseball stadiums, using whatever existing PA there was and with no foldback speakers on stage. Modern groups tour with an entourage of 150 crew and have more volume in their stage monitors than The Beatles had for a whole stadium, but once again it was The Beatles that led the way.
As if all this wasn't enough, during the Beatlemania years of non-stop touring and recording they also somehow found the time to make two full-length feature films, scores of live radio and TV appearances and give more media interviews in a day than today's superstars are inclined to give in a year. Somehow, amidst all this, they also coped with being the most famous and sought after people on the planet. In some cities, notably in Australia, half the population would turn out to welcome them, crowding into the streets, waiting for them to make personal appearances on balconies just like the Pope or Royal Family.
No other group developed so much. It would have been easy to retire, or at least settle back into comfortable celebrity after Beatlemania, but instead the Four Moptops transformed themselves into the Princes of Psychedelia and began a whole new life and a whole new series of experiments, dragging pop music forever out of Denmark Street and Tin Pan Alley and into the realm of art. Revolver had been a landmark album, filled with beautifully crafted songs yet using experimental studio techniques that had other groups consulting with their studio managers. It was hard to see how they could better it. Everyone was waiting to see what The Beatles did next.
Sgt Pepper was the world’s first “concept” album, the first to print the lyrics on the sleeve (another blow to Denmark Street), and musically, it blew everyone’s minds. It had the huge iconic chord on ‘A Day In The Life’ and it even had an iconic sleeve that was much parodied and copied over the years. It was their “masterpiece” in the traditional Renaissance sense of a piece of work to prove you knew your craft.
Drugs certainly helped this transformation and, because LSD and marijuana were illegal, The Beatles found themselves assigned yet another pioneering role as spokesmen for the newly emerging drug culture: they signed (and paid for) the “pot ad” in The Times, they recorded psychedelic music that was banned by the BBC and were interviewed about LSD by serious newspapers. Naturally they were also busted. Having abandoned their identity as the Fab Four, the nation’s favourite boys, they were fair game for the drugs squad, though it now seems likely that the drugs were planted in John and George’s homes by the police themselves.
The strain of it all took its toll. They were tired to their bones, stressed and taking too many drugs. John, perhaps, felt it most keenly. Once again they both mirrored and led the direction of Sixties' popular culture when they became involved in meditation and the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi. The Maharishi might have been a passing interest had Brian Epstein not died when The Beatles were on one of his meditation courses. His words helped them deal with their grief and the next year they set off to India, in John and George’s case with no clear idea of when, if ever, they might come back.
In the event, they did not become yogis, but their period of enforced sobriety allowed scores of songs to come flowing from them, many of which appeared on the double white album and Abbey Road. Ultimately it all came to an end: first George, then Ringo left the group and both returned. Then John left and they told no-one. When Paul got fed up with waiting around instead of getting on with a solo career, he revealed that The Beatles were no more in a press release that accompanied his first solo album. The press misunderstood the story and thought that he was the one who had left. They soon found out the truth, and in looking for someone to blame, picked on Yoko Ono. Yoko certainly played a role in the break-up by sticking close to John in the studio, inhibiting the close-knit working relationship they had previously enjoyed, something that the other Beatles’ wives and girlfriends did not do – and something that John would have objected to strenuously if anyone else had done it. But the group had run its course. They had grown apart. It was a marriage approaching divorce, and, as with many divorces, it was acrimonious, doubly so because it attracted the media spotlight. With so much money at stake there were powerful conflicting forces at work, one of which was their last “manager” Allen Klein, who later went to jail for financial skulduggery.
The Beatles have become icons: just as the Eiffel Tower is for Paris, Big Ben for London, The Empire State Building for New York, a clip of Hitler ranting locates us at the beginning of the World War II. For the Sixties we have Harold Wilson puffing his pipe, Christine Keeler sitting astride her famous chair, and there, jigging their guitars on some forgotten stage, their fringes covering their foreheads, screaming girls drowning out their words: The Beatles – the last great band in black and white.