A chance to reassess the most famous oeuvre in pop. Rock column, Mail on Sunday, September 6 2009
There was once a modest paperback called The Beatles Lyrics, introduced by Jimmy Savile, who began like this: ‘My goodness, how many words have been written about these incredible guys.’ That was in 1974.
Since then, we’ve had Philip Norman’s biography, George Harrison’s memoirs, Ian Macdonald’s song-by-song analysis, Mark Lewisohn’s day-to-day chronicles and a thousand other books. And now there’s the internet, sprawling unstoppably: 273 Beatles songs have their own Wikipedia page.
Compared to the literature, Beatles releases are sparing. While Elvis Presley churns out even more records in death than in life, the keepers of the Beatle flame – Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia Harrison – believe that less is more. It took them 30 years to release a single-disc compilation, the immaculate 1.
They could have followed 1 with themed compilations – album tracks, love songs, children’s singalongs, hippie blow-outs. Instead they released Love, an idiosyncratic mash-up by George Martin and son; try singing along to that.
They have repeatedly flirted with iTunes without jumping into bed: in Apple Corps, Apple Mac has met its match. Instead, led by Dhani Harrison, they have embraced Rock Band, the video-game that equips teenagers to make it their parents’ music their own. From Wednesday, The Beatles Rock Band will deliver 45 songs to millions who weren’t born when John Lennon died.
With it come remastered versions of 14 albums. Three of them are squibs: Magical Mystery Tour****, Yellow Submarine**, Past Masters***. The rest are the Beatles’ original studio albums, spruced up and subtly repackaged. For hi-fi buffs, it’s a chance to discuss the merits of gentle peak limiting. For everyone else, it’s a chance to rediscover the best-known oeuvre in popular music. The remastering oozes loving care, but as I listened to all 11 albums, it was hard to concentrate on the sound. It’s too much fun concentrating on the songs.
These albums tell the story of pop at its most riveting, from moptops to beards, covers to originals, ditties to epics, formulas to innovation. The first album title, Please Please Me, hints at the leap: the first ‘please’ is polite, formal, the sound of the Fifties, the second hedonistic, pointing to the Seventies.
Recorded in a day, Please Please Me**** stands up strikingly well 46 years on. It has a barnstorming start with I Saw Her Standing There, the first of many great Beatles singles that never were, and a rip-roaring end with Twist And Shout, the only cover they made their own. In between are Love Me Do, the title track and PS I Love You: songs that chafe at the conventions of the day with their punchy charm.
As Beatlemania set in, the singles got even better, the albums worse. With The Beatles** had only one magic moment, the touching All My Loving; A Hard Day’s Night***, Beatles For Sale*** and Help!*** had one strong side each. But then came the first big breakthrough. With Rubber Soul*****, Lennon and McCartney added wit, tenderness and imagination to their sprightly songcraft. Nowhere Man was their first non-love song, In My Life the first of several masterpieces dealing with memories, Michelle their first (and last) Song of the Year at the Grammys.
With Revolver*****, they added empathy (Eleanor Rigby), protest (Taxman), drugs (Tomorrow Never Knows) and sheer beauty (Here, There And Everywhere). The question isn’t which of these two albums is better: it’s whether there is a better album in the whole of pure pop.
With Sgt Pepper *****, the Beatles pretty much invented rock without abandoning pop. It’s even better than you remember. Amid all the fairground fun and riotous innovation, John and Paul honed their empathy – on She’s Leaving Home, two young male superstars captured the hollowness of the empty nest better than a legion of old rockers, McCartney included, have managed while living through it.
The Beatles *****, aka The White Album, is another revelation. It’s a fabulous ragbag, ranging from cheery ska (Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da) to proto-metal (Helter Skelter), radiant balladry (Julia), Twenties elegance (Honey Pie), sinister collage (Revolution 9) and playful defiance (Revolution 1).
After that, the London studio where the Beatles had made their magic became the scene of bitter infighting. Let It Be *** was blighted, with McCartney sadly isolated - yet he still wrote the title track and The Long And Winding Road in the same day. And they rallied to make Abbey Road*****, packing passion (Something), sunshine (Here Comes The Sun), libido (I Want You), hippiedom (Come Together) and fun (Octopus’s Garden) into side one, leaving side two to sweep up glorious fragments from the studio floor.
This music retains a phenomenal elasticity: you can enjoy it at primary school, and you can go back as an adult and find layers of depth. The Beatles were not just the most famous band ever, but the best. These CDs are worthy of them.