As the release of a major new series TV approaches, Paul Ging considers the legacy of The Beatles
London (Brussels Morning) When the Beatles landed in America in 1964, the conservative Christian evangelist Billy Graham described them as a passing phase and a reflection of the uncertainty of the times. Times are no less uncertain, but next year the Beatles phase will enter its seventh decade despite the group ceasing to function all of 52 years ago.
The moment just prior to when they ceased functioning is about to come under renewed scrutiny with the release of Peter Jackson’s six-hour, three-part documentary series, Get Back, compiled painstakingly from a huge amount of film (and additional audio recordings) from early 1969. At this point, they were attempting to write, rehearse and then perform a whole new repertoire live. They bit off more than they could chew despite the strength of the central idea: to strip away all the production innovations of the previous few years and fall into line with the rootsy, backwoodsy, rock’n’roll rudiments which had come back into fashion during 1968. This had been powered in no small part by their own change in direction early that year with Lady Madonna, a back-to-basics move after the psychedelic freakout – and eventual burnout – of the previous year. This move was quickly followed by other leading lights: the Rolling Stones with Jumping Jack Flash and the Beach Boys’ explicitly retro Do It Again. The Beatles’ live show as the intended climax of the Get Back project never happened and they did a few songs on top of their Apple Records’ building in Savile Row instead.
As John Harris and others have perceptively observed, Get Back (renamed Let It Be when the album was finally released in 1970) has long been saddled with the reputation of the project that broke the Beatles up, not unlike the waft of doom retrospectively attached to the Smiths’ final LP, ‘Strangeways Here We Come’. In both cases, relationships actually decisively soured after these projects, exacerbated by management issues. But the two albums reached the public domain as news of the respective bands’ splits happened. In the Beatles’ case, despite the bust ups and their lacking of the wherewithal to finish the project up themselves, the whole Get Back affair re-energised them to a certain extent and kept them afloat long enough to formulate the Abbey Road album.
I’ve always liked Let It Be and am pleased the entire project is now getting a final, definitive film and musical incarnation, not unlike the Beach Boys’ mythical SMiLE album, the original sessions of which didn’t see anything like a finished release until 2011, 44 years behind schedule.
Let It Be’s spotty reputation is understandable, given it was originally released in compromised form at the tail end of the Beatles’ career. But its relatively low profile keeps the contents a bit fresher, shielded from the constant exposure and discussion attached to most of their later-period major projects. This got me thinking again about the subjectivity of music and the redundant and irritating concept of a canon of great works that all must accept. Following the sad death of Rolling Stones drummer Charlie Watts, I wrote a piece acknowledging that, while it was gratifying that he was given his due in many excellent tributes, the lists of ‘Stones Greats’ that were trotted out at the time to accompany some of these pieces had a bit of an identikit feel to them, songs the writers (or perhaps cut and pasters) felt had to be included. In that piece on Watts, I wrote my own list of my favourite twenty Stones songs and did this by physically writing down every song and version they’d ever done, somewhere either above or below the previous title on several sheets of paper, depending on my own preference. This avoided just writing down a list of the songs that I assumed would be in there – or somehow felt should be in there.
A couple of friends of mine who certainly know their musical onions objected to me including alternative versions/live versions from relatively obscure sources, saying that – if at all – they should only come from live albums that were considered ‘canonical.’ But it was exactly this stuffy librarianism I was trying to break out of. Personal subjectivity should triumph in any individual choice, not the imaginary parameters of ‘hallowed greatness’ as promulgated by ridiculous, biased institutions like The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
For that reason, despite them being a permanent part of my consciousness, I’m not one of those Beatles nuts that think all must bow down. I can completely understand why people don’t respond to their music – and how annoying it must be for them to have the group continually foisted upon them. So, while I’m actually sympathetic to the naysayers, they don’t help their case by feeling they have to tell everyone they don’t like the Beatles, under the misguided and self-conscious assumption that it makes them look like connoisseurs. “Is it just me…” their faux-innocent digs about the Beatles’ exalted status often begin. Yes. It is just you, more or less.
A record producer friend of mine posted recently about how much he was enjoying the new deluxe edition of Let It Be. Someone responded that they had “always thought they were a little bit overrated” and were “not my favourite band at all”. What peculiar and self-centred logic, that because they weren’t that person’s favourite band, that meant they were overrated. I responded that they didn’t need to be his favourite band and that there was a difference between overrated and constantly rated. The Beatles were merely the latter.
The claims of the Beatles alleged overestimation seem to work like this: because the Beatles’ innovations in terms of music and how bands operate created the framework in which most groups still function and are judged on to this day, it’s easy for a lot of that scenery and structure to become invisible, to be taken for granted. These perceptions are inevitably affected by presentism: we can no longer see how astounding certain developments were at the time. Although many of the Beatles’ pioneering moves will be referenced in this piece, there’s no point in making a big list of them; if you’re reading this, you’re either a fan and aware of these innovations, or part of the aforementioned small but pungent minority looking for an imagined crack in the band’s armour as an angle for attack: a rather dull hobby. Listing the Beatles’ achievements won’t change this latter group’s minds, nor am I personally interested in trying to do so. But sure, we have to accept there are people who like rock and pop, but don’t really get the Beatles. That’s fine, I guess. Although to me, this seems like saying you’re a big fan of the theory of general relativity, it’s just that you think Einstein was a little bit overrated.
As with the Stones, I tried to put all of these factors out of my mind and not worry about representing the Beatles’ breakthroughs or different aspects and eras of their career, or whether I was under over-representing certain albums. I just wrote a long list of every song they did, from official studio albums, live recordings and all the offcuts that have officially surfaced in the last thirty years. I wrote each song above or below the other in that list until they were in my personal order of merit and then just took the top twenty. I was very surprised by some amazing songs being nowhere near that twenty, but then this band aren’t exactly short of amazing songs. There was an entire cluster of Harrisongs just outside that 20 (If I Needed Someone, Long Long Long, I Want To Tell You, Within You Without You) but I resisted the temptation to massage the order. George Harrison had more than enough talent to dominate almost any other group; his many brilliant songs like Here Comes The Sun and Something don’t need me to stick up for them.
So, here’s my list. Don’t like it? Write your own list. Like it? Write one anyway. If you simply choose your favourites with no other considerations, it will by definition be as equally valid as mine – and certainly more valid than many of the phoney, self-conscious, by-numbers pieces out there.
20. I Saw Her Standing There (Please Please Me, 1963)
There’s scarcely a better way of opening the first side of the first Beatles album than McCartney shouting “One two three four!” on this self-penned banger. Immediately, the culture changed: songs were no longer something bequeathed to you by your elders and betters. You were expected to write most of them yourself to be taken seriously. Here we are at the very start of the second generation of rock’n’roll: Ringo Starr swinging and rock solid, the band’s overall tight as a gnat’s chuff-ness, McCartney’s shrieks preceding George Harrison’s twangy solo: you can understand why the amateur-ish members of Graham Nash’s pre-Hollies band turned to their future superstar friend on seeing the Beatles live and said: “we’re fucked.” The supremely talented Nash was inspired; by contrast, his friends knew the game was up for them. As did many others.
19. Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver, 1966)
When friends of mine are determined to impress upon me why Group X or Group Y are deserved of more of my attention than they receive, they often press the Comfort Zone button: “but Group X push themselves and get out of their comfort zone!” The implication is that an artist’s self-conscious attempts to deliberately contort their music and/or add a disingenuous veneer of unfamiliarity to the end musical product are noble pursuits in themselves. This is a nonsensical critical meme that needs skewering. The reverse is true: pushing yourself out of your comfort zone musically more often than not ends up with contrivance. When the Beatles created what were in the context of pop/rock unprecedented sonic marvels like Tomorrow Never Knows for Revolver in 1966, they weren’t trying to “get out of their comfort zone.” They were slap bang in it; you’re either innovators or you’re not. The Beatles most certainly were. The tape loop effects, the droning sitars and guitars, Starr’s colossal, stuttering drum figure and John Lennon’s distorted vocals were indeed unfamiliar, but not disingenuously so. This was a band doing what came naturally to them: trailblazing, but as a by-product of their creative process rather than some laboured affectation. This track and its parent album have seen off generations of other allegedly “cutting edge” works, including many sets of Emperor’s New Clothes masquerading as such. Tomorrow Never Knows has been endlessly referenced, covered and homaged/copied. That it is still considered an innovative work is astonishing. Let’s face it, Harry Lauder’s 78s weren’t inspiring many young musicians in 1966, 55 years after the peak of his career as the world’s highest-paid musical star, when Tomorrow Never Knows was brand new. Yet a further 55 years on, that is the happy fate of this track. But it’s in this list not because of its critical reputation or because it has to be in there, but because it happens to be my personal 19th-favourite Beatles track.
18. Blackbird (The Beatles, 1968)
Paul McCartney is fond of saying that Blackbird is a song inspired by the civil rights movement in the US in the late 60s; racial inequality was certainly an issue on his mind in the same year that immigration was at the top of the political agenda in the UK. On the same album, McCartney’s Ob La Di, Ob La Da features a man with an obviously West Indian first name marrying a woman with an obviously English one, they marry, have kids and all is well despite contemporary racist prophecies of doom. That’s definitely subtler than Timmy Thomas’ gorgeous but hand-wringy Why Can’t We Live Together a couple of years later, although the latter is more in keeping with many people’s ideas of what a Grand Statement About Something Important should sound like. But, as often with great songs, there’s surely other layers of meaning to Blackbird, including a personal dimension to its theme of transformation. It’s certainly contemporaneous with the beginning of his highly successful three-decade relationship with and marriage to Linda Eastman, ending only with her premature death. McCartney apparently sung it to fans hanging around outside his St John’s Wood home the night Linda arrived there, remaining a permanent presence in his life from that decisive evening onwards. It covers well; it also translates well, whether into Scottish Gaelic or jazz , as befits a song about change.
17. I Should Have Known Better (A Hard Day’s Night, 1964)
For all the instinctive and elaborate blending of the three vocalists’ voices throughout the A Hard Day’s Night album, the Beatles knew when certain songs didn’t need anything other than the lead singer. This was the case when McCartney took the mic on Can’t Buy Me Love – the original attempts at vocal adornment as heard on an earlier take are clearly superfluous (although it’s a version well worth having anyway for the gutsier tone of McCartney’s vocal). I Should Have Known Better is another track where no vocal support is needed. Lennon’s voice rings out across the joyous melody almost non-stop, reaching effortlessly for the falsetto flourishes, pausing only for a wittily perfunctory Harrison solo ending on a 12th-fret “sprong!”, which seems to declare “Enough! Back to the action!” John is joined not by his bandmates’ voices but by his own jubilant harmonica, reinstated after exposure to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan album.
In some 70s interviews, Lennon was wont to dismiss the likes of this track in favour of allegedly more mature, message-heavy works. For me, there is far more meaning in I Should Have Known Better than the schmaltzy, pseudo-profundity of the title track on the otherwise excellent Imagine album.
16. I Feel Fine (Single, 1964)
Beating The Who’s Anyhow Anyhow Anywhere to the feedbank punch by a full six months, I Feel Fine goes on to channel the same American R’n’B their Shepherd’s Bush mates and their mod followers were all shimmying to, not least on perennial early live Beatles cover, Ray Charles’ What’d I Say and Bobby Parker’s Watch Your Step.
Although the soulful brass sections the Beatles would hear on these tracks and repeatedly via this genre are not emulated here, they’d feature later in their output; for example, perhaps semi-incongruously, on No. 9 on this list. And with some of their most fulsome and perfectly-realised harmonies, I Feel Fine is a perfect example of the Beatles building hefty chunks of both country and soul into the standard mainstream rock template.
15. A Day In The Life (Sgt Pepper’s Lovely Hearts Club Band)
Nepotism is a dubious concept, but who else would you have remix Beatles records? Juhzin? Boys Noize?? In 2016, George Martin’s son Giles, after a decade of working on Beatles-related projects, went back to the original tapes and remixed the Sgt Pepper album from scratch, circumventing the mixdowns used in previous reissues, for a 50th anniversary version released the following year. As a guide, he used the details of the mono mix that his father and the Beatles spent weeks perfecting, rather than the stereo version knocked off in two days as an afterthought, which nevertheless went on to become the dominant format. Gone is the dated extreme separation and resulting thinness of that version and freshly-revealed minutiae appear everywhere in the completely new stereo mix. New details leap out constantly, like fine points on a restored painting, not least on this track; the elements of the orchestra now shriek angrily as they scramble over one another up the scale in the preface to McCartney’s vocal section. And behind Lennon’s icy wailing that follows that interlude, another perturbing element is now far more obvious: a distant but disconcerting growl, perhaps a slowed-down human voice. Elsewhere, Starr’s drum fills answering Lennon’s vocal lines are imbued with an even more stately sonority. Much as I love him, imagine the dog’s dinner the hyperactive Keith Moon would have made of these fills. Before passing out.
14. Happiness Is A Warm Gun (The Beatles, 1968)
Much is made of the influence of Dylan on Lennon in particular earlier in the Beatles career (You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, I’m A Loser etc) but it’s difficult to imagine the idiosyncratic imagery of the first part of this later work without the Zimm’s towering presence.
Lennon’s lyrics adorn some proto-Art Rock twists and turns before the song finally shifts into a doo-wop parody/tribute with a climactic high note from its author that would make even an 11-year-old Frankie Valli’s eyes water.
13. She Said She Said (1966)
Lennon’s twisty-turny stream of consciousness packs a lot into its two and half minutes; jabbing, chiming guitars, sudden time changes, random intrusive and overlapping narrative ‘voices’, some reaching back into the past to imagine a time before the all-consuming confusion described/portrayed. It’s also a rare, McCartney-less moment; uncharacteristically, the bassist walked out of the studio after a row and Harrison overdubbed the bass. But in a 1980 TV interview before Lennon died, without alluding to his own (then little-known) absence from the track, maybe as a little nod to some friends who may have been watching, McCartney modestly suggested it was amongst the very best things the group ever did. An early peak of psychedelia, of literal psychedelia.
12. The Night Before (Help!, 1965)
One of many songs immeasurably improved once the mono versions become readily available again from 2009; on the stereo version, McCartney’s voice sounds comparatively ghostly, thin, disengaged. Here it is dead centre and reverberates with an angsty edge, egged on by Lennon and Harrison’s taunting repetition of the title and Lennon’s hammering of the electric piano.
11. Get Back (Single, 1969)
Simultaneously smoooooth yet rootsy, with Lennon’s spidery blues lead, Starr’s perfect backbeat and Billy Preston’s funky contribution on Rhodes amongst the ingredients in a perfect blend of five musicians. The Stones went back on the road after three years in summer ’69 with brand new element Mick Taylor for a much-acclaimed tour. One can only dream of how such an endeavour featuring Lennon/McCartney/Harrison/Starr/Preston might have gone. Who knows what new era might’ve opened up had they somehow got over the Allen Klein hump. After all, although it’s customary to credit the launch of Country Rock to other (admittedly Beatle-influenced) artists, is Get Back not that very same sound, the style that would dominate American FM radio for at least the next decade from this point? Clearly there’s a major country component to much earlier Beatles originals like I Don’t Want To Spoil The Party, What Goes On and Baby’s In Black; not to mention the twangy excellence of McCartney’s lead guitar fills on Ticket To Ride, which further pushed the Country Rock boat out of the harbour.
McCartney clearly enjoyed playing on the Harrison song Sour Milk Sea a few months earlier, backing the Beatles’ old friend Jackie Lomax along with George and Ringo. The country feel, the high key of Lomax’s lead vocal and the shouts of “Get Back!” at the end, recalled during jamming in the Get Back sessions, fed into the atmosphere of this, one of the Beatles last but best singles. Despite the fact that Sour Milk Sea didn’t make it onto the White Album (whereas flotsam like Lennon’s “…Bungalow Bill” did), McCartney pays Harrison the compliment of using the feel of his composition – or at least the Lomax version – in this new song. At the same time, McCartney underlines his own gargantuan talent by conjuring a completely different work from just the merest hint of a previous one, while definitively commercially birthing Country Rock.
10. I’ve Got A Feeling (Let It Be, 1970)
In which McCartney uses the bluesy roar previously heard on Why Don’t We Do It In The Road and to be heard again shortly to superb effect on Monkberry Moon Delight. His exuberance knits well – as ever – with his musical partner’s more downbeat passage reflecting on a hard year, everyone pulling their socks up etc. The raw funkiness has some of the ‘Having a dump in the woods and wiping yer arse on a badger’ earthiness of transatlantic contemporary sounds like The Band, but with cooler clothes and fresher breath.
9. Penny Lane (Single, 1967)
This takes the crispness of The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds which had so inspired them just months before, the ornate finery of Bach’s Brandenburg Concerto No 2, the comparative nonchalance of the urban (or perhaps given the subject matter’s location, suburban) soul horns from the Stax and Motown records they were still devouring and then adds a deluge of unmistakeably northern English hyperreal imagery. Ahead of the curve as always, Penny Lane sets the tone for the quaint tea party aesthetics of burgeoning English psychedelia in contrast to the bestial, winnet-festooned, let it all hang out, maaaaaan vibe of its tie-dyed American cousin’s tripped-out formlessness. It’s a divide which sometimes still persists in the rock traditions of the two nations today. From here flowed the sensibility behind The Herd’s From The Underworld, the Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday, Pink Floyd’s See Emily Play and hundreds of others. Singing about his native Liverpool brings out the none-more-northern pronunciation of “customer”- “coos-tomer” – in McCartney’s voice, adding to a trend that would lay the ground for everyone from Ian Brown and Bernard Sumner to Alex Turner in future generations (the superlative Steve Marriott from the aforementioned Small Faces would, in cockney urchin mode, have pronounced it ‘cah-stomah’ with similarly upfront pride). Atmospherically, Penny Lane achieves the neat trick of obvious Beatles faves The Chiffons in Sweet Talking Guy – a ching-ching-ching jauntiness combined with a wistful foreboding. As Paul himself sings, very strange.
8. Lovely Rita (Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, 1967)
The lowest profile track on the world’s highest profile album. 1920s jazz/palm court tea dance pastiches like When I’m 64 and Honey Pie are often described as Music Hall, but far truer to that genre is this one. Indeed, there’s more than a hint of The Boy I Love Is Up In The Gallery in the melody (even if the Fats Domino cover suggests there was still a decent soul tune lurking within). The Music Hall feel is not just affection/affectation for the music that was still very much around when the Beatles were children; it is part of the nostalgic ‘trashthetic’ – and what we’d now call retrofuturism – of the entire Pepper project. This includes the gaudiness of the title track, overlaying advance-guard hard rock with the ingratiating entreaties of the all-round entertainer. A juxtaposition copied thousands of times since to the point where it’s no longer obvious as such, it’s one of the many things that it’s easy to forget was stunningly unusual and even unsettling in the Beatles’ output for those experiencing it in real time. In dabbling in the Music Hall genre, Lovely Rita, like most of Pepper, also seemingly imagines the short attention span of a near-riotous assembly in the theatre stalls, while also depicting the druglike/dreamlike reverie of much of the album: scenes in songs suddenly dissolve into something else just as dreams do. You can picture Macca, in stripey blazer and straw boater, crab-walking across the stage, winking as he delivers the saucier lines, his bandmates’ ringing harmonies bouncing off the cracked plaster of the Dress Circle (even at their most faux-debased, the Beatles were a bit too clever to play to the aforementioned Gallery). But because this is Abbey Road Studios in 1967 and not actually Hackney Empire in 1910, the band soon enjoyably loses the thread and wanders off into a psychedelic wet dream full of erotic gasps and groans anticipating the antics of a certain Percy Plant by about two years. Yet even he didn’t go for such an obvious vocal, er, climax as heard from 2”:37’, followed by George Martin’s sudden, anti-climactic, gIissando piano spurt. As for the Americanised chorus, they could hardly have sung “Lovely Rita, Traffic Warden”, could they?
7. Hey Bulldog (Yellow Submarine Soundtrack, 1969)
A song perfectly placed in time, recorded in February 1968 (although oddly passed over until used to bulk out the Yellow Submarine soundtrack a year later). The blissed-out previous year is rolling into a grittier time. Hey Bulldog still has remnants of the playfulness of the fag end of psychedelia. But there’s more than a hint in Hey Bulldog’s ominous, addictive riff that is in tune with the darker times ahead. It’s almost redolent of the incoming bad assery of US cop show themes, be it Quincy Jones’ then-brand new Ironside or Elmer Bernstein’s The Rookies, with one of one of McCartney’s most jittery, tricksy, hyperactive bass lines playing the role of nervous police informant. But this being late 60s St John’s Wood, the informant is more “I say, I saw some rather rum doings outside the Duke of York larst night” than Huggy Bear.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say it’s possible that Noel Gallagher has heard the odd Beatles track. Lennon’s rasping “You can talk to me!” vocal hook is echoed in the kind of catchy, Rutles-y fare the eyebrowed one was knocking out for his brother to sing three decades ago.
And no matter how much it cost on the day in terms of the pounds and shillings of the era (of which more in a moment), it is a gift beyond price that a film crew captured the Beatles in the studio on the day Hey Bulldog came into being. Watching Lennon and McCartney clowning around together on the mic in the closing section, just as twentysomething bezzy mates would do today, it’s easy to forget how very long ago this was, a completely different world: homosexuality had been decriminalised in England and Wales only eight months before. The original Planet of the Apes film with Charlton Heston had been on release for just four days. Carry On Doctor would follow it into cinemas in another three weeks. The long-dead likes of Harold Wilson and Lyndon Johnson were British Prime Minister and US President. RFK and MLK still had months to live. Britain’s currency was still pre-decimal – thruppences, farthings and Christ knows what – the closest most of the British public ever got to LSD. The two young men on the microphone are long gone; Lennon has been dead for more than four decades and McCartney is (finally!) a silver-haired near-octogenarian with a grandson older than he was when he recorded Love Me Do. Yet the years fall away as John and Paul muck about charmingly. It’s part of the stubbornly ongoing relatability of a band that split more than half a century ago.
6. Ask Me Why (Please Please Me, 1963)
One of the most elegantly-constructed and perfectly-realised tunes in their early self-written oeuvre, this slice of Merseyside bossanova is given an extra dimension because of what ailed John Lennon. On the day (!) that most of the Please Please Me album was recorded, Lennon had a killer sore throat and that’s why they kept the raucous Twist And Shout as a final blow out. On Ask Me Why at several points, his croakiness enhances his performance by making him sound like he’s on the verge of tears. At 0:30”, when he sings ‘My happiness still makes me cry’, the scratchy way he sings the final word sounds like he’s choking back the tears. And when he pushes himself for the higher notes on “You’re the only love that I’ve ever had”, the way his voice catches – and only just makes the note on the final word – makes it sound as if his voice is cracking with emotion.
5. Eleanor Rigby (Revolver, 1966)
Even though the Beatles was a musical project that was already constantly reinventing itself, Eleanor Rigby was still quite the departure; the Vivaldi-meets-Psycho horror of the stabbing strings drive forward a Dickensian tale with the literally damning payoff that “no one was saved”. It’s made all the more shiver-inducing that the puppy dog-eyed Macca is the one twisting the knife, like an equally charming, bass-playing Norman Bates. It’s always the nice guys.
4. I’ve Just Seen A Face (Help!, 1965)
A breathless folk-rock rush with a bluegrass chaser, the band give one of the strongest melodies in the Lennon/McCartney catalogue (and that’s saying something) a bass guitar-less, purely acoustic treatment with McCartney delivering a non-stop tumble of rhythmic lines, delightfully using his scouse accent to rhyme “aware” (“ah-wer”) with “her”.
3. Rain (Paperback Writer B Side, 1966)
Peak John Lennon in terms of how he is now remembered in the popular imagination in his home country, after the bolstering of his memory by his comparatively scrofulous musical acolytes; gone is the bizarre idea of John as ‘the gentle Beatle’ that took hold in the 80s after his horrible murder. John Lennon wasn’t gentle. He was caustic and funny. I like to think of him whining “RAAAAINNN” and “SHIIIIIINE” as here rather than as the writer of hotel piano ballads about having no possessions. But here, as I said earlier, is where some of the genius and innovation of the Beatles is lost in translation and via presentism. Encouraged by Lennon, George Martin adds snippets of backwards vocals to the final section of the track. Although the effect still sounds magnificent against the droning guitars and pounding rhythm, hundreds of Paisley Underground, would-be psychedelic groups and 90s Britpop acts have copied this technique, just as bands have copied dozens of other small and not-so-small innovations the Beatles brought to the table. But the fact that this song now seems so redolent of mainstream British rock in the mid-90s is pretty good, considering it was recorded thirty years earlier than that. In other words, it was three decades ahead of its time. And if the McCartney/Starr bass and drums faceoff in the breakdown section still sounds peculiar, it must’ve sounded otherworldly in 1966. This section and indeed the whole track benefited from recording engineer Geoff Emerick’s wizardry. He inverted a loudspeaker so it could be used to mic up the bass on the Paperback Writer session, which took place immediately before the recording of this song, its eventual B Side. Lennon and McCartney had both been complaining for a while of the superior levels of bass heard on records by Wilson Pickett and their other soul favourites. Only by using a new gizmo called Automatic Transient Overload Control could the bass and drums be boosted to a level that satisfied the Beatles’ creative urges, but also stopped the needle from jumping out of the groove when the track was finally cut to vinyl.
2. And Your Bird Can Sing (Revolver, 1966)
This foot-stomping, opaquely-worded track finds its primary author Lennon, clang-clang-clanging relentlessly on rhythm guitar while his compadres Harrison and McCartney double up on endlessly cascading lead, the latter also contributing a routinely star turn on bass. Power Pop fans, start here.
1. Paperback Writer (Single, 1966)
Imagine being Paul McCartney in 1966. Along with your bandmates, you’re as famous as anyone has ever been. The maelstrom that you’re part of is just about to be topped out by a hideous final round of touring.
This whirlwind of mid-1966 was no longer the hysterical but good-natured blur of 1964; they were still – and would remain – the world’s top group. But a vindictive edge now accompanied much of the attention they received, all of which feeds into the edginess and bite of Paperback Writer on which McCartney is lead writer, lead vocalist, lead guitarist and bassist; there’s no calm in the eye of this storm.
The energy in this song frequently tips into desperation, with the narrator’s train of thought constantly truncated to bring him back to the goal that is the two-word shouted title, something that he believes will lift him above the chasing pack. It’s worth remembering that being a paperback writer was then not a particularly respectable thing to aspire to, looking to airports and supermarkets as your primary outlets; hence storylines featuring the “dirty story of a dirty man”. The narrator simultaneously has ambition, yet he (let’s assume McCartney is writing from a male perspective) is not getting too above himself. With his tacky aspiration, he’s keeping his head above the other jostlers, but not enough for it to be chopped off. Despite the era’s window dressing of egalitarianism and freedom from class constraints, the narrator nevertheless is clearly under no such illusions. He possesses none of the sense of entitlement and assuredness of more privileged types, who could just have a word with their father’s friend at Faber or Penguin. But he sees just enough of a chink to force a gap and try to scramble upwards.
Paperback Writer is at once a satire of the Young Meteors’ generation – the kind of chatter and frantic pitching that McCartney would surely have heard at this or that soiree in an in-crowd members’ flat – and also a comment on the Beatles’ position, mirroring that disquiet. There is enormous forward motion and yet huge frustration in this explosive song, as the most famous entity in any field of entertainment ever known, let alone in the nascent rock scene, weathers the tremendous backlash and external pressure.
Fittingly for that pre-eminent position in rock’s Big Bang year of 1966, Paperback Writer centres around the jagged riff which is the heart of the track, the de facto chorus. That this recording still sounds imposing now, when it was configured to be heard on AM radio and antiquated household dansettes back in the mists of time, is testament to the collective genius of the group and the similarly outstanding people that enabled them.