Carry That Weight

The Beatles at Abbey Road recording, er, Sgt Pepper

The Beatles at Abbey Road recording, er, Sgt Pepper

I was going to write about Noah and the Whale’s new record today, but that’s going to have to wait. Inspired by the season of BBC programmes on The Beatles (most notably The Beatles on Record), I’ve instead been listening to records made 40 years ago. It’s not that those programmes really told me anything I didn’t already know – it’s that it’s been so long since I actually listened to a Beatles LP that I’d forgotten how really, truly, honestly good they are.

I mean, I always knew. An over-sized poster from the Beatles for Sale photography sessions has sat on my wall for years, and large parts of my GCSE Music course were take up sitting the music room listening to the blue album. But in the way of these things, you start taking The Beatles for granted. There’s a scene in Sliding Doors, the 90s romcom starring Gwyneth Paltrow and unlikely heartthrob John Hannah, in which Hannah declares that The Bealtes – so thoroughly are they part of our cultural heritage – should more rightly be called The Foetals, their work carried into our half-formed brains in the amniotic fluid. In Julian Barnes’s England England, a sequence set in the future of a culturally bankrupt England still has a brass band playing Yellow Submarine, as if it’s a simple of folk tune, wriggled free of its original composers and contexts in a way few songs manage.

So it’s only when you sit and listen to The Beatles’ albums again that you realize they do in fact deserve the hype, and richly so. Not only are all popular genres contained within their work, not only were they revolutionary studio techicians; it is not enough that their harmonies were luminous and their tunes the most sophisticated of ear-worms; they were simply musicians and stylists of the highest order. Even Ringo, so often maligned as the luckiest amateur drummer in history, emerges from a song like “Tomorrow Never Knows” as a sort of Titan. Yes, partly it is simply that, uncannily, they matched each other and their time – “All You Need Is Love” would be banal and simplistic in any other hands and in any other era. But it isn’t just that, and listening to these records shows why: “All You Need Is Love” is not simply of its moment, and a product of four men in the right place at the right time: with its cross-currents and ambivalent vocals it is styled and structured to perfection.

I’ve particularly been listening to Abbey Road, which vies with Rubber Soul, and occassionally Revolver and the White Album, as my personal favourite. The second side, of course, is majestic (yes, it was McCartney’s idea – but aren’t we all a bit bored now of pretending he’s fey and rubbish?) , but even the triumph of tastelessness which is that ode to the humourous side of serial killing, “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, is so beautifully performed – and quirkily written – that you are charmed by it despite yourself. In this playful company, “Octopus’s Garden” is actually enjoyable. (And on relisten, “Get Back”, “Something” and “Here Comes The Sun” are more brilliant than your cultural memory can possibly recall.) How did they do it?

Anyway, such evangelism is surely unecessary when it comes to this group, so expect a post soon about how glorious Love is.