Tuesday, 27 December 2016

The Beatles: An Illustrated Record

"Phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust", so sang The Clash in 1979. I like to think that they were irritated with Beatlemania rather than the Beatles themselves. Specifically phony Beatlemania. Let's have a look at The Beatles: An Illustrated Record, which came out in 1975 and was essentially the first good post-Beatles book about the Beatles (the next was Philip Norman's Shout! (1981) and then Mark Lewisohn's Sessions (1988), after which the floodgates opened again).

The 1970s wasn't a good decade for the Beatles. The band's records continued to sell - the Red and Blue singles collections charted highly on both sides of the Atlantic - and after a wobbly start all of the former Beatles released at least one good solo album. Given the fragmentation of the music market in the 1970s the band's position as the greatest pure pop band remained unassailable, but I can understand why Joe Strummer was sick of them in 1979. At the end of the decade John had retired, Ringo and George had run out of ideas, Paul was a light entertainment celebrity. The music they played said nothing to us about our lives; the radical concerns of millionaire John Lennon earlier in the decade felt utterly alien at a time when people were struggling just to get a job.

The decade also gave us the peculiar grotesqueries of All This and World War II (1976), a mixture of Second World War news footage with covers of Beatles songs by the likes of Leo Sayer, David Essex and Peter Gabriel, who should have known better, breathe in, plus Beatlemania, a 1977 tribute musical that was eventually turned into a film that nobody liked, and then Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1978), a disco-era musical with yet more Beatles covers, this time by Steve Martin, Peter Frampton, and (again) the Bee Gees. Steve Martin is not a bad man, but he has done bad.

It was as if the 1970s tried to express its love of the Beatles by smothering them to death. As if the decade had been created by an expert propaganda factory for the specific purpose of making people sick of the Beatles.

I was born in the middle of the 1970s so I was late to the party. By the time the Beatles split up, pop music had fragmented into lots of different genres, with the result that Beatles-esque pop became something of a novelty in the 1970s. The most obviously Beatles-influenced bands of the early post-Beatles period were power-pop acts such as Badfinger, Big Star and The Raspberries, but for whatever reason they didn't appeal to the mass market and, famously, they didn't sell any records.

Kids of the 1970s instead opted for the harder sounds of Led Zeppelin and progressive rock, or the post-modern pop art stylings of glam rock, or the ooshiness of Carole King etc Pink Floyd etc Elton John etc Slade etc David Bowie. Such was the pace of musical taste that by the end of the decade the Beatles were an oldies act, even though they had only been gone for a few years.

At the height of their powers the Beatles were on the cutting edge of popular music. They knew 1950s rock and roll like the backs of their eight hands, but they also kept abreast of the latest trends and tried to incorporate elements of musique concrète, folk, reggae, soul, even early heavy metal, all of which fell short in some way but at least came across as genuine enthusiasm rather than bandwagon-jumping. At the beginning of the 1980s however they had all lost touch with the mainstream; Paul McCartney's attempts to incorporate reggae (again) and sample-based dance music into his music felt desperate, and judging by Yoko Ono's new wave contributions to Double Fantasy I don't think John Lennon would have grasped the decade any more effectively.

In the end they all seemed to accept that the world had moved on, George and Ringo first, McCartney later and not completely. By the late 1980s the pop audience had split along generational lines; the kids who grew up with "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had become thirtysomethings with CD players, microwave ovens, and mortgages. They didn't have time to keep up with modern pop either, but they did remember the Beatles. The band remains popular today, but I have a sense that as the white Anglo majority loses its power to set the cultural agenda the Beatles' music will slowly fade. It will never die, but the flood of books and reissues will vanish and shrink. For modern audiences the band's early singles might as well be gamelan music from outer space, but their mid-60s output is substantial enough to look after itself. The band's music will always have a place in humanity's jukebox.

But what about the book? It's a 12" coffee table softback the same size and shape as an old-fashioned vinyl LP. It was compiled from a series of columns in the NME by Roy Carr and Tony Tyler. The first edition came out in 1975; my copy was reprinted in April 1976 with all the same words in the same order. It was published by the New English Library, which was more famous for lurid paperbacks about skinheads and James Herbert's The Rats. The first edition has an RRP guide on the back that reveals a cost of £1.95, about £12.99 in modern money.

The RRP guide also lists the prices in the Republic of Ireland, Cyprus, Gibraltar, Malta, New Zealand, Spain, Trinidad, and Australia, so it's a little glimpse into the twilight days of the British colonial empire. Later versions of the book don't have this - I mention it because although revised editions in 1978 and 1981 corrected some errors and added more content, they took out the Bootlegs section, so if you're buying a copy nowadays you probably want the first or second pressings. The book is no longer in print. NB It has an uncensored reproduction of the cover of Two Virgins, so technically it's not safe for work, depending on how chill your workplace is with John Lennon's penis. "Such a big fuss over such a small thing", as the writers put it.

1975. My impression of 1970s rock music writing is wrong. My impression is wrong. The problem is that British rock music writing of the pre-punk period has been lost to time. It's not reprinted today and no-one quotes it on the internet. The same is true of British rock music writing of the post-punk period. All of it, really. As a consequence my only experience of contemporary historical rock music writing is from the United States - the likes of Lester Bangs and the deadly dull Rolling Stone magazine. American rock music writing is widely available in print and on the internet, but if Lester Bangs ever wrote about the Beatles I can't recall what he said, and if Rolling Stone ever published a good piece of writing in the 1970s or ever I am unaware of it.

Before embarking on An Illustrated Record my assumption is that it would be twee, overwritten, irritatingly florid a la John Peel writing about Robert Wyatt for Sounds magazine. Also, imagine if Mark Chapman and John Hinckley had met. They never did; would they have got on? Chapman felt betrayed by Lennon and celebrities in general, Hinckley felt betrayed by Jodie Foster's unwillingness to reply to his love letters, they both tried to work out their issues by killing people.

If they had met, their twin obsessions might have cancelled each other out. The purity of Hinckley's love for Jodie Foster might have convinced Chapman not to give up on celebrities whilst conversely the disillusionment of Chapman might have convinced Hinckley that Jodie Foster was not worth dying for. It would make an interesting theatrical two-hander. Hinckley irritates me because his name is hard to spell correctly.

The book. The book. I learn that the four Beatles were 5'11" except for Ringo, who was slightly shorter, but that's okay because he spent most of his career sitting down. John was big-boned, but that's also okay because British people were unused to having access to large quantities of food in the 1950s and thus gorged themselves when fruit became available. The book opens by arguing that the Beatles ushered in a cultural revolution, which is something I'm not qualified to comment about. The cultural revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, if it even existed, is nowadays stereotyped as pubic hair in Playboy and a small number of unwashed hairy people taking drugs; and some idealistic communes that failed to sustain a new lifestyle outside the context of capitalism. The vast, vast majority of ordinary people got on with life just as before.

I grew up during the height of the counter-revolution, during a period in which relics of the 1960s smartened up and went to work as advertising executives. Did the common man of 1975 believe that society had changed? Here in the UK the economy weathered a recession and a stock market crash in the early 1970s; there was mass murder in Ireland, mass strikes on the mainland, and a final acceptance that foreign people were no longer awed at the sight of the Union Jack as they had been previously. The smugness of the 1970s hippies and their dreams of a new society without money or prejudice fuelled the ire of the punk generation; the likes of Joy Division and The Jam wore smart shirts and ties rather than shaggy coats and beards, and within a few years the scruffy hippie was a stock character, a joke, epitomised by Nigel Planer's Neil from The Young Ones. The book, the book.

Never let it be said that the Beatles did not know how to dress well.

The writing is stiff, charmingly so. It uses semi-colons; the first line reads "it is popularly imagined that all four Beatles are products of Liverpool working-class backgrounds; this is not so", which is the kind of writing you don't get nowadays.

Pete Best's dismissal is treated as a group decision; later histories of the band put the blame for Best's sacking solely on George Martin's shoulders, but I think it's generally accepted nowadays that the band was never keen on Best, and that Martin's displeasure during the band's EMI audition was just the excuse they were looking for to get rid of him. The Anthology compilations included a version of "Love Me Do" with Pete Best on drums; either he was dreadful all the time or he had a spectacularly bad day that day.

An Illustrated Record covers his subsequent career in a footnote, dismissing the woeful 1966 cash-in Best of the Beatles and The Pete Best Four's "I'm Gonna Knock on Your Door", a 1964 single released on Decca Records, ironically the label that turned down the Beatles in 1962. In my opinion it's a decent albeit completely trivial pop single in the style of the Dave Clark Five - Best's drumming chugs along monotonously, there's a tuneful guitar solo, but nothing stands out. I imagine Decca were disappointed that vocalist Wayne Bickerton didn't sound at all Liverpudlian. The book also pours scorn on The Pete Best Four's version of "Boys", which was also covered by the Beatles. Again this feels unfair. Best's lead vocals aren't bad and his drumming is at least energetic.

At the back of the book are a variety of other odds and ends. The entry on "Komm Gib Mir Deine Hand" suggests that the German language is incompatible with rocking, which is not true because I have heard Kraftwerk's records in the original German and they rock. There is mention that a 1965 show at the Hollywood Bowl had been recorded for possible release as a live album; this eventually came out in 1977, two years after the book was published. There is also a paragraph about a 1970 single, "Have You Heard the Word?", b/w "Futting, the Futz", which "allegedly features Lennon and some of the Bee Gees". In fact this was just Maurice Gibb impersonating Lennon. The b-side was actually "Futting", and the band was The Fut, which suggests that Carr and Tyler had been given the information down the telephone.

Flipping back to the start, the book covers the Beatles' career in chronological order. The Beatles were exceptionally well-documented and all the familiar vignettes appear - "I don't like your tie", the sixteen-hour recording session for their debut album, Paul making irritating "air" "quotes" with his hands during the sessions for Let It Be, rumours that Billy Preston was going to join the band etc. The reviews include the catalogue numbers and release dates of the singles, so I imagine that Beatles collectors in the 1970s were thrilled; it uses the UK discography throughout, with a couple of pages at the back briefly describing the differences between the UK and US versions of the albums (in particular they slam the soundtrack-heavy US version of Help!).

As of 2016 it's essentially obsolete as a reference guide. It's worth it for the reviews, which are always engaging and paint an interesting portrait of how the band's work was perceived in the mid-1970s. As an overview of their career it's less successful. It concentrates on the records almost to the exclusion of all else, but unlike Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head or Mark Lewisohn's Sessions - which have similarly narrow focuses, at least in theory - it has little to say about the Beatles' lives or the times around them. The successful invasion of America post-"I Want to Hold Your Hand", for example, is a curiosity that happens mostly off the page. Beatlemania, the collapse of the Apple dream, the trips to India are mentioned in passing. There's more coverage of John Lennon's pre-post-Beatles radicalism than anything the other band members did while they were Beatles.

On a tonal level the writers obviously loved the Beatles, saving most of their ire for the solo releases. McCartney's early single "Another Day" "would have made a super TV commercial for underarm charm". Criticisms of the band generally arise from frustration at the lack of focus in their latter years. Lennon's instant pop art records are dismissed rather than destroyed; the cattiest turn of phrase is a quote from Alan Smith of the NME, who describes Let it Be as "a cheapskate epitaph, a cardboard tombstone, a sad and tatty end to a musical fusion which wiped clean and drew again the face of pop music", which is harsh but true.

The authors seem strangely dismissive of George Harrison, implying that the only thing driving him to write "Something" was "his well-developed financial interests", and moaning that the triple-LP All Things Must Pass was too expensive. "It has not worn well", they write from a distance of five years, citing the homogeneous production and lugubrious compositions. Nowadays the album is thought of as a classic, although I can sympathise with their position. My understanding is that it aged in much the same was as the Live Aid concerts; a massive hit at the time, an embarrassing and overblown relic slightly later, and then later still a flawed but awesomely impressive souvenir of a time forever lost. I would have hated it if I had heard it in the 1980s. It's overlong, too slow, and it's a shame about all the reverb, but it's magnificent nonetheless.

In contrast they love The Concert for Bangla Desh, although once again they get in a dig at "Something", so presumably they didn't dislike George Harrison personally. I can understand why critics in the 1970s might have been unkeen on the man. Unlike Paul, George took himself very seriously, but unlike John Lennon he didn't appear to have anything to say, and on a personal level he just didn't seem interested in being a huge star; and yet he obviously wanted people to spend their wages on his records, why bother to release them otherwise?

Elsewhere in the book the writers dismiss "Rain" with a throwaway line and, later on, describe "Tomorrow Never Knows" as "convincing flannel", although they appear to like it. "Eleanor Rigby" is "sentimental, melodramatic and a blind alley", which I feel is unfair - the track is notable for its unflinching unsentimentality, and its detached, dispassionate viewpoint appears throughout the Beatles' songbook. It was one of the reasons Lennon's post-Beatles records seemed so shocking; the gap between the ironic "Glass Onion" and the direct, unaffected "Mother", recorded just two years later, is immense.

There are some occasionally puzzling turns of phrase. Dismissing "Eleanor Rigby" as a self-conscious attempt by Paul McCartney to be taken seriously, Carr and Tyler write that "sociology, not for the first time, reared a mis-shapen skull", which immediately makes me think of the green skull on the BBC test card which unnerved me as a child. "You Know My Name" is a "couldn't-care-less example of Disintegration Blues", which makes sense on an emotional level, but what is "disintegration blues"? I don't know.

The final section discusses the possibility of a Beatles reunion, arguing that this would most likely boil down to money, and that Lennon in particular could use the cash! This may have been true in 1975 - the Beatles were famously stiffed out of tonnes of money - but seems weird nowadays. We're used to thinking of the former Beatles as multimillionaires many times over. So the story goes, the band almost reunited on a whim in 1976 for an appearance on Saturday Night Live, but from then until 1981 the stars did not align again, and then it was too late.

Famously the book championed Revolver at a time when Sergeant Pepper was thought of as the band's masterpiece (they champion Pepper as well, but Revolver is "the peak of the Beatles' creative career"). "Unlike the later Sgt Pepper", they write, "[Revolver] has aged well - it's even matured - and the wealth of musical invention, social observation and downright intuition are as fresh today as when the album was originally issued".

Nowadays it's fashionable to big up The White Album instead, because it's too easy to cite Revolver as your favourite Beatles album, but on a personal level I have never warmed to The White Album. Picking a favourite Beatles LP is a lot like playing Mornington Crescent. There are rules, but they are mysterious. When asked, I maintain that the band's peak was the US release of Rubber Soul (stereo mix), which has so far stood me in good stead; you cannot choose that album yourself because I chose it first.

Occasionally the writers' love of early Beatles turns into gushing. With the Beatles sold millions but tends to be dismissed today, but in the world of Carr and Tyler "it was a simply staggering achievement from every point of view, a landmark par excellence and one of the four best albums the Beatles ever made". That's a stretch. Presumably the other three were Pepper, Revolver, and Abbey Road.

I have the impression that The White Album was not thought highly-of until relatively recently. The review of Abbey Road is lengthy but perfunctory, essentially just listing the songs and concluding that it was too slick. "All You Need is Love" is described as "a fabulous piece of self-satire", which is fair enough.

The book ends with a page that has space for the reader to fill in "further Beatle events". I have written "Lennon dies; the band wisely chooses not to release any more singles; Free as a Bird did not happen; Harrison dies; David Bowie dies; George Michael dies; Carrie Fisher dies", the rest is silence.