Tuesday, October 6, 2009

The Beatles: Saturation Point

I knew as soon as I decided to stretch this series into three posts I would turn some heads... away from the blog, that is. I realize that the attention span of the Internet rarely stretches beyond a few brief paragraphs and maybe two or three related links, nor should it stretch much beyond this. But I found myself wrapped up in this incredible history of these brilliant musicians/cultural icons, and I just simply got carried away with myself. Granted, the Internet generally doesn't have the attention span for incredible histories either - at least not ones that take this long to write. I sincerely thank all the readers who've had the patience to ride this train out with me until the bitter end. And I also sincerely thank all the readers who got bored and turned away: we are like two ships, who shared the same harbor and the same sunlight for a time - but now we must both return to the courses set for us by the cosmic navigator. Perhaps we shall meet again, once more, on the open sea. But for now, farewell!

At this point, I'd like to point out a serious misconception of the Beatles' catalog. This misconception has to do with their final two albums and their release dates. People see Abbey Road (1969) and Let It Be (1970), and they make the logical leap that the former album came before the latter. While this is technically true in terms of when the albums hit the shelves, it is misleading in almost every other way. The period of conception, composition, and recording of the songs on Let It Be occurred prior to the entire process that led to Abbey Road.

If you're interested in hearing about why the albums were recorded and released this way, follow me through the jump. If you're not, then turn away, by all means, turn away.

The year was 1969. The Beatles had just released The Beatles, and were still reeling from the grueling recording sessions that saw tempers flare and divisiveness between band members reach its zenith. On the business end, the group was committed to do a third film for United Artists, A Hard Day's Night and Help! being the first two. (The Beatles lobbied for Yellow Submarine to count as their third film, but the studio rejected this claim due to the lack of any real involvement by the group themselves.)

The 80-minute documentary Let It Be became United Artists' third film. The film has three parts: rehearsals at Twickehnham film studios, recording sessions at Abbey Road studios, and an unannounced concert from the roof of Abbey Road. While the Beatles play some really good music during these sessions (along with some pretty mediocre/uninspired music), the problems between band members came to the fore more than anything else.

During these sessions, Paul's role as de facto leader caused the overbearing parts of his personality to take control. He famously squabbled with George during rehearsals for "Two of Us," prompting George to respond: 'I'll play, you know, whatever you want me to play. Or I won't play at all, if you don't want me to play. Whatever it is that will please you, I'll do it.' At one point, Harrison announced his departure from the band, echoing Ringo from the White Album sessions, but agreed to return to finish the film.

Throughout the film, Ringo looks totally bored as the Beatles' glorified metronome. There's a telling sequence where he's sitting at the piano, trying for the life of him to put three chords together for "Octopus's Garden," with George on his guitar all but placing the drummer's fingers on the correct keys. Meanwhile, John spends more time making eyes at Yoko than he does making music with his band: while George, Paul, and Ringo record "I, Me, Mine," John and Yoko simply waltz around the studio without a care in the world. Lennon later described the filming of Let It Be as 'the most miserable sessions on earth.'

Despite these divisions, when all four Beatles (plus Billy Preston on keys/electric organ) got together for the rooftop concert, it was like they didn't miss a beat. There must have been something about performing for a live audience in the open air that rejuvenated some creative energy. It must have also been nice to escape a studio crawling with "fly on the wall" cameramen and sound technicians, which surely made for an awkward, high-pressure recording situation. The rooftop concert also allowed the Beatles to reclaim the "bad boy" image from their youth, as the concert ends with the fab four under arrest by those silly London constables with their tall hats and uncomfortable-looking chin straps. Indeed, Paul's song "Get Back" ('...to where you once belonged') emphasized a return to form for the Beatles, allowing them to do what they once did best: perform together, make great music, and entertain their audience.

With the Let It Be sessions nearly complete (this was now January 1969) and the band on the verge of dissolution, the Fab Four decided to put aside their differences show a little class for what they pretty much knew would be their final album together. The Beatles recorded Abbey Road in the span of February to August 1969, and the album was released the following month. After the success of Abbey Road, the Beatles (and Phil Spector) would spruce up the Let It Be project, which saw release in May 1970 along with the accompanying documentary.

Abbey Road, the last album started by the Beatles, has a decidedly different tone than their two previous strife-laden projects, with lyrics reflecting togetherness and optimism, and music hearkening back to the group's old ensemble days. George's songs, rather than being derided or ignored, were featured in prominent places on the album ("Something" is the second song on the album and "Here Comes the Sun" opens side 2). The careful listener can mark a clear change in George's outlook when comparing the uplifting nature of these songs to the bleak themes of "While My Guitar Gently Weeps." Paul was back to combining his quirky tricks ("Maxwell's Silver Hammer") with bouts of genuine feeling ("Oh! Darling"). And Ringo even had a shot to showcase his (George's?) songwriting talent with "Octopus's Garden."

But the real winner of the album has to be John's opener "Come Together," which embodies most fully the tone of the entire project. If you'll allow me to expound on a theory of mine: that each one of the verses represents one of the Beatles. Examples:

Verse 1 = Ringo: 'Got to be a joker, he just do what he please'
Verse 2 = George: 'He say I know you, you know me, one thing I can tell you is you got to be free'
Verse 3 = John: 'He got walrus gumboot' (cf. "I Am The Walrus"), 'He got Ono sideburns' (cf. his girlfriend and his facial hair)
Verse 4 = Paul: 'Got to be good-looking 'cause he's so hard to see'

Displaying typical Lennon charm and wit, his good-natured digs against his band-mates are overshadowed by his genuine desire for the Beatles to put together one more real project.

So, that was it. Paul was technically the first to leave, after hearing the "wall of sound" producer Phil Spector added to "The Long and Winding Road." Lennon turned his attentions to Plastic Ono Band. And George decided he would be happier by himself. So ended one of the greatest collaborations in modern musical history.

The reason we listen to the Beatles' music is the same reason we listen to Jimi Hendrix play guitar, or Miles Davis play trumpet, or Mozart's works for piano and orchestra: something about the music transcends everything we know about how music should sound. It sounds like pure music rather than people playing instruments. Therefore, the reason that a game like The Beatles: Rock Band is so great, is that it breaks the music down and reminds you that, at bottom, it's just four guys making music together (five if you count George Martin's producing). It's at once an affirmation of what people are capable of, provided you can get the right group of people together, and a reminder that the whole can be worth so much more than the sum of its parts. I don't know if these lessons were worth Three Whole Posts, but I've said my piece, once and for all.