This is the story that inspired Crowe’s movie, Almost Famous.
“If the Beatles meant a lot in England, they meant very much more in America,” wrote Nik Cohn in his brisk, entertaining history of Rock n Roll, Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom: Pop from the Beginning. “They changed everything. They happened at a time when American pop was bossed by trash, by dance crazes and slop ballads, and they let all of that bad air out. They were foreign, they talked strange. They played harsh, unsickly, and they weren’t phoney. Just as they’d done in England, they brought back reality.”
Cohn spent 7 weeks in the spring of 1968 writing his tour de force of pop music. He had just turned 22. “My purpose was simple,” he remembered years later, “to catch the feel, the pulse of rock, as I had lived through it. Nobody, to my knowledge, had ever written a serious book on the subject, so I had no exemplars to inhibit me. Nor did I have any reference books or research to hand. I simply wrote off the top of my head, whatever and however the spirit moved me. Accuracy didn’t seem of prime importance (and the book, as a result, is rife with factual errors). What I was after was guts, and flash, and energy, and speed. Those were the things I’d treasured in the rock I’d loved.”
Yesterday marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. What better time to revisit Cohn’s chapter on the Fab Four? (Keep in mind that it was written before the band broke up.)
Cohn is a ton of fun even when–or especially when–you don’t agree with him.
By Nik Cohn
Next came the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I’ve been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say on them?
In the beginning, I should say, the Beatles were the Quarrymen, and then they were the Silver Beatles, and there were five of them—John Lennon, Stuart Sutcliffe, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Pete Best. All of them came from working-class or lower-middle-class backgrounds in Liverpool and the only ones with any pretensions to anything were Paul McCartney, who had racked up five ‘O’-levels,.and Stuart Sutcliffe, who painted.
The heavies at this time were Sutcliffe and John Lennon, who were at art school together.
Sutcliffe was something like an embryo James Dean, very beautiful-looking, and he wore shades even in the dark, he was natural image. Of all the Beatles, at this stage, he was the most sophisticated and the most articulate and Eduardo Paolozzi, the painter, who taught him for a time, says that he was very talented indeed.
As for Lennon, he was a roughneck. His father, who was a seaman, had left home when Lennon was still a small child, his mother had died, and he’d been brought up by his Aunt Mimi. And by the time he got to art school, he’d grown into a professional hard-nut, big-mouthed and flash, and he rampaged through Liverpool like some wounded buffalo, smashing everything that got in his way. He wrote songs with Paul McCartney. He had hefty intellectual discussions with Sutcliffe. He was rude to almost everyone, he was loud and brutally funny, his putdowns could kill. A lot of people noticed him.
The Beatles, at this time, were still total Teds: they wore greasy hair and leather jackets and winkle pickers, they jeered and got into fights and were barred from pubs.
The music they played then was souped-up rock, much influenced by Eddie Cochran and Buddy Holly, not notably original, and they were less than an explosion. In 1960, they managed a tour of Scotland with Johnny Gentle, one of the lesser figures in the Larry Parnes stable, but mostly they alternated between random gigs in Liverpool and seasons at the Star Club in Hamburg, where they played murderous hours each night and halfway starved to death.
At this point, Stuart Sutcliffe left the group to concentrate on his painting and, soon afterwards, died of a brain tumour. He was twenty-one. Meanwhile, the Beatles had begun to move up a bit—they’d made some records in Germany, bad records but records just the same, and they’d built themselves a solid following, both in Germany and at home. And musically, they’d become competent and they had their own sound, a crossbreed between classic rock and commercial R&B, and they were raw, deafening, a bit crude but they were really exciting. At least, unlike any other British act ever, they didn’t ape America but sounded what they were, working-class Liverpool, unfake, and that’s what gave them their strength, that’s what made Brian Epstein want to manage them.
Epstein was the eldest son in a successful Jewish business family and he ran a Liverpool record store. In his early twenties, he’d wanted to be an actor and he’d gone to RADA [The Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] but now, approaching thirty, he’d resigned himself to being a businessman. Intelligent and loyal and neurotic, painfully sensitive, he was nobody’s identikit picture of a hustler but he was civilized, basically honest, and he had capital. So he asked the Beatles to let him be manager and they agreed.
Soon after this, Pete Best, the drummer, got flung out and was replaced by Ringo Starr. Best had laid down a loud and clumsy beat, quite effective, but he’d been less sharp, less clever, less flexible than the other Beatles and they’d got bored with him, they wanted him out.
Ringo Starr’s real name was Richard Starkey and he’d been playing with Rory Storme and the Hurricanes, Liverpool’s top group of that time. Actually, he wasn’t too much of a drummer and he had rough times at the hands of vengeful Pete Best fans; he was given a fierce baptism. But he had his own defences, a great off-hand resilience and a deadpan humour, and he survived.
Meanwhile, Epstein acted like a manager. Privately, he had huge inhibitions about hustling, but he fought them down and sweated. So he had demos made and touted them round the record companies; he pleaded and spieled and harangued. And having been first turned down by Dick Rowe at Decca, the King Dagobert of pop, he finally got a contract with E.M.I. and everything began.
From there on in, it was fast and straight-ahead: the first single, Love Me Do, made the thirty and the second, Please Please Me, made number one and the third, From Me To You also made number one (louder) and the fourth, She Loves You, made the biggest hit that any British artist had ever cut. All of them were written by Lennon and McCartney.
By spring of 1963, they had taken over from Cliff Richard here and, by autumn, they were a national obsession. At the beginning of 1964, given the most frantic hype ever, they broke out in America and stole the first five places solid on the chart. Summer, they released their first movie, Hard Day’s Night, and it smashed and that just about rounded things out. Altogether, it had taken two years from first big push to last.
At the end of all this, they had become unarguably the largest phenomenon that pop had ever coughed up and, even more remarkably, they’ve hardly slid since. To the time of writing they have sold upwards of two hundred million records and they’re coming up for their twentieth straight number one.
Beyond that, they had made millions of pounds for themselves and many more millions of pounds for the Government and, in reward, they were all given the MBE [Member of the Order of the British Empire] for their contributions to the export drive. This was a clincher—assorted worthies sent their own medals back in protest but everyone else was delighted. That’s how respectable pop had become and it was all the Beatles who’d made it like that.
Beyond their music itself, their greatest strengths were clarity of image and the way they balanced. It’s a truism that no pop format is any good unless it can be expressed in one sentence, but the Beatles went beyond that, they could each be said in one word: Lennon was the brutal one, McCartney was the pretty one, Ringo Starr was the lovable one, Harrison was the balancer. And if Lennon was tactless, McCartney was a natural diplomat. And if Harrison seemed dim, Lennon was very clever. And if Starr was clownish, Harrison was almost sombre. And if McCartney was arty, Starr was basic. Round and round in circles, no loose ends left over, and it all made for a comforting sense of completeness.
Completeness, in fact, was what the Beatles were all about. They were always perfectly self-contained, independent, as if the world was split cleanly into two races, the Beatles and everyone else, and they seemed to live off nobody but themselves.
There is a film of their first American press conference that expresses this perfectly. Hundreds of newsmen question them, close in and batter and hassle them but the Beatles aren’t reached. They answer politely, they make jokes, they’re most charming, but they’re never remotely involved, they’re private. They have their own club going and, really, they aren’t reachable. They are, after all, the Beatles.
Throughout this, they are very subtly playing image both ways—they are anti-stars and they’re superstars both. They use Liverpool accents, they’re being consciously working class and non-showbiz and anti-pretension but, in their own way, they’re distancing themselves, building up mystique for all they are worth. With every question that gets thrown at them, they spell it out more clearly: we are ordinary, modest, no-nonsense, unsentimental and entirely superhuman.
For some reason, such built-in arrogance hardly ever misses—it’s the same equation that the inherited rich sometimes have, the way that they can be charming, gentle, humble as hell and still you know you can’t ever get to them, they’re protected and finally, they only function among themselves. They’re in their own league and you’re insulted, you sneer but you’re hooked and, kid, would you ever like in.
This is the superstar format, the only one that really works, and the Beatles had it exactly, they were a whole new aristocracy in themselves. And, of course, they’d have been huge anyway, they’d have come through on their music and their prettiness alone, but it was this self-sufficiency, this calm acceptance of their own superiority, that made them so special.
Between them, the four of them being so complementary, they managed to appeal to almost everyone.
Lennon, for instance, trapped the intellectuals. He started writing books and he knocked out two regulation slim volumes, In His Own Write and Spaniard In The Works, stories, poems, doodled drawings and assorted oddments.. Mostly, they were exercises in sick, sadistic little sagas of deformity and death, written in a style halfway between Lewis Carroll and Spike Milligan.
Predictably, the critics took it all with great solemnity and, straightaway, Lennon was set up as cultural cocktail food, he got tagged as an instinctive poet of the proletariat, twisted voice of the underdog. He himself said that he only wrote for fun, to pass time, but no matter, he was turned into a heavy Hampstead cult.
Meanwhile, he sat around in discotheques and tore everyone to pieces. He was married and had a son. He lived in a big suburban mansion in Weybridge and he was sharp as a scythe. He wrote songs as if he was suffocating. Still, he was powerful and he generated a real sense of claustrophobia, he had great command of irony and he owned one of the best pop voices ever, rasped and smashed and brooding, always fierce. Painful and obsessive, his best songs have been no fun whatever but they’ve been strong: I Am The Walrus, A Day In The Life, Happiness Is A Warm Gun and, most racked of all, Strawberry Fields Forever.
On stage, he played monster and made small girls wet their knickers. He hunched up over the mike, very tight because he couldn’t see an inch without his glasses on, and he’d make faces, stick his tongue out, be offensive in every way possible. On Twist and Shout, he’d rant his way into total incoherence, half rupture himself. He’d grind like a cement mixer and micro-bops loved every last dirty word of him. No doubt, the boy had talent.
Paul McCartney played Dick Diver. He was stylish, charming, always elegant and, whenever he looked at you, he had this strange way of making you feel as if you were genuinely the only person in the world that mattered. Of course, he’d then turn away and do exactly the same thing with the next in line but, just that flash while it lasted, you were warmed and seduced and won over for always.
He was a bit hooked on culture: he went to all the right plays, read the right books, covered the right exhibitions and he even had a stage when he started diluting his accent. No chance—Lennon brought him down off that very fast indeed. Still, he educated himself in trends of all kinds and, when he was done, he emerged as a full-blown romantic, vastly sentimental, and he wrote many sad songs about many sad things, songs that were so soft and melodic that grannies everywhere bought them in millions.
In their different styles, then, both Lennon and McCartney had gotten arty and their music changed. In the first place, their work had been brash, raucous, and the lyrics very basic—She Loves You, Thank You Girl, I Saw Her Standing There. Good stuff, strong and aggressive, but limited. From about 1964 on though, they got hooked on the words of Bob Dylan and their lyrics, which had always been strictly literal, now became odder, quirkier, more surreal. Message and meaning: suddenly it was creative artist time.
My own feeling is that Lennon has heavy talent and that McCartney really hasn’t. He’s melodic, pleasant, inventive but he’s too much syrup.
Still, they do make a partnership: Lennon’s toughness plays off well against McCartney’s romanticism, Lennon’s verbal flair is complemented by McCartney’s knack of knocking out instantly attractive melody lines. They add up.
Of course, when McCartney runs loose with string quartets, some horribly mawkish things happen—Yesterday, She’s Leaving Home—but he has a certain saving humour and he’s usually just about walked the line.
At any rate, he looks sweet and more than anyone, he made the Beatles respectable at the start and he’s kept them that way, no matter what routines they’ve got involved in. Even when he confesses to taking acid or bangs on about meditation, he invariably looks so innocent, acts so cutely that he gets indulged, he’s always forgiven. Regardless, he is still a nice boy. Also, not to be overlooked, he is pretty and girls scream at him.
More than any of the others, though, it was Ringo Starr who came to sum the Beatles up.
America made him. In England, he was always a bit peripheral, he always sat at the back and kept his mouth shut but, when the Beatles hit New York, they were treated very much like some new line in cuddly toys, long-haired and hilarious, and Ringo stole it.
Big-nosed and dogeyed, he had a look of perpetual bewilderment and said hardly anything: “I haven’t got a smiling mouth or a talking face.” He only bumbled, came on like some pop Harry Langdon and women in millions ached to mother him. In fairness, it has to be said that this was not his fault—he looked that way by nature and couldn’t change.
Every now and then, out of deep silence, he’d emerge with some really classic line. No verbal gymnastics like Lennon, not even a joke—just one flat line, so mumbled and understated as to be almost non-existent.
My own favourite was his summing-up of life as a Beatle: “I go down to John’s place to play with his toys, and sometimes he comes down here to play with mine.”
He’s solid. When he got married, he chose no model, no starlet, but a girl from Liverpool, a hairdresser’s assistant. He’d known and gone steady with her for years. And when all the Beatles went meditating in India with the Maharishi, he said that it reminded him of Butlins and came home early.
Really, he summarizes everything that’s best in the English character—stability, tolerance, lack of pretension, humour, a certain built-in cool. He knows he’s not a great drummer and it doesn’t upset him. Not very much upsets him in fact: he only sits at home and plays records, watches television, shoots pool. Simply, he passes time.
He is hooked on Westerns and he loves new gadgets and he spends a lot of his time just playing. He sits with his wife and his children. Well, he may be slightly bored at times because he has nothing much to do any more but he isn’t too bothered and, quite genuinely, he would make out all right if the Beatles went broke on him and he had to get a nothing job again. No matter what, he ticks over.
George Harrison is more problematic.
To begin with, he wasn’t much more than a catcher, a trampoline for the others to bounce off. On stage, he’d set himself a little way back from the mike and play along without smiling. He hardly moved and he’d look cut off, vaguely bored.
His big moment used to be when he and Paul McCartney would suddenly bear down hard on the mike together and, cheeks almost touching, they’d shake their heads like mad. This gesture used to provoke more screams than almost anything else. But when it was over, Harrison never followed it up, he only dropped back and looked bored again.
In interviews, too, he was less than impressive. He was slower than the rest, less imaginative, and he tended to plod a bit. In every way, he was overshadowed by Lennon/McCartney.
At this stage, his most publicized interest was money and he got very tight with Epstein, who used to explain the complexities of Beatle finance to him. Epstein, who worshipped the Beatles and was greatly afraid of losing touch with them, loved this and used to speak of Harrison as his most favourite son.
Still, as Lennon/McCartney got increasingly arty, Harrison was stung and he began chasing. He went on a heavy intellectual streak himself.
First up, he got interested in Indian music and took lessons on sitar from Ravi Shankar. Second, he was to be seen flitting in and out of London Airport wearing beads and baggy white trousers. Third, he started writing Indian-style songs, all curry powder and souvenirs from the Taj Mahal, very solemn. And finally, he went up a mountain with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, guru to the stars, and came down again a convinced mystic. From here on, he was a philosopher, a sage, and his interviews were stuffed full of dicta, parables and eternal paradoxes. Sitting crosslegged in Virginia Water, he hid his face behind a beard, a moustache, two Rasputin eyes and he was almost unrecognizable as George Harrison, guitar-picker.
Ringo apart then, all of the Beatles had gone through heavy changes. In 1963, they’d epitomized everything that was anti-pretension: they’d been tough and funny and cool, merciless to outsiders, and they’d had the most murderous eyes for pomposity of any kind. That was one of their greatest attractions, their total lack of crapola and, even after they’d made it so huge, they didn’t lose out. Well, maybe they read more books, went to more theatres and so forth but, basically, they stayed as hard as ever. Paul McCartney wrote a few sentimental ballads, Harrison learned sitar. Lennon put smoked windows on his Rolls but the wit was still dry, the put-downs fierce, the lack of sell-out total.
It wasn’t until the release of Rubber Soul, Christmas 1965, that the cool first began to crack. Musically, this was the subtlest and most complex thing they’d done and lots of it was excellent, Drive My Car and Girl and You Won’t See Me, but there were also danger signals, the beat had softened and the lyrics showed traces of fake significance. One song at least, The Word, was utter foolishness and hardly anything had the raw energy of their earlier work, there was nothing as good as I Saw Her Standing There or I’m A Loser. Simply, the Beatles were softening up.
The next album, Revolver, was further on down the same line. Again, there was a big step forward in ingenuity and, again, there was a big step back in guts. Eleanor Rigby was clever but essentially sloppy. Harrison’s Love You To wasn’t even clever. And then there was Tomorrow Never Knows.
What had happened? In general, it was probably the inevitable effect of having so much guff written about them—they got told they were geniuses so often, they finally believed it, and began to act as such. In particular, it was acid.
In the context of this book, it doesn’t matter much whether acid was good or bad for them. All that counts is that it greatly changed them. Right then, they quit being just a rock group, Liverpool roughnecks with long hair and guitars and fast mouths, and they turned into mystics, would-be saints.
Soon after he’d owned up to using acid, early summer 1967, I did an interview with Paul McCartney and he was into a whole different level from anything I’d ever read by him before. No putdowns, no jokes, no frivolity whatever—he was most solemn and his eyes focused somewhere far beyond the back of my head. “God is in everything,” he said. “People who are hungry, who are sick and dying, should try to show love.”
Having gone through acid, the next inevitable step was that the Beatles went into meditation: George Harrison climbed his mountain with the Maharishi and soon the others had swung behind him, they’d renounced acid and devoted themselves to lives of total spirituality.
Undoubtedly, all of this was a major triumph for Harrison: it must have been sweet indeed to have Lennon and McCartney follow his lead, he made the most of it, he came out on TV and looked beatific and scattered dicta like chaff. “This is going to last all our lives,” he said, and he sat crosslegged on the floor.
Meanwhile, during the first weekend that the Beatles spent with the Maharishi, September 1967, Brian Epstein had died, aged thirty-two.
Inevitably, being so successful, he’d been the butt of much schnidery within the industry and, generally, he’d been rated pretty low. Paraphrased, the party line was that he was really a less-than-averagely shrewd businessman but he’d gotten lucky one time, very lucky, and he’d happened to be hanging round as the Beatles came by.
Also, beyond incompetence, he was meant to be weak, vain and maudlin. Most of this was true. Just the same, I liked him.
The main thing about him was that he wasn’t moronic, he wasn’t even entirely fascist. He wasn’t much criminal and he didn’t have people beaten up and he didn’t automatically scrabble on his knees each time someone dropped sixpence in a darkened discotheque. More, he read books and went to theatres and understood long words. No use denying it: he was intelligent.
By the conventions of British management, this was all eccentric to the edge of insanity and it changed things, it set new standards. After Epstein, managers became greatly humanized: they weren’t necessarily any more honest but they were less thuggish, altogether less primitive and, sometimes, they even liked pop itself.
Beyond the Beatles, of course, Epstein had handled whole Liverpudlian armies—Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, the Fourmost, Tommy Quickly. In the beginning, around 1963–4, these were all hugely successful but, mostly, they were light on talent and, Cilla excepted, they didn’t sustain. Still, Epstein always stayed remarkably loyal to them, never kicked them out. Partly this was due to injured pride, but partly it was conscience, principle, integrity—the whole bit.
Just how much did the Beatles really owe him? Well, he was no Svengali, no alchemist and, obviously, they would have happened without him. He wasn’t greatly imaginative, he pulled no outrageous strokes for them but he was steady, painstaking, and he didn’t flag. Occasionally, his inexperience betrayed him into raw deals but, taken overall, he worked well for them.
Most important, he was a mother figure—he cared for them, reassured them, agonized on them, nagged them, even wept for them. He needed them. Even towards the end, when they’d outgrown management and would no longer take orders from anyone, he was always there, always available, devoted and doggy as ever. He could always be fallen back upon. And, most of the time, his advice was good and they took it rightly. After all, in all the time he managed them, they never once made fools of themselves.
His major problem was anti-climax.
Having managed the Beatles, having helped make maybe the biggest entertainment phenomena of this century, he still had to manage the rest of his stable and he’d been a lonely, neurotic man at the best of times but, in his last two years, he got quite frantic—he financed bad plays that flopped and promoted tours, sponsored a bullfighter called Henry Higgins, turned the Saville Theatre into a would-be pop shrine, and he kept thrashing about for new diversions to keep himself amused. Nothing worked. Everything bored him.
Already, in the last days of Epstein’s life, the Maharishi had been taking his place as resident mother, as adviser and comforter in chief (a development that must have struck him as a betrayal), and now, with Epstein dead, the guru had the field all to himself. Like I said earlier on, meditation was a logical progression from acid, just because it did the exact same things for you as acid did, except that acid-love was artificially-induced and nirvana was natural. And so, when the Beatles jumped, half the hip end of pop followed dutifully behind them. Donovan and the Beach Boys and Mick Jagger, Eric Burdon and the Doors, and the Maharishi’s Indian headquarters got all clogged up with hair and hippie beads.
As for the guru himself, he was less than impressive and, by spring 1968, the Beatles had left him.
Meanwhile, Christmas 1967, they’d shown Magical Mystery Tour, their first self-produced film, and it was bad; it was a total artistic disaster. It was the first real failure they’d ever had but still it made profits and hardly weakened them at all. That’s just how secure they’d become—they were establishment, institutionalised, and nothing could touch them.
More important, they launched Apple. In the beginning, this was conceived as a huge artistic and business complex, covering records and films, merchandising and electronics and music publishing, TV and literature, plus any other assorted media that might arise, and it was going to straddle the world in one vast benevolent network, handing out alms to anyone and everyone that deserved them. Young poets that couldn’t get published, musicians and designers and inventors, unrecognized talents, everyone, they were to come straight to Apple and the Beatles would review their case in person, the Beatles would help.
Inevitably, such saintliness was short-lived: the Beatles promptly found themselves besieged by massed no-talents and maniacs and charlatans, bummers of all descriptions, and they began to cut back fast. Within a year, the whole Utopian structure had boiled down to not much more than one indie record label, no better and no worse than any other.
Undeterred, the Beatles plunged on headlong into project after abortive project—there was a full-length cartoon film, Yellow Submarine, which did nothing much in England and cleaned up in the States, and there was a stage adaptation of John Lennon’s In His Own Write, which was successful, and there was also a John Lennon art exhibition, which wasn’t, and there was an excursion into boutique-management, which was a mistake, and, finally, there was a mammoth double-album ninety minutes and thirty tracks long, which was mostly just boring. And John Lennon got divorced from his wife and took up with Yoko Ono, a Japanese lady, and, between them, they came up with an album full of squeaks and squawks, Two Virgins, with nude pictures of themselves all over its cover. And Paul McCartney called Lennon a saint. And George Harrison wrote further mock-Orientalisms on the soundtrack of a film called Wonderwall. And Ringo Starr, of course, went right on shooting snooker.
In America and in England, they have become two entirely separate things: in the States, where pop is followed with great solemnity by almost everyone intelligent under the age of thirty, there are still many people who take them seriously, who see them as divinities and hang upon their every utterance, while in England, where pop remains mostly entertainment, they’re seen as cranks, millionaire eccentrics in the grand manner, vaguely regrettable, maybe, but quite harmless.
Either way, they continue to sell records in millions, they’re still flying, they’re up so high by now that nothing can bring them back down again. Simply, they’ve gone beyond.
The thing that fascinates me most in all this is that it’s happened so fast, that it’s taken only five years for ultimate hardheadedness to get changed into ultimate inanity, and I’m puzzled. There are, of course, lots of easy explanations—too much acid, too many ego-trips, too much money and success and wasteable time—and maybe the easiest answers are the right ones after all but, myself, I’m not so sure, I sense that there’s something here that I don’t yet understand, that’s only going to become clear in retrospect.
In any case, they’re still young, they have time to return inside their skulls and then, just possibly, they’ll do what they promised in the first place, they’ll purge pop of pretension. Meanwhile, though, they’ve only killed off one style in bullshit to replace it with another.
From here on in, I have only one or two final evaluations to make and then I’m through. First, their music.
What do I say? They’re good. They have talent and Lennon/McCartney are the most inventive, wide-ranging and melodically ingenious writers pop has produced. They’ve added whole new dimensions to pop, they have introduced unthought-of sophistications, complexities and subtleties. And Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, their best album, really was quite an impressive achievement.
For all this, I don’t enjoy them much and I’m not at all convinced that they’ve been good for pop. So all right, the Beatles make good music, they really do, but since when was pop anything to do with good music?
Sergeant Pepper was genuinely a breakthrough—it was the first ever try at making a pop album into something more than just twelve songs bundled together at random. It was an overall concept, an attitude: we are the Lonely Hearts Club Band, everyone is, and these are our songs. It was ideas, allusions, pastiches, ironies. In other words, it was more than noise. Some of the songs were dire (Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, She’s Leaving Home, Within You Without You) and others were pretty but nothing (When I’m 64, With A Little Help From My Friends) and a few really worked out (Lovely Rita, A Day In The Life, I’m Fixing A Hole and Sergeant Pepper itself). In any case, the individual tracks didn’t matter much—what counted was that it all hung together, that it made sense as a whole. Added up, it came to something quite ambitious, it made strange images of isolation, and it sustained. It was flawed but, finally, it worked.
So, if Sergeant Pepper passes, what am I grousing for? Well, it did work in itself, it was cool and clever and controlled. Only, it wasn’t much like pop. It wasn’t fast, flash, sexual, loud, vulgar, monstrous or violent. It made no myths.
And why should the Beatles limit themselves to pop? Why can’t they just expand and progress as they want, not thinking about categories? No reason—they’re responsible only to themselves and they can work whichever way they like.
The only thing is that, without pop, without its image and its flash and its myths, they don’t add up to much. They lose their magic boots and then they’re human like anyone else, they become updated Cole Porters, smooth and sophisticated, boring as hell. Admittedly, the posh Sundays say they’re Art and that’s true but, after all, what’s so great about Art? What does it have on Superpop?
The way I like it, pop is all teenage property and it mirrors everything that happens to teenagers in this time, in this American twentieth century. It is about clothes and cars and dancing, it’s about parents and high school and being tied and breaking loose, it is about getting sex and getting rich and getting old, it’s about America, it’s about cities and noise. Get right down to it, it’s all about Coca Cola.
And, in the beginning, that’s what the Beatles were about, too, and they had gimmick haircuts, gimmick uniforms, gimmick accents to prove it. They were, at last, the great British pop explosion and, even when their songs were trash, you could hear them and know it was mid-twentieth century, Liverpool U.S.A., and these boys were coke drinkers from way back.
They’ve changed. They don’t belong to their own time or place any more, they’ve flown away into limbo. And there are maybe a million acid-heads, pseudo-intellectuals, muddled schoolchildren and generalized freaks who have followed them there but the mass teen public has been lumbered.
What’s more, because the Beatles are so greatly worshipped by the rest of pop, most every group in the world pursues them and apes them and kneels at their feet, and that’s why there’s no more good fierce rock ‘n’ roll music now, no more honest trash.
And at least, with the Beatles, there has always been a certain talent and wit at work but, with their successors, there’s been little but pretensions. Groups like Family and the Nice in England, the Grateful Dead and Iron Butterfly in America, they’re crambos by nature and that’s fine, they could be knocking out three-chord rock and everyone would be happy. But, after the Beatles and Bob Dylan, they’ve got into Art and so they’ve wallowed in third-form poetries, fifth-hand philosophies, ninth-rate perceptions. And, who’ve lost out? Teenagers have.
In America, admittedly, kids have tended to take anything they’ve been given and like it, they’ve come to talk in the same crapola terms as their groups. But in England, they’ve mostly shrugged and walked away, record sales have crashed and everything’s gone stale.
It’s bad: originally, in the fifties, the whole point about rock was its honesty, the way it talked so straight after all those years of showbiz blag, and now it’s become just as fake as Tin Pan Alley ever was.
So it isn’t really their fault, you could hardly blame them, but, indirectly, the Beatles have brought pop to its knees. It’ll get back up again, it must do because somehow it’s needed, but I don’t think it’ll be the Beatles who’ll revive it, I think it’s already too late for that.
In some sense, they have opted out and they can hardly come back in again. They’ll keep progressing, they’ll make better music yet and they won’t ever fall. Only, in thirty years, I don’t think they’ll have meant so much as Elvis Presley.
In the end, Bert Berns may still have summed them up better than anyone.
As I mentioned in an earlier chapter, Berns was a most shrewd man and he understood pop perfectly. And one afternoon, about three years ago, he sat in some decaying West Hampstead café and looked gloomy over a picture of the Beatles. Then he shook his head in infinite sage sadness. “Those boys have genius,” he said. “They may be the ruin of us all.”
A few years ago, he was picked up by the police in Long Branch, New Jersey, for the crime of walking in the rain, dressed in sweatpants and a hooded sweatshirt, and peering into the window of a home for sale in a dodgy neighborhood. The news was greeted with a lot of predictable headlines—NO DIRECTION HOME, A COMPLETE UNKNOWN, etc. But here’s the obvious question, asked by a friend of his: “Do you really think that’s the first time that he’s done that? He does a lot of walking no one would expect. He’ll walk through neighborhoods undetected and talk to people on their front porches. It’s the only freedom Bob Dylan has—the freedom to move around mysteriously.”
People say that a lot about Dylan: His privacy is all he has. It’s an odd thing to say. It assumes he’s powerless and needs to be protected. But Bob Dylan has never been powerless. Even when his songs stood up for the powerless, he was always pioneering new ways to use the power of his fame, of which the two-way mirror of his privacy is the ultimate expression. Yes, it’s cool when Ron Delsener says, “I’ve seen Dylan walk down Seventh Avenue in a cowboy hat and nobody recognize him. I’ve seen him eat at a diner and nobody come over to him”—it makes you think that Dylan is out among us, invisible now, with no secrets to conceal, and that at any time we might turn around and see him. But we never do; nobody ever does, even where he lives. What a woman who works the tunnel between the buses and the backstage area at an arena outside of Atlanta remembers about Dylan is not that she saw him; what she remembers is “I was not allowed to look at him.”
He was, of course, on his way to the stage when he passed her averted eyes—on his way to be looked at and listened to. It sounds like a paradox typical of Bob Dylan, worthy of Bob Dylan, but it’s really pretty straightforward as an exercise of star power. The crossed relationship between Bob Dylan and his audience is the most enduring one in all of rock ‘n’ roll, and it keeps going—and will keep going to the last breath—because from the start he laid down a simple and impossible rule:
We don’t go to see Bob Dylan.
Bob Dylan goes to see us.
[Picture Via: Like a Rolling Stone]
Phish meets the NFL?
Dogs and cats, living together.
The end of the world as I know it. And I don’t feel fine. How could I? What if you had two overriding passions that eclipsed everything else in your life, including your family (as they’d surely attest), and each passion (or, to be frank, religion) represented the two totally opposite sides of your bipolar psyche, and somehow balanced it into sanity…and, surreally, they then decided to collaborate?
How could this be a good thing? Look at it this way: If your beloved old family physician let drop that he was dating Lady Gaga would it make you feel warm and fuzzy? So: When your favorite Pentagonian/George Patton-inspired sporting corporation, whose 32 franchises are largely symbolized by drunks who take off their shirts in blizzards and then beat people up in the parking lot because they’re wearing apostatic jerseys, enlists, in a marketing moment, your favorite anarchic jam and, which is largely symbolized by a few million stoners who believe in nothing except the axiom “Rules Are Irrelevant”…what else could this mean other than that the universe has collapsed into itself? That The End f Days was upon us?
The specifics: On New Year’s Eve morning, and the following afternoon, ESPN2 will air an NFL Films segment about how Seattle Seahawk fans have adopted a Phish song. Which said event tears a hole in the universe.
Background to this unholy miscegenation: In the Eighties, Phish’s insanely creative and eminently likeable guitarist Trey Anastasio, before formally forming the band, wrote a musical thesis as a senior at Goddard College — a legendarily leftie institution in rural Vermont — called “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday.” His work featured a song called Wilson, which has not only endured, for we Phishfanatics, but has taken a rightful place in the band’s pantheon of Pure Phish Songs.
(Full disclosure: A few years ago, when I had to drive to Buffalo to interview a quarterback on assignment — seven hours by way of the New York State Thruway — I structured the trip around the day when I knew that the Jam On channel on Sirius satellite radio would be playing the top 50 Phish songs, from 50 to one. I wanted to hear them all. In order. Wilson cracked the top 10. No, it’s not their best, by any means. It’s no Fluffhead, or Possum, or Chalk Dust Torture, I’ll grant you that. But it’s a pretty cool song.
Well, okay, it’s not a “song,” exactly. Lots of the time, Phish plays “songs” in the manner of a team which might play a game of “baseball,” only in their game, everyone stands wherever they want to after they take the field, facing in whatever direction they prefer, while making up their own rules as the game goes along. And then adopting new rules the next time they play a game.
So anyway. the “song” Wilson includes a refrain wherein, for the last two decades, every Phishfreak in whatever sold-out arena they’re playing sings, in a delightful call-and-response to the band’s cues: “WILLLL-sonnnnn”. If you listen to it, it goes from e-flat to C, I think.
Yes, that arena, from Delaware to Oregon and everywhere in between, will be sold out; the band grossed more than $18 million on this summer’s tour. The last four years’ total: $120 million in ticket sales).
So you can see where this is going, right? Last spring at a solo concert in Seattle, and later at another featuring the whole band at a venue in George, Wa. (Yep; that’s a Phish venue if there ever was one), Trey urged the crowd to start chanting “Wilson” at Seahawk games, in honor of Russell, this year’s quarterback flavor of the season — and, perhaps, for many a season to come.
The ritual caught fire, and now the sound of “WIL-son” can be heard waterfalling out of the stands at CenturyLink Field several times a game: when Wilson takes the huddle for the first time in the game, and again at the beginning of the third, and, throughout the game, interspersed with bits of the song on video board.
So who could blame NFL Films from filming a Phish concert, and filming the CenturyLink chant-ritual, and getting it aired on ESPN 2? Where’s the rub? Why am I Grinching this joyous collaboration?
No. 1: Every man has two sides: The roid-rage/road-rage madman who needs to see athletes try to kill each other legally every Sunday for six months a year, vicariously experiencing what it used to be like to get up in the morning and say to your buddies, “What do you say we attack that tribe over the hill and kill them all? I mean, after we eat raw antelope for breakfast”…
….and the gentle soul who wants to step back, cool out, find his Metroman side and try his damnedest to be a court jester in a land that takes itself way too seriously…and, not incidentally, do so in a place where he might be surrounded by, um, you know, stoned girls.
But nature never intended the two sides to meet. Hence the term “yin/yang” — or, in moderndayspeak, “bipolarism.” Once they overlap, they both lose their power to entrance.
But No. 2 is way more important. In “The Man Who Stepped Into Yesterday,” Trey’s man Wilson is not a man to be admired. In fact, in Anastasio’s college script, the original Wilson is the arch-villain of all time: a greedy, powerlusting fascist who enslaves the peace-loving Communist lizards of a land called Gamehendge, changes the name of their land to Prussia, and steals the book of goodness given to them by their god Icculus. Wilson destroys their forest, builds a castle where he keeps the book, and executes a rebel by hanging. One of the lyrics from the song’s chorus? “Wilson, king of Prussia, I lay this hate on you.”
Basically, young Trey was writing about a monstrous entity spoiling everyone’s fun. But now, as ESPN and NFL Films will have it — with Trey’s worrisome consent — Wilson is an anthem celebrating a football player who, according to the Goodell/Boys Life Magazine metric for what a young man should be, scores off the charts: Russell Wilson is the great-great grandson of a slave, the grandson of a former university president, the son of a Dartmouth graduate, part Native-American, endorses Levis, Nike and Alaska Airlines — and posts bible verses daily on his Twitter account. (As I write, watching him slice and dice the Giants: “A happy heart makes the face cheerful, but heartache crushes the spirit. Proverbs 15:13″) No argument there, Russ. Anyway, you’re just a pawn in this game.
Okay, yes, I have a soft spot for Wilson. But who, given my memories, wouldn’t? The first time I heard Wilson played live was at The Clifford Ball in 1996, Phish’s first multi-day festival, held at the decommissioned Plattsburgh (NY) Air Force Base. I was backstage, doing a story for a slick magazine about the band that had lured me in because they seemed to sell out Madison Square Garden every New Year’s Eve — without ever actually, like, advertising. People kept passing me joints. So Wilson sounded very good that day — as, did, well, everything they played. From AC/DC Bag to Reba to Weekapaug Groove. Even 2001.
Much later that night, lying in my tent, surrounded by 60,000 overly polite Phishkids (although the philosophy major from Oberlin vehemently and almost aggressively disagreed with my assertion that the pan-European Rationalists had it way over the stupid All-Anglo-Empiricists), I couldn’t get the refrain out of my head — until the next morning, when the young woman in the adjacent tent stepped outside into the morning sun wearing nothing but blue jeans, and smiled “Hi,” and went off toward the showers.
That day unfolded as the day before had, in Shangri-La fashion: plentiful hugs, plentiful nugs.
Behind the stage at a picnic table that afternoon, during an interview with the band, the drummer, John Fishman, who wears dresses on stage, told me that this was the only job he had never been fired from. His last job had been cutting out patterns for women’s bathing suits. Then Trey told me he’d briefly considered seeding the festival crowd with ladies of the night imported from New York, but had quickly discarded the idea. After they all left to go back to their trailers, I finished writing in my notebook, then noticed the large roach on the table, and considered leaving it be, in case one of them had left it by mistake. But I quickly discarded the idea.
But you just have to know that ESPN and NFL Films are patting each other on the backs after a few brews, despite their home library of “Eagles” CDs” “What is hip? We are!”
I don’t know if they’ll show the whole song in the TV show, with its true lyrics. I do know that I won’t be watching. Because if this is the beginning of a friendship, it won’t be beautiful to me.
I’d sure hate to have to turn to professional golf and the String Cheese Incident to find new religions. But I sure as hell won’t sit around watching my life’s passions go up in smoke.
But it’s hard not to when you look at this collection of mugshots from the 1920s.
I was given a book as a present last week and I’m enjoying it. It is well-written yet twice in the in the first 50 pages the author, who is otherwise careful with her prose, uses the word “literally” incorrectly. The use of this word, the improper use or the redefined horseshit use, drives me nuts.
I like what Martha Gill suggests–we should just avoid the damn word. Literally.
here are few things that remain constant in life, but for me one of them is this: Stephen Sondheim’s work has touched me for more than half a century. It did so when I was first listening to records as a child, when I didn’t know his name or much else, and it does so right this minute, as songs of middle-aged regret like “Too Many Mornings” and “You Must Meet My Wife” are randomly shuffled into my headphones by iTunes. It’s unusual to remain so loyal to a single artist. We tend to outgrow our early tastes and heroes. It’s even more unlikely to have that artist materialize in person and play a crucial role in one’s life—as Sondheim first did when I was 21 and he was 40. Since then, with some lengthy intermissions along the way, he’s been a mentor, an occasional antagonist, a friend, and even an unwitting surrogate parent.
While it was far from the case when I first met him, Sondheim at 83 is an institution and a cottage industry. He’s received every prize an artist can in America, often multiple times. His shows are in constant revival. In November alone, he was lionized by the New York Public Library, the Museum of the City of New York, and City Center at home, even as a West End production of his 1981 Broadway failure, Merrily We Roll Along, beat out The Book of Mormon for Best Musical in London’s Evening Standard awards. At this point, so much has been written about his career that it’s hard to find much new to say about it. Besides, Sondheim often says it better than anyone else. The most transparent of artists when it comes to explicating his craft, he has given countless interviews detailing his methods and motives, meta and micro, song by song and show by show. (Much of it is codified in the essays tucked into the two juicy volumes of collected lyrics he published at the start of this decade.) But the man himself, the guy behind the work, can be harder to pin down. This is a challenge that the playwright and director James Lapine, Sondheim’s friend and longtime collaborator, and I tried to address in Six by Sondheim, our documentary debuting December 9 on HBO. I’ll let the film speak for itself, not least because almost all the speaking is done by its subject, whose on-camera interviews over 50-plus years shape a narrative built around a half-dozen of his songs. But I continue to wrestle with my own, separate Sondheim narrative: Not a day goes by when I don’t reflect on what I’ve learned from him and what he and his work have meant to me for as far back as I can remember.
This was a defining question for many years. By nature, I’m a Stones person. But I also love the Beatles. And I’m too grown to pick one over the other. They’re both great for very different reasons.
According to statistics, more and more women are the ones asking for the divorces these days. Very different from your generation.
Right, the world today is completely different because the women are successful. A lot of women are more successful than their husbands. And that’s not necessarily good for marriage. It’s wonderful for women, of course, but if they become more successful than their husbands, it can be bad because then the man loses respect for himself. And then the husband becomes the pussycat—and that’s no good. That’s just my opinion. I could be wrong. I’ve been wrong plenty of times in my life.
Do you think the men are more like women these days?
I think so. I think men are much more interested in the way they look. Much more. I think they dress differently than they used to. They go to the gym. Now, the women have to keep up with them!
Would you like to be a young woman in today’s world?
Oh yeah. Because I feel like I could keep up with any man. I’m not being conceited—don’t misunderstand me. But I understand men. I do. My father, he always said to me, “If I was married to a woman like you, I’d own the world.” He used to tell me that. I was the favorite, and I knew it. I could have had anything I wanted. I don’t tell that to my brothers and sisters because I don’t want to hurt their feelings.
I’m with the Beasties on this one. Yeah, the Goldiebox commercial is admirable in spirit but they’ve got the nerve to rip off music for their own purpose and then hide behind their politics.
Cool product, and at this point, they’ve accomplished their mission because the video has gone viral, but still: they get the Gas Face.