Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Beatles for Sale: The Musical Secrets of the Greatest Rock 'n' Roll Band of All Time

by David Rowley

A look at the commercial compromises and recording secrets of the most famous pop group ever. Marketed as cynically as any boy band of today, the Beatles may be the most extraordinary music phenomenon of the last century--but not everything is known about their songs. Here, for the first time, their songwriting and recording secrets are disclosed: their studio tricks, their songwriting formulas, the music they "stole" from others, and the commercial compromises they made to achieve hit status. Including a chronological survey that reveals something new about every song released, Beatles for Sale may be the most informative and frank account of their music ever written. Journalist David Rowley writes for numerous publications, including The Guardian, Time Out, and the Independent on Sunday.


Useful, objective explanations of the Beatles are treated with wariness. Each new and challenging Beatles book - particularly Ian MacDonald's Revolution in the Head and even the Beatles' very own Anthology book - is treated in the media with the same desperate assertion: `We thought that nothing new could be said about the Beatles, but you can go out and buy this book safe in the knowledge that this is the very last Beatles book you ever need to buy.' One assumes that people generally like the myth of the Beatles and do not want a rational explanation.

Our views on the Beatles must evolve. Just as every generation produces a new analysis and opinion of figures like Mozart or Shakespeare, so our attitude to the Beatles will change. Crucially, new evidence is still emerging on the Beatles. Already Philip Norman's thrilling biography of the group, Shout! from 1981, looks to have gaping holes in it. Since its publication many figures from the Beatles' past have emerged to tell their own stories as the Beatles nostalgia industry has provided public speaking opportunities. At the 2001 Beatles convention in Liverpool it was interesting to hear Cavern DJ Bob Wooler denounce as myth the idea stated in many Beatles books that it was `Cunard Yanks' working on ocean liners that docked in Liverpool who introduced rare rock 'n' roll and R&B records to Liverpool. And who should know better than Liverpool's foremost early 1960s DJ that such records were easily available on order in Liverpool record shops? During my own research, I came across numerous interviews not drawn upon by other books - part of it on the relatively new medium of the Internet. John Lennon and Paul McCartney have been prolific givers of interviews, yet even widely available interviews such as John's interviews for Rolling Stone in 1970 and Playboy in 1980 are fruitful after repeated reading.

We resist too much deep thought on the Beatles as their songs are often simple and light. At the same time by contrast we often find their success so incomprehensible that for many of us it is easiest to portray them as gods. Understanding the Beatles' methods is something that can improve our appreciation of their music and is of use for anyone making music or contemplating a pop career. To be able to see them as human beings and not deities should, too, make them more appealing to a younger generation irritated with their parents' gloating memories of having been closer in spirit and time to the Beatles.

What pass for explanations of the Beatles' music today are shaggy dog stories. We are kept amused with tit-bits of trivia about the making of their music. There is the endless and disappointing retelling of the creation of `Yesterday'; of how with no lyrics Paul used the words `scrambled eggs' to scan out the melody and of how `Hey Jude' was originally `Hey Jules' in honour of Julian Lennon. These tales are dead-ends and do not illuminate us on the Beatles' artistry; if anything, they diminish the songs in question. By contrast, we have little such trivia on the making of Shakespeare's plays. Instead we are left with his works, which we must grasp and analyse.

Analyses, of course, have been made of the Beatles music, two of the best being Ian MacDonald's Revolution In The Head: the Beatles' Records and the '60s and Steve Turner's A Hard Day's Write. MacDonald's book is largely an analysis of the intuitive and conscious musical workings of the Beatles, while Turner's is a result of his extensive research of the anecdotes and events surrounding each song. In parts our research has overlapped, but neither of these books seems motivated strongly to demystify the way we see the Beatles.

One of the key myths surrounding the Beatles' is that their music was so artistically strong it could not fail to get to number one. This belief fails to take into account their huge ambition for fame and its rewards. In today's usual reckoning of the Beatles as pop `artists', we tend not to examine any of their baser motives, preferring to see them as purely motivated by a love of music and a need to communicate with the world. The Beatles themselves, it should be noted, have attempted to point out that not all their motives were pure. John in particular wielded the biggest attack against the Beatles myth - as he himself referred to it - in his 1970 Rolling Stone interview. To make it to the top he said you had to be a `bastard' and the Beatles were in such a context the `biggest bastards on earth'. Albert Goldman's The Lives Of John Lennon seems to have taken this remark to heart and pursued it relentlessly, missing the point of what John was trying to achieve with this comment. By making such knowingly sensational remarks, he sought to counter what he saw as widely held misconceptions of the Beatles. His remarks also served to emphasise that the Beatles were not gods, but ordinary human beings. It is from the last perspective that I have written this book - the Beatles not as four gods, but as four highly motivated, but otherwise normal, Liverpool lads.

While the Beatles did more than any other pop group to make the term `pop artist' a valid one, to see their first five albums, for example, in purely artistic terms is to misunderstand them completely. If anything, the Beatles' early career involved the suppression of their artistic urges for monetary gain and a high media profile. (The importance the Beatles gave to getting rich is revealed unashamedly in many interviews they made between 1963 and 1965, especially in those set question-and-answer-style profiles in pop magazines, where often their answer to the `Ambitions' section is simply `to be rich'.)

To reach the top, the Beatles faced more commercial than artistic battles. Their early five-year struggle (1957-62) left its mark on them, unlike, for example, the Rolling Stones, who achieved national fame a mere two years after their formation. By contrast, the Beatles needed to present themselves smartly to gain the few early gigs they could muster in Liverpool, they needed dramatic stage showmanship and a broad
repertoire of songs to win over a disinterested German public on their first visit to Hamburg, and they needed to wear suits to secure lucrative bookings in large theatres and make an impression on London record companies.

These compromises shaped the Beatles' outlook but encouraged them to put one over on the staid, out-of-touch UK music industry and re­write the rules. Unlike Mick Jagger, who had an open invitation to return to the London School of Economics any time his pop career fell through, the Beatles had staked everything on making it in the music business and their first concern was to gain enough commercial success to secure their livelihood. Probably the only time the Beatles truly relaxed enough to produce material that appealed to their artistic sensibilities alone was on The White Album in 1968.

The Beatles' key commercial strategy in their first few years of recording was to write lyrics emphasising their eligibility as young handsome men to impressionable girl teens - one of the most loyal markets of record buyers. John's marriage and child (which admittedly he never publicly sought to deny) were kept secret for as long as possible, as were Paul, George and Ringo's girlfriends. As cynically as any boy band of recent years, the Beatles lyrics portrayed the group as a fantasy of true, devotional love and unthreatening masculinity. Intimacy went only as far as kissing, holding hands (`I Want To Hold Your Hand') and dancing (`I Saw Her Standing There' and `I'm Happy Just To Dance With You'). The grand lie of this early Beatles era (and that for most successful boy bands today) was that between 1962 and 1965, John and Paul in particular were in fact so sexually active that the only true relationships they had time for were between themselves.

The irony was that the Beatles would probably have been far more comfortable with the raunchier style of the Rolling Stones at this time. What little mention of sex did creep into their music in this era was either coded or implied on album tracks and B-sides, such as `Norwegian Wood', `She's A Woman', `Hold Me Tight' and `Everybody's Trying To Be My Baby'. (`Please Please Me' includes some of their more salacious lyrics, though this was written before Beatlemania and before the Beatles had entered the national consciousness.) It must have been a cause of enormous satisfaction and relief to the Beatles when they smuggled their first overt sexual reference onto an A-side with `Day Tripper', where Paul smuggled in the words `prick teaser'. Even here, though, the reference was largely included to impress their drinking buddies and contemporaries in the rock business.

By late 1965 the Beatles had all bought their big houses in exclusive neighbourhoods, had proved themselves `as big as Elvis' and were free to explore other artistic ambitions. Meanwhile in Hollywood a younger, tamer version of the Beatles - the Monkees - was conveniently about to take over as the world's cuddly and puppet-like `fab four'.

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