by RIP RENSE
A band that
made it very, very big. . .
(Feb. 18, 2004)
I wasn't planning to
write anything about the 40th anniversary of The Beatles' debut on "The Ed Sullivan
Show," as I tend to avoid major anniversaries, and every media outlet in the world is
covering the story.
But. . .
Seeing as I've been
writing about them for about 33 years, why stop now?
Beatles' impact, two quotes came instantly to mind, one of which I will deal with
later. The first is John Lennon's famous remark appearing at the beginning of
"Anthology 1" that The Beatles were "just a band that made it very, very
big, that's all."
The Bay City Rollers
were just a band that made it very, very big, that's all. Most of the hundreds of
fabulously popular groups of the last 40 years were just a band that made it very,
very big, that's all.
The Beatles were not
just a band. John, Paul, and George were friends dating to their teens---Paul and George
from grade school---and their musicianship and personalities developed symbiotically,
almost from the get-go. They grew together like vines. Add Ringo, and you've got the
you imagine this group with any other members? Replace a Rolling Stone, sure.
It's been done three times. Replace a Beatle? Unimaginable. As for original drummer Pete
Best, well, he was as much a Beatle as Zeppo Marx was a Marx Brother. Best was a straight
man outsider who shared neither their jaundiced humor nor musical talent. He was a hired
hand. Ringo, as George said, "was always in the band, he just didn't join till
The Beatles were meant
for one another as much as Laurel was meant for Hardy, chicanery for politics, and barking
Saying the The Beatles
were "just a band that made it very, very big" is like saying cotton was just a
plant. It implies their success was a fluke. Perhaps John believed this, or maybe he was
trying to impose sane perspective on popularity of religious scope. All four
downplayed---and to varying degrees were sickened by---the fanaticism they inspired.
Lennon's infamous Jesus remark was meant to illustrate the absurdity of their fame, hardly
to proclaim themselves new Messiahs.
But I'll tell you: if Hay-zoos
does come back, I hope he can make some good music.
|Today, bands and "artists" narcissistically
hold forth about their "influences"---discussing music that too often has no
originality or distinctive personality at all. The Beatles' cavalcade of influences are
all gracefully in evidence.
The Beatles are only the greatest story of the second half of the twentieth
century, that's all. Why? In essence, because their music, their wit, their charm, their
candor, their naivete, their bravery, their earnestness, their goofiness, their
adventurousness---made much of the world feel pretty damned good. No easy trick! It is
humanity's great fortune that fate conspired to bring these people together, and allowed
them to remain productive as a musicial entity for about ten years.
Imagine a world today
without Beatles music, and that good fortune is thrown into sharp relief. I mean, we'd be
stuck with (gasp) The Rolling Stones instead. Or possibly Herman's Hermits.
So thank you, Brian
Epstein, and Julia Lennon, and Aunt Mimi and Mother Mary, and Ma Harrison, and a case of
lousy intestines that sent Ringo to a hospital for a couple of years, where he learned to
drum. Thank you, Alan Williams, for sending the guys to Germany where they honed their
chops. Thanks, Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, and Astrid Kircherr, Klaus Voorman, Neil
Aspinall, and. . .thank you, astounding confluence of people and events that facilitated
this fertile musical. . .wonder.
It was nothing
less. These Beatle fellows didn't just "play a song" or
"comp" one another, although they certainly must have thought in those simple
terms. They created novel, original, lasting structures. Think of a string quartet by
Beethoven or Schubert. Take away the cello, and it's a house with a wall missing. The same
is true with the best Beatles' songs.
Hifalutin'? I don't
think so. "Rain" without Ringo's drumming is tame weather. "Two of Us"
without George's loping "bass" part (played on regular guitar) loses half its
warmth. "With A Little Help From My Friends" absent McCartney's easy, singing
bassline? A chunk of unbridled summer-of-love lyricism---gone. "Get Back" minus
Lennon's C&W-esque guitar work is practically still-born. "Because" without
Paul and George's harmonies---pfffft. "Day Tripper" without Harrison's
riff. . .doesn't exist! Each player's contribution was often, when the group was at its
best and most cooperative, an indispensible piece of the song. Some of McCartney's
basslines are viable compositions unto themselves. He didn't "play bass," he
sang counter-melodies on the thing.
Even the earliest
Beatles tunes evidence the complementary machinery: Lennon's chugging, sinewy rhythm
guitar, Harrison's Carl Perkin-esque picking, McCartney's manic bass thumping, and Ringo's
slapback, open-hi-hat energy remain a unique engine. And the singing! John's plaintive,
yet hard-edged melisma ("This Boy"), Paul's astounding versatility (from Little
Richard to gentle balladeering), George's underappreciated rock 'n' roll pipes ("Roll
Over Beethoven," "Nothin' Shakin'"), his beguiling dusky harmonies, and
Ringo's slightly sad, slightly comical, always spot-on vocal gusto---no other band had, or
has, anything approaching such variety of voice.
Band? This was an
Speaking of Ringo, I
would go as far as to say that any of the group's efforts lacking his
drumming---McCartney's fine pounding on "Dear Prudence," "Ballad of John
and Yoko," and "Back in the USSR" notwithstanding---are lesser. Starr was
the heartbeat of the sound, if not the heart of the group. Slighty behind the beat by
nature (more noticeably when his style changed in the later years), he created a kind of
push-and-pull tension that gave songs greater suspense. When a guitar solo started, or a
harmony vocal kicked in, it had that much more impact. Ringo was ever-creative, designing
and fitting beat and fill per the mood of the tune at hand. He was really almost a
multiple drumming personality; a percussive illustrator who adapted style to the demands
of the picture. Is it the same drummer on "Come Together," "A Day in the
Life," "Get Back," "Strawberry Fields Forever," and "In My
Life?" And those big, airy fills---famously debuting on "A Little Help. .
."---as many a Ringo peer will tell you, were ground-breaking.
But it wasn't just a
matter of meshing musical facets that made the quartet compelling.
players were relentlessly, joyously inventive, revelling in the delight of
discovery---aided and abetted by an inspired producer, George Martin. "Norwegian
Wood" is just a folk song without Harrison's sitar. "A Day in the Life"
loses a dose of sophistication without Ringo's surprisingly jazzy turn. What is
"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite" without that wash of backwards tapes and
demented calliopes? Or Lennon's voice without a Leslie amp distorting it a la
"Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds?" McCartney's crazed guitar solo gives
"Taxman" half its sting; "Sgt. Pepper's" framework was his idea. These
guys simply dreamed up and realized noises that had never been made before, that's
all. The reconceived the popular song. I rest my case with "Tomorrow Never
And as for the
importance of Martin, well, aside from his instrumental work (piano on "In My
Life," "Lovely Rita," etc.) I cite one bit of evidence: "I Am The
Walrus." Listen to that song with just The Beatles playing,and then after Martin
finished the orchestrations, chorus parts, effects. If that guy isn't the fifth Beatle,
there is no fifth Beatle.
|Kids still grow up with Beatles music, as they did
beginning Feb. 9, 1964, and it looks like they probably always will.
there is a small matter of virtuosity. That's McCartney's lead guitar on "Drive My
Car" and "Good Morning, Good Morning," Lennon's slide guitar on George's
"For You Blue," Lennon's lead again on "I Want You," McCartney's great
honky-tonk piano on "For You Blue," Ringo singing as sweetly as Paul on
"Good Night" (and supplying the virtuosic lyric, "wearing a face that she
keeps in a jar by the door" line in "Eleanor Rigby") and is there a more
affecting and gorgeous guitar solo on any Beatles record---possibly any record---than
Harrison's on "Something?"
I haven't even
touched on their (pardon the expression) fabulousness as songwriters.
Even the early, simpler tunes retain their power: "Help!," "A Hard Day's
Night"---hey, I'm a big fan of "Hold Me Tight." The range of style is
unmatched by any other group, arguably any songwriter---really. Consider: "When I'm
Sixty-Four," "Revolution" (single or album version), "Yer Blues,"
"Don't Pass Me By," "Within You Without You," "You're Gonna Lose
That Girl," "Get Back," "Savoy Truffle," "Julia,"
"Got to Get You Into My Life," "Michelle," "Eleanor Rigby,"
"Rocky Raccoon," "Helter Skelter," "You Won't See Me,"
"Piggies," "And I Love Her"---all by the same guys?
Today, bands and
"artists" narcissistically hold forth about their
"influences"---discussing music that too often has no originality or distinctive
personality at all. The Beatles' cavalcade of influences are all gracefully in evidence:
avant-garde, '20s dance band, Little Richard, chamber music, jazz, folk, Motown, Everly
Brothers, skiffle, ragas---all integrated and emulated with panache. And get this: after
1965, The Beatles sounded like an entirely different band from single to single,
album to album. No one has come close to this diversity since.
And what group
can boast a repertoire including songs as comforting as "Hey Jude,"
affecting as "All You Need is Love," philosophically deep as "Within You
Without You," unabashedly whimsical as "Octopus's Garden?"
No, these 88 tunes by
Lennon-McCartney, Harrison, and Starkey, and combinations thereof, are not due to go out
of circulation anytime soon. Kids still grow up with Beatles music, as they did beginning
Feb. 9, 1964, and it looks like they probably always will.
And so, with respect, I
dispute Mr. Lennon's contention. Yes, lots of people will write terrific think pieces this
week analyzing The Beatles' popularity, and they will ruminate about the Kennedy
assassination and how the group was an "optimistic" antidote to it, or the
"sexual energy," the "long hair," the CBS Evening News terming them
the "voice of the Proliteriat," and Pope Ed Sullivan blessing them as "nice
lads," or, God help us, that critic who long ago cited their "aeolian
cadences," sending the upstart boys into incredulous laughter.
Sure, it was a
bit of all those things. But without the runaway inventiveness, the depth and
variety of personality (musical and otherwise), the great friendship, and the sheer glory
of the music---which only seems to acquire sheen with years---then yes, The Beatles would
have been "just a band that made it very, very big, that's all."
Which brings me to the
other salient quote that came to mind, spoken by the group's dear friend and
"roadie," Mal Evans, a couple of months before he was shot and killed in 1976 by
the LAPD under very sorry circumstances. I talked to Mal at a radio station, and this is
what he said:
make me happier or prouder than for The Beatles to play together again."
They never will, but it
is such a gift that they ever did.
(Special thanks to Steve Marinucci for suggesting I write this piece.)
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