The Beatles: Inspired Groovers
The Beatles are capable of parody, profundity and poise, but they also epitomize the pretenses of their culture. For, more than anyone else in the pop hegemony, the Beatles involve themselves in the times. Unlike Dylan, who wanders like a pilgrim across the fiery plains of his own imagination, the Beatles are inspired groovers, equally at home in the haute monde (which cherishes them as clever rakes) and the underground (where they are loved as magic rebels).
This dual appeal to opposing camps has made the Beatles philosopher-kings of pop. Their nation of subjects is more diverse than any monarch’s, and they have learned to respond to this audience by infusing their music with the kind of ambiguity which allows any listener to draw their own conclussions.
This elusiveness — so central to the rock experience — is what keeps the Beatles’ work popular and fresh. Even at their most extravagant (clothed in grace-notes, and spangled with aleatory gems) their songs never seem stale because they are never specific. If the Beatles began as sexual shamans, they have blossomed as thought-wizards, so adept at casting spells that we have all to measure the art of our time as a magical mystery tour.
Their new album is called simply, The Beatles (Apple SWBO 101). By packaging 30 new songs in a plain white jacket, so sparsely decorated as to suggest censorship, the Beatles ask us to drop our preconceptions about their “evolution” and to hark back. Inside are four “candid” photos (the portrait of Paul McCartney unshaven is the most image-shattering) and a large broadside with photo-snippets on one face and printed lyrics on the other. The Beatles, who are obviously familiar with the mythic value of publicity photos, have chosen to present us with a collection of rough hewn memorabilia. In contrast to the jackets of “Sergent Pepper” and “Magical Mystery Tour,” which were ornate and ultra formal, this is a casual, highly personalized package. In fact, examining it is like receiving a parcel with a long, rambling letter fron the Beatles — and an expensive one at that: it retails at $12. All this is intended to suggest a mood somewhat between nostalgia and innovation.
Measured in terms of its own goals, the album must be recognized as a major success. For me, it is the most satisfying collection of Beatles songs since “Revolver” was released more than two years ago. In terms of melodic and lyrical diversity, it is far more imaginative that either “Sergent Pepper” or “Magical Mystery Tour.” Both these albums relied on the surrogate magic of studio technique, while neglecting the basics of song composition. This time, the Beatles have dared to be restrained. There is a pervasive hush over the entire work, even in its harsher moments. The arrangements are are solidly built on a bedrock of guitar, bass and drums. Although there are occasional flights of symphonic fancy, the songs themselves are sturdy enough to bear the weight of orchestrated variations.
The Beatles seem secure now in their roles as concert-masters. Perhaps they no longer need to depend on instrumentation to convey their message. The meticulous structure of “Sergeant Pepper” — which inspired so much critical analysis — is abandoned here for the less explicit format of random songs. But though there is no direction to this album, the enormous range of the moods it explores (from hard raunch to soft reflection; from hurdy-gurdy histrionics to deft nostalgia; from put-on to profundity) is far more effective as vaudeville than was their previous work. The Beatles have always sough to involve us in their songs, by trick or shtick. They are still involving us, but this time they have chosen (by a subtle strategy of suggestion) to disarm rather than overwhelm.
How immediately charming this album is. “The Continuing Saga of Bungalow Bill,” and “Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?” radiate a vivacious mischief. “Blackbird” and “Julia” are sedately laconic. “Rocky Raccoon” and “Good Night” come across as jovial conceits. All in all, there doesn’t seem to be much about this music that is complicated or unintelligible. The Beatles — one might exult on first hearing — are writing for everyone again.
The accessibility of this album has led some commentators to suggest that is represents a remembrance of things past. Nostalgia is certainly evident in the harmonies, re-emphasized backbeat and simplified melodic lines the Beatles are using now. Resurrecting “Rubber Soul” would be a very fashionable move in a year when every pop star is digging up his garden in search of viable roots. But the similarities between this album and the early Beatles are superficial — and intentionally so. What the Beatles are really attempting to revive here is the spontaneous vitality of their earlier songs. They mean to project a sense of the immediate, the makeshift and the incomplete — all missing from their recent work. As John Lennon says, “I write lyrics that you din’t realize what they mean until after… It’s like abstract art, really… When you think about it, it just means you labored at it.”
But simplicity can be deceptive, especially when Lennon plays the simpleton. Over the years, the Beatles have refined their ingenuousness into an effective artistic tool. No song better reflects their whimsical ambiguity that “Julia.” It seems to be a tender lament, shrouded in a haunting melody. But its meaning in painfully personal as it is universal. Readers of the recently published Beatles’ biography will realize than John Lennon’s mother, who died when he was a teen-ager, was named “Julia”. Quite a reach for a simple ballad.
“The Beatles” overflows with similarly obscure intimacies. Sometimes, these referencies are sly, as in Paul McCartney’s song “Martha, My Dear,” written for his dog. Sometimes they are self-deflating. In “Glass Onion,” John declares:
I told you all about the Walrus and me — man
You know we’re as close as can be — man
Well here’s another clue for you all
The Walrus was Paul
Even more effective is the album’s burlesque of musical forms. In the respect “The Beatles” is almost a mock-history of pop. “Back In The U.S.S.R.” is a rock primer, quoting the Jefferson Airplane, the Beach Boys, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles.
There are also thinly veiled “tributes’ to Tim Hardin and Tiny Tim. Bob Dylan is specifically mentioned in “Yer Blues,” a song which seems so inflated that I prefer to hear it as a parody of white blues (“The eagle picks my eye / The worm he licks my bone / I feel so suicidal / Just like Dylan’s Mister Jones”).
But the Beatles burlesque is always tinged with affection. “Rocky Raccoon,” with its playful cowboy charm, could almost have been written by Dylan, were he an optimist. “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” is a breezy recollection of the violent sexuality in early rock. Even the condemnation in “Revolution,” which seems so unequivocal, is tempered by that soothing refrain, “It’s gonna be all right.”
Sometimes — when the game becomes too exuberant or the burlesque too arcane — the Beatles fail. There are a few unqualified bummers on this album. George Harrison’s four songs are as saccharine as any he has ever written. “Revolution No. 9” is an aleatory drag. And “honet Pir” is about authentic as a gas lamp in the Pan Am Building.
But this album is so vast in its scope, so intimate in its detail, and so skillful in its approach, that even the flaws add to it’s flavor.