Jann Wenner | Rolling Stone

The Bea­t­les

By Jann Wen­ner | 21 Decem­ber 1968 | Source: Rolling Stone

December 21, 1968 Issue of Rolling Stone

Rolling Stone Mag­a­zine Issue No.24 Decem­ber 1968

The power of rock and roll is a con­stantly amaz­ing process. Although it is Bob Dylan who is the sin­gle most impor­tant fig­ure in rock and roll; and although it is the Rolling Stones who are the embod­i­ment of a rock and roll band; it is nonethe­less Our Boys, the Bea­t­les, who are the per­fect prod­uct and result of every­thing that rock and rolls means and encompasses.

Never has this been so plainly evi­dent as on their new two album set, The Bea­t­les (Apple SWBO 101). What­ever else it is or isn’t, it is the best album they have ever released and only the Bea­t­les are capa­ble of mak­ing a bet­ter one. You are either hip to it, or you ain’t.

The impact of it is so over­whelm­ing that one of the ideas of the LP is to con­tain every part of extant West­ern music through the all-embracing medium of rock and roll, that such cat­e­gor­i­cal and absolute state­ments are imper­a­tive. Just a slightly closer look shows it to be a far more delib­er­ate, self con­scious, pre­ten­tious, orga­nized and struc­tured, coher­ent and full more per­fect album than Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Sgt. Pepper’s applied the con­cept of the sym­phony to rock and roll, adding an incred­i­ble (and soon overused) dimen­sion to rock and roll. Noth­ing could have been more ambi­tious than the cur­rent release: The Bea­t­les in the history and syn­the­sis of West­ern music. And that, of course is what rock and roll is, and that is what the Bea­t­les are.

Not only the ori­gin of rock and roll, but also the short history of it can be seen as a series of hybridiza­tions, the con­stantly chang­ing styles and fads, as rock assim­i­lates every con­ceiv­able musi­cal style (folk, blues, soul, Indian, clas­si­cal, psy­che­delic, bal­lad, county) not only a recent process, but one that goes back to the Drifters, Elvis Pres­ley, Lit­tle Richard, Buddy Holly and so on. Rock and roll’s longevity is its abil­ity to assim­i­late the energy and style of all these musi­cal tra­di­tions. Rock and Roll at once exists and doesn’t exist; that is why the term “rock and roll” is the best term we have, as it means noth­ing and thus every­thing ““ and that is quite pos­si­bly the musi­cal and mys­ti­cal secret of the most over­whelm­ing pop­u­lar music the world has known.

By attempt­ing such a grandiose project with such delib­er­a­tion and hon­esty, they have left them­selves extremely vul­ner­a­ble. There is not the dis­sem­blance of being “our boys” from Hard Day’s Night, nor the dis­guise of Sgt. Pepper’s band; it is on every level an expla­na­tion and an under­stand­ing of who and what the Bea­t­les are.

As usual, the per­sonal hon­esty is met with an attack (The secret is that inno­cence is invul­ner­a­ble, and those who rush too quickly for the kill, are just them­selves dead). On the level of musi­cal igno­rance, I read the very first review of this record that appeared; it was in the New York Times. In about 250 words the “critic” dis­missed the album as being nei­ther as good as the Big Brother Cheap Thrills LP nor as the forth­com­ing Blood Sweat and Tears album. You come up with only one of the two answers about that reviewer: he is either deaf or he is evil.

Those who attacked the Bea­t­les for their singing Rev­o­lu­tion” should be set down with a good pair of ear­phones for a lis­ten to Side Four, where the theme of the sin­gle is car­ried out in two dif­fer­ent ver­sions, the lat­ter with the most impact. And if the mes­sage isn’t clear enough, “Rev­o­lu­tion No. 9″ is fol­lowed by “Good­night.”

To say the Bea­t­les are guilty of some kind of rev­o­lu­tion­ary heresy is absurd; they are being absolutely true to their iden­tity as it has evolved through the last six years. These songs do not deny their own “polit­i­cal” impact or desires; they just indi­cate the chan­nel­ing for them.

Rock and Roll has indeed become a style and a vehi­cle for chang­ing the sys­tem. But one of the parts of the sys­tem to be changed is “pol­i­tics” and this includes “New Left” pol­i­tics. There is no ver­bal recog­ni­tion required for the beau­ti­fully orga­nized music con­crete ver­sion of “Rev­o­lu­tion.” A good set of ear­phones should deliver the mes­sage to those we have so far been able to reach. Maybe this album would be a good gift from them, “with love from me to you.”

As to the Bea­t­les, it is hard to see what they are going to do next. Like the suc­cess of their ear­lier albums and the suc­cess of all oth­ers in the field, whether orig­i­nal artists or good imi­ta­tive ones, the suc­cess of it is based on their abil­ity to bring these other tra­di­tions to rock and roll (and not vice versa, like the inevitable excess of “folk-rock,” “raga-rock” and “acid rock”) and espe­cially in the case of Dylan, the Stones, The Bea­t­les and to a lesser extent all the other good groups in rock and roll, the abil­ity to main­tain their own iden­tity both as rock and roll and as the Bea­t­les, or as Bob Dylan, or as the Rolling Stones, and so on.

Thus, the Bea­t­les can safely afford to be eclec­tic, delib­er­ately bor­row­ing and accept­ing any out­side influ­ences or idea or emo­tion, because their own musi­cal abil­ity and per­sonal / spir­i­tual / artis­tic iden­tity is so strong that they make it uniquely theirs, and uniquely the Bea­t­les. They are so good that they not only expand the idiom, but they are also able to pen­e­trate it and take it further.

“Back in the USSR,” this album’s first track, is, of course, a per­fect exam­ple of all this: it is not just an imi­ta­tion (only in parts) of the Beach Boys, but an imi­ta­tion of the Beach Boys imi­tat­ing Chuck Berry. This is hardly an orig­i­nal con­cept or thing to do; just in the past few months we have been del­uged with talk­ing “going back to rock and roll,” so much that the idea (first expressed in the pages of Rolling Stone) is now a tire­some one. Because it is, like all other super­fi­cial changes in rock and roll styles, one that soon becomes fad­dish, over-used and tired-out.

In the past few months we have been the Tur­tles doing The Bat­tle of the Bands and Frank Zappa and the Moth­ers with their Ruben and the Jets. The Tur­tles were unable to bring it off (they had the abil­ity to par­ody, but not the tal­ent to do some­thing new with the old style) and the Moth­ers were able to oper­ate with a strictly cir­cum­scribed area with their usual heavy-handed sat­i­riza­tion, a self-limiting process.

It is all open to the Bea­t­les. It would be too sim­ple to say that “Back in the USSR” is a par­ody, because it oper­ates on more lev­els that that: it is fine con­tem­po­rary rock and roll and a fine per­for­mance thereof; it is also a superb com­men­tary on the United States S R, hit­ting every insight, “honey dis­con­nect the phone.” As well as a par­ody it’s also a Bea­t­les song.

The song is undoubt­edly the result of Paul McCartney’s three trips to the United States in 1968 before the album was made (not includ­ing a four day visit to New York this past Novem­ber after the album was done). It is the per­fect intro­duc­tory song for this set. What fol­lows is a trip though the music of the U.S. (SR).

From here on, much of the mate­r­ial is from India, songs the Bea­t­les came back with after their sojourn at the Maharishi’s table. “Dear Pru­dence” is about a girl the Bea­t­les met while med­i­tat­ing in India. The Bea­t­les were always try­ing to get her to come out of her room to play, and this is about her.

“Glass Onion” is, of course, the Bea­t­les on the sub­ject of the Bea­t­les. What­ever they may feel about peo­ple who write about their songs and read things into them, it has undoubt­edly affected them eat­ing away at their foun­da­tions and always forc­ing that intro­spec­tion and that sec­ond thought. And so here is a song for all those try­ing to fig­ure it out, don’t’ worry, John’s telling you right here, while he is rolling another joint.

Part of the phe­nom­e­nal tal­ent of the Bea­t­les is their abil­ity to com­pose music that by itself car­ries the same mes­sage and mood as the lyrics. The lyrics and the music not only say the same thing, but are also per­fectly com­ple­men­tary. This comes also with the real­iza­tion that rock and roll is music, not lit­er­a­ture, and that the music is the most impor­tant aspect of it.

“Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” where they take one of the famil­iar calypso melodies and beats, is a per­fect exam­ple. And it’s not just a calypso, but a rock and roll calypso with elec­tric bass and drums. Fun music for a fun song about fun. Who needs answers? Not Molly or Desmond Jones, thy’re mar­ried with a dia­mond ring and kids and lit­tle “Obladi Obladda.” All you need is Obladi Oblada.

“Wild Honey Pie” makes a nice trib­ute to psy­che­delic music and allied forms.

“The Con­tin­u­ing Story of Bun­ga­low Bill,” the mode of the Sat­ur­day after­noon kid­die shows, is a trib­ute to a cat the Bea­t­les met in Mar­rakesh, an Amer­i­can tiger hunter (“the all Amer­i­can bul­let headed saxon mother’s son”) who was there accom­pa­nied by his mother. He was going out hunt­ing, and this song couldn’t put the Amer­i­can in bet­ter con­text, with his car­toon ser­ial moral­ity of killing.

“While my Gui­tar Gen­tly Weeps” is one of George Harrison’s very best songs. There are a num­ber of inter­est­ing things about it: the sim­i­lar­ity in mood to “Blue­Jay Way” recalls Cal­i­for­nia, the sim­ple Baja Cal­i­for­nia beat, the dreamy words of the Los Ange­les haze, the organic peace lap­ping around every room as if in invis­i­ble waves.

Harrison’s usual style, in lyrics has been a slightly self-righteous and preach­ing approach, which we have here again. One can­not imag­ine it being a song about a par­tic­u­lar per­son or inci­dent rather a gen­eral set of inci­dents, a mes­sage, like a ser­mon, imper­son­ally directed to everyone.

And this song speaks at still another level, the very direct one of the title: it is a guitarist’s song about his gui­tar, how and why and what it is that he plays. The music mim­ics the li near, con­tin­u­ous line of the lead gui­tarist. It is inter­est­ing to note that the song opens with a piano imi­tat­ing the sound of an elec­tric gui­tar play­ing the heavy Span­ish lead line well before the gui­tar picks up the lead. I am will­ing to be some­thing sub­stan­tial that the lead gui­tarist on this cut is Eric Clap­ton, yet another invo­lu­tion in the cir­cu­lar logic on which this song is superbly con­tracted as a musi­cal piece.

The title, “Hap­pi­ness is a Warm Gun,” comes from an adver­tise­ment John read in an Amer­i­can rifle mag­a­zine. That makes this track the first cousin of “Rev­o­lu­tion.” The three parts of it; the break into the won­der­ful 1954 C-Am-F-G style of rock and roll, with appro­pri­ate “Bang, Bang, choo, choo.” What can you say about this song except what is obvious?

Part of the suc­cess of the Bea­t­les is their abil­ity to make every­thing they do under­stand­able and accept­able to all lis­ten­ers. One needn’t have an expert acquain­tance to dig what they are doing and what they are say­ing. The other half of let­ting rock and roll music be recep­tive of every other form and style of music, is that rock and roll must be per­fectly open and acces­si­ble to every lis­tener, ful­fill­ing the require­ment of what it is ““ a pop­u­lar art.

Paul demon­strates through­out the album his incred­i­ble tal­ent as one of the most pro­lific and pro­fes­sional song­writ­ers in the world today. It is embar­rass­ing how good he is, and embar­rass­ing how he can pull off the per­fect melody and arrange­ment in any genre you would care to think of.

Just name it and Paul will do it, like say, for instance , a love song about a dog in the Gilbert and Sul­li­van style, with a lit­tle rag­time, a lit­tle baroque thrown in. “Martha, my dear,” about Paul’s Eng­lish sheep­dog of the same name, with hairy puns (“when you find your­self in the thick of it) and all. And of course, it works on the level of the send up and also as an inher­ently good song, stand­ing fully on its own merits.

“Black­bird” is one of the beau­ti­ful Paul McCart­ney songs in which the yin-yang of love is so per­fectly fit­ted: the joy and sor­row, always that ironic taste of sad­ness and melan­choly in the lyric and in the minor notes and chords of the melody (remember””“Yesterday” “Eleanor Rigby” “Good Day Sun­shine” promi­nently among many) The irony makes it so much more powerful.

Not only irony: these songs and “Black­bird” share other qual­i­ties the sim­plic­ity and sparse­ness of instru­men­ta­tion (even with strings) make them pen­e­trate swiftly and uni­ver­sally. This one is done solely with an acoustic gui­tar. And of course there is the lyric: “Take these sunken eyes and learn to see; All your life you were only wait­ing for this moment to be free.”

“Rocky Rac­coon” is another one of those McCart­ney off­hand tour-de-force’s. Per­haps the Mound City Blue Blow­ers, circa 1937? Paul is so incred­i­bly ver­sa­tile not only as a writer, but also as a singer and a musi­cian. Dig the vocal scat­ting, the saloon-hall piano; then the per­fect phras­ing, enun­ci­a­tion, the slur­ring (as in the phrase “I’m gonna get that boy”) the song is so funny and yet dig the lyrics: “To shoot off the legs of his rival.” Not just to kill, mind you, but to maim. And so why does this song come off so funny? Death is funny.

“I Will” is sim­ply another roman­tic bal­lad from Paul’s pen. He uses every avail­able musi­cal device and cliché avail­able, melodies, instru­men­ta­tions, arrange­ments, har­monies, every­thing, and he does some­thing entirely professional.

If Paul can do song­writ­ing as eas­ily as some peo­ple do cross­word puz­zles (and that is not to say that he is flip­pant or care­less, because Paul has allowed him­self to dis­play his absolute pro­fes­sional abil­ity with song to a point that it can only be seen as a form of per­sonal hon­esty), John’s songs are ago­niz­ing per­sonal state­ments, They are painful to hear.

“Julia” is a song to his mother, whom John saw killed in a car acci­dent when he was 14 years old. It is the most emo­tion­ally reveal­ing pieces on the album. The whole world has been wit­ness to the per­sonal lives of the Bea­t­les, and it seems that a record album is most appro­pri­ate place for such a mes­sage, sung to, sung for, his mother. And as always John is pro­tected by his innocence.

“I’m so tired” begins in the man­ner of the late night jazz singer (“I won­der should I get up and fix myself a drink.) if not, again, one of the many early styles of rock and roll with those ele­gantly placed elec­tric gui­tar chops. And again, it uses this only as a base, a take off point to go on into com­pletely mod­ern, extremely pow­er­ful cho­ruses: “You know, I’d give you every­thing I’ve got for a lit­tle peace of mind,” where every­thing ““arrange­ment, vocal, instru­ments, melody ““ per­fectly evokes the agony of the plea.

David Dal­ton says of this song, “It reminds me of how many changes John has gone through since he was the plump cheeky leader of the Fab Four. Jesus Christ, Sgt. Pep­per, lead­ing the Children’s Cru­sade through Dis­ney­land: a voy­age to India as vic­tims of their own pro­pa­ganda: Apple, a citadel of Mam­mon … even two years ago, the image of Lennon as a mar­tyr would have seemed ludi­crous, but as his trial approaches, a gaunt spir­i­tual John hardly rec­og­niz­able as his for­mer self emerges. This meta­mor­pho­sis has taken place only at the cost of an incred­i­ble amount of energy, and the weari­ness of this song seems to fall like the weight of grav­ity.”

Other songs on side two include one by George and one by Ringo. George’s “Pig­gies” is an amaz­ing choice to fol­low “Black­bird” with such an oppo­site mood and mes­sage. “Black­bird” so encour­ag­ing, “Pig­gies” so smug (though accu­rate: “what they need’s a damn good whack­ing”). Ha! By com­par­i­son, both “Pig­gies” and Ringo’s polka, “Don’t Pass Me By” (trust Ringo to find the C&W music of any cul­ture) are weak mate­r­ial against some of the superb num­bers, although on their own, they’re totally groovy.

But it brings for­ward two inter­est­ing points: nei­ther Paul’s near-genius abil­ity with notes nor John’s rock and rolling edge of hon­esty are sine qua non for the Bea­t­les. The taste and sense of right­ness in their music, to choose the per­fect musi­cal set­ting, the absolutely right instru­ment, are just as important.

The sec­ond is that there is almost no attempt in this new set to be any­thing but what the Bea­t­les actu­ally are: John, Paul, George and Ringo. Four dif­fer­ent peo­ple, each with songs and style and abil­i­ties. They are no longer Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, and it is pos­si­ble that they are no longer The Beatles.

When they get together it’s “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road,” which, what­ever else it may sound like it ain’t nothin’ but a Bea­t­les field holler.

This is one of many obser­va­tions to be made about this album. It is at once both their sim­plest (plain white cover) and yet most com­plex effort to date.

Some­one will do the work, and maybe come up with a list of old and new rock and roll songs and styles which each of these tracks is sup­posed to be based on. “Birth­day” might be Hen­drix or Cream, maybe even Larry Williams. The point is that it is, like “Hel­ter Skel­ter” and “Everybody’s Got Some­thing to Hide” as well, all of these; the very best tra­di­tional and con­tem­po­rary ele­ments in rock and roll brightly are suf­fused into the Bea­t­les. The “hard rock” aspect of the Bea­t­les is one often over looked and neglected, often times pur­posely in the attempt to get them to be some­thing they are not. They are a rock and roll band, after all, and they can do that thing. The straight rock is some of their most excit­ing and mature mate­r­ial (They don’t how­ever cut the best of the Stones or the Who).

If “Birth­day” is based on, say the gui­tar licks of Jimi Hen­drix or Clap­ton, it takes what is best form it and uses it in its own fash­ion, per­fectly within con­text and joined with some­thing new in rock and roll sound record­ing, which in this case is the waver­ing piano sound, obtained by using the leak­age from the orig­i­nal piano track onto an empty track as the final take for the mix.

In “Everybody’s God Some­thing to Hide Except for me and my Mon­key,” all the old ele­ments of the Bea­t­les are brought back, right up to date, includ­ing use of all the old fash­ions and con­ven­tions in such a refresh­ingly new manner.

Take the struc­ture of the song, for exam­ple: it is based on the old I-IV-V twelve-bar pro­gres­sion in approach, but in actu­al­ity they never do the old thing. From IV they go to VII. When they get back to V after that, they take the most unusual way in sound and melody to get back to I. They also use those old Bea­tle har­monic tones (By way of com­par­i­son, set this song against what Step­pen­wolf is now pop­u­lar at doing with this same material).

“Hel­ter Skel­ter” is again both tra­di­tion and contemporary””and excel­lent. The gui­tar lines behind the title words, the rhythm gui­tar track lay­er­ing the whole song with that pre­cisely used fuz­ztone, and Paul gor­geous vocal, Lord, what a singer! Man, you can”˜t sit still. No won­der you have blis­ters on your fingers.

As com­pletely wide-open eyed artists, sen­si­tive like all oth­ers in McLuthanville, they are of course caught up and reflec­tive in their music of what’s hap­pen­ing around them, espe­cially the recent scenes they have been through.

Many of these songs, if not the vast major­ity of them, were writ­ten while the Bea­t­les were with the Mahar­ishi. “Everybody’s got some­thing to hide” is cer­tainly reflec­tive of it in its lyric. “Sexy Sadie” is the Mahar­ishi. The har­monies and other vocals lines are exquis­ite, espe­cially the “s’s” The lyrics and the vocal deliv­ery are to sin­cere and yet so sar­cas­tic. John is still John.

You may be a lover, but you ain’t no dancer,” what a choice for the next track.

Another very delib­er­ate par­ody is “Yer Blues” a song that does away with most all of this “blue revival” non­sense out of Great Britain these days. With the excep­tion of Eric Clap­ton, the Jeff Beck Group, and maybe one or two as yet un-famous indi­vid­u­als, the Bea­tle are sim­ply bet­ter at it. And that makes it so ludicrous.

The organ riff at the end of the last cho­rus so per­fectly tells the whole story; it is based on the very bor­ing and rep­e­ti­tious style of those new blues musi­cians who will pound the shit out of some mediocre change or short riff as if it is the riff which has got them to such incred­i­ble heights of feel­ing and style.

The Bea­t­les of course, make it inter­est­ing, because it is so styl­is­ti­cally in con­text with the piece in which it is set. Some of the open­ing lyrics “Yes I’m lonely wanna die.” The lines “black cloud crossed my mind” is in phras­ing and con­tent a par­ody of the “black cat crossed my path,” and yet a good line by itself and as part of this song.

For­get­ting the par­ody for a moment, it’s a very good mod­ern rock and roll blues. Dig the lines “My mother was of the sky/My father was of the earth/But I am of the universe/And you know what it’s worth.”

Get­ting back to the mes­sage (even in the title), here’s Mr. Dal­ton again, on the Eng­lish blue scene, “The trendy trans­ves­tites of the Eng­lish blue scene: Pre­ten­tious and ludi­crously out of con­text a cult of the blues board­ing on intel­lec­tual snob­bery and purism. It is hard to imag­ine any­thing more incon­gru­ous: the Eng­lish blue fans fanat­i­cally denounc­ing a group for adding horns, field break­ing out of the audi­ence at the Blues Fes­ti­val. Mr. Jones (which the Bea­t­les refer to in this song) is said to be Dylan’s grisly por­trait of the folk purist, with his intel­lec­tual hang ups, who could not accept the brash com­mer­cial forces of rock and roll. The blues purist who looks down on Soul Music as a debased com­mer­cial form is just Mr. Jones in a sheep­skin jacket.”

If you take any­one of these songs and really get down with it, to where every piece of excel­lence and crafts­man­ship is explained and under­stood fully (and it’s always just as good and always even bet­ter when you do), what­ever you say about that one song is as true for the rest.

“Rev­o­lu­tion No 1″ is a bet­ter piece, in tex­ture and sub­stance, than the sin­gle, although the lat­ter was bet­ter as a sin­gle. “No1” car­ries the mes­sage more eas­ily and more suc­cess­fully. The horns at the end are a gas, and even, I think, a lit­tle “Day Trip­per” by George on the left earphone.

“Honey Pie” is another one of those per­fect Paul McCart­ney evo­ca­tions of a whole musi­cal era, under­stand­ing the essence so finely, that it could be as good as the orig­i­nal. Lovin’ the rhymes: crazy-lazy, tragic-magic, frantic-Atlantic. He not only is able to re-create such moods and eras with his melody, his words, his arrange­ments, instru­men­ta­tions, but also with his voice. He is equally expert in all these areas.

“Honey Pie” is also more sophis­ti­cated ver­sion of “When I’m 64,” just as “Savoy Truf­fle” is amore sophis­ti­cated look at “Lucy in the Sky with Dia­mond” and “Back in the USSR a more sophis­ti­cated “Sgt. Pep­per” It is unlikely that “With a lit­tle help from my friends” will ever be topped as a song for Ring. The ques­tion is whether they are bet­ter songs. I am inclined to think so, but only the acquain­tances of time will tell, and it doesn’t really mat­ter anyways.

If these are weaker songs, they are the only flaws of this album set. It is rel­a­tively minor point and con­sid­ered at a longer view, an almost irrel­e­vant one. No cre­ative per­sons in history were able to match their own bril­liance with absolute consistency.

“Cry Baby Cry” hits me at first as a throw­away; but the fur­ther acquain­tance says this “another top notch Bea­t­les song. Every time they are explor­ing and open­ing new pos­si­bil­i­ties and com­bi­na­tions. Every time they make them work.”

So many fac­tors enter into the suc­cess of the Bea­t­les in what they do. Some of them have been touched on. In addi­tion to every­thing else, they are excel­lent musi­cians. Ringo’s drum­ming on this LP is his best, and among the very best to be heard on any rock and roll record; George’s leads are con­tin­u­ally well-placed, well writ­ten and well played. We see them all in their var­ied strengths on this record.

In short, it is the new Bea­t­les record and ful­fills all our expec­ta­tions of it. In gen­eral you could say that this new release (excel­lent) stands in the same rela­tion­ship to Sgt.. Pep­per (incred­i­ble) and Revolver (excel­lent) was to Rub­ber Soul (incred­i­ble). And that is to say, the next one ought to be incred­i­ble.
Good night. Sleep tight.

Jann Wen­ner | Rolling Stone

21 Decem­ber 1968

© Rolling Stone Magazine