William Mann | The Times

The New Beatles Album

By William Mann | 22 November 1968 | Source: The Times

The most important musical event of the year occurs today. It is, of course, the publication of the new two-disc album from, by, and simply entitled The Beatles. Thirty tracks by those four – one by Ringo, three by George Harrison, the rest by that prodigiously inventive two-headed magic dragon still identified as Lennon/ McCartney, though devotees may now have begun to attribute their songs to either or t’other separately (Fool on the Hill was by Paul, I Am the Walrus by John, don’t you agree’?) and will confidently continue so to divide their music on the new album.

It is the first Beatles collection of songs since Magical Mystery Tour, and their first L.P. since Sergeant Pepper; but it does not include any of the songs newly composed for the Yellow Submarine film – a pity, especially since some of the tracks on The Beatles are scrappy or pot-boilers. The album comes from Parlophone on the Beatles’ own Apple label, has a plain white sleeve, but inside includes a huge colour poster of snapshots, and a new colour photograph of each. The words of all the songs are printed on the back of the poster, and the poetic standard varies from inspired (Blackbird) through allusive (Glass Onion) and obscure (Happiness is a Warm Gun) to jokey, trite, and deliberately meaningless. The Lennon/McCartney songs are as provocative as ever. Nine of the 26 are superbly inventive, and in the same class is George Harrison’s Long, Long, Long, a melting love song in slow waltz tempo-though, as with several other tracks. I am in two minds how much of the appeal is due to the brilliant scoring of George Martin (whom some regard as, not the fifth. but the first Beatle).

I say inventive rather than creative. Even more than in Sergeant Pepper, the Lennon/McCartney numbers retrace charted territory either to mock or to explore further. There are overt references to their own earlier songs (brilliant and delightful in Glass Onion, especially the touch of recorders for Fool on the Hill), to Bob Dylan (Yer Blues), Chubby Checker and the Beach Boys (Back in U.S.S.R.), the Ska of Desmond Decker and the Aces (Obladi). There are near-quotes from Alan Price’s Simon Smith, the Harlem Shuffle, and from Indian and Greek poetry. Some songs adopt the style of Talking Blues, Shouting Blues. Rock ‘n’ Roll (especially Elvis Presley), the New Vaudeville Band (itself a pastiche of old-style pop). the quasi-improvisatory songs of the Incredible String Band, Nashville Country and Western, Latin America, Calypso, Indian traditional music (inevitably), musique concrete, flamenco, and even the slushy ballad (Good Night had me collapsed in laughter. but I suspect that it will be a regular request for the Jimmy Young Show – it is as well constructed a ballad as any that won Sinatra or Humperdinck a golden disc, though obviously genuine pistachio). There are doubtless other allusions and pastiches and quotations that I haven’t yet identified- several fleeting reminiscences had me smiling but stumped for recognition. And there are, as in Sergeant Pepper, a quantity of musical and verbal references to drug- taking and hippy experiences, some less communicative to my antacid self than others. The flip side of Hey Jude was an up-tempo song called Revolution.

Side four of the new L.P. includes a slow version, slightly varied in places, called Revolution One, and a Cage-style indeterminate montage of assorted sounds (interesting, narcotic, but rather too long-though the stereo recording. as with the whole album, adds artistic point and detail that mono listeners will miss) entitled Revolution 9 – a private reference is implied, since the credit titles list acknowledgment to all at No. 9. There are too many private jokes (they remind me of the Before-the-Fringe revues) and too much pastiche to convince me that Lennon and McCartney are still pressing forward with their race against other progressive composers.

The genius is all there, though. The girls emerge well, Prudence, Martha, Julia, Sadie, and Mother Nature, not to mention Sexie Sadie and Desmond’s Mollie. Nature is figured as well, with the blackbird and the piggies (are they Chicago police or just company directors ?), the son, may monkey, the eagle who picks my eye, the elephants and tigers in Bungalow Bill, the lizard on a window pane. There is a gourmand’s banquet in Savoy Truffle. John Lennon’s Helter Skelter, a Rock number, is exhaustingly marvellous, a revival that is willed by creativity (yes. the word is apposite here) into resurrection, a physical but essentially musical thrust into the loins. It is, once again, a brilliant feat of invention. The next Lennon/ McCartney anthology must, imperatively, look forward rather than back. But these 30 tracks contain plenty to be studied, enjoyed, gradually appreciated more fully, in the coming months. No other living composer has achieved so much this year.

William Mann | The Times

22 November 1968