» Archive for April, 2004

The Beatles: #1

Tuesday, April 20th, 2004 by Martin Hester

 

The Beatles – 1
27 #1 singles
Recorded from September 1962 to August 1969.

A Beatles Selection
This CD (which has a red cover with the number 1 on it) was released in November 2000 with 80 minutes of Beatles music, and had sold 23 million copies within the first two months. It is a compilation of the Beatles songs which reached Number 1 in the charts as singles, either in the UK or the US. (Singles were 6″vinyl disks with one song on either side, while “albums” were 12″ disks holding 6 or 7 songs on each side). So this CD is yet another way of selecting and repackaging Beatles songs. Happily, this CD spans all of the Beatles’ career, from the early rock n’roll through to their last work. But in spite of its span, this CD is by no measure a “Best of the Beatles” album. They made so much other great music – there are 11 albums apart from their singles. (Only 12 of the songs on this CD are also on albums). But as an introduction to Beatles music for youngsters or those who never followed it, it is great.

So much has been written about the Beatles: they were fantastically popular and influential – and continue to be so. They generate big bucks – not only for themselves, but for people round them, for other musicians, for people who write about them. But in spite of all the adulation, they always seemed to move forward, continuously inventive, the masters of pop music. There is a strong temptation to delve into their lives, try and understand how they became like that, how they lived with the pressures.

But on the other hand, one can just listen to the music and try and appreciate what they do.

Singers and instrumentalists
To start with, they can sing in harmony as well as play. Three-part harmony – John, Paul and George. Not just two voices following each other a third apart, but varied harmonies, sometimes with two or three voices singing answering patterns complementing the main theme, as in I feel fine. Holding a harmony (not the melody) by yourself is not so simple, as any choir member will tell you, but they do it with ease and conviction. Then again, when they sing together, they are so exactly together, it is hard to tell when there are in fact two voices: every little inflection, or liberty of timing or rhythm is exactly the same. How about John and Paul on Can’t buy me love and Hard day’s night

As instrumentalists, they were very versatile: On the opening track Love me do John Lennon plays rhythm guitar, and the harmonica as well. Sometimes he played piano, and on The long and winding road even bass guitar. Paul McCartney, apart from usually playing bass, also played guitar (Yesterday) and piano (Hey Jude and The long and winding road). George Harrison usually stuck to lead guitar, but later branched out to 12-string guitar and sitar. Ringo Starr drummed on all sorts of objects, apart from the standard kit.

There is no doubt about their rhythmic impulse – it makes part of the genre, but there is hard drive in Help!, superb cohesion between the bass riff and drums in Day tripper, wild rocking in Lady Madonna – while Hey Jude, at such a slow tempo, shows their mastery of how to get rhythmic drive. I also take delight in the varied and interesting bass line – not only Day Tripper and Help!, but also the groovy Come Together.

….and composers
But perhaps the greatest differential is in their ability to create new songs, each one sounding fresh and different. During their teens, they absorbed all the rock n’roll possible, getting all the new disks coming from the States, and living the intense youth skiffle and rock movement in the England of the early sixties. Being steeped in all the genres of pop, they could create songs in a certain style without plagiarising – and then began to do things more complex or outside the habitual language of pop music. Ticket to ride is tricky in its rhythm – so is All you need is love, with its continual changing from 3-time to 4-time. As for new language, Eleanor Rigby is backed only by a string quartet, while Penny Lane has a piccolo trumpet!

Many of their songs are also very innovative in the progression of harmonies, or chord sequence. Perhaps helped by never having had formal musical training or by knowing how to read or write music, Lennon and McCartney (and George Harrison later too) created unusual chord sequences, stepping out of the usual confines of popular or folk music. (In this respect, Yesterday is a quite unusual but beautifully-fitted chord sequence, as befits the most-recorded song of all time). In the early days, Lennon and McCartney just sat down and figured it out together, how the song would go; later on, it became more the idea of one of them, with the other finding a continuation, or tidying it up. The arrangements seem to have been created spontaneously in the studio, each one doing his bit, until everyone agreed. Then with George Martin’s great technical competence and high standards, the song would be polished to an impeccable performance.

This CD starts with the Beatles young and rocking and on the way up (roughly 1 to 8), moves through their superbly creative and competent middle period (say 9-20), and ends (21-27) with numbers from their maturity. The last four songs are from their last two albums – Abbey Road and Let it be. Something is a beautiful ballad by George Harrison with an emotional middle passage; Come together a funky number from John Lennon, creating tension from sparse resources; Let it be is Paul McCartney’s moving hope that things will work out (after seeing his mother in a dream), while The long and winding road is a sad song about things out of reach – for me, the Beatles’ song of farewell. But no matter, just start again from the beginning….. 40+ years since they started and still going strong!

Good listening!