I’ve always been a huge Beatles fan, even when people skitted me for it, which in the 1980s used to happen a lot. During that time younger people were more interested in attempting to forge a brand new Scouse identity, independent of the city’s musical past – maybe this had something to with punk’s Year Zero philosophy or the feeling that The Beatles had deserted us. The only Beatle whose reputation survived this scorched-earth policy was John Lennon; if he hadn’t been killed, maybe he would have been resented just as much.
In Liverpool today, The Beatles are celebrated as part of the city’s heritage and the respect they receive has even survived Ringo Starr’s mean-spirited complaints about the city and the overwhelming volume of his fan-mail. Rather than hate him for it, we just feel the same kind of patronising warmness one might feel towards a curmudgeonly uncle, along with a trace of embarrassment. As for Paul McCartney, most people I know have a love/hate relationship with him; there is the tacit acknowledgement that the man is a huge talent who can still turn out some tremendous work when he wants to, but this is tempered with the feeling that he can let himself down with his ‘thumbs aloft, wacker’ routine. Yes, he is the other kind of uncle; the one who tries too hard to be trendy.
The most important thing about The Beatles is the music, and whether you love them or hate them, the merit of that cannot be denied. I was way too young to have experienced The Beatles’s music first-hand, consequently I approached it differently to those who grew up with it, but the most startling thing about it for me is how much it changed during such a short period of time. To go from Please, Please Me (1963) to Sgt. Pepper (1967) in the space of four years is phenomenal; it is now common for a band to spend four years making just one album and The Beatles had made eight. Factor into this the amount of songs Lennon and McCartney had to write to fill those albums, along with the fact that they wrote songs for other artistes and the band’s (sorry, group’s) extensive touring, the achievement is all the more great. The Beatles’s itinerary was not unusual for the 1960s, most artistes had the same sort of workload; The Beach Boys released three albums a year (small wonder that their main songwriter and producer, Brian Wilson suffered a nervous breakdown).
My main disagreement with the way The Beatles’s music has been evaluated has been the sometimes derisory way that the early singles and albums have been analysed. It has always seemed to me that too much attention has always been placed on Pepper, The White Album and Abbey Road, when from my own viewpoint the earlier music also had merit, sometimes – at least in my opinion – more. As I have previously said, I experienced The Beatles after the event, but I think at some point in the band’s career, they began to take themselves very seriously indeed. Perhaps this happened when McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’, and despite his believing at the time that the song was garbage, George Martin arranged for a string-quartet to back him when he sang it. Later, he went onto see it being sang and lauded about by sundry MOR singers, and lots on money poured into Northern Songs as a consequence. How could this not turn the head of a working-class lad from Liverpool? From this point on The Beatles’s records began to change, and sometimes the results were marvellous (‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, etc), but occasionally they were music-hall (‘Good Day Sunshine’, ‘Michelle’, etc). Perhaps it was inevitable then that McCartney would go on to make forays into classical music eventually, with his Liverpool Oratorio and so on; his journey started all those years ago with that string quartet.
The early Beatles records were what established them as a force to be reckoned with, and this often gets forgotten. How many times have you heard ‘She Loves You’, or ‘Please, Please Me’ for example? But how often have you actually listened to them? These are incredible records; true rock ‘n’ roll masterpieces. The Beatles managed to fuse together the urgency and energy of their 50s heroes -like Little Richard, Elvis, etc – with the pop/soul sensibilities of The Shirelles and other girl-groups. The Beatles became a world-conquering group, because these records sound world-conquering; they take absolutely no quarter, and they are laden with hooks as big as football chants. The apotheosis of The Beatles early sound came with Hard Day’s Night; it was their first entirely self-composed album and it essentially sounds like an album full of singles and this was at a time that albums were full of filler and lazy cover-versions.
It’s easy to take The Beatles for granted in a city that at least one day a year still throbs with their music, and it is the early songs one still hears; those early singles that put them and the city on the map. There is all the cheek, flirty conversation and repartee of the Liverpool streets on those records, and that’s why I think it will be those songs that last, becoming the folk-songs of tomorrow.