So the Beatles finally made it onto Spotify. The whole back catalogue is all over streaming ready to be judged with a new set of ears.
The wallpaper to popsendless corridor, The Beatles have been there for ever – a solid yet shape shifting backbone to embrace as hairy pioneers of pop culture’s infancy to being establishment b’dum b’dum boredom of the punk era to a reappraisal reflecting where your own head was at any given time.
The band are like cultural mainstays, sonic statues – you get to judge yourself against their albums – albums that tell the history of the sixties with their hopes, dreams, doubts and fears sat in powerful songs.
Whether they are the greatest band ever is not open to argument. There are many greatest bands ever – some sold millions, some are obscure – only a narrow minded fool would rest their musical taste onto one band.
Each one of these albums is great though- even the flawed ones. This is also not another who was the best – Lennon or McCartney piece- the wonderful thing about the band is that two of the best songwriters in the sixties not only came from the same town which was outside the showbiz central but also ended up in the same band and there was even space for George Harrison – who by the end of the band’s triumphant stint was their equal. We are also here to celebrate Ringo’s wonderful drumming – not only the best drummer in the Beatles but well up there as being one of the best drummers of his own generation.
Please Please Me
When EMI gave this reluctant signing of a bunch of northerners 12 hours to record their live set for their debut album they turned in this raucous and thrilling, seat of the pants set that is full of the nicotine stained and booze and Prelly driven thrills from their Hamburg and Cavern apprenticeship sets. You can smell the sweat and aggression of broken northern towns that were electrified by rock n roll.
When Lennon screams you can also hear the excitement of rock n roll knowing that is about to own a whole decade and in far more innocent times believe that it really can change the world for the better. Never has a boy band ever sounded so urgent, so alive and of the now. The Beatles have been called many things but they were also a damn good rock n roll group – as tough and dangerous as the great Johnny Kidd and the Pirates and as tough as the form demanded not like thise collegiate Rolling Stones as Lemmy has often stated and he should know.
KEY TRACK : Twist And Shout : The Isley Brothers classic turned inside out for one of the great rock n roll performances. The high point of the band’s set at the time and the moment the sixties started with this was a new kind of electricity. It’s hard to believe that the Beatles were performing this white heat rock n roll on the music hall and cabaret theatre end of prom circuit as they broke through but it was all the UK had at the time before the Beatles swept the slate clean.
With The Beatles
Catching the band right in the middle of Beatlemania and showcasing their raucous rush and also classic ballads and covers from their live set. With The Beatles is a snapshot of a band surfing the hugest showbiz wave ever and grabbing recording sessions in the middle of a non stop schedule. If it all sounds so effortless it’s probably because it was. All those hours and all those years in Hamburg and the Cavern were paying off.
KEY TRACK : All My Loving : Paul shows there is more to the Beatles than three chord tricks. Unlike many contemporaries the band were dealing out minor chords and Jazz chords in a sophistication that was way beyond their age and peers and this twisting and turning melodic masterpiece that sound like they are in a rush is pure Paul pop genius.
Hard Days Night
The album drips the thrilling energy and optimism of John Lennon at his early peak writing many of these songs in a seven day burst. An akbum of perfect streamlined rock n roll that was the Beatles at their early incarnation best – beautifully constructed and crackling with adrenalin and excitement this is not just the soundtrack to the Beatles debut film but a blowtorch to the damp and stuffy post Empire blues of the UK and a reinvention and reaffirmation of a new UK that embraced a different future.
KEY TRACK : Hard Days Night : A title inspired by a Ringo quip and a song dashed off by Lennon the same evening this is the early Beatles at their best. A shape shifting song that rushes through a myriad of musical and melodic ideas with the urgency of a band in a rush to embrace everything all at the same time – how very sixties!
Beatles For Sale
There might have been a road weariness to the Beatles 4th album- the album title and the sleeve photo of the band hinted that the non stop mania, world touring and mental schedule left little time for songwriting and the band were heading for burnout. After writing the whole of Hard Days Night the band were back to mixing covers with originals to get an album out for their now trad xmas release spot .
The originals, though, like I’m A Loser showed a growing maturity in style and a touch of Dylan who the band had met a couple of months before. The world weariness added a compelling darker undertow to the songs like I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party, No Reply, and Baby’s in Black – early examples of a northern pop culture melancholy
KEY TRACK Babys In Black : Mournful and mysterious. This was a head and shoulders above their so called contemporaries in daring to write darker pieces that hinted at death and darkness and the intoxicating and beguiling whiff of mystery.
The first hints that something was stirring beyond their honed down live template. Help is the sound of a band extending beyond its screaming theatre set and using a touch of studio trickery and a nod to the songwriting nous of Bob Dylan and starting to shape the decade instead of just sound tracking it. A change of drugs may have also been key with the speed driven early band starting to smoke dope whilst also embracing the new possibilities of the swinging London that they are were now sat in the centre of. The band’s art school roots and hip antennae were perfectly honed to embrace the new in this new sophisticated take on Beatlemania.
KEY TRACK : Help was Lennon’s cry for help- the self styled fat Elvis looked back at his recent youth and was shocked at the change- the sensitive side of Lennon slipping out from behind the bravado. The album’s other key moment was Paul’s Yesterday which had been debuted live in Blackpool and was the first Beatles song to be performed solo and an instant showbiz standard sparking endless cover versions.
From its puntastic title to the modish album cover Rubber Soul is the band’s first true 100 per cent pop art artefact. It’s their first full album created with the full on billowing tendrils of dope smoke in the room and the first to be recorded in one session instead of grabbing snatches of studio time in the middle of touring. The clouds of marijuana affected the songwriting and added a new dimension to the potent, now folk rock brew and not only changed the band’s craft but also paved the way for the druggy art rock adventures that would be part and parcel of the second half of their imperious reign.
Rubber Soul is often overlooked in the rush to venerate the follow up Revolver album. This is a shame as it is, arguably, their most consistent album full of maturing pop gems like You Won’t See Me or the fuzz bass driven Think For Yourself. There was Lennon’s nuanced sorry telling skills of Norwegian Wood – typical of the album’s newly found lyrical sophistication, the fat neo soul stomp of Drive My Car and the introspective and touching In My Life or more lost Lennon of Nowhere Man. There is no dud on the album and the songs thread together perfectly in the band’s most complete work.
KEY TRACK : In My Life : Lennon looks back again with a touching romantic take of lost friends and places from his recent youth.
For decades the critics fave and studied with guitar driven songs that are the band at their rock music best. The only reason that Rubber Soul edges it for me in the battle of the band’s mid period giants is Rubber Soul’s sense of completeness. Revolver is like Rubber Soul’s louder, much more confudent and much more loved older brother and this is splitting hairs but there is something about Rubber Soul and its warmth and consistency that edges it for me. Revolver remains quintessential Beatle genits and the last of their suits albums.
KEY TRACK : Tomorrow Never Knows : a wonderful slice of psychedelia and ground breaking music built around Ringo’s looping drum beat and sound FX with Lennon sounding stoned and mystical making sense of the Tibetan Book of the dead with an acid wisdom. Special mention to George’s Taxman that saw the band’s junior partner arrive as an equal songwriting force in the band. Now if only the B sude of Rain had made the album!
Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band
Coming off the road made a huge difference to the band’s sound. Already breaking out of guitar/bass and drums they now added sitars and a myriad of instrumentation of experimentation to their template as well as ultimately the studio itself. with their heads turned in 1965 by acid their world was now turning dayglo.
Often recognised as the band’s masterpiece Sgt Peppers is touted as the band’s psychedelic statement and for sure there are glorious moments of tripped out music like Lucy In the Sky With Diamonds and the dark and haunting A Day In The Life with its neo Swans style orchestral build ups.
Concentrating on these tracks, though,is to give a distorted view of the album which is as close to English music hall as it is to LSD laced west coast trips music – and that’s not a criticism.
One of than band’s strengths was to somehow have George Formby on their iconic cover Peter Blake artwork and LSD in their music at the same time. Acid made their music gloriously tripped out even adding a tinge to WhenIm 64 – and they are still the greatest psychedelic band ever (we have tested this in the right conditions) but in the end this is a supremely dayglo music hall album which all the added glowing weirdness this hints at. Any band that can go from the captain trips of Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds to the music hall pastiche of When I’m 64 in a heartbeat is a band with nerves of steel. A briad palatte and a very open vision that was as musically art school as the album artwork was pop art classic.
KEY TRACK : A Day In The Life : Rarely has has a track been so final. So climactic.
Magical Mystery Tour
Odds and sods sound track collection from the Beatles home made lo-fi Magical Mystery Tour film which was panned by the critics and confused audiences that Yuletide 1967. It was the Beatles first flop but has retained an interesting edge when viewed decades later as the band did a very British eccentric fish and chips take on Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters.
In these times of lo-fi bands and home made film clips all over the Internet the charm of a roughly made film actually increases and Magical Mystery Tour is now a great pop artefact.
The album is not a main release but a side collection that is still brimming with key moments and dripping with lysergic weirdness.
KEY TRACKS : Magical Mystery Tour is perfect bouncing Paul pop with wry lyrics and a sunshine demeanour whilst I Am The Walrus is the ultimate acid anthem – a filthy, rasping, nursery rhyme full of abrasive, acidic acid from Lennon – his strangest and freakiest trip yet and his final masterpiece in the LSD tryptic of Strawberry Fields and Lucy.
Another odds n sods collection sound track for the wonderful dayglo Yellow Submarine cartoon that has no proper plot but still looks great. This album was another soundtrack and considered throwaway by the band but still contains great moments. In many ways this and Magical Mystery tour have always felt like Sgt Peppers sides 3 and 4 if that had been a double album – releasing the trip in drips and drabs.
KEY SONG : Only A Northern Song – George’s cynicism about his songwriting role in the band is a wonderful piece of psychedelic dirge whilst Hey Bulldog is a stomping piece of dashed of piano driven brilliance.
When the band quit the world tour circuit in 1966 it may have seen them start to drift apart but they were in a creative first gear utilising the new free time to write the largest amount of songs in their career.
In early 1968 they spent a month in Rishikesh in India at the feet of the Maharishi and wrote 30 songs many if them with finger pucking guitar techniques learned from fellow traveller Donavan and recorded most of them for their first double album – the wilfully eclectic and fantastically eccentric ‘The Beatles’.
The album has become known as its White album nickname due to all white artwork. The album’s lo-fi sounding collection of many styles of songs from the darkly funny to introspective to rocking out to avante art collection of songs may have been out of sync with the revolutionary fervour of the year (even Revolution was not sure…)but that matters little for a record that is a fan favourite and still saw the album end up being their best selling collection.
KEY SONG : Hey Jude : Yes we know it’s not on the album but it’s from the same sessions. The band rarely put singles on albums and Paul’s anthemic song may have been overplayed over the decades but still sounds like an emotional avalanche of pop genius. Album wise the song fragents all glow.
Despite the bickering and the end games the Beatles most powerful bond was to the band itself and with the band about to fall apart professional pride stepped in to wipe the as yet at the time unreleased Let It be slate clean and create what many feel is their masterpiece.
Abbey Road ironically is a band looking forwards and with its 8 track hi tech recording and powerful playing and forward thinking music is a glimpse into what coukd have been fir the band in the seventies.
The band may not have been together in that next decade which is oddly perfect – the owned the sixties and left the stage in time for the next decade with George’s genius All Things Must Pass sounding like the spiritual and musical full stop on their sixties dream.
Abbey Road is famous for the side 2 song cycle so astutely stitched together by Paul McCartney from scraps of songs leftover from the painful Let It be sessions and bits and bobs of John songs that the errant band leader couldn’t be arsed to finish as well as flashes if his own pop genius.
KEY TRACKS : the whole of the side 2 song cycle is a work of genius with Paul proving that he was now the band leader for good reason.
Let It Be
You can feel the tension. You can hear the boredom. As an album this is a fascinating document of a band pulling itself apart at the seams. Culled from the hours of rehearsal tapes as the band tried to follow up the White album with a mountain of ideas and bucketing jams.
The original demos are an adventure on their own with versions of All Things Must Pass lurking in the loose jams and attempts at songwriting. Somehow an album was made up from these scraps. It’s perhaps the Beatles weakest album but is that down to the songwriting or the fact the George MArtin was not around to sprinkle his school masterly magic over the band?
KEY SONG : Get Back : The most concise and finished sounding song on the album is this Paul rocker. The filmed live performance last stand in 1969 on the Savile Row roof is one of pop culture’s finest moments.