Friday, August 28, 2009

No Ordinary Fad
Making sense of the Beatles, whose music has been digitally re-mastered and featured in a new video game

Someone once noted that, other than Shakespeare, the Beatles may be Western culture's only instance of the best and the most popular being the same thing. It's not hard to imagine 500 years from now people questioning, as they have with Shakespeare's plays, how four young working-class guys with no training could have made so much music so varied and so consistently first-rate in less than a decade, evolving at a pace that would exhaust amoebas. It may take U2 five years to produce an album, but only 38 months (five albums, more than 70 songs) separated the Beatles' winningly naive "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and the nuclear Debussy of "Strawberry Fields Forever," which sounded like nothing else in 20th-century pop before or after. Shakespeare didn't have a digital age to bear witness, but the reissue this month—for the first time since the mid-'80s—of the Beatles' work on CD not only verifies the scope of their accomplishment but snatches it from the noisy distractions of their mystique.

Two different audiences for the Beatles exist. For anyone much over 50 the Beatles' impact was so massive, it still feels immediate; that this music was made nearly half a century ago is an invitation to mortal terror. Those under 50 must groan at the mere mention of the band let alone the oppressive cast of its shadow. It doesn't hurt, then, to remember the messy beginning, acknowledging there does seem something slightly supernatural about it, particularly when you consider that in the early '60s, the post-World War II U.K. was crawling with such bands. The Beatles themselves existed in other incarnations early on, first as the Quarrymen, then the Moondogs, erratically numbering five or six who always included John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. They were the bottom of the barrel. On the Liverpool circuit Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, the seaport's hottest drummer and coveted by the Beatles until they landed him for their first album, was the bigger star. Surrounding the band is a bit of the Robert Johnson legend, having to do with a '30s Mississippi singer-guitarist of no special faculties who disappeared one night and returned at dawn the greatest blues artist of all time, a deal with the Devil in his back pocket. Not competent enough to get a gig in their hometown, the Beatles decamped to the ash heaps of Germany, playing among the strippers in depraved hellholes where pickpockets worked the crowd, then returned a few months later to Liverpool in Robert Johnson style as the greatest band of all time, to the astonishment of anyone who remembered them.

Hometown triumph notwithstanding, the band's records were released in the United States to indifference a year before a momentous television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In retrospect the performance was less impressive than boomer memory allows. McCartney trilled songs from The Music Man, the big Broadway show of the day. So the new CD reissues are a testament to what no 21st-century skepticism can assail: If the band's second album, With the Beatles (released in England on the day of John Kennedy's assassination), was a powerhouse consolidation of their gifts, the Brit version of A Hard Day's Night just four months after the American breakthrough, timed to coincide with a witty, irrepressible movie, was the quantum leap that put any doubters in their place. It was the first album on which the band, mostly Lennon and McCartney, wrote everything, demonstrating the freshest melodic sense since Puccini. The singing was almost as spectacular.

With A Hard Day's Night, the Beatles began to assert their individual personalities as they continued cohering into a single superpersonality. This was a gestalt no other band ever has quite replicated, with talents, viewpoints, and temperaments overlapping and complementing one another. McCartney and Lennon shared the loss of orphans, McCartney's mother taken by cancer and Lennon's run over by a cop (which must have cemented his antiauthoritarian tendencies), and each responded in ways that distinguished him, McCartney with plucky opportunism, Lennon with pain and rage. Growing up the youngest of four siblings, Harrison again found himself the "kid" whose frequent dismissal by a new set of older brothers only drove him to prove something. Starr, the product of a broken marriage and a childhood of crises (in a coma at the age of six, then a sanatorium for two years of his adolescence), had learned not to take too much too seriously. What he couldn't give the band in vision he supplied in professionalism, perspective, and bonhomie. These were four psyches in the kind of lucky alignment that any Vegas slot machine pays off in millions.

No comments: