Yesterday’s blog was about the humdrum nature of life in April with every day the same as epitomised by Lou Reed’s “Metal Machine Music”. Interestingly, yesterday afternoon, I thought I’d listen to a bit more of Lou Reed’s provocative album and I actually drifted off to sleep for twenty minutes. It sounded the same when I woke up but it was a relaxing sleep. Once, when Roo and I moved into rented accommodation in Falmer, right by the non-stop traffic on the A27, I fell asleep in the garden. It shows that I don’t need absolute silence to drift off to sleep. I will try “Metal Machine Music” next time I have insomnia.
Today, I thought I’d write about the other extreme, “The Beatles”, often mistakenly referred to as “The White Album”. (Which reminds me of R.E.M.’s album “Green” which a friend of mine once referred to as “Orange” because the cover is orange. An easy mistake to make and not one that I would remember for over twenty five years and find a public forum to shame him. No names but he supports a team which play in gold so maybe he was fantasising about replacing “Hi Ho Silver Lining” with “World Leader Pretend”).
“The Beatles” is a fantastic album because it is so varied and so full. In the days since lockdown and retirement, I often think that my days are long and empty whereas, in reality, that’s not the case. Maybe I’m just dealing with retirement. This week, I’ve had two great evenings in Norwich with Paddy, carried out a Samaritans shift and two Leaders shifts, had a Zoom meeting about the Samaritans’ blog, spoken to Andy, Ben, Paddy, Arthur, John, Rob, Joyce and Pete on the phone, met Steph for a walk, gone to Peter’s lovely garden for a discussion on the album by Millennium as well as watching two great 20/20 matches (victory for Kent AND England) and two very dull football matches on the TV. I’ve also gone for a 3-4 mile walk every day. And still I’m complaining. As Carly Simon once sung, “These are the good old days”. These are the days of “The Beatles”.
I think this is the fourth Beatles album I’ve written about. As always, I thought I’d do some research before starting writing but there’s so much out there. I have two very long reviews in UNCUT and MOJO of the 2018 re-release. Ian MacDonald’s book, “Revolution In The Head” is fascinating, of course. Mark Lewisohn’s “Beatles Chronicle” is very complete. The re-release itself has a huge booklet of information written by Kevin Howlett. Quite probably, if I really wanted to write a definitive summary of this album, it would take me several months to summarise and synthesise all this information. So I’m not going to try and just write some random comments.
My favorite track on the album is “Happiness Is A Warm Gun”. I always assumed that The Beatles had recorded each of the four sections separately and George Martin had subsequently edited all the pieces together, but this is not the case. The band made ninety five takes (performing the whole song each time) and the final version is an edit of just two of them, the splice coming in just before the last section. There was also a deleted vocal which left the word “down” at the end of the second (instrumental) section. I have always been a sucker for a song with different sections – it’s why I love lots of The Incredible String Band songs or “Broken Arrow” by Buffalo Springfield. As with most of the great Beatles tracks, Ringo Starr’s drumming on this track is sensational. It can often be forgotten when considering the originality and creativity of The Beatles what fantastic vocalists John Lennon and Paul McCartney were. On this song, John Lennon’s voice is powerful, raw and emotional.
On “Julia”, John Lennon’s voice is sad, raw and emotional. The song features the finger picking folk style guitar playing that Donovan reckons he taught The Beatles in Rishikesh in early 1968. Ian MacDonald writes a brilliant piece about this song in “Revolution In The Head”. John Lennon idolised his mother (Julia Lennon) for many reasons, one of which was that she was slightly unattainable as he was sent to live with his Aunt. Another reason that he idolised (or idealised?) her is that she was killed when he was seventeen years old. Ian MacDonald writes that John Lennon’s “relationships with women, who found themselves endlessly measured against the incomparable Julia, remained angry and often violent.” He writes that this song represents a passing of his muse from Julia Lennon to Yoko Ono. The song is titled “Julia” but the references to “ocean child” (which is the Japanese meaning of “Yoko”) make the merging of the two muses significant. The lyric “her hair of floating sky is shimmering” applies to both Julia Lennon and Yoko Ono. Ian MacDonald concludes that “once he had rid his soul of grief for Julia Lennon, his creativity forfeited its pressure and, during his more reconciled final decade, his output lost most of the edge and forcefulness it displayed at its fundamentally unhappy zenith in the mid Sixties”. Obviously, he had to exorcise more of his demons about Julia in his “Plastic Ono Band” album two years later but I can see the sense of this argument.
If I ever ask someone for their address and they live at Number Nine, I always (internally, I hope), recite “Number Nine. Number Nine” in homage to “the world’s most widely distributed avant-garde artefact” as Ian MacDonald writes in another amazing essay in his book. He writes that it is likely that most people who own this album only ever played “Revolution 9” once but nevertheless exposure to the eight minutes of this track was designed to change the way people experience reality. As normal perception of listening to “music” was challenged in this track, The Beatles were responsible for causing a revolution in the heads of anyone who listened, if only once.
Another interesting aspect of this track is that the sound collage represents “the half sceptical, half-awake, channel hopping state of mind” that John Lennon liked, “representing the sound an infant might have apprehended in a suburban garden during a typical post war summer” according to Ian MacDonald. That’s fascinating. Channel hopping on the TV, doom scrolling on a phone or listening to “Revolution 9” are all ways of reverting back to infancy where we absorb everything without making sense of anything.
I also can’t hear the word claret without thinking of the exchange between Alistair Taylor and George Martin at the beginning of the track. “I’d have bought a bottle of claret for you if I’d realised. I’d forgotten all about it George, I’m sorry. Well do next time. Will you forgive me? Mmm yes. Cheeky bitch.”
This is an incredible album. The variety of genres is incredible. The production is incredible. The playing is incredible. The singing is incredible. It’s incredible how incredible it all is.