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The WILT Archive

What I'm Listening tO

        Since I like to write, quite a few people have suggested I write a blog. But I’m not especially interested in writing about myself. I did enough of that in my book (A Cure For Gravity) and even that is as much about music as it is about me.

        Writing about music is difficult, but I still find it interesting to try. So, once a month, I’m going to write a few words about a few things I’ve been listening to. It can’t hurt, and who knows, it might even do some good.

November 2016: Beatle Juice

Regina Spektor has a new album out, and on first hearing, it's very interesting indeed. But I'm trying not to repeat myself here, so instead of writing more about her, I'm going to write about someone who everyone and their granny has already written about. Having seen Ron Howard's new documentary Eight Days A Week, about The Beatles' touring years, and having done a bit of subsequent listening, I thought I'd try to write something about The Beatles. Go on! Laugh! Shake your heads in sad disbelief! Oh well, as I think I said in my book, it's impossible to write about music anyway, but we keep doing it, just like lemmings keep throwing themselves off of cliffs.

A couple of years ago I was exploring a funky neighbourhood away from the tourist hordes in one of my favourite cities, Prague. It was mid-afternoon, and, feeling peckish, I went into the only place that looked open. It had dirty net curtains and a dead plant in the window. Inside, it smelled of wet cardboard, and the clientele consisted of three morose, grumbling old geezers. The beer was cheap and astonishingly good. My kind of place. And guess what: the music was The Beatles. Which inspired two thoughts.

Firstly, the Czech Republic has the best beer in the world. Not too weak or too strong, too bitter or too sweet; fresh, smooth, thirst-quenching and addictive. Why is that so hard for other countries to do? I'll never forget my father, on his one visit to New York thirty years ago, trying an American beer he pronounced 'Bud Wheezer', and judged to be 'cat piss'. To be fair, I disagreed. Surely cat piss has much more flavor? Fast forward, though, and (thanks to that great American tradition of hurtling in an evangelical frenzy from one extreme to another) every hick town in the USA now has a 'Craft' brewery, so we have: Choice!! Yes, a choice between Triple-Hopped Barrel-Aged Molecular Sour Pomegranate Dark Rye Ale, or cat piss. What's so hard about making Good Honest Beer?

But I digress. Why? Because I still don't know how to start writing about The Beatles, that's why. All right, here goes: my other thought in that nameless (or unpronounceable) Prague dive was that this was the first time in a hundred years that I'd heard actual Beatles music in a bar, club, restaurant, or even a supermarket. And I decided that people almost never actually play those records any more, because they don't need to. They've been so thoroughly absorbed, and are so much a part of us, that we know them inside out and backwards even if we never hear them again. How true that is for people much younger than me, I'm not sure, but a friend of mine told me just the other day that she'd overheard her five-year-old son singing Yellow Submarine, and had no idea where he'd picked it up. Maybe The Beatles are now actually being passed along in our DNA.

THE BEATLES:  Live at the Hollywood Bowl  /  Rubber Soul

The first thing that really struck me about Ron Howard's movie, and listening to this tie-in remastered live album, was that The Beatles were a hell of a live rock'n'roll band. We all know this, of course, but I think we sometimes forget. John Lennon once said something to the effect that relatively few people ever heard the band at its best, and in a situation where they could actually hear them. I can well believe this. Even the best live recordings we have, are simply that: the best we have.

Nevertheless, those recordings show, if nothing else, that The Beatles rocked, and sang in tune, even when they could barely hear themselves. And I simply can't understand how they did it. (I mean, I started my career with crappy equipment and no monitor speakers, too, but I can't seem to remember any thousands of screaming girls). And Ringo played his ass off. I hope no one still makes those lame jokes about him being the luckiest guy in show biz. He was one of The Beatles, and there were four of them. Get over it.

The other thing that never ceases to amaze me – and this is all quite apart from the songwriting genius of John and Paul, which, really, would have been more than enough - is the chemistry, the camaraderie, the love, between these four guys. I love the anecdotes about, for instance, them taking over a whole floor of the Plaza Hotel in New York, which was packed with every imaginable species of hanger-on, while the boys themselves were all crammed into a bathroom somewhere, taking the piss at the whole thing, cracking each other up.

Ringo, at one point, remarks that he was an only child, but as soon as he joined The Beatles, he had three brothers. I nearly cried into my popcorn. I wanted to say these are my brothers too. I grew up with them, even if they were much older brothers, or more likely, cool young uncles.

In another interview clip, John says that only Elvis had experienced the madness and mania that The Beatles went through – and that he felt sorry for Elvis, because he was basically alone, whereas The Beatles had each other. It must have been that, and their incredible sense of humour, that kept them touring for a couple of years after it had become emotionally, psychologically, logistically, and musically impossible.

Now that I think about it, though, it must have been around the time The Beatles stopped touring, that I lost interest. I caught up with them again a few years later, but between the ages of about twelve and fifteen, I became The Weird Kid, who was studying the violin and piano and music theory. So, around the time The Beatles stopped playing Roll Over Beethoven, my new hero was Beethoven.

The first two major Beethoven pieces I studied and loved were, pretty much by accident, the Second and Third Symphonies. It only occurs to me now to compare them – if it's not too far-fetched – to Rubber Soul and Revolver. Beethoven's Second is wonderful, and underrated only because it was followed by such a blockbuster. The Third Symphony, aka the Eroica, is so revolutionary that anything before it suddenly seems a bit redundant. And yet the Second was both a great leap forward from the First, and the most boldly original symphony anyone had created up till then. 

Rubber Soul is The Beatles' great leap forward, their transitional point between being a band that played gigs and churned out hit singles in between, and being studio craftsmen of eclectic and innovative albums. Revolver, The Beatles' Eroica, is regarded by most critics as their greatest album and, therefore, the greatest album of all time, and it probably deserves to be. (It probably deserves to be for Tomorrow Never Knows alone). What this means, though, is that to fully appreciate Rubber Soul, you have to pretend you've never heard Revolver.

I tried this the other day. For the first time in ages, I sat down and listened to a Beatles album from start to finish (using, of course, the most recent remastered mono version, which really does sound better than either the earlier masterings or the dubious stereo version). Did I manage to forget the existence of Revolver (or Sgt. Pepper)? Well, not really. But I loved every minute, even if every minute was as familiar as something tattooed on the inside of my eyelids.