We Can Work It Out

Learning from Learning…With The Beatles; from romantic to Romantic

Having proved themselves in the school of hit records, by narrowing their focus and delivering to EMI’s template, The Beatles grew in confidence between the return from their first visit to the USA and the end of their second visit in August 1964. They met Dylan at Delmonico’s, who dismissed their silly love songs and gave them a greater Romantic vision of their possibilities. And so they embarked on the andragogic phase of their learning.

By the summer of 64 The Beatles, supported by a nation of Fifth Beatles, had created a new context in which they could operate, by extending the expectations of the fifties rock n rollers they so admired. By linking up with George Martin and Richard Lester they produced records and albums that went beyond what Cliff Richard had created with the more traditional Norrie Parrimor at Columbia, and a film that seethed with the cool sensibilities of nouvelle vague rather than looking to stage opportunities for young people to demonstrate their music hall abilities through music and dance routines; Una Stubbs was not the harbinger of a more self-conscious sixties.

So just a year after the peak of Cliff’s old-style success with Summer Holiday they had accidentally created new commercially creative ground through fortuitous collaborations with other ground-breaking artists. In this they were far better served than, say, Ray Davis who in 1964 was fighting Pye, and his own group The Kinks, to get the right sound to his own ground-breaking single You Really Got Me.
The golden USA, the land that had produced the hit singles and the, usually black, artists, that had transformed The Beatles, and many others, had been conquered and they bestrode the world of hit singles; whilst under constant demand for even more golden hit records. After 6 straight massive number one singles, they knew they had graduated from the school of hit records magnum cum laude, with several enduring distinctions and even MBE‘s from the government.

The andragogic phase of The Beatles was mostly about them relaxing and being allowed to be the explorative fans of music they really were, rather than pupils taking instruction from Monseigneur George Martin.
I also think that the court of Scotch and Coke in St James (London), where they mixed with their musical peers and social equals, the Stones, the Moody Blues, the Who and the Animals, along with the consequent raising of the musical game by everyone in 1965, as more and more groups broke through with new ideas, from Art Schools, Ealing, the Thames Delta and elsewhere (even Manchester), allowed the Beatles to mix up their ideas anew and transform MerseyBeat into rock music.

But most of all The Beatles reconnected with MUSIC. Pop Superstardom is all very well but its essential hysteria isn’t very satisfying. Kenneth Womack in the excellent Long and Winding Roads, sees the focus of the Beatles work as being “musical creation” and in their andragogic phase this is what The Beatles turned to, first exploring paths suggested by others, taking on their pretenders, especially The Byrds and Dylan, but also the Stones and The Who, and synthesising something beyond Merseybeat into arguably the first rock album; Rubber Soul. And then trumped it with arguably the best rock album of the sixties; Revolver. So obviously the best that Pitchfork magazine wont even discuss favourite sixties albums. George Martin’s work too can also be characterised as being about musical creation.

Dylanesque; with friends…

The Beatles played Shea Stadium on August 24th 1964 to close another triumphant American tour and went to the legendary Delmonicos to celebrate, where they met the wordsmith Bob Dylan, who was probably the only person who could challenge their success for being shallow and stay in the room. George Harrison had played his first two albums relentlessly until both Lennon and McCartney became fans. Harrison had also befriended Dave Crosby of The Byrds whose folk-rock sound would make them America’s answer to the Beatles and ultimately influence Rubber Soul. Folk rock comes from a tradition that is more concerned with social protest than moon-in-june romance. As a result of the meeting with Dylan the metacognitive inventiveness that they had applied to their music began to be applied to their lyrics.

Their next album, the ironically entitled Beatles for Sale featuring an exhausted looking foursome on the cover, opened with the Dylanesque “Lennon Trilogy” including their scheduled next single “I’m A Loser.” At the last minute EMI demanded a happier tune and overnight, again, Lennon reeled off the cheerfully classic I Feel Fine which, coupled with She’s A Woman, also reflected the minor Beatles trope of outstanding B-sides to great singles.

Andragogic Excellence; In The Lands of the Fifth Beatles

This relatively short-lived Andragogic phase was one of trying new things out, extending the range of Merseybeat, collaborating with others, looking at ways of developing their skill as musicians, lyricists and songwriters as well as exploring the studio. Whilst at the same time of course still fulfilling their obligations as the worlds greatest group  and also living up to the ridiculous expectation of their fans to remain godlike entities.  However, somehow, the witty and creative Beatles almost always had the British public on their side, largely because they were working class boys who had made good nationally, whereas previously being a senior manager in a minor company would have been the limit of our ambitions. And also because, for the first time since World War Two, after all those years, Britain was demonstrably better at something than the rest of the world;  thanks to our very own Beatles Band…
As well as being a nation of Fifth Beatles the musical competition raised its game and 1965 saw a string of awesome hit records. Dylan, influenced in part by The Beatles, went electric and released the awesome Like A Rolling Stone, the Rolling Stones released their own She Loves You and went global with Satisfaction and The Who burst through with the climactic rock single My Generation. Arguably 1965 was the best year for “pop” “hit records” ever (see Rolling Stones 500 best songs for a discussion) and for the first time a Beatles single wasn’t a shoo-in for best single. HELP! had to some extent sidelined them as the leading creative pop musicians and it even seemed they might be resting on their laurels; or just giggling their life away with waccy baccy rather than gigging their life away. It was their turn to spoof James Bond after Sean Connery had dismissed them in Goldfinger. Arguably Richard Lester used HELP! to further his own career more than The Beatles; which would have been reasonable given that they were “extras in their own movie”.

Bringing the future back home for us

The Beatles response to being encouraged by others, and their peers, was Rubber Soul. The finest album of the first half of the sixties offered a new template; the self-contained rock band consciously producing the album as cultural artefact. I remember thinking at the time that The Beatles were the scouts of popular culture. It was them who explored the R&D of fellow and outre artists on our behalf, brought back what they had learnt and developed a fresh synthesis for “one and all” of us.
We all benefited from their experiments. Or rather, in Open Context Model speak, they went to the heutagogues, learnt something new and represented it as a new orthodoxy; they synthesised the future and created a fresh present we could build on… How exciting was that?
Contrast this to the musical situation today where Simon Cowell synthesises an old past, coats the present with the proven dog-turds of history and makes us despair for the future.

And the Beatles taught us well. No wonder in the sixties we felt that we were capable of building a new future; The bloody Beatles did it every time they released a new album. The one time they failed to re-invent the future (Get Back) they split up as they had finally let their standards slip. How bloody awesome is that? No wonder Brian Wilson had a nervous breakdown trying to follow Revolver. No wonder the Stones reverted to their rhythm and blues roots with the great Beggars Banquet after the humiliations of Requesting a Satanically Majestic follow up to Sgt Pepper; then again at least they tried. And great musical artists usually bounce back. They reflect on their failures and learn from them.

Consequences and Follow Ups
Rubber Soul was a great rock album where The Beatles synthesised Dylan, The Byrds, themselves (Lennon on ballads, McCartney on rockers), the Kinks, The Who, The Animals, The Moody Blues (the leading scenesters in Soho), new instruments (electric pianos, acoustic guitars) and new studio affordances.  At the time I remember endless discussions concerning specific tracks with my friends. Our debates had moved on from which track could have been a hit record in its own right, to what was the meaning of each song; little universes were being opened up. At least eight tracks were endlessly debated amongst us and whilst we were admittedly a bunch of fourteen and fifteen year old lads, we were united by The Beatles in a way that nothing else did in either our comprehensive school or private lives. Rubber Soul represented The Beatles as a rock band who had learnt from their friends and were also playing songs for their peers. Because the bloody fans wouldn’t shut up screaming whilst they played, and the sexual courtship of stardom wasn’t quite so necessary any more.

Learning from Learning…With The Beatles
Having had to prove their pedagogic worth with “hit records” (George Martin’s proudest boast is that he produced the number one single for 37 out of 52 weeks in 1963, Parlophone’s cup was brimful) The Beatles had some space for musical development, where their schedule allowed it. In the andragogic phase of learning we look for a greater range of collaboration and partnerships but arguably this characteristic, which I see captured in the term Fifth Beatle, was something that was to some extent suppressed in the early days whilst they made their name in London, Britain and the World, but had been a ongoing element of their career. They had developed support networks from early on, and from Stuart Sutcliffe onwards people had joined with them to enable the next stage of success. Some of them stayed with The Beatles, like Niel Aspinall, some of them fell by the wayside like Allan Williams. Mostly they were well-served by the members of their developing support networks and this contributed to their ongoing development and to their ability to weather setbacks. The Beatles who signed for Parlophone were not the Beatles who became mature album artists with Rubber Soul.

Having emerged from the peculiar conjunction of working-class opportunism and middle class aspiration that the welfare state enabled, the Beatles started to build on the devastated bomb-site that was post-war Britain, like protean Romantic artists whose mission was nothing less than “cultural and spiritual renewal” (Dorothy Rowe). Dylan, Crosby, soul and America had widened their horizons and renewed their fuel-load but it was the British context that they were attempting to transcend, and refresh.  And the learning processes that they brought to bear on the tensions that separated metropolitan and provincial England were to absorb them even more in future. They had learnt what their peers, The Goons, George Martin, Richard Lester, Brian Epstein, and their own history, including musical hall and scouse culture, had taught them, and The Word was to become creativity.

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