After Learning…With The Beatles
After Geography, their decision to stop touring, and After Math, the necessity to look after their own business affairs, for The Beatles it was also After School; time to be mature and make their own business decisions. They might have appeared like omnipotent masters to their fans, but from late 1967 they had to take all the decisions about their ever-expanding business affairs without Brian Epstein’s support; and work out how to realise their increasingly complex approach to music-making into something marketable.
On September 1st 1967, whilst the public still thought that The Beatles had reached yet another unparalleled peak of fame after Sgt Peppers, John, Paul, George and Ringo gathered at McCartney’s house in St Johns Wood to discuss how they would proceed after the death of their manager Brian Epstein. Twenty four days later they had finished primary production on Magical Mystery Tour. Epstein’s death meant that the support network that had enabled the three phases of their learning and creativity had gone; brutally severed as they were cast out of Real Love. Lennon said they knew “they were fucked, basically” and, arguably, the perceived disaster of the psychedelic Magical Mystery Tour being shown in black and white on BBC TV confirmed that premonition.
On the other hand the “cathartic” Magical Mystery Tour was rushed into after Epstein’s accidental overdose, unlike their previous three albums where they were allowed preparation time, and was probably designed to prevent them being “extras in our own movie” as Lennon described HELP! Paul’s touchingly naive description of how he and John tried writing a play in 1961, “we thought it would be stream of consciousness,” which produced one brief scene after 20 minutes labour, hints at the hubris they brought to their first screenplay. Unlike when George Martin took the 1′ 10″ of Please Please Me offered to him and created the signature studio sound of the Beatles in 1963 neither Willy Russell (of John, Paul, George, Ringo and Bert), nor Alun Owen (of Hard Days Night), were around to transform the sketch of Paul’s magic circle diagram into a decent screenplay. Notwithstanding this early failure the Beatles now looked to take their mature creative nous into every domain they were involved in, including management, and on November 17th 1967 Apple emerged from this furiously sad chaos.
On reflection, for me, 1968 was The Beatles most fascinating year because, for the first time, they were on their own; and they rose to the challenge. From the perspective of this analysis of their learning I would argue that they were no longer in an evolving learning phase and September 1967 to September 1969 represents the mature phase of the Group Genius known as The Beatles. The End was recorded on August 18th 1969, Abbey Road mastered on August 20th, and Lennon premiered Cold Turkey live in Toronto on September 13 1969. Just like I Am The Walrus and Revolution it never did become a Beatles single, and is now part of the endless analysis about the acrimonious end of The Beatles. As I mentioned before, as the quintessential sixties band The Beatles splitting up at the end of the 1969 was at exactly the right moment. Allocating blame to that process is just perverse, based more on retrospectively applying what is now known about the Beatles personal and group narratives to their music rather than actually listening to it. Such that on The White Album, Jerry Zolten in 2009 says that “the break-up of The Beatles can be heard.” Stylus Magazine’s “Second Thoughts” (2003) however is a truly insightful re-evaluation of the quality of the music on The Beatles, which I wish I had written.
Conversely I think 1968, whilst clearly containing the seeds of destruction, contained the Beatles greatest triumphs. They launched the insanely ambitious Apple Corps and released their greatest single and album. Well this is an endless debate with several of their albums and singles having their champions. However many people, including producer George Martin, think the White Album should have been a single album. There is even, in 2010, an online game where you can select your own version. (Just create a playlist lads; and then change it tomorrow). Myself, I’ll go with Galactic Ramble’s riposte to George Martin’s desire for a tight single album. “The greatest group in the world at the height of their powers and you want a single album? No way! We want a triple album with the out-takes and the single, please.” Amen to that!
Here they are; “The Beatles”
I think the White Album displays three key characteristics;
- proper preparation time, out of the public eye in Rishikesh and then at George’s house, allowing them to produce 30 songs before recording even started.
- an “atelier” approach to recording whereby the group genius of The Beatles also encompassed their work for Apple and their burgeoning solo work. Apple became the new NEMS…
- yet another fresh concept underpinning the album, this time the idea of each track as an album itself.
The real title of the White Album is “The Beatles” and I think this indicates how it was perceived as representing a fresh start for them; compounded by the bitter-sweet lapsarian bite of knowledge that calling their label Apple represents, and the tabula rasa that the plain White sleeve intimates. Furthermore this was the first time in two years that they didn’t cope with their ridiculous fame by presenting themselves through a colourful metaphor; Lonely Club Band members, Mystery Tourists or Yellow Submariners. Instead they declared plainly and simply; We Are The Beatles. And they backed it up with the longest, most fecund and diverse album yet released.
1. The Beatles time in Rishikesh in the Himalayan foothills was a long time alone together out of the public eye, even though Ringo left after ten days. Donovan taught them finger picking and its rural influence runs like a spun thread through the album, summed up best perhaps by Mother Nature’s Son. In May 68 they spent 2 days at George’s house Kinfauns and put together 27 tracks which they presented to George Martin when they began recording on May 30th 1968.
2. Despite Studio 2 being “craft central” at Abbey Road, Martin opened up 3 studios as they had so much material to work on, which was often done in parallel. To me this represents the evolution of The Beatles to an Atelier craft-based style of working under the Beatles brand, not four guys each with a backing group, certainly not a catastrophic breakdown. It represented yet another new way of working and the challenge helped keep them interested.
3. The creative burst of songwriting that came from Rishikesh meant The Beatles went into the studio with all the songs in place and spent time, like Revolver, in developing a specific soundscape AND style for each song. This time they recorded 14 different styles of music (Ian Inglis 2009), making the album sound like it lacked the coherence that the clear sonic unity of earlier albums suggested. Actually I think this recording in parallel came from a surfeit of creativity, symptomatic of the newly mature Beatles as professional recording artists, rather than reflecting the personal disunity that was developing in their private lives. It is the sound of The Beatles at the height of their powers as creative professionals.
Count Us Out
So for a brief time the collaborative artistic collective known as The Beatles, working for Apple achieved a creative intensity that represented their work as mature professional musicians and which possibly could have contributed to changing the world which was Worry Number One in 1968. As the completely bonkers music critic David Quantick argues in articulating his belief that this is the greatest album of all time, “the White Album is both a snapshot of the time it was recorded and a piece of music that stands alone, outside time and fashion”. In my opinion this was the last time that they tried to re-imagine and invent the future and present its possibilities to us, their fans and contemporaries, offering something for our imaginations to play with. As it turned out 1968 was to be their high-water mark rather than the continuation of the endless new possibilities they kept offering us.
As I will discuss next week they weren’t the only ones. Cream and Jimi Hendrix had similar ideas about re-imagining music in the Atelier style, and The Band were doing something similar. Sadly we didn’t understand what we were being offered. We wanted the Situation to remain the same, better albums lasting 35 minutes, and we preferred to be entertained spectacularly rather than investigating our own creative possibilities. (How do we create for ourselves oh Beatles?). Nonetheless 1968 represents The Beatles at a creative peak, even without the full panoply of support they had been graced with previously.