1969 – Nothings Gonna Change My World
In 1969 the Art Collective known as The Beatles imploded; more precisely the “Musical Instrument known as The Beatles”, as Brian Eno would characterise them, no longer had Brian Epstein to care of the business. In 1968 they really had taken care of the music and taken care of business, after a fashion. The Beatles had triumphed musically, but it hadn’t really been recognised; Lennon, left fuming at the end of 1968, shared his pain in a lengthy interview to a student, recently published in New Statesman. They had taken care of Business by launching Apple Corps and Apple Records, but they couldn’t hang on to the money they were making. Despite making the music/business equation work in 1968 it was to tear them apart during 1969. Not least because their work as creators of, and commentators on, the sixties was done. They didn’t fully understand how they had achieved that, and we didn’t get it at the time either.
A few years ago Mojo magazine devoted a whole issue to 1969, pointing out how The Band and others promoted a post-psychedelic back to music-making ethos that George Harrison particularly picked up on. However in 2009 Mojo produced a special edition celebrating 1969 in terms of the emergence of Led Zeppelin. Uncut recently celebrated 1969 for the quality of albums released that year and, although Abbey Road is rated highest, the range of music on album in 1969 is impressive. Woodstock also happened putting another of the trends of the seventies in place and The Beatles were becoming irrelevant to the rich tapestry of downer stadium rock that was emerging.
The advent of the Musicians Collective
Ironically the Beatles and other musicians were drawing up the threads of an alternative history that never happened. In reviewing the way the Beatles made albums, their enduring contribution to rock history, the White Album particularly stands out as it represents a way of working as an Art Collective, what I call an Atelier studio model, releasing music under The Beatles brand on Apple, and others on Zapple, reflecting their diverse range and interests. Interestingly both Cream and Jimi Hendrix were moving to a similar approach at the same time. Undoubtably the Stones Rock n Roll Circus also fits this collaborative Musicians Collective approach with Lennons Dirty Mac exemplifying this model. Unfortunately the Stones own performance suffered in comparison to Jethro Tull and especially The Who so, sadly, they never released it at the time. Mick Jagger never made the same mistake again and crossed over to the other side.
In Composing Myself Jack Bruce suggests that all three members of Cream found it limited their broader interests in music making. He argues that his own interest in jazz, Clapton’s in less ego-driven music and Baker’s in World Music could have been framed under the Cream banner with a concert of four parts, concluding with a Cream improvisation. Like The Beatles their final tour of America tore them violently apart and it never happened. Ironically Jimi Hendrix got closer to achieving this Musicians Collective approach in his final concert as the Jimi Hendrix Experience at the Royal Albert Hall on February 24 1969 where Fat Mattress, his bassist’s group, was a support band. Hendrix, like Cream, wanted each musician to play their own music on the undercard (like his own Gypsy, Sun and Rainbows at Woodstock) with the Experience climaxing the show. Sadly Cream and Hendrix had even worse management than the Allen Klein directed Beatles and these music-oriented solutions had no chance in the business conditions of the time. However as well as the White Album Jack Bruce presented a version of this approach successfully on the over-looked classic Songs For A Tailor, and Hendrix died whilst he was trying to complete his own First Rays of the New Rising Sun. These albums are all tight musically with arrangements and playing that serve the song rather than flaunting the egos of the musicians. Although Rock albums they complement the approach pioneered by the Band in Big Pink, and Fairport Convention on Leige and Lief, which took old songs and radically refresh them with a rock sensibility and that creative sixties “lets start over” vibe. Sadly it turned out we preferred the spectacle of rock stars in their pomp with our lighters raised in the air in supplication.
Let It Be
My opinion concerning the Get Back project is that it was a brilliant idea but way too much, far too soon after the White Album, and crucially they situated the recording in entirely the wrong place. The Beatles were consummate craftsmen in Studio 2 at Abbey Road, and the neat idea of showing their creativity in action was scuppered by locating it in Twickenham to allow for the cameras. Right idea; creativity. Wrong context; aircraft-hangar film studio. Wrong time too, January 2nd 1969 just 6 weeks after the White Album launch, and lacking preparation and time for reflection, just like their other comparative failure Magical Mystery Tour. And as with HELP! they were dependent on the working processes of the film crew. Critically they were working without George Martin. The Beatles strength was when they were working collaboratively as a group in the studio, specifically Abbey Road Studio 2, without the distraction of business affairs. None of these features were in place on Get Back. In the end The Beatles effectively knocked the Let It Be album out in four days in the studio and 45 minutes on the roof, whilst the film failed to reveal the creative process that had produced so many great albums. But a contract obligation to United Artists had been fulfilled…
In my opinion The Beatles broke up at this time. George, Ringo and John had quit in different ways and at different times before the Get Back debacle. I still think it was a genius idea of McCartney’s but it wasn’t thought out and McCartney foolishly continued to act as the Brian Epstein of the group, thus breaking the species barrier between musician and businessman. The problem with this is that The Beatles needed to work collectively on their music as a group, that was their genius. But with the advent of Apple and the re-negotiation of The Beatles contracts, the arrival of Robert Stigwood and Allen Klein meant that the biggest cashcow in entertainment was up for grabs and, in the main, they were no longer in charge of their destinies; the Funny Papers had been served. In 1969 The Beatles weren’t taking care of business, whilst back at the store the Longest Cocktail Party in History was in progress. TLC and support for the Fabs was distinctly missing. Perhaps even Brian Epstein couldn’t have stopped them being colonised by the vulture capitalists who had arrived to gain access to their unprecedented cashflow, but Apple wasn’t set up to resist a hostile take-over.
Abbey Road was a coda, the reunion album produced before we even knew that they had spilt up. Finally they weren’t pushing the boundaries any more, they made tracks in the epic style that they had perfected on the White Album, and were back working in Craft Central with George Martin pulling bars and scraps of inspiration together with their group genius for music making. The collaborative creativity of the group however was in full flow; Harrison was supreme and the final Medley also allowed Martin to realise his vision of an operatic Beatles, which he was to fulfil on Love. Abbey Road is The Beatles album that is the most respected in the 21st Century, but in the end it was a valedictory act not a rebirth.
So in the end John, Paul, George and Ringo left the fifties boys club known as The Beatles and went off to live their lives as grown ups in the socially changed landscape they had help create. The love they made has been remastered and you are still free to take it and enjoy it; anytime at all…
When I’m 64
And it is Happy Birthday to Kevin Donovan who is now happily 64;