The Beatles – Magical Mystery Tour: Round 67, Nick’s choice

beatlesMMTRound 67: because this came out in 67, you see. (Just; December.) But more importantly than that fact (which is actually merely incidental to this tale), in 1993 the FA Cup Final was on Saturday 15th May, which just so happened to be my 14th birthday. It also just so happened that the final was contested between Sheffield Wednesday – my family-supported club – and the evil, George Graham-managed Arsenal, the two teams meeting in a cup final for a second time that season. Arsenal had won the league cup, but surely Wednesday wouldn’t let that happen again, and would be triumphant on my birthday, and David Hirst and Chris Bart-Williams and Carlton Palmer and Chris Waddle et al would conjure me a day to remember forever.

But they didn’t. They drew. And it went to a reply five days later, which Arsenal won in ridiculous circumstances. And I instantly became much less interested in following football passionately, because it became very clear to me that all that romance and mythology and passion could very easily be struck down by ludicrous circumstances, that the good guys didn’t always win, and that even if you played ‘better’ you didn’t always get anything from it. So I needed a new hobby.

The other significant thing about May 15th 1993 is that my mum and dad bought be a ghetto-blaster type stereo thing, with a CD player. Previously I’d made do with an inherited cassette ghetto-blaster thing, and a cassette walkman I’d won on a kids’ TV quiz show when I was 10. But not I could have fidelity, invulnerability, and access to the enormous stacks of CDs that lined the shelves in the HMV where my brother worked. Out of love with football, gifted with a CD player, my passion and allegiances turned instantly, as fickle teenage passions often do, from one hobby to another; if you can call being in love with music a hobby.

One of the first CDs I had access to was this – The Beatles’ late-67 mish-mash EP-come-soundtrack-come-odds-and-ends thing, which rolled together Sgt Pepper leftovers and made-for-TV schmaltz with some amazing singles. My dad only owned a few handfuls of CDs, but this and Pepper were two of them, mystifyingly; he didn’t really like The Beatles that much and certainly wasn’t psychedelic in any way at all (other examples include Dave Brubeck, The Carpenters, Neil Diamond, and Queen; the latter also faintly incongruous). So I inherited (read: stole) Magical Mystery Tour and Pepper, and listened to them an inordinate amount of times, and preferred the less lauded one, possibly because it was groovier (that coda to “Strawberry Fields Forever”; “Baby You’re A Rich Man”).

21 years on, and it’s relatively clear to me now that Mystery Tour ended up being massively influential on my nascent musical taste: the abundance of weird codas that take tunes in totally different directions; the brass; McCartney’s enormous basslines; the faintly drifty instrumental filler; the eschewing of rhythm guitar; the synaesthetic sound palette that takes in everything you could imagine; the overt experimentalism that never excludes tunefulness; even the irritating schmaltz at the end. So much of this is now deeply embedded in the Pavlovian reactions I have to music that it’s quite weird going back to it now and considering it as a launch pad.

And oh man, do I still love “Baby You’re A Rich Man”. What bass, what drums, what crazy weird little organ fills. Amazing.

Tom listened: Even as a youngster, I always stuggled with The Beatles’ 1967 output. You’d think with a surname of Rainbow I would be more predisposed to the psychedelic end of the Beatles oeuvre but it has always left me cold. Listening to this again, for the first time in years, I found that little has changed. Sure there are a few pearls on MMT – as Nick rightly points out Baby You’re A Rich Man is one of the most under-rated Beatles songs and is deserving of all its latter day praise. It still feels cutting edge all these years later. I Am The Walrus is obviously brilliant but goes on too long. Strawberry Fields Forever is lovely and ground breaking and all that but I’ve probably heard it too many times and I love (unequivocally) the throw away Flying.

The rest veers, for me, from the tedious (MMT itself, Blue Jay Way, Hello Goodbye), to the mawkish (Fool on The Hill, Penny Lane) to the…well…the less said about All You Need Is Love and You Mother Should Know the better. To be fair, MMT was never meant to be more than a hotchpotch – cobbled together as opposed to meticulously crafted – but for me it represents the point at which The Beatles confirmed they had lost their way…only a year after the peerless Revolver too. The White Album’s mess hinted at a recovery, the dross to brilliance ratio being much lower and, as we’ve already discussed on these pages, Abbey Road is pretty great, but, for me, they peaked in ’66…in much the same way as English football (it appears Uruguay have nailed shut England’s coffin as I write).


The Beatles – Abbey Road: Round 46, Nick’s choice

TheBeatlesAbbeyRoadFor a swan song to really be a swan song, the artist in question has to know that this is the end, don’t they? In which case, this has to be the ultimate swan song album; it was certainly the most often mentioned when I threw the idea out to Twitter. Hell, it even finishes (sort of) with a song called “The End”.

It took me a long time to get round to Abbey Road; my Beatles fandom pretty much started with “Day Tripper” and Rubber Soul and ended with The White Album when I first got into them in my early teens. Let It Be was a bad aftertaste, and something about Abbey Road (probably “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) put me off getting to grips with it for quite a long time. While isolated tracks jumped out and did it for me, it probably wasn’t until the remasters in 2009 that I properly started enjoying the whole record. Bar “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”, of course. I think my friend James claimed Abbey Road as his favourite Beatles album when we were both discovering them, and I was happy to let him have it.

So I’m probably alone in having known George & Ringo’s stomping groove in “The End” from “The Sounds Of Science” by Beastie Boys before I knew it was The Beatles. Likewise “Come Together” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” were bizarre, groove / drone based rock diversions from what I understood as The Beatles’ palette when I finally got around to them, a million miles away from both the early pop days and the psychedelic dandies era. Hell, some of the guitar lines on this album are almost as spidery and jagged as Slint…

Then there’s the second side. You could view the half-songs and sketches and segues presented here as filler or as some kind of final expunging of all the ideas left in George Martin’s big bin of Beatles bits. I didn’t get the concept of the medley for ages. Is the whole of the second side (from “Here Comes The Sun”) part of it, or just from “Sun King”, where the songs get really short and start segueing into one another? It doesn’t really matter, of course; the whole 23-odd minutes are dazzling. I once heard a mix of “You Never Give Me Your Money” which eliminated everything but the bass guitar, and even just that was extraordinary.

It’s remarkable to think that so many amazing melodies, grooves, and studio ideas were recorded in just a month. The way “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” gets consumed by sheets of white noise and then just stops. The way “You Never Give Me Your Money” moves through so many sections and arrangements and styles but maintains melodic cohesion. The control and mimimalism of the groove to “Come Together”. The fact that George wrote his two best songs. Even Ringo’s moment is beautifully played and arranged. Apparently, with a sense that this would be the final Beatles ‘product’, the four members agreed to put their (many and considerable) differences aside and go for broke. You can tell.

Rob listened: Fairly pleasant. This brings to 4 the Beatles studio albums i’ve listened to in their entirety in one sitting. Feeling pretty pleased with myself. I’m guessing they didn’t make many more so I’m pretty much a total expert on them now. But enough about me. I thought this was okay. ‘Come Together’ is a yawn-fest and some of the other stuff passed me by, but I did find myself singing ‘The End’ for a couple of days after the meeting, so these boys must have had something going on when it came to writing earworms.

Tom Listened: My Dad sorted out a TDK C45 of Abbey Road (backed with Boney M’s Greatest Hits) for my 11th birthday present. For the first few months I almost wore the tape out…rewinding it so I didn’t have to suffer Abbey Road on the way to Boney M induced nirvana. But, you know how it goes, gradually The Beatles earwormed their way in (probably via Maxwell and Octopuses’ Garden) and soon all the rewinding was in the other direction.

Abbey Road was my second Beatles album (after Sergeant Pepper’s) and whilst I have fallen out of love with the latter’s overcomplicated arrangements and over-considered song-writing, Abbey Road just about hangs in there…some of the songs suffer from being too familiar (I have nothing left to discover in Here Comes the Sun or Come Together or Something), some are a bit naff, but there are others that stand up with the best in the band’s catalogue. For me, Abbey Road is some way off Revolver’s spontaneous brilliance and if push came to shove, I would chose The Beatles or Hard Day’s Night (or maybe Rubber Soul) over it but it is one of those records that is always a pleasure to hear and it has probably stood the test of time even better than Boney M’s greatest hits!

Graham listened: Well Rob has listened to 3 more Beatles albums, in one sitting, than I have. I have a mental block when it comes to the Beatles. To me they inhabited the dull Radio 2 playlists of the late 70’s which I wanted nothing to do with, as I began the search for my own musical inspiration. The fact that my journey stopped at Marillion at one point, clearly means that I, and my opinions, are not to be taken seriously. I was genuinely surprised at the bluesy/rocky numbers on this album. Even so, I tried to bait the Beatles fans by suggesting that Led Zeppelin were doing a better job of that sort of thing in early 1969. I somehow felt as awkward about Paul McCartney “rockin’ out” in 1969, as I do when I see him on TV today. Weird!

The Beatles – Revolver – Round 7: Nick’s choice

I’ve been wondering how we would deal with something thoroughly “of the canon”, especially something from the 60s, for some time now given how much new music we’ve tended to consume at Devon Record Club, and as much as I love Another Green World, it’s not quite canon enough and there’s something about its sound that makes it seem a little “out of time”, so it didn’t quite give us that sense. So I thought I’d go for the daddy, possibly the most acclaimed album of all time.

I first got into The Beatles in 1993 when I was 14; it was a fallow time for them at that point, pre-Oasis, pre-Anthology, and my friends were pretty much all in thrall to Nirvana and their coat-tailers, so being into The Beatles was a slightly odd thing. They didn’t seem as culturally pervasive as they would shortly afterwards. Although maybe that was just my house…

Revolver is a fascinating record; it seems incredible that it was The Beatles’ seventh studio album in four years, when you consider that Beastie Boys have only just released their seventh full vocal studio album after the best part of 30 years. It runs to just 35 minutes, yet there are 14 songs, none of them less than catchy or, at one’s most critical, formally interesting given the state of pop music at the time, and in those 35 minutes there are so many styles, so many ideas, so many melodies, that it can easily overwhelm and leave one befuddled as to what Revolver actually is in and of itself, what it stands for, what it did, what it still does.

At 14 I think I only recognised Eleanor Rigby and Yellow Submarine, and so Revolver was a Pandora’s box to some extent; She Said She Said, Taxman, I’m Only Sleeping, And Your Bird Can Sing, and, of course, Tomorrow Never Knows, were bizarre revelations, pointing towards a different band again from the ones that produced She Loves You et al circa 1963 and then Strawberry Fields et al circa 1967 (the period from 65 through 67, from Day Tripper through Rubber Soul and Rain to Revolver is my favourite stretch of The Beatles’ career). The lurch from Yellow Submarine into She Said She Said is extraordinary, schizophrenic, psychotic, confusing. It makes no sense and yet it works.

The Beatles can very easily seem obvious and passé, and I know that while Tom is a fan, Rob feels little or no need to listen to them because the songs are everywhere, ingrained in our society, but I still gain so much pleasure from going back every so often, from McCartney’s egotistic bassplaying on Taxman, from the melange of sounds on Tomorrow Never Knows, from the surging melodic thrill of And Your Bird Can Sing, from the exquisite melancholy of For No One, that I don’t think I’ll ever be tired of The Beatles, and Revolver in particular.

Track: Orbital – The Girl With The Sun In Her Head

To accompany Revolver, I chose this 10-minute piece of cinematic techno, the first song I ever heard by Orbital, the first piece of full-on techno I ever listened to, and probably the single piece of music that has changed the way I think about, react to, and listen to music the mist in my entire life.

Urged on by salivating reviews comparing the parent album of this track to classical composers rather than thudding luddite dance-bods, and by an older brother who told me to “do [myself] a favour and just buy it”, I picked up In Sides on the day of release from Woolworths in Teignmouth, skipped my afternoon sixth form class, took it home, and had my brain realigned. I’d never listened to anything like it before, and I was rapt from the start. I remember a friend who had a penchant for figuring out how to play Stone Roses songs on guitar saying “anyone could make techno”, and I challenged him to really listen to this song, and figure out how to play it on guitar. At that point he acquiesced that yes, maybe it did take a certain melodic skill and compositional talent…

I’d listened to Screamadelica and Massive Attack and Björk a lot through 1995, moving slowly further and further away from boys with guitars, but Orbital was a final leap into the beyond; once over the wall there lied Prodigy, Underworld, Aphex Twin, and then, in the future, Four Tet, Caribou, Stars Of The Lid, and so much other music that I love so much and wouldn’t ever want to be without. I’m grateful to Orbital, and to this song in particularly for giving me the tools to enjoy it.

Tom Listened: I recall obtaining a version of Revolver in 1981 from a pirated cassette stall in Hong Kong, along with (their words not mine) Ob La Di Ob La Da (Vol 2) – ie the second disc of the White Album – and one of the early ones, A Hard Day’s Night I think. I had never heard of Revolver and although I fell in love with all three albums, Revolver hit hardest. I think it’s interesting that both Nick and I discovered The Beatles for ourselves when we were both quite young and during a period of time when the Beatles were relatively rarely mentioned. Classic albums are much less satisfying if you’ve already heard two thirds of the songs beforehand!

Whilst Tomorrow Never Knows was playing (surely one of the most, if not THE most, significant single step forwards in the history of ‘pop’ music) I had a rant about young people and their conservative tastes and how, a few years ago, I played this and 9 other Beatles tracks to one of my classes and this was very poorly received. So I got my tutor group of mainly 18 year olds to review it. Of the 13 students who produced a review, 5 were pretty much wholly positive, one was wholly negative and the other 7 in general liked the song but found the music confusing and cluttered and complained that it was hard to hear the lyrics. It appears I underestimated them!

A selection of their comments:

‘Sounds a bit like Massive Attack.’

‘Good to mong out to and very good recording quality for its time.’

‘Sounds really modern (Friendly Fires?) – interesting production techniques.’

‘Overall, enjoyable and interesting to listen to.’

‘It sounds like a palatable squeaky gate, which is quite nice(!). It sounds like something I’d listen to when cooking.’

‘A load of crap – sorry not my thing.’

‘Interesting…but a bit jumbled and I found it hard to understand any of the lyrics.’

‘Was Okay but left confused.’

Rob listened: It’s easy and largely pointless to say that The Beatles created pop music. Listening back to their records and tracing the genetic codes of the music we’re listening to 40 years later is fun, but largely an empty exercise. They invented nothing, they just got to empty territory before anyone else, colonised it almost completely, plucking the riffs from the trees, building houses across the genre flatlands and bathing in the rivers of production techniques and studio possibilities. Their offspring have been the dominant strain in pop and rock ever since.

The Beatles were hard working, talented, charismatic, creative, curious, but not geniuses. Circumstances gave them the opportunity to expand way farther, way more quickly than any other band had before and they had the talent and drive to do so. Someone had to. In doing so they set the templates for both pop music and pop stardom. If we set them as a cultural measuring stick, then of course they will be regarded as the best, the most infllutential the most original.

I’m just not interested in them. I don’t listen to them, i don’t care about them. They never got to me at an early age, like they did Tom and Nick, other than via the radio and that’s always been enough for me. I’ve never felt sufficiently interested to listen any deeper, which is not the reaction I had when I heard Dylan, the Velvets, Beefheart etc. You are welcome to argue than none of the music I love would exist without The Beatles, but agin, that’s irrelevant.

Anyway, that’s got that off my chest. I enjoyed listening to ‘Revolver’ and i’m glad Nick chose it. I knew all but four of the songs (again, why bother listening back when you can absorb the back catalogue just by keeping your ears open), and the whole thing passed very pleasantly, with the possible exception of ‘Taxman’, a classic riff-and-strut pop song blighted by a lyric railing against progressive taxation sung from the heart by a suffering Harrison. Poor George must have been down to his last ten million and was understandably upset. It’s a shame he never got around to writing that extra verse in which the taxman takes his money and builds schools and hospitals for poor people.

I’ll stop now.

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