Song Oddity

Earlier I took a look at some albums which represented a curveball for the artists involved. But what about individual songs which vary from a customary repertoire? These are maybe more often found on b-sides or when a band does the “let it all hang out double album” (copyright: The Beatles). It must be odd being a musician when you get known for being a particular style and sound: if your fanbase does not want you to develop beyond that, it must be insanely frustrating. Rock and metal are particularly bad for this, having the most aggressively self-righteous of fans, but I’m sure it happens in other genres too.

1. Fatboy Slim, “Santa Cruz”

Though primarily known for his chirpy beaty tunes under the Fatboy Slim brand, Norman Cook’s music taste is enormously eclectic – he did after all go from The Housemartins to Beats International. This song was before the Fatboy Slim style set hard with his (enormously successful) second album, You’ve Come A Long Way, Baby – the first, Better Living Through Chemistry is a more of a hodgepodge of different styles and sounds, from the funky “Everybody Needs A 303” through to the breakbeat workout “Punk To Funk“. My favourite, though, is “Santa Cruz”, which manages to be spacey and dreamy, and yet somehow mechanical and insistently rhythmical. It doesn’t so much conjure images of a physical location as make me think of loving machines, imaginative robots… nice!

2. Sonic Youth, “Nic Fit”

Sonic Youth were one of the John the Baptists to Nirvana’s Jesus H Christ. It must be odd, and kinda embarrassing, to have one of your juniors in a scene make it big with such cataclysmic success. Particularly if you are aching hipsters like Sonic Youth. The trouble with Sonic Youth (and bands like Mudhoney etc) was that to them (and to Nirvana to a large extent) punk was an elite thing, not the enraged voice of the kids, but a sneering at the populisms and massed exaltations of the music scene. Thus, things like melody and song structure were seen as being beneath them, as insufferable bones tossed to ravenous lowest-common-denominator audiences; thus, the contempt towards popular Seattle bands like Pearl Jam. This attitude is preposterous of course. What of a song like the Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant“? Isn’t that pop?

Sonic Youth never could put together an album with catchy tunes: their astonishing sound and hipper-than-thou attitudes got them so far, but even their bold efforts like Daydream Nation and Goo lack hooks and, ultimately, memorability. Their post-Nevermind effort, Dirty, is a far more full-bodied effort (producer: Butch Vig) but while it has greater dynamics it still lacks decent riffs and hooks, the sort of thing Kurt Cobain could so easily turn out (if not without embarrassment). Dirty has one real oddity though, a cover of The Untouchables tune “Nic Fit”. It is the ultimate low-fi song I’ve ever heard, guitars sounding like the stings are so loose they are splayed all over the fretboard, and no discernible lyrics whatsoever. It makes such a great contrast to the guitary pyrotechnics of “Wish Fulfilment” and “100%” (not to mention the preachy “Youth Against Fascism” and “Swimsuit Issue“) that I absolutely love it.

3. Iron Maiden, “Strange World”

I prefer Maiden’s albums with Paul Di’Anno to the Bruce Dickinson glory years for a couple of reasons: they were punkier, more street-savage, and capture the excitement of a band discovering its potential, rather than the full muscle of a band in a successful groove. The epics, tedious Satanism and occasional proggy excesses of the Dickinson years were yet to come: this was Maiden, lean and fierce: a “prowler”, “running free”, a “drifter”, in “purgatory”.

“Strange World” is one their eponymous first album, and is one of two ballads (the other, “Remember Tomorrow” is also excellent). It sounds like a jam session going utterly right, and shows how exciting Maiden were in their early days, before they set like concrete.

4. Lou Reed, “Street Hassle”

Lou Reed practically invented alt-rock and punk rock , particularly on the guitar. His work throughout The Velvet Underground & Nico, White Light/White Heat and The Velvet Underground bristles with invention and intelligence: from the static urban riffing of “I’m Waiting For The Man” to the chugga-chugga “Run Run Run” to the demonic “I Heard Her Call My Name” to the tender nobility of “I’m Set Free“. So it’s kinda funny that Reed’s greatest solo achievement, “Street Hassle”, features very little guitar. A dramatic poem in three parts, set over 1. an repeating string octet figure 2. gentle guitar interplay, then a fine bass solo  3. more strings, bass, guitars, and keyboard. Unusually, the guitars aren’t the focus of the song; it’s the lyrics and the voice (Bruce Springsteen gives a great spoken word piece – “tramps like us were born to pay” – in a nice meeting of the artistic patrons of New York and New Jersey). With its tender humanity, grief and sense of loss, “Street Hassle” is a million miles from the cartoonish image Reed presented in Transformer and Rock And Roll Animal. It is also a devastatingly effective piece of music.

5. Oasis, “Whatever”

God, I had such hope for Oasis in their early days. Definitely Maybe was a fine, punky, raw-edged album, with a terrific sense of melody. Songs like “Columbia” were a great reminder of the merits of the electric guitar. When “Whatever” came out, I thought, Wow! Here’s a band discovering colour and timbre and texture! The comparison with prime psychedelic-era Beatles was so obvious. I really thought Oasis were going to go on and produce something new and innovative. Then they came out with the “Roll With It” single, which was crushingly awful, and (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?, which had none of the excitement or adventure of its predecessor. And then they got even worse after that, atrophying into the most lumpen council estate plodding rock. This is a coruscating reminder of a time when they seemed like they were going to be one of the best bands ever. Shame they were just content to be the biggest band in the world, for a moment.

6. Beastie Boys, “Song For Junior”

As the Beastie’s songs are a dense stew of styles, sounds and influences, (“a thick pop-culture gumbo where old school rap sat comfortably with soul-jazz, hardcore punk, white-trash metal, arena rock, Bob Dylan, bossa nova, spacy pop, and hard, dirty funk”, as the Allmusic review of Check Your Head memorably puts it), it is a little surprising to hear a whole song done straight up in bossa nova. The rhythm and style of this song is just great, a loving tribute. (They released another straight-up bossa nova tune on the Sounds Of Science compilation, “Twenty Questions” which is touching but less rhythmically pleasing).

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The Great British Music Taste

One of the numerous things that enrage me about the Simon Cowell-isation of popular music is how narrow and limiting it is. Getting TV stars to front catchy but forgettable froth might be something straight out of the Stock-Aitken-Waterman playbook, but it omits 1. the songwriting acumen of the SAW assembly line 2. the skill in starlets like Kylie Minogue in moving on from SAW to different markets. The Simon Cowell handbook might get passing #1s, but the whole singles market changed about 1997, or when MTV became a serious player in the UK pop market – singles would be played for weeks on the radio/MTV before they were released, so catchy things would go to #1 straight off then instantly fade away. A telling metric is that the year 2000 saw forty-three different #1s, compared to around fifteen to twenty from 1960-1998. No longer was there the slow build as people heard songs, got to like it then bought them – instead there was massive churnover. No sense of the 7″ single capturing the national mood; rather, it was just what the teen market was itching to buy.

If you actually look through the #1 singles over the past fifty years, you get a sense of the breadth of the British music taste. It is often cloyingly sentimental, but it is far more interesting than that fucking tool Cowell gives people credit for, and even occasionally daring. Here’s some of the best – unlikely under the Cowell stranglehold, but brilliant songs which show the good taste of the Great British public!

1. Frankie Goes To Hollywood, “Relax”

A song about gay sex with a video filmed in what looks like the ultimate debauched gay bar, with a simulated golden shower scene? Well, if that ain’t #1 material, I don’t know what is!

2. M/A/R/R/S, “Pump Up The Volume”

Love this – one of the first samples-only tunes, proving that innovation is no hindrance to chart success – not when it’s got a beat as irresistible as this!

3. The Specials, “Ghost Town”

Ska (through the inestimable 2 Tone record label) was popular, but this track from The Specials was hardly bouncy “Baggy Trousers” or “On My Radio” sorta stuff. Having sharpened his rapier upon Thatcher with a cover of Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm”, lead songwriter Jerry Dammers followed up with this gloomy, even apocalyptic view of urban Britain. The song retains the reggae beat, but the vocals are sombre, while the scatting is like ghoulish voices gloating over wrack, ruin and decay.

5. Enigma, “Sadness Part 1”

Gregorian Chant? Well, why not? Works beautifully within the context of this song.

6. The Prodigy, “Firestarter”

The Prodigy evolved rapidly over their first three albums (and the fact that all three remain listenable is itself highly unusual within the dance/electronica scene, where things move really fast). They started out as XL raveheads, with breakbeats, novelty tunes (“Charley Says“) and a bouncy, fun feel. Their second, and best, is more aggressive and grimmer, yet somehow brings together ravers, crusties, indie kids, and hash-heads as it mixed big beats, big riffs and big attitude in a fantastic, creative, dense brew. The third, The Fat Of The Land, was where they broke into worldwide fame with insanely popular singles like “Firestarter” and “Breathe”, which married punk attitude and anger with electronic beats and samples. “Breathe” hasn’t aged well (the video is horribly MTV, these days), nor has The Fat Of The Land on the whole: only “Smack My Bitch Up” maintains the level of “Firestarter”. It’s one of those great singles vs consistent albums debates.

But perhaps that’s testament to the adrenaline thrill of “Firestarter”, that nothing compares: that level of sneering attitude, magnificent beats and near tangible danger hadn’t been heard since prime-era Guns N’ Roses. The public like a bit of nastiness from time to time, when it seems real and not contrived – and for the first time in nearly ten years here it was, grinning like a death’s head skull. Fucking magnificent.

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Of course, there is a substantial amount of dross in the pop charts. I’m not going to argue for the merits of Bucks Fizz or Boyz II Men. But I think if you look at any year’s #1s (before 1999 at least), at least half of them will be good, and there will several fucking great ones. You can hear the soul of Britain as you go through them, in all its sentimental, occasionally tasteless, novelty-seeking, fun-seeking, tender, thrilled-to-be-here, raggedy charm.

Out The Ordinary

It’s often nice when a band does an album out of left-field. I seem to be in the minority in believing this, as these albums tend to get fans up in arms about “selling out” or some such fucking nonsense. This is especially true in metal, but generally observable throughout rock – rock fans being the most inanely conservative and tediously unadventurous of any genre (perhaps excepting the selfrighteous folkies screaming “Judas!” when Dylan went electric in 1965). I don’t, of course, mean when a band loses it and goes all crap – as can be seen when they only have one good album in them (Tricky, Oasis, The Cranberries). I mean when they are good and try something different, take some risks, branch out, have a bit of fun, stretch themselves. Here’s some examples of when artists try something different and pull it off.

Bob Dylan, Nashville Skyline

Though I am not really a big Dylan fan (I mean, really, where’s the beef?), this is a beautifully done album. That near-yodel of a singing voice, coming from his normal acerbic nasal register, must have knocked lots of his fans for six. Then too, the lyrical content, far from the early political protest songs or the hipster-period cryptic allusions and wordplay (“Leopard Skin Pillbox Hat”, indeed) is quiet, meditative tales of love and loss. The music of course is country, but in the folky, rural sense, not the absurd cheesy gash beloved of white trash around the world. (Trust me, I know). Though Dylan had to some extent prepared the ground with John Wesley Harding, that retained his familiar voice and harmonica. Nashville Skyline, with its steel guitars and cornpone twang, is something else altogether. I really like it.

U2, Achtung Baby/Zooropa

These albums have to be considered companion pieces, and were of course unified by the Zoo TV tour. There’s also the fact that both are only half-good, with noticeable declines in quality on side 2 in both. Achtung Baby is where U2 dropped the earnestness and the bombast and went post-modern: with magnificent Brian Eno production, it shakes their sound out from top to bottom, reconfiguring and reimagining it completely. (Remember, they had been critically slaughtered for the rootsy Rattle And Hum three years earlier). Opening with “Zoo Station” and its direct lift from Bowie’s Low tune “Sound and Vision”, it leads directly into the cool, hip “Even Better Than The Real Thing” and the (now cliched, but still majestic) “One”. Superb triptych! With fluid rhythms and swirling neo-psychedlic guitars, the whole album mostly keeps to rock structures but is endlessly inventive with the sound. Zooropa on the other hand delves even further into dance music (“Lemon”, maybe my favourite U2 song ever), electronica (“Numb”, which is a kind of counterpoint to Tubular Bells, but contrasting the mush of modern consumerism where Oldfield found affirmation in musical layering), found sounds (the opening half of “Zooropa”, for which the album credits thank “the wold of advertising”, and the innocence of “Babyface”, four full years before Radiohead’s “No Surprises” – honestly, compare the two) and tops off the opening half with the heartbreaking “Stay (Faraway, So Close!)”. Shame, then, that the second half is turgid. Apparently Zooropa was going to be an EP made during the Zoo TV tour: if they’d only taken the time to write a few more songs to knock off filler like “Some Days Are Better Than Other” and “Dirty Day”, it might have been an absolute monster of an album. The post-modernism of Achtung Baby is refined even further: where that album is most about relationships and loss, Zooropa is about the human condition in the late twentieth century. It’s a staggering achievement… for five songs out of ten. Still, at the time, I found it one of the most intellectually exciting albums I had ever heard.

REM – Monster

So the plan was REM were going to do a proper rock album and Nirvana, following up from Unplugged, were going to do something a bit more pastoral, like Automatic For The People. Well, that didn’t quite work out. Great idea though. REM still made their rock album in Monster, which comes across as a cathartic blurt after the pastoral Out Of Time and the sombre Automatic For The People. But rather than rock, REM “rock”. It always seems like a genre exercise, a self-conscious effort which never escapes inverted commas. This can best be seen in songs like “Crush With Eyeliner” (great video, too) and “Star 69”, which is about the first time the REM have done a song about sex and getting some. Self-conscious hipsters that REM are, they can’t really rock out like Nirvana would, or even as Pearl Jam did in their wilder moments like “Porch” or “Leash”. Monster therefore comes across as tongue in cheek, as a glam rock album akin to Mud or The Sweet rather than the alt rock sincerity of Seattle bands. But given REM’s need to catharsize and to slough off their earnest image, it all works rather well, if one-dimensionally. Still, the guitar sound in “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?”, “Crush With Eyeliner” and “Let Me In”, and the tickled eroticism of “Tongue” and “Strange Currencies” are fine additions to REM’s palette.

Slayer, South of Heaven

Slayer’s early albums focus on speed and aggressive attack, like being slashed with a stanley knife. The ferocious riff that tears open the first track on their first album (“Evil Has No Boundaries” from Show No Mercy) shows this perfectly. Insanely fast, like Iron Maiden on demonic amphetamines, the riff explodes into the first verse with a shrieking scream from Tom Araya, before storming into the unsurpassable couplet “Blasting our way through the boundaries of Hell / No-one can stop us tonight!” Hell yes! The second album Hell Awaits mixes it up a bit but the short savage blast of Reign In Blood cannot be beaten for speed and intensity. It’s insanely, demonically ferocious. Fortunately Slayer realised this and switched tack for the subsequent South of Heaven. With slower tempos, the music is now more full bodied, thicker, beefier. (This was three years before Metallica did something similar with Metalllica, AKA the Black Album). It was then a side of Slayer no-one had really heard before, but they do it really well, and in fact South of Heaven is my favourite Slayer album. The opening title track has a spooky, haunting opener and builds and builds in intensity; “Silent Scream” has terrific breakbeats from Dave Lombardo; “Behind The Crooked Cross” is a fascinating tale of a Nazi trapped “by a cause I once understood”; the ending of “Mandatory Suicide” is horrifying; the crunching ending of “Ghosts Of War” is fantastic; and the cold sparkling arpeggios which open “Spill The Blood” show the way to the next album’s “Seasons In The Abyss”, which would actually be an MTV hit (!). Far too few metal bands have a good grasp of dynamics, and are content to pound away without variation in tempo or intensity, making it far too homogenous. In South of Heaven, Slayer show their master of both.

Talking Heads, Remain In Light

Starting out as a nervy CBGBs/new wave band, Remain In Light is a real leap. It showcases the band trying out polyrhythms and jungle funk, and is marvellously produced with liquid fluidity by Brian Eno. The centrepiece is “Once In A Lifetime”, which everyone should know by now, but there’s lots of killer tunes, such as “Born Under Punches”, “The Great Curve” and (my favourite) “Seen And Not Seen”. David Byrne, man, is a goddamn genius. This is a terrific example of a band developing their sound while staying true to their aesthetic. Some bands change their approach and with it what seems to be their entire guiding principles – for example Suede after the aching romantic heartache of Dogmanstar shed the angst to become upbeat glamsters on Coming Up and subsequent albums. Which might be alright as an album, but like… what happened to the band I used to like? (See also Poison, chasing their tales in an attempt to gain critical favour with posturing bluesy albums like Native Tongue). Talking Heads here show how to do it, with this exceptional album.

Legends I Just Don’t Get

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I remember when in my final year of studying English and working on my dissertation (“Philosophical Subtexts in the Works of James Kelman and Irvine Welsh”). Talking with others, I was always a bit mystified by their choices. Why would they choose Yeats, or Sir Walter Scott, or Derrida (whom I consider an absolute fucking charlatan)? But of course taste is always personal, and, as I once read somewhere, somebody who quite likes everything doesn’t really like anything. Studying English brought immense pleasure from those I liked (Larkin, Eliot, Pinter, Ginsberg, Joyce, Keats, Woolf, Forster, Lawrence, Baurdillard, etc) but immense yawns from those I didn’t (Austen, Scott, Plath, McIllvanney, Shelley).

It’s the same with music. There are some greats that I simply can’t get my head around. People whose opinion I respect rave about them, but somehow it just passes me by. I’m not talking about stuff I actively despise, like Coldplay, Kean and all that mortgage rock/landfill indie banality; the Stereophonics and their gormless stupidity, or Snoop Dogg and all that ghetto mentality hip hop. (I can just about appreciate Ice T, because he talks about it with dramatic irony). There are some greats that I just don’t get…

1. Bob Dylan

According to the excellent allmusic.com, Dylan’s “influence on popular music is incalculable“. I don’t dispute the excellence of songs like “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and “Like A Rolling Stone”, but when I listen to Bringing It All Back Home or Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde, I come away thinking, “…Meh”. I just don’t come away with any sense of delight or wonder or rapt pleasure that I would expect for someone so rabidly esteemed. It’s not that I don’t like folky music: when I listen to Nick Drake (for example his magnificent songs “Hazey Jane I” or “Cello Song“), I am prostrate before such eloquence and vision. I just don’t understand what Dylan is trying to do or say, and this annoys me! (The exception is Nashville Skyline, his first all-out country rock album, where he clearly has a vision and executes it beautifully).

2.  Bruce Springsteen

To be honest, I haven’t listened a great deal to Springsteen, only Born To Run and Born In The USA. Maybe his darker albums Nebraska and Tunnel Of Love are better. But it seems to me that Springsteen suffers from a fairly common trait (one also suffered by New Order, XTC, Moby, The Verve, U2 and later REM) – utter blandness. It doesn’t matter how emotionally you posture (check his “passing a kidney stone” level of emoting in the “We Are The World” video), if the music is bland it’s all meaningless. Though I guess you can’t deny the power of “Born In The USA”, most of Springsteen’s other songs are just so much “meh”. Even with a sax player as good as Clarence Clemons!

3. Tool

Although a metaller when young, I had pretty much grown out of it by 1994ish. My taste in metal is thus utterly stagnant – good old Metallica, Slayer, Guns N’ Roses, Faith No More, Megadeth, etc. After that, my interest fades severely. Numerous friends however have extolled the virtues of Tool, citing their dark intelligence and sharp musicianship. Trouble is, the singer’s whiny nasal voice bugs the shit out of me.

4. The Police

Same as with Bruce Springsteen – “Every Move You Make”, great song. The rest, meh. There’s roughly a zillion bands from the same period who are far more interesting.

5. David Bowie

I guess this is the same as my feelings about Dylan – I have listened to his great albums on numerous occasions and come away feeling mildly pleased but also puzzled. Where’s the immensity, the awesomeness, the majesty? Now, I think Hunky Dory is a very good album (probably because of its overt similarity to Transformer), Low leaves me staggered at his vision and future-awareness, and who can resist the swagger of “Jean Genie”? (Can someone tell me if The Sweet pinched the riff for “Blockbuster”, or was it the other way round?) But…! Station To Station, Diamond Dogs, Aladdin Sane, The Rise and Fall…, Heroes – all of these are critically esteemed as exceptionally good albums, and which leave me cold.

6. Deep Purple/Rainbow

My prog rocker dad and uncles were natural fans of the Purp, and would extol them as great musicians, intelligent music, etc etc. Trouble is, if you’re a musician trying to convince people of your technical skills or intelligence, you’re going to forget to do basic things like entertain or convey emotion. Deep Purple and Rainbow seem to me to be long-winded pompous smug selfindulgent wanky “intelligent” crap. I don’t care how long you can do a solo, I don’t care about how technical your music is, I don’t care how many literary allusions are in your lyrics: it matters not one rat’s ass. The only thing that matters is what emotion is conveyed. In Deep Purple and Rainbow’s case, the emotion I perceive is overcompensation.

How about you?

An Introduction to John Lennon

(N.B. I have often wanted to write a biography of John Lennon during his Beatles years, but living in China don’t have all the necessary books to hand. Nonetheless, I’ve written the introduction and first chapter of it, and thought I’d share the intro.)

The writer who ventures onto the trail of John Lennon, especially on his time as a Beatle, may be somewhat foolhardy. Lennon, as a Beatle and afterwards, has already been well covered, with numerous biographies, as well as memoirs by his first wife Cynthia, his second wife Yoko, his half-sister Julia, his PR man and even his driver. He has been analysed intensively – musicologically and psychologically, from the perspectives of feminism, Maoism, and “primally”. He is one of the most well known people of the twentieth century, with accolades varying from “Man of the Decade” [the 1960s, of course] according to the anthropologist Desmond Morris, being voted eighth in a BBC “100 Greatest Britons” poll, to the naming of the airport in Liverpool after him, in 2002. A “John Lennon” Google search brings up almost 112 million pages. Beatles memorabilia remains highly sought after: a very rare copy of The Beatles (more commonly known, of course, as the White Album) sold for £20,000 on e-Bay in 2008, while the drum skin which featured on the cover of Sgt Pepper sold for $1.1m and the hand-written lyrics to “Give Peace A Chance” for over $800,000. And of course there is always the music, with reputedly more than one billion albums and singles sold worldwide. (Take a moment to digest that: over a billion records, from only seven years worth of recordings. Elvis Presley took over twenty years to be the nearest numerical rival, and Frank Sinatra over forty. Lennon of course had ten more years as a solo artist in addition to that). As part of pop culture, Lennon has never left us; his life and work have been pored over, analysed and examined, exalted and decried for almost fifty years now.

So what is there still to say?

First, since 1994, a great deal of Beatles material previously heard only on bootlegs or live has been officially released . Starting with Live At The BBC, a double CD of live performances from 1962 to 1965, Apple Corps then released three Anthology double CD albums of out-takes, demos and alternate versions, the seven DVD Anthology TV series, the 1 album of No. 1 singles, Let It Be… Naked, a version of the last-released studio album without the overdubs added by Phil Spector, and even a mash-up of sorts called Love, as produced by long-time producer George Martin and his son Giles. They are now available on iTunes and in the Rock Band computer game. All of these have sold well, showing that The Beatles remain as “toppermost of the poppermost” as ever. If art always exists in the present tense (which is to say, in the mind of the person experiencing it), then John Lennon and The Beatles are as relevant, as now, as they ever were.

Second, with the advent of the internet and particularly peer-to-peer file-sharing, the ordinary fan has access to far more Beatles music and film than ever before. While Beatles bootlegs have always circulated for those interested, few people might have seen the canned Let It Be film, or the famous rooftop gig which ends it, or seen more than a snippet of the Beatles performing at the Royal Variety Performance of 1964, at Shea Stadium in 1965, or the Budokan in 1966. Considering that there is no official live album or film in the official catalogue and that they were great performers in that area (at least to begin with), this is a considerable gap. The Beatles were after all a band built on their live performances – first in the searing boiler room of Hamburg in 1961-1962 and later in Liverpool and then across the UK in 1962-1963. So to actually see and hear The Beatles perform live is a fascinating exercise. (And few who saw them after 1963 actually heard them). Lennon in particular is enthralling in Beatlemania-era footage: his raw charisma almost, but not quite, smothered by his suit, his feet spread apart and his knees bending to keep time, his crotch rising and falling in a vivid suggestion of sex. Finally, you can really feel the mania in the air as the four young men from Liverpool stride through a earth-shattering din to a small stage in a baseball field in New York, or observe how they interacted on stage – the end-of-show bows like something from another era, which to all intents and purposes they were – or with what sharp wit and pointed humour they conducted themselves in press conferences. Finally you can see them performing on the Apple rooftop in that cold blustery January of 1969, rusty, nostalgic and sentimental, like a couple near the end of their relationship having one last physical fling, aware that it makes no difference and that the end is not averted.

Third, several previous Lennon biographies have tended to portray him at either end of the human spectrum, with Albert Goldman seeing him as a weak, manipulated fool dominated by Yoko Ono and hopelessly addicted to drugs, and Ray Coleman’s near-hagiography seeing Lennon as a “poet and philosopher”. Both seem to focus on the extremes of Lennon’s personality – of which there is admittedly ample evidence – and miss out the middle ground. To take the first example: it’s difficult to believe that Lennon could be so subjugated by Yoko Ono, when he had an immensely forceful personality himself and a short-leash temper. (He might, of course, want to be to some extent dominated by a strong woman, and Coleman rightly observes that while Ono was Lennon’s intellectual superior, he was the superior artist). Similarly, while many of Lennon’s songs have philosophical implications, by no stretch could he be called a philosopher. He was a voracious but unsystematic reader, and his thoughts and ideas were similarly moment-to-moment; he was always capable of changing his truths to suit his current artistic endeavours. His 1970 Rolling Stone interviews are justly famous, but the reader must always be aware that Lennon was speaking with the acrid bitterness of the Beatles’ recent breakup still smoking, and his disillusion with the 1960s from this perspective must be tempered with an awareness of what he said and did at the  time, rather than retrospective rationales.

For me, I see Lennon as an artist, above and beyond everything else. His activism, his experimentation with drugs, even his relationships were all secondary to or even motivated by his constant need to express himself in some new way. Few musical artists can have striven so continuously to find new means of expression as Lennon whilst a Beatle. What’s astonishing is that for all the success The Beatles achieved, it never satisfied them just for its own sake: their pace of their musical development was incredible, unprecedented and never since equalled. Starting with the inspirations of early rock and roll, Lennon moved on through Dylan, cannabis, LSD and the Chelsea/bohemian set, transcendental meditation, conceptual art, Yoko, the Fluxus art group, and radical 60s figures like Tim Leary and Abbie Hoffman amongst others, all of which percolated their way in some shape or form into his music. It’s in this sense that Lennon was, as he later remarked to May Pang (his partner during his 1974-5 estrangement from Ono), “a chameleon”. A recurring characteristic of Lennon was that he would discover some new thing, become obsessed by it, have it colour or shape his art and his life, discover its limitations, and then move on to something fresh. This more than anything explains the multiplicity and heterogeneousness of the portraits of Lennon. Few people can have changed their appearance so consistently in such a short period of time, every change signifying his ongoing musical, artistic and personal development. Rocker John, in leathers and a quiff, was replaced by the suited, Epstein-influenced, professional Lennon. 1965 saw Lennon in his self-indulgent “Fat Elvis” period, hair and chin growing rapidly. Psychedelia brought great changes, face greatly thinned, a walrus moustache, the famous Lennon granny glasses, and colourful archaic clothing. India begat a beard, long hair (and a messiah complex). The beginning of his solo career, when he consciously turned his back on the dreams of the 1960s, was intimated by a no-nonsense crew-cut and proletarian dungarees.

Lennon was, as critic Mark Kermode noted in his introduction to a documentary on the making of Imagine, a “man of infinite contradictions”. Time and further revelations only bring these contradictions into sharper relief. He always professed to have disliked his school days , and his school record gives no reason to doubt this, for he was no success and left with no qualifications at all. Yet he named his first band after his secondary school and even corresponded with a pupil during the peak of Beatlemania, when his time must have been at its most circumscribed. This suggests a certain nostalgia, if nothing else. He was capable of the most extreme misogyny (as seen on 1965’s “Run For Your Life”, filled with murderous jealousy), and the most devastating introspection (the solo “Jealous Guy” being Lennon’s archetypal song in this vein, though it was written in India in 1968 with a lyric of even greater self-negation titled “Child Of Nature”). He was terse and did not suffer fools gladly, yet he was occasionally suckered through his generosity of spirit and finances. A wealthy man who in his early twenties voted Conservative “because they look after your money better”, he had “no desire to join the fucking aristocracy”. A kind and loving father who rarely saw his first son, he was also a man’s man who always needed a strong woman in his life.

His contradictions ran as deep within his music as in his personal life. He was a remarkable vocalist who hated the sound of his own singing, insisting that George Martin “do something with my voice”. He was a traditionalist, insisting that no song ever bettered “Whole Lotta Shakin”, who, with the other Beatles, instigated more developments in studio techniques than any other artist before or since. He knew and could play scores upon scores of songs, as a result of playing endless sets in Hamburg, yet he couldn’t tell apart on-beats and off-beats. He produced some of the most colourful pop music ever created, yet his chord choices were extremely frugal. He stopped composing on guitar when he had become too proficient upon it. His imagination and invention were astonishing, even though he later professed to always prefer first-person songs, “cos I know me”. The emotional range of his songs runs from exhilarating and joyous to painful melancholia to desperate, agonising need to sinister shadowiness to caustic mockery to gentle lullaby. He wrote a magnificently articulate song about being the difficulties in communication and a starkly affecting song about concealing emotion.

For all these paradoxes and incongruities, however, Lennon was not one of rock’s madmen. He was not like Keith Moon, destroying hotel rooms and adopting poses and acts so often and convincingly that it was hard to tell who the ‘real’ Keith was, or if there was one. He was not like Syd Barret, fragmenting under a tide of psychedelic drugs (although he came perilously close to it in 1967). He was not like Axl Rose or Michael Jackson, megalomaniacal egos paranoically alienating fans, friends and musicians. Nor was he like Kurt Cobain or Radiohead, responding to massive success with deliberate obscurity and sour contempt. Lennon, of all the Beatles, always gave the impression of being both thoroughly unimpressed by the tawdry trappings of fame and determined to prove his talent to the most important judge of all – himself. A bedrock of cool, dispassionate scepticism about Lennon prevented him from letting fame go to his head under Beatlemania (though having the rest of The Beatles there would have helped greatly), or from floating away in a psychedelic bubble later on. But when possessed by an idea, he would go all the way with it. Timidity, artistic or personal, was never one of his problems.

Modern writers about Lennon face the charge of never having met him. To this I would say that having met someone does not necessarily make for a good book about them – there are too many bad memoirs and biographies to suggest otherwise – though their information and insights may be valuable, or not. Similarly, given Lennon’s extreme fame, almost everyone connected with him has written, or had something written, on their time with him, which gives the biographer particularly rich sources. The Beatles recording sessions have been magnificently dissected by Mark Lewisohn, their music analysed in hundreds of different ways, their lives documented to the day and often to the hour. But what Lennon oddly lacks, to my mind, is a synthesis of all these sources, a biography of his time as a Beatle which encompasses his daily activities as well as his musical accomplishments within the context of the 1960s and broader western culture. This is what this book aims to do.

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Rock music is often a mythic activity, where tales grow with every re-telling and the main actors are encouraged to live “larger than life”, perhaps to please those who would live vicariously , perhaps to embody characteristic which others fear to or cannot. “Legendary” acts such as Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix are often only mythic in this shallower sense. The Beatles however are truly mythic in the sense that their lives and work form enormous archetypes which are part of the “myth-pool”, as Carl Jung would say, of popular culture. The LP as a coherent symphonic statement, the recording studio as instrument, the beard as symbol of maturity , the secret song at the end of the LP, the “outside projects” as harbinger of splitting up, problems with wives, the desire to “get back”, the sprawling double LP , the spiritual impulse (usually meaning India or Buddhism) – all originated from The Beatles, in one shape or another. A program as contemporary as The Simpsons could do a Beatles spoof without mentioning the band and have everyone understand who they were talking about. They made the transition from disposable teen idols, the likes of which the world had seen before, to founding blocks of western culture alongside Mark Twain and Shakespeare, Beethoven and Kraftwerk, with remarkable aplomb. Timothy Leary, that avatar of the 1960s, called them “[p]rototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.” Which might seem silly now, but it is easy to forget that the 1960s were a time when popular culture pointed the way to a brilliant new world, and that The Beatles were at the forefront of this.

But of course they lived in the here-and-now and the day-to-day like everyone else. There are signs that they occasionally forgot this, especially during the high psychedelic summer of 1967, but such moments are surprisingly few for a band long surrounded by chronic hysteria and pandemonium. (Lennon often oscillated between acknowledging that The Beatles were the greatest and dismissively insisting that anyone could do what they did, if they put in the hours). Lennon in particular was an abrasive, often caustic, observer of what was going on around him. He was to later comment bitterly on what indignities The Beatles suffered in their quest to get to the top, and what absurdities and lunacies the Beatlemania period had engendered (though at the time he acquiesced in them willingly; their collective drive to get to the top and consequent work ethic were astonishing). He was also to fulminate at the failures of the 1960s generation in 1970, though he was and still is one of those most identified with the decade. Throughout his life Lennon was a fascinating interviewee, provided he was treated with respect and offered questions which valued and provoked his intelligence. (But woe betide the interviewer who asked a stupid question. When asked if he wrote “those kicky words” in In His Own Write “like an author?”, he sneeringly replied, “Just like an author”.) Lennon’s acerbic and compulsive truth-telling was another remarkable trait for a man who was a young pop-star. (And of course stands in desperate opposition to the docile sterility of today’s pop starlets). Rather than be content with his lot, with achieving his ambition of being “rich and famous”, there was always something greater, something further (not merely more, as with Queen: he was never one for excess for its own sake – in both his art and his personal life he could be somewhat ascetic). Lennon was the epitome of the restless soul.

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Lennon formed The Quarrymen as a skiffle band with school friends in March 1957, inspired by Lonnie Donegan and his “Rock Island Line”. He was joined by Paul McCartney in July and (against Lennon’s resistance) a fourteen year-old George Harrison the following February. Performing at odd occasions and later mostly at the Casbah Coffee Club owned by Mona Best, mother of future drummer Pete, the Quarrymen cut their performing teeth slowly and painfully during the remainder of the 1950s. Come 1960, their name changing from the Beatals to the Silver Beetles to the Silver Beatles to The Beatles, the group would acquire the charismatic, artistically talented but incapable bassist Stuart Sutcliffe, though no regular drummer. In this guise Lennon led the group through the first incarnation of The Beatles, and it is to this we turn now.