The Best Paul McCartney Bass Lines

EDIT

Ahem. I’ve been informed that both “Drive My Car” and “Two Of Us” have bass played by George. My bad; should’ve checked. But then both do sound very like McCartney, so I imagine he told George what to play.

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I haven’t written about the Beatles for a while, have I? 🙂 Must be time for another worship at the glorious temple that is the Beatle canon. Man, the Fabs are just endlessly playable, aren’t they? If you get a bit tired of one period, another will sound fresh and revitalising. And there’s always something new to savour and relish.

I’ve eulogised Macca in various pieces (like here and here), but let’s take a closer look at precisely why I rate him so highly as a bass player. (His song writing, arrangements and singing will have to wait for another day…)

(This list is by no means complete, nor is it in order!)

Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds

When you’re young, you usually hear about the Beatles because of Sgt Pepper, and the notoriety of “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” (“it’s about drugs, innit?”). I’m not so sure – while “Tomorrow Never Knows” and “I Am The Walrus” are clearly acid-inspired, there seems less direct drug inspiration in prime psychedelic-era Beatles than, say, an album like Incredible String Band’s contemporaneous The Hangman’s Beautiful Daughter. (Just check out a song like “Three Is A Green Crown“, which is incantatory). “Lucy” seems to me to be more about creating a sound world than re-creating the psychedelic experience. While it’s by no means one of the great songs, the bass-playing shows Macca’s exceptional creativity, and how much thought went into every part of every song. Musicologist Alan Pollack has helpfully annotated the sections:

  • First verse: downbeats only;
  • First bridge: every beat, largely with repeated notes;
  • First refrain: running eighth notes in Baroque fashion;
  • Second verse: downbeats only, again;
  • Second bridge: every beat, with more in the way of arpeggio outlines;
  • Second refrain: running eighth notes, again;
  • Third verse: more active and in a less regimented manner than previously;
  • Outro: more running eighth notes, this time with arpeggios as well as melodic runs.

What this means for the song is that McCartney’s bass provides an amazing complement to the tune: the refrain (“Lucy in the sky with diamonds! / Ah…“) in particular finds Macca running up and down the fretboard in excited (and exciting) freedom, as the song exults in glorious colour. The arpeggios in the outro (most easily heard at 3.08) similarly add to the sense of overwhelming colour and creativity. (That, and everything being put through a Leslie).

Taxman

With its distorted (by George) count-in intro (though you can hear the real in-time one from Macca), “Taxman” was taken to inaugurate The Beatles 2.0. While Rubber Soul was an enriching and a broadening, Revolver is an astonishing expansion of the imagination, a spiritual and moral enlightening. Yes, really. With its songs going from death and taxes to a shattering encounter with the mystical, Revolver‘s trajectory is a stunning example of transcendence beyond the earthly. (Yes, really).

“Taxman” opens the album in monochrome. (It will end in dazzling colour). Macca’s bass line drives the song, its thick, thudding sound remaining more active than the guitars, which slash across it. Played prominent (bum-de-bum-bum-bum) in a well-mixed broth (guitars, drums and bass all have room to be heard separately), it is the first second Beatle song to have the bass as lead instrument (“Rain” was released two months prior, as the b-side to “Paperback Writer”). It is both almost funkily rhythmical and melodically captivating – so much so that The Jam could steal it for their song “Start” and get to #1…  fourteen years later!

Sun King

This is all about bass tone and sound. Though some bass players have a distinctive style (such as Lemmy, Peter Hook or Kim Gordon), in general I prefer the warm, supple, resonant bass sound. It’s just delicious. “Sun King”, though essentially just a mood/atmosphere piece, is a masterclass of bass tone – just admire how warm and rich that sound is. (Though Macca is known for his Hofner “violin” bass, in the recording studio he generally used a Rickenbacker as it allowed greater fluidity). Notable, too, that the bass leads the initial melody: though it’s a Lennon song, Macca frequently embellished Lennon’s sparse tunes with remarkable invention. “Sun King” is a wonderful example of the endless pleasure of the Lennon/McCartney partnership.

Two Of Us

It’s fascinating that most of the best McCartney bass lines are for Lennon songs. Here, though, is one of Macca’s own, a song about his random driving trips with Linda but seems to also act as a lament for a simpler time with Lennon . The song is played with lovely accoustics (though you can hear it emerge through different versions in the Let It Be film – one is a fast, electric version with Lennon and McCartney up close and sharing one microphone – magnetism and sparks fly off them), with numerous exceptional bass parts. During the verse Macca plays a chunky, inflexive line, which is terrific, but he also adds numerous leading moments. Check out the rising scale (at 1.24, the start of the chorus: “You and I have memories…“). Bloody terrific. Note, too, how at the start of each verse (0.04-0.08, 0.43-0.48 for example), the bass line splays all over the guitar, lilting up and down. These kinds of loving detail is precisely what elevates a decent song to a great one. (The vocal melodies are also magnificent).

Drive My Car

The early Beatle songs, like all records of their time, lacked much bass timbre: engineers and producers feared making the needle skip across the record if there was too much vibration. McCartney, perhaps through ego (the kind of thing that made Metallica fuck up the production of …And Justice For All) but hopefully through an awareness that an increased frequency reproduction enriched the listening experience, strove to increase the prominence of his bass on Beatle recordings. We can thank him and the always experimenting George Martin for inaugurating the richer sounds found from the mid-1960s. The Xmas 1965 LP Rubber Soul was the first to demonstrate the Beatles’ broader sound world. Taking their cue from the soul and Rn’B world of James Brown, Stax, Ray Charles, yet filtering it through their own pop sensibility and ironic, Liverpudlian take on the outside world, Rubber Soul was perhaps the first outstanding leap of their musical career. (Incredible that there would be numerous others!)

While the guitars that open the first song “Drive My Car” are trebly and twangy, the bass is suddenly front and centre, and coalesces into a marvellous drum n’ bass arrangement with Ringo. For the first time I think, the rhythm is driving (as it were) the tune. Dig how it ends each line in the verse with the “dun-de-de-de-dun” bit, and how this pops up at the end of the chorus. From now on, Macca’s bass would be one of the most prominent weapons in the Beatle arsenal.

I’ve Got A Feeling

This is a fine example of where Let It Be… Naked is preferable to the Spectorised Let It Be. It’s not just that the orchestration which Spector trowelled on is absent: the individual instruments stand out in stark clarity, as can be immediately heard on the introductory electric piano, while the first harmonised “Oh yeah!” has so much more punch and colour. But what is most memorable here is the sound of Macca’s bass throughout the verses – it’s practically hypnotic, it’s so rich with that fizzy, fuzzy, warm, electric bass sound. You can just about feel the thick bass strings vibrating, the electrons getting tickled and buzzing though the amp. The instrumental break, too, is an utter delight, as Macca plays off the beat (from 2.34, and repeated at 3.08). It is simply magnificent.

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Musical Orgasms

Excuse the gap. I’ve been in a bit of an epistolary and blogging desert of late. Maybe it was the winter. But now it’s warming up and I felt that sense of rising energy and possibility that you do in spring. Ah, glorious seasonal renewal, and all that Wordsworth bit. I also broke my bloody iPod a few months ago, and my phone can only (“only”, he says! It wasn’t so long I had a 256MB mp3 player which I thought was the shit) hold about 20 albums. Thus the choice on the daily grind commute is restricted. (I know, I could change the albums around a lot more, but…)

So recent listening has been trimmed down to my absolute utter favourites. And what I’ve found, or been reminded, is that there are still lots of songs – well, brief intense moments – which are just absolute musical orgasms for me. The kind of thing where I go “Oh yes! FUCK YEAH! OOOOHHH MY GOOOOOOD!!” as I listen – inside at least; externally I probably have my usual gormless nose-in-a-book look. These bits are from songs I’ve been listening to for 10, 20, even 25 years, and their power to captivate and enthrall remain.

So what are some of them?

1. John Cale’s organ solo in “Sister Ray” (Velvet Underground)

In which John Cale on the organ takes on Sterling Morrison AND Lou Reed, both on electric guitars, and thrashes them. Cale is playing an organ through a guitar speaker, and by sheer gleeful noise-loving beat-the-fucker-til-it-breaks energy, brings the song to a tumultuous mid-point climax. It’s the opposite of the precise malevolence of so many death metal bands: “Sister Ray” is instead immensely abrasive and dissonant. Man, I love it!

I find “Sister Ray” an utterly fascinating song, structurally: there’s a terrific analysis of it by Jeff Schwartz in The Velvet Underground Companion (a very good book). It’s built on a simple three-chord riff (G-F-C, apparently) by Reed and Morrison, but against which Cale and then shortly Reed swiftly depart. By moving against the simple riff, they introduce abrasion and distortion – if you have a regular rhythmic figure, that’s when you can play off of it, as all metal guitarists will know. Reed and Cale get more and more in-your-face, soloing over Morrison who keeps the rhythm going, but by 3.57 it heads off into uncharted improvisational territory, speeding up at 5.30 (with some incredibly deft drumming from Mo Tucker, who somehow keeps pace), and Cale overpowering everyone else with a screeching exultant solo from 6.26 which even muffles Reed’s vocal. It really is incredible stuff.

(I haven’t even mentioned the climax, which is a incredible outpouring of energies, going beyond form into a supersonic slipstream… amazing).

Fact: the Buzzcocks got together after Howard Devoto placed an ad seeking to do a version of it. Another fact: Lou Reed cites “Sister Ray” as their version of Ornette Coleman, Archie Shepp freeform jazz kinda stuff. That was powerful stuff (like ramming themselves up against the very barriers of existence), but imagine that with the exponential power of massively redlining electric guitars and top-o’-the-line Vox amps. Final fact: consider the fact that the Velvet’s did this, and then on their next album did songs like “Jesus” and “I’m Set Free”, full of quiet nobility.

2. The relentless riff after the last “Battery” (Metallica)

Master Of Puppets was the first Metallica album I got, I think in about 1989 or 1990. I think it’s the best metal album ever and the title track I’ve eulogized several times before. The opening track “Battery” is an absolute stormer, though. It may the lack the ferocity of “Fight Fire With Fire”, the opener to predecessor Ride The Lightning, but it is perhaps more artful and more interesting – while no less intense. My favourite bit is after the final chorus, with the definitive shout of “BA-TTER-AY!” (4.45), how the riff kicks back in with an inexorable relentlessness. It sounded like nothing in the world could stop Metallica – their power, imagination, and indomitable anger would crush all before them. It was true, they conquered the world, but they never regained the heights of Puppets – the loss of Cliff Burton robbing Metallica of the one person who could stand up to both Ulrich and Hetfield. (Anyone who tries to argue that the Black Album is their best album will be laughed at, severely).

3. The instrumental/shift in “L.A. Woman” (The Doors)

There’s a nice line in Bad Wisdom about The Doors – how “you wanna hate them, but they keep popping up in your list of Top Ten All Time Bands In The World Ever”. I really only think they have two good albums, but then they are great albums at that, and The Doors is one of the best I’ve ever heard. L.A. Woman has a few more dips (“Crawling King Snake” is a bit of a snooze), but its peaks are amazing: not just the famous tunes like “Riders In The Storm”, but strong album tracks like “Hyacinth House”, “Love Her Madly” and “Cars Hiss By My Window”. “L.A. Woman”, though, starts up with this great careening rhythm (aptly enough), with Morrison gruffly crooning about “another lost angel in the city at night”. The terrific honkytonk solo from Manzarek goes from the second verse to a peak at 3.01 – at which point the band suddenly turns on a sixpence. Now it’s quieter, meditative, Big Jim saying “I see your hair is burnin’ / Hills are filled with fire”.

The contrast is utterly delicious, the skill incredible – if you ever thought The Doors were one drunken would-be Rimbaud and a backing band, check your head, dude – Manzarek, Densmore and Krieger were an extremely tight group who could go from barroom raucousness (“Roadhouse Blues“) to far-out meditative trippy Oedipal weirdness (“The End“). It’s a great moment from a band who (in)consistently hit my musical g-spot.

4. The opening riff in “Get Up Stand Up” (Bob Marley)

I am not really overly familiar with reggae: I’ve got a bunch of stuff by Lee “Scratch” Perry and Peter Tosh but neither of them hold a candle, in my humble opinion, to the great Bob Marley. In reggae terms this is a bit like saying Queen is your favourite rock band – but then I don’t smoke hash so I might be missing a vital ingredient. All the same, I think it’s undeniable how fantastic Bob Marley is, and I don’t care how much of a studenty stoner cliche it is. His range is incredible – from flinty and impassioned to slinky and sensual to angry protest to dark smoky dub to carefree to wry confession. The Wailers, of course, are an amazing backing band, but Marley’s songwriting craft is consistently strong, and his singing always passionate and soulful.

For a microcosm of how good they were, check the opening riff to “Get Up, Stand Up”. It’s a famous tune, an angry protest song perhaps more typical of Peter Tosh (who co-writes and shares vocals). After an opening roll around the tom-toms, the riff rolls in – tar-thick, dark, but goddamn groovy – for two beats, pauses for one, repeats for one and half, pauses for two beats with percussion, repeats for two, pauses for one then goes into the verse – like so:

DUH DUH – DUH DUH (pause) DUH UH (percussion)

DUH DUH – DUH DUH  (pause) – (percussion).

It’s incredibly deft and skilful, almost mathematically precise and both funky and muscular. Fucking awesome.

5. The instrumental break in “Tomorrow Never Knows” (The Beatles)

If you only know The Beatles from school music lessons singing “Yesterday” or “Let It Be”, it might surprise you to learn that the Fabs were actually pretty radical. Sure, they processed everything into a audience-friendly package most of the time (with the exception of “Revolution #9”, perhaps, but surely I’m not the only one who actually really enjoys it?), but within the constraints of two or three minutes, they did so much. “Tomorrow Never Knows” might well be their most radical song, in terms of studio innovation and departure from traditional forms, but holy fuck, it delivers such a megaton blast of musical delight. The rhythmic texture (Ringo on huge fat tom-toms with that famous syncopation  (ONE and TWO and THREE AND FOUR) and a sizzling halo of cymbals, Macca accompanying on bass with a typically melodic line) is stable, but there’s no verse-chorus-verse: instead Lennon repeats his schema: “Something something something… It is something, it is something“, while five samples like nothing you’ve ever heard criss-cross with ever greater frequency. Whoa! That’s some dense and heady brew!

The instrumental break (starting at 0.56) tops all that though, totally overwhelming you and making you lose your sense of time and place. It consists of two of the loops brought more fully to the centre, and then Macca’s solo from “Taxman” (yes, him and not Harrison) slowed down and played backwards. Pollack tells me that the break is 16 bars, as you’d expect, but they’re divided into 6+10 (the loops being 4+2) instead of the standard 8+8, further throwing you off your balance. All of this makes the “instrumental” section a terrific sensory overload, and an example of the transfiguration which I believe Lennon the acid-muncher, Lennon the Lewis Carrol fan, Lennon the Joycean word-player, often sought.

6. The whole damn instrumental section of “Three Days” (Jane’s Addiction)

I can’t be bothered describing this precisely – but just listen to the way it builds up (starting from 4.43) via the great guitar solo by Dave Navarro to that amazing pedal point of immense tension and electric charge. It sounds like a gargantuan wall of static electricity, a vast forcefield of implacable and unmovable power. Amazing.

7. The arpeggio’s in “William, It Was Really Nothing” (The Smiths)

Morrissey some dismiss as a whining yelper – well, maybe. I hate the singer from Tool, Maynard James Keenan, though several metalheads assure me they are an awesome band. Johnny Marr, though, is without doubt an awesome guitar player – he has so many remarkable guitar riffs and leads from The Smiths that he’s often considered the best, or certainly the most influential, UK guitar player of the 1980s. Him and Peter Buck certainly reinvigorated the arpeggio, it having lain fallow since, oooh, maybe The Byrds. This is a dazzling example of his repertoire (note how many layers of guitar there are, particularly in the verse) – the sparkling, dazzling arpeggios after each verse (first seen at 0.41-0.48)… they just evoke the 1980s, or what they meant to me. Which means, I guess (how does one explain your own dreamscapes and evocations?) they give this romantic vibe of tender, yearning beauty. Yeah, really. (“Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before” gives off the same feeling, to me anyways, as I’ve probably said). It just makes me almost shiver, as at some almost glimpsed isle of limitless delight.

8. Slash’s second guitar solo in “Sweet Child O’Mine” (Guns N’ Roses)

This literally makes the hair on my arms stand up. Slash is surely the first since Hendrix to adopt the same kind of electric fluidity in his guitar sound, and he makes awesome use of it in this solo. (Compare, also, with the bone-head hair metallers of the time – CC Deville, Mick Mars, Warren DeMartini, Chris Holmes, etc – their sound tends to be very dry and lack Slash’s bluesiness). In comparison to the Eddie Van Halen-inspired fretboard wankers of the day, Slash doesn’t go overboard with hammer-ons, fretboard picking and all the miscellanea of lead guitar tosspots. He starts out at 3.35 playing simple notes, bending them for sustain, sure, but nothing too frilly – until the song hits a pedal point at 4.02, which rises the temperature and tension, Slash likewise increasing the speed of his picking. Once released from this into a more aggressive riff, Slash (again, complementing the song) goes higher up the fretboard, bending notes more, making the guitar wail, all rich with passion and conflict. It’s just stunning, and I’ve never bored of it in the 25 years I’ve had a copy of Appetite For Destruction.

How about you?

Beatle Books

In my vainglorious attempt to write a biography of John Lennon, I have of course accumulated a substantial of books on the Beatles, and the man himself. I must have a pile of about twenty sitting on my desk directly concerning Lennon and the Fabs; other general related books – for example on the 1960s, on the development of the album, on Timothy Leary and his psilocybin experiments, are plentiful, but no need to rope them in – too many! The books I divide, as any historian would, into primary and secondary sources. Unfortunately the former aren’t as substantial as one would have hoped. This is often the trouble with writing about the pop star or celebrity, compared with, say, the politician or writer, where letters and written documents are ample. But anyway, here’s what I’ve got, and a brief rating (out of 5 stars).

Primary Sources

  1. Allan Williams, The Man Who Gave Away The Beatles     ****
  2. Cynthia Lennon, John    ***
  3. Pete Best, Beatle! The Pete Best Story    ****
  4. Pauline Sutcliffe, The Beatles’ Shadow: Stuart Sutcliffe & His Lonely Hearts Club    ***
  5. George Martin, All You Need Is Ears    ****
  6. Julia Baird, Imagine This: Growing Up with My Brother John Lennon    ***
  7. Pete Shotton, John Lennon In My Life    *****
  8. George Harrison, I Me Mine    ***
  9. Mark Lewisohn, Complete Beatles Chronicle    *****
  10. Mark Lewisohn, The Beatles Recording Sessions    *****
  11. Peter Brown, The Love You Make    ***

I am still looking for A Cellarful of Noise and It Was Twenty Years Ago Today. (If you’ve got a copy to spare… you know what to do :-D).

Secondary Sources

  1. Tim Riley, John Lennon: The Definitive Biography    **
  2. Barry Miles, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now    ****
  3. Philip Norman, John Lennon: The Life    ****
  4. Philip Norman, Shout! The Story of The Beatles    ****
  5. Albert Goldman, The Lives of John Lennon    **
  6. Ray Coleman, Lennon: The Definitive Biography    ***
  7. Iain MacDonald, Revolution In The Head    *****
  8. Tim Riley, Tell Me Why: The Beatles: Album By Album, Song By Song, The Sixties And After    ***
  9. Pete Dogget, You Never Give Me Your Money: The Battle For The Soul of The Beatles    ***
  10. Ken McNab, The Beatles In Scotland    **
  11. Mike Evans, The Beatles Literary Anthology    ***
  12. Jon Weiner, Come Together: John Lennon In His Time    **
  13. Paul Trynka (ed.), The Beatles: Ten Years That Shook The World    *****

I really better write this fucking book! Am at 20,000 words, and have only got to August 1960 (the book will cover Jan 1960-Dec 1970). Think it’s gonna be a big one, if I ever get it done.

Beatle Bests

I just put together an iTunes playlist of my favourite Beatles songs.  I thought the list might be of interest. I arranged it in order of the recording date, and have put its source next to the title. Here’s the list, with some observations at the bottom:

Please Please Me (single)
There’s A Place (Please Please Me)
I Saw Her Standing There (Please Please Me)
Twist and Shout (Please Please Me)
She Loves You (single)
You Really Got A Hold On Me (With The Beatles)
It Won’t Be Long (With The Beatles)
All My Loving (With The Beatles)
This Boy (b/side to “I Want To Hold Your Hand”)
Can’t Buy Me Love (single)
And I Love Her (A Hard Day’s Night)
A Hard Day’s Night (A Hard Day’s Night)
Things We Said Today (A Hard Day’s Night)
Every Little Thing (Beatles For Sale)
No Reply (Beatles For Sale)
Eight Days A Week (Beatles For Sale)
Kansas City/Hey-Hey-Hey-Hey (Beatles For Sale)
I Feel Fine (single)
I’ll Follow the Sun (Beatles For Sale)
Ticket To Ride (single)
The Night Before Help! (Help!)
You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away (Help!)
Help! (Help!)
I’ve Just Seen A Face (Help!)
Yesterday (Help!)
Norwegian Wood (The Bird Has Flown) (Rubber Soul)
Drive My Car (Rubber Soul)
Day Tripper (single)
In My Life (Rubber Soul)
We Can Work It Out (single)
The Word (Rubber Soul)
Tomorrow Never Knows (Revolver)
Love You To (Revolver)
Rain (b/side to “Paperback Writer”)
Taxman (Revolver)
I’m Only Sleeping (Revolver)
Eleanor Rigby (Revolver)
For No One (Revolver)
Good Day Sunshine (Revolver)
She Said She Said (Revolver)
Strawberry Fields Forever (single)
When I’m Sixty-Four (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Penny Lane (single)
A Day In The Life (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Being For The Benefit of Mr. Kite! (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Getting Better (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
Within You Without You (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
With A Little Help From My Friends (Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band)
I Am the Walrus (b/side to “Hello Goodbye”)
Flying (Magical Mystery Tour)
The Inner Light (b/side to “Lady Madonna”)
Revolution 1 (The Beatles)
Don’t Pass Me By (The Beatles)
Revolution 9 (The Beatles)
Blackbird (The Beatles)
Good Night (The Beatles)
Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da (The Beatles)
Cry Baby Cry (The Beatles)
Hey Jude (single)
Dear Prudence (The Beatles)
I Will (The Beatles)
Happiness Is A Warm Gun (The Beatles)
Martha My Dear (The Beatles)
Long, Long, Long (The Beatles)
I’m So Tired (The Beatles)
I’ve Got A Feeling (Let It Be… Naked)
Don’t Let Me Down (Let It Be… Naked)
Get Back (Let It Be… Naked)
Two of Us (Let It Be… Naked)
I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (Abbey Road)
Something (Abbey Road)
Here Comes the Sun (Abbey Road)
Come Together (Abbey Road)
Because (Abbey Road)
You Never Give Me Your Money (Abbey Road)
Sun King (Abbey Road)
Mean Mr. Mustard (Abbey Road)
Polythene Pam (Abbey Road)
She Came in Through the Bathroom Window (Abbey Road)
Golden Slumbers  (Abbey Road)
Carry That Weight (Abbey Road)
The End (Abbey Road)
Her Majesty (Abbey Road)

A couple of points and observations:

  • I went with Let It Be… Naked rather than Let It Be, as I prefer the production on that (no Spector mush!). Also, for Abbey Road, I kept the Long Medley together – it would be a wrench to split all those songs up, as I feel that side 2 is the greatest side of any album ever recorded.
  • Abbey Road is the most featured album, with 14/17. (The White Album is close at thirteen, but is only 13/30).
  • My “favourites” consist of 85 out of a total of 186 recorded songs. That’s an astonishing consistency!
  • Even within what is obviously a cream-of-the-crop selection, there are some incredible hot streaks and leaps in development. Consider the leap from “The Word” to “Tomorrow Never Knows”, or “I’ll Follow The Sun” to “Ticket To Ride”.
  • A few times I prefer the b/side to the a/side: I’d take George’s gorgeous “The Inner Light” over “Lady Madonna” any day, and “Rain” over “Paperback Writer” too.
  • Not one tune from Yellow Submarine. Yeah. Just the one from Magical Mystery Tour, too, if you exclude singles like “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “I Am The Walrus”.
  • If I was to include songs from the Anthologies and Live At The BBC, about the only thing I’d add is Take 1 of “Tomorrow Never Knows”. But if I included bootlegs, I’d probably have a bunch from the White Albums demos – several of which are quite different. “Everybody’s Got Something To Hide (Except For Me And My Monkey)” and “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” both seem to me better in their original accoustic versions.
  • Early albums have a lower proportion of great songs – then after Revolver, say, they were an album band.
  • Hard to say who of Lennon or Macca gets most. Pretty even. George gets a good representation (as a proportion of his total Beatle songs). I’m not that keen on that Joe Schmuck early tunes they padded out for Ringo (e.g. “Act Naturally”), but I do like “Don’t Pass Me By” a lot.
  • Any you feel I’m crazy to have missed? “I Want To Hold Your Hand” or “Paperback Writer” or “Back In The USSR”?

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.