Sunday, 22 January 2017

Is it possible to grow up without knowing who The Beatles were?

The Beatles never existed in my lifetime.
If we cite the end of The Beatles as Paul McCartneys announcement in April 1970, then this was still 3 months until I appeared in the world.
(OK, the "exact" date is open to debate, and arguably the dissolution may not come until Paul McCartney's law suit issue on 31 December 1970, or even the final ruling to dissolve the partnership in January 1975.  If we take either of these dates, then my opening statement is absolute bunk)

Did this mean anything?  Did it make a difference to my life?  It seemed that the break up of arguably the biggest band in the world was met with an almost instant consignment to history.  I don't think I heard a note from the band or indeed even knew they existed until late 1977, or more likely even later.
It's fair to say that I didn't grow up in the most musical of households - my earliest musical memories are Jimmy Young on Radio 2, Abba, The Carpenters and not much else.
But I still think it odd that 5 or 6 years after the biggest, best selling, most popular band in the UK split up they were rarely (if ever) heard on Radio or TV.
My own daughters younger years soundtrack included Sex Pistols, T.Rex, The Jam, The Who, and many other bands long since demised (although this probably says more about what their father inflicted upon them, rather than their choice).

I recall seeing a late 1977 episode of Top Of The Pops featuring the massive selling "Mull Of Kintyre", but no connection to The Beatles was mentioned, or even understood.
Scroll forward 3 years, and news reports were all over the TV about the shooting of a bloke called John Lennon who used to be in The Beatles.
This was probably the first time that I'd:
(a) heard the name The Beatles
(b) heard a note played by the band
(c) seen what they looked like
(d) recognised the bloke playing the bass as the one wandering around a scottish beach being followed by bag-pipers.

So now I (sort of) knew who The Beatles were, and thanks to a Teacher at school (we were talking about the News and she was explaining who John Lennon was) and knew a bit about their history too.
All good to know, but my mind was pre-occupied by West Ham's current performance in the league, trying to score my 100th playground goal of the season and Roy Race's unexplained dip in form for Melchester Rovers.  As a result of my busy schedule (I was also learning to ride my bike with no hands), this knowledge was not pursued any further.

On holiday in 1981, I'd seen a TV Film called The Birth Of The Beatles, so knew a little bit more about them, but still rarely (if ever) heard their songs on the radio (apart from some brief excerpts as part of "Stars On 45").
But that changed in May 1982 with the release of the single "The Beatles Movie Medley".  This single was a mix of the songs  "Magical Mystery Tour", "All You Need Is Love", "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away", "I Should Have Known Better", "A Hard Day's Night", "Ticket to Ride" and "Get Back", strung together in a Stars on 45 style (of which there were about 9 million variants doing the rounds in 1981/82).
I was now a seasoned single buyer having been buying them (at least) monthly since January the previous year and I proudly owned more than 20 7" singles, and one album.
On hearing the Movie Medley, I was determined to add this to the already impressive collection.  Having saved pocket money, and as part of our family's bi-weekly trip to Town, we went to WHSmiths so I could spend my money on the only things that mattered - a copy of Shoot! and a 7" single.
I chose the single and showed my mum my choice before I went to pay for it:
"Why do you want to buy that old music for?  I've got that at home on an album"
"What? ... You've got a Beatles album?  What is it?  What's it called?  What else is on it?  Can I borrow it?" (I think I got a bit excited).
We went to the album racks and found the album '1962-66' (aka The Red Album).
26 tracks which I'd never heard, and never even knew the album existed in the same house as me.
And then, in a typical act of childhood belligerence, I said something like "Ahh ... but this album hasn't got 4 of these tracks on, so I'd better buy the single too". And I did, despite my mum probably muttering something like "OK, you waste your money if you want to.  I've tried to help, but you think you know better ...."

Returning home, I extricated the Red Album from the records under the sideboard, and went to my bedroom for some listening time.
I'm sure I played my new single first, and was no doubt as thrilled to finally own this piece of plastic.  I do honestly remember the feeling of disappointment though when I dropped the needle on Side 1 Track 1 of the Red Album - "Love Me Do" just didn't seem as exciting as "Magical Mystery Tour" or "I Should Have Known Better".  Never mind, this was soon cured by the sound of "Please Please Me" and "From Me To You".
I played that album so often I knew every word, every scratch, every note.  I would walk around telling people I was a Beatles fan, even though I only knew about the first phase of their career and even then probably less than 10% of their catalogue.

And one of those unexplained, moments of coincidence occurred - my new favourite band were approaching the 20th Anniversary of their first single release.
"Love Me Do" was re-released in August 1962, 20 years to the day of it's original release.  Now, "Love Me Do" was still my least favourite song by the band, but the singles re-release meant I had to buy it.  And I did - this being the 80s, it was available as a Picture Disc so I bought that one.

And then (or at least according to my memory, around the same time), BBC2 had a Beatles Night showing footage and film of the band (one of the films may have been the US Compleat Beatles, but I can't honestly remember)

My record buying habit increased at a pace the following year as a result of Paper Round(s), increased Pocket Money, and the freedom to visit Town on my own (ie not relying on parents to transport me and accompany round the steaming metropolis of Reading Town Centre).
Jumble Sales also became a key activity to the extension of the record collection.  The Jumble Sale visits, combined with a well stocked second hand record shop brought more and more Beatles singles into my ownership (many were the 1976 re-issues in green sleeves, some where US versions on Capitol).  I now realised there was more to this band than 1962-66.  The Red Albums sibling (1967-70 (aka The Blue Album) was purchased for the pricely sum of £1, and like my introduction via the Red Album, I played this one to within an inch of it's life too).
I really was The Beatles biggest fan, and knew everything about them.  Or did I ...

Also in 1983, Siouxsie and The Banshees released a cover of "Dear Prudence" *,  Radio 1 Breakfast DJ bloke, Mike Read, informed me that this was a cover version of a track from The White Album.
I decided at that point that 'The White Album' was my favourite album of all-time (despite not owning it), and spoke at great length to anyone who would listen about it.
I sought out the album on a visit to Our Price soon after.  Sadly, 20 quid for an album in late 1983, on a paper boys salary was completely in-affordable.  I put the album on the list of "Stuff I MUST buy (one day)", and went back to the bluff and bluster and pretense.

* "Dear Prudence", along with Big Country's "Chance" and "Apache" was one of the first things I learnt to play on guitar (if I'm honest, my repertoire hasn't expanded that much since)

In 1986, I bought the book '100 Greatest Albums' which declared Sgt Pepper as number 1 - as I recall every other Beatles album also appeared somewhere in the list.
Whilst I owned most of the singles, and two compilations, and spurred on by some strange quest to buy every album in that there book, I purchased my first proper Beatles album.
It was number 1 in the list, so 'Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band' is not going to disappoint, is it?

Well ... it did.
Maybe I didn't get it, maybe I missed the point.  "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and "A Day in the Life" were undoubtedly top tracks, but the rest of it felt a bit flat, unexpected and un-Beatle-like.
As a studio exercise, and proof of what you can do with the (admittedly arcane, at the time) technology in the studio, this album at the time was head and shoulders above everything (with the possible exception of 'Pet Sounds' (but I hadn't heard that at the time).
As a musical exercise, I don't think it was all there - time and context would change this opinion (but I still stand firm and say it isn't their best work).

1987 marked the 20th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper, and was celebrated with an hour long documentary on ITV.  This may have been the beginnings of the return of The Beatles to the public consciousness.
But still they were absent from the radio and TV.

The story goes that Glen Matlock was allegedly sacked from the Sex Pistols committing some form of musical heresy by liking The Beatles.  This suggests that The Beatles, only 7 years after their demise, were perceived as "massively uncool"
Is it any wonder then that Paul Weller kept his Beatles obsession hidden for so long - The Who and The Kinks often cited, but the Fabs were rarely mentioned.  Early photos of the band with Weller playing a Hofner bass, the choice of Rickenbacker guitars (equally a nod to Lennon as to Pete Townsend), the inclusion of "Slow Down" on their debut album (covered by The Beatles on Long Tall Sally EP), a studio outtake of "And Your Bird Can Sing".  All the clues were there, but no mention of The Beatles made.

And, in my mind, that 20th Anniversary of Sgt Pepper was the turning point.
Paul McCartney was back on stage playing Beatles songs, George Harrison was undergoing something of a commercial re-birth with the Jeff Lynne produced 'Cloud Nine' (and in particular the Beatles-evoking "When We Was Fab"), and Ringo was narrating Thomas The Tank Engine.

Granted it was a slow-ish return to omnipresence, and no doubt slightly exaggerated in my mind by buying more of their albums (and 10 years after declaring it as my favourite album ever, I finally owned a copy of The White Album).

A surprise, of sorts, occurred in 1992 when "Instant Karma" was used on a Nike advert.
This was the first time I'd heard a Beatles, or in this case, Beatles-related tune used in any form of advertising.  The years of Business confusion and protectionism seemed to be dissipating.
I quite enjoyed the personal smugness of it - I knew the John Lennon track ,and owned the album.  Friends remarked that it was "a brilliant track" and "they'd never heard it before".
Amongst my friends I adopted the mantle of Teacher (or Beatles-bore) and gave anyone who was interested (and/or not interested) chapter and verse (or as much as I knew) of the Beatles story, the music, the solo years (including "Mull Of Kintyre" which everyone knew about).

A few years later (1995), the Anthology series was released (preceded by the "Free As A Bird" single).  This documentary series, whilst not perfect, re-told The Beatles story for a new audience and ensured that The Beatles legacy was restored in the mind of the public.
1995 was also the middle of the Britpop era - Paul Weller (perceived as some form of Britpop Elder/Godfather figure) no longer hid his Beatles influences going so far as nicking the Dear Prudence riff (and/or ELO's 10538 Overture) for 'The Changingman'.
Another Britpop statesman, Noel Gallagher, never hid his influences going so far as declaring Oasis sound is made up of 4 albums: Never Mind The Bollocks, The Wall and The Beatles Red and Blue Albums.
The debt to The Beatles was further cemented when Noel Gallagher, Paul Weller and Paul McCartney recorded "Come Together" (as The Smokin Mojo Filters) for the War Child charity album 'Help'.

The Anthology series proved one thing - there is nothing left in the vaults, meaning there is no more "new" Beatles product to come.
So be it, but the ongoing re-configuration/re-releasing of the catalogue often proves to be strangely alluring.
The '1' compilation?  A collection of The Beatles Number One singles - I've got all these on '1962-66', '1967-70', and 'Past Masters Volume 1 & 2' - but I still bought it.
The 'Love' album?  Re-mixed by George Martin and featuring mash-ups and alternative takes of the various tracks used.  Yup, I bought that one too (I just "felt" I had to own it)
And the events of 09/09/09 when the entire back catalogue was remastered and re-released in both Stereo and Mono format, including the boxset versions 'Beatles In Mono' and 'Beatles In Stereo'

I sometimes wonder just what the musical landscape may have been like if Paul McCartney decided not to go to Woolton Village Fete on 6th July 1957.
It is quite possible that many of the historical landmarks would still have happened (JFK, England winning the World Cup, Man walking on the moon, Star Wars, Test Tube Babies, the fall of the Berlin Wall, a dog winning Britains Got Talent), but the musical landscape, development and lineage would, in all probability be vastly different.

Assuming the London Blues boom became the dominant force, instead of Mersey Beat, bands like The Rolling Stones, The Who and The Kinks would've traversed the 60s with less competition.
Bob Dylan would've still been Bob Dylan, would've still gone electric and would still be on tour.  Similarly, The Beach Boys would've spread summer happiness, but may never have released 'Pet Sounds' (inspired by 'Rubber Soul') and Brian Wilson would probably remained this side of sanity because he didn't create 'Smile' to out-do 'Revolver'.
The Soul & Reggae genres would also be largely untouched and would've developed the same way (although Otis Redding would've had two less songs to cover, and Booker T and The MGs would've released one less album).

And then there is the lineage of British Pop & Rock music:
No British Invasion
No Slade
No Jam
No Britpop

and, most likely, bands controlled and manufactured by promoters (the obvious example being Larry Parnes, and all those who would've undoubtedly followed him), producers and record companies
(at least that doesn't happen anymore ... or does it?)

Is it possible to grow up without knowing who The Beatles are?
Yes, I managed it.  I suppose that not having that knowledge in the first place meant I never actually missed them at the time.  But this also meant a lot of catching up in later years.

Maybe, just maybe (and to prevent other childhoods being deprived), The Beatles should be included in National Curriculum - everyone should feel the excitement of dropping the needle on side 1 track 1 of their debut album 'Please Please Me' and hearing "1 - 2 -3 - 4 ... Well she was just seventeen ..."
(surely a contender for the greatest album opener ever).