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The Beatles Changed The World And I Don’t Give a ****

September 12, 2009

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Who’s with me?

Seriously, I like or love a lot of Beatles music. I’ve watched documentaries on The Beatles, I’ve even read a couple books. I’ve discussed The Beatles many times, and at length. But at this point they seem to represent some mummified “Spirit of the 60s” or something, as we move farther from that decade and legend overtakes reality. The Boomer generation has been polishing its “accomplishments” and putting them on the shelf for a while now. The Beatles, once a dynamic presence, are no exception, as they are presented more and more as an entity discrete not just from the musical milieu in which they existed, but also from the very world they inhabited. They’re like angels descended from on high, not people who were as much a product of their times as they were influenced by those times.

Anyway, I have acquired the mono remasters that came out recently. I got those because apparently the band was present for the mono mixes and the mono mixes came first and were the ones that they put all the thought into and blah blah nerdy blah blah.

I’m reminded how good the Beatles were but also how uncritical people generally are about their catalog. There are some great albums and songs but it’s not all great. The early records are energetic and inspiring, but also at times uneven. Their strengths at first were not only variety and ingenuity, which they maintained through most of their career, but also, and possibly more importantly, rocking-ness, which they eventually willingly lost and never really properly recovered. With lively performances and action-packed numbers like “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You”, The Beatles were terrifically kinetic initially, and that trait powers them through the occasional rough patch on their first few albums.

It seems clear, though, that the band peaked at the apex of their increasingly artsy middle period, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. That record may not have the quantity of great songs its predecessor Revolver has, but it has a unique and powerful vibe throughout. Even a potential clunker like “Within You Without You” somehow gets caught up in the benign flow of things. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band ends with “A Day In The Life”, a song of such peculiar force and beauty that it elevates by association even the more pedestrian tracks that precede it (“Lovely Rita”, “Getting Better”). This album has very little in the way of the inventive rock ‘n’ roll that The Beatles derived their initial and deserved fame for, but the enthusiasm, focus and creative energy on it are palpable and impressive.

After Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, things seem to slowly fall apart. Magical Mystery Tour has moments of brilliance but relies on Sgt Pepper era songs (“Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane”) for most of them. The rest of the album is decent at best and unfocused at worst. “Your Mother Should Know” demonstrates that Sgt Pepper‘s “When I’m Sixty-Four” wasn’t a cute novelty but the start of a disturbing trend, “Flying” is a inert, hazy instrumental, “Blue Jay Way” a dead end. And so on.

The eponymously titled double album that followed has tons of terrific material, but lacks entirely the momentum and sense of esprit de core that are so present and compelling on the earlier albums. It’s just not very … Beatle-y, even if it’s still Beatlesque. Great songs, good performances, not much vibe. This album is infamous for being in essence four solo albums stitched together, and even if that’s an exagerration – if, indeed, The Beatles is not the band’s Speakerboxx/Love Below – it still is the loneliest-sounding (and most sonically abrasive) Beatles album.

There aren’t mono versions of the last two Beatles albums. I’ll just say neither displays much evidence of a living, breathing band. Let It Be strikes me as the work of a group without much purpose. McCartney’s songs at this point are either schmaltzy or genre pastiche, or both. Lennon’s are impersonal, of all things. Even George Harrison, who you’d think would make a push if he was capable, contributes bored-sounding filler.

Abbey Road has too many adult contemporary moments for comfort. It’s as complacent-sounding an album as The Beatles ever made – even Let It Be has a more interesting feel to it – and complacency doesn’t suit them well. Abbey Road, like Let It Be, has its share of good material, but let me put it this way: When the two best and well-known songs on a Beatles album are George Harrison songs, something aint right.

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