Archive for the ‘beatles’ Category

Fab Art Pop!

Posted: January 10, 2020 in beatles, pop

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Although enough has been written about the Beatles to circle the Earth at least ten times, one more credit to be added to their many plaudits is that they invented Art Pop. Or, to put it in basic terms, bringing arty ideas into Pop Music.  It was after all, the Beatles who continually pushed the studio envelope around the time of ‘Revolver’ and warped Pop music into something weird and thrillingly original, paving the way for more progressive ideas in pop and rock music that took its influences from the avant garde as much as Chuck Berry.

By 1966, Paul McCartney especially, had become interested in the more fringe aspects of art and music. The most man-about town of the Beatles, McCartney visited art galleries, independent art house films and performance art happenings throughout that year with his friend Barry Miles, who was a hip mentor to McCartney when it came to all things arty and esoteric. McCartney was blithely eclectic, also going to classical concerts while keeping his ever hungry and competitive ears open to anyone in pop music who was doing freakier and more outlandish things. It is well documented that when McCartney heard the Beach Boys ‘Pet Sounds’, he knew that the Beatles had to up the ante to compete and surpass songs such as ‘God Only Knows’ and ‘Don’t Talk (Put your head on my shoulder)’. Pioneering innovation was in the air; perhaps McCartney and the other Beatles knew that it was time to really rise to the zeitgeist. Rise to it they did.

‘Eleanor Rigby’ was a surprise to people when it was released in August 1966. After the euphoric summer high of England winning the World Cup, here was a song that was a monochrome downer.  Where had the chirpy upbeat Beatles gone? It was the first indication that McCartney’s approach to songwriting was becoming more sophisticated and taking a much bolder step into an uncharacteristic darkness. The song’s over familiarity now sounds conventional, but this was absolutely not conventional for the time. As bleak as a Samuel Becket play, this was no happy clappy fab song. It ended with the pessimistic and atheistic line ‘no one was saved’ Tellingly, this line came from John Lennon, who always brought the shadows into McCartney’s usually sunny compositions. But on this song, Paul too was not glossing over his subject matter with optimism. The character in the song is lonely and abandoned, nobody comes to rescue her, and even the other character, Father Mackenzie, finds no resolve to his loneliness. McCartney may have surprised people with this wintry composition, but he offset it with pleasant ditties on ‘Revolver’ like ‘Good Day Sunshine’ and ‘Yellow Submarine’ as if he couldn’t resist getting back to being the one who entertains the audience.

Not so Lennon. He now gave the impression he was willing to jettison his cuddly mop top image. His infamous ‘we’re bigger than Jesus now, Christianity will go, it will vanish and shrink’ remark caused an uproar when he said it. Now he had gone too far wailed the tabloids. Beatle John, he with OBE, must conform! Lennon was on a quest to distance himself from almost everything the Beatles had done before. It was like he killed off the John who wrote ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ and forced a re-birth through the ego death effect of LSD or acid.

Lennon’s compositions on ‘Revolver’ showed that his mind was being altered by his increasing drug intake. Even the jaunty ‘And your bird can sing’ asserts a druggy ‘you don’t get me’ arrogance as if Lennon was relishing his new experimental self, happy to be someone on the outside of reality. Lennon was always the most unconventional of the Beatles and he didn’t need to visit art galleries or hob nob with painters to be an outsider artist. He was a natural surrealist, as evidenced in his writings and drawings in his books ‘In his own write’ and ‘A Spaniard in the works’. He was also a supreme piss taking debunker and walked the line between being a put on and a genius. In an interview, Lennon once proclaimed ‘avant garde is french for bullshit’. Of course, he didn’t mean it, this was more his working class chip on the shoulder speaking.

‘Revolver’ is for me, the Beatles most enduring artistic achievement. Sure. ‘Sgt Pepper’ took the monochrome of ‘Eleanor Rigby’ and re-decorated it with gaudy psychedelic colours, but it is ‘Revolver’ that shows the Beatles as being the Masters of Surprise.

Lennon had been reading the Tibetan Book of the Dead’ and came up with ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – the first time a drone had been used in Pop (yes, the Kinks ‘See my friend’ was the precursor of this drone, but it shifted into a different key for the bridge so was not a total drone) ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is also the first song to use tape loops, something that is more from the avant garde fringe, with composers like John Cage experimenting with cut ups of sound. This Art Idea came from Paul McCartney, and although he had no hand in the writing of this one chord song, his contribution was crucial to the song’s pioneering spirit.

The drone was also being explored by George Harrison, whose first Indian classical music influenced track, ‘Love you too’ mirrored Lennon’s psyched out journey into the void (the original title of Lennon’s track was ‘The Void’) Taken in this context, it is possible to see that Harrison was probably closer to Lennon’s couldn’t give a stuff about being commercial any more persona in this phase of the Beatles, with McCartney keeping up the tunesmith role more than the others (brilliantly of course, not to lessen Paul’s artistic standing)

‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is that much over-used phrase, ahead of its time. And it really is. Predating the tape experiments of German bands like Faust and Can and also, Eno from Roxy Music, ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ is what rock would be exploring some four years later. So, although it’s a bit of a leap of faith to say so, the Beatles anticipated Kraut Rock.

The Beatles were now a band looking to see how far out they could take Pop music and it was their good fortune that their audience stuck with them. Chiefly, it was Lennon who drove the band into weird waters, as his next major Art Idea was ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’. Starting off as a plaintive folk flavoured song, Lennon wanted this one to be really special and something in his creative yearning made him seek the impossible – to splice together two different versions, both in different keys, which at first, producer George Martin said couldn’t be done. Varying the speed of both versions and then matching them was an incredible serendipitous move; it could have been a total mess, but instead, it came out as the strangest and most haunting dream pop single of that year, 1967. George Martin described it ‘as an electronic tone poem’ and this is not far off an accurate description.

Although the Beatles were in essence, a traditional guitar bass and drums outfit, it was plain to hear that they had now outgrown these limitations and their studio creations were morphing them into something else entirely: a studio band who were using the studio like an artist uses a palette, creating new sounds and new innovations. ‘Sgt Pepper’ is too immense to discuss here, and such a lot has been written about it that to add more would be superfluous. What must be mentioned though is the cacophonous orchestral surge in ‘Day in the Life’, in which Lennon abstractly ordered that the orchestra would rise and explode like a musical orgasm.

As with ‘Strawberry Fields’, George Martin had to bring Lennon’s off the wall ideas to reality and he did this by instructing the orchestra to start on the bottom note for each instrument and to rise to the top note on their instruments. The result still sounds astonishing today, a musique concrete surge that metaphorically drew a line in the sand – the Beatles could never be the same again after this, and neither could any musician in rock. The race for the freakiest sounds in rock and pop was on, and the Beatles, with ‘Sgt Pepper’, leap-frogged a march over Brian Wilson’s masterpiece ‘Pet Sounds’.

The Beatles next major weird pop moment after ‘Pepper’ was ‘I am the Walrus’. The innovation of this song was it used ‘found sounds’ and integrated them into the remarkable layers of electronic distortion and effects treated backing track. ‘I am the walrus’, with its anarchic Goons type of lyric and Lennon’s over-driven vocal, is as extreme as the Beatles ever got on a pop single. It was relegated to be played less than its A-side, Paul’s bouncy piece of pop fluff ‘Hello Goodbye’.

The radio planners were not yet ready for the pop extremist Beatles and neither were large chunks of their audience. The Beatles now crossed over into Rock, albeit a tuneful kind, as a strong melody and sense of pleasing harmony was always present in most of their songs. It was now official that the lovable mop tops had joined the counter-culture. The Mums and Dads who had liked ‘Yesterday’ and their bouncy upbeat style now had the sneaking suspicion that they had ruined themselves with drugs. And John Lennon especially, seemed to be becoming more and more weird.

The aural perversion and subversion of sound on ‘Walrus’ was yet again, another Beatles first and the ripples of this one track alone would inform Progressive rock, Space rock and – like ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’ – Kraut Rock. The random radio interference on the play out of ‘Walrus’ is also a bold experimental move; the interruption of an external sound source alien to the track was more from the realm of the avant garde than pop and rock.

This random approach of found sounds ultimately led to the track ‘Revolution #9’ on the Beatles 1968 double album, also known as ‘the white album’. That particular track is often called the self-indulgent stinker on the album, the one track that most people skip and the one track that at least two other Beatles tried to keep off the album. But when you put it in the context of Lennon’s creative trajectory since ‘Revolver’ is actually makes perfect sense. Lennon was determined to challenge the Beatles audience with freaky weird sounds and soon, McCartney took up the weirdo art gauntlet too, making the minimalist ‘Why don’t we do it in the road?’ on that album, a song stripped back to its bare bones and so unlike anything else McCartney ever recorded (apart from the extreme ‘Helter Skelter’ of course)

By 1969, after four years of fevered innovation and pioneering sounds, the Beatles took a great leap backwards and decided to get back to their rock n roll roots. Ever the restless spirits they were, we all know what happened soon after – they imploded, with John Lennon determined to stick to his ‘freak artist’ agenda and for the others to pursue more conventional solo careers. Lennon continued to be the controversialist and genuinely seemed intent on burying the Beatles and starting all over again; another death to re-birth persona, as evidenced on his remarkable ‘Plastic Ono Band’ album of 1970, which was like a personal exorcism of the past.

I suppose the final question remains to be posed – did the Beatles, as well as everything else they achieved – also invent Art Pop?

The answer, given the wealth of evidence, has to be a resounding YES.

One more feather in the Fabs already over-feathered cap, then.

 

*article is from the forthcoming book, a collection of essays:  ‘Pictures of Jap Girls in Synthesis (The influence of Art in Popular Music)