The Beatles, 40 years later

Scott B. writes from England:

Glorious footage of the Beatles in concert here.

Something that’s bothered me for a long time: How could John Lennon, who seemed so self-composed in the mid-sixties, so confident in his own genius for creating unpretentious exhilarating music, turn into such a nihilistic hippie in such a short space of time? I’ve always found this rapid transition almost unfathomable.

LA replies:

I think Lennon was always a negative personality. It was the partnership with McCartney that made things work, the chemistry of Lennon’s edge and McCartney’s lyricism, and the Beatles as a whole. When that partnership and the Beatles ended, Lennon had nothing left but the negativity.

By coincidence, I just read a longish article today by an English journalist, I forget his name, who had been close to the Beatles in their last year before the breakup (which apparently happened 40 years ago this month), and he had a bunch of old recorded interviews with Lennon that had been buried away for the last 40 years and he just unearthed them and wrote up. The interviews reinforce my view of Lennon as someone who “off” in all his views. It was the Beatles that “harmonized” him.

There is a fantastic documentary called the Beatles Anthology that was on TV about ten years ago, that goes through their whole career, showing them in concert and everything. I’m sure it’s available in rental.

Scott replies:

I agree that McCartney is not a negative being, but he’s also an extremely trivial artist. Nice guy that he is, I don’t take him seriously as a musician.

It’s Lennon’s genius gone wrong that fascinates me.

Where I disagree with you, is that I honestly don’t detect any negativity in his early work, up to and including Revolver. Lennon’s wonderful songs on Help and Rubber Soul weren’t negative songs balanced by Paul’s positivity. They were simply joyous songs.

That’s why it’s so depressing to see what he turned into. And it’s this sudden transformation that I find difficult to make sense of.

LA replies:

You’re saying that McCartney’s work with the Beatles is trivial? You separate out the McCartney half of Lennon and McCartney and say that McCartney is trivial, Lennon is great? You’ve lost me.

Dimitri K. writes:

My acquaintance with rock music started 40 years ago with Paul McCartney’s song “Mrs. Vanderbuilt.” That was the greatest hit in the USSR, and still loved by many. I was surprised when I came to the USA, that this song is almost unknown and unpopular in the West. It is really simple, but it is a sort of perfection in simplicity.

I must admit, that Lennon was a great musician and rocker, and he wrote very beautiful music, but it did not touch that much. If we and our generation loved the Beatles, it was mostly because of McCartney. There is something in McCartney which touches you deep inside. I could listen Golden Slumbers, Yesterday or Mrs Vanderbilt hundred times in a row.

LA replies:

From one pole of views on the Beatles to another. Dimitri feels that the overtly sentimental side of McCartney represents the best of the Beatles.

John B. writes:

I invite your correspondent Scott B. to view the “joyous” John Lennon here—in Melbourne, Australia, no later than June 1964. Watch as Mr. Joy reacts with a snide “jolly good” to the young audience’s enthusiasm and then launches into cruel mockery of spastics as McCartney attempts to introduce “Can’t Buy Me Love.” YouTube used to carry extended clips in which seven full numbers and two partial ones from this performance were presented in order. “Can’t Buy Me Love” was number six in the sequence, and the three numbers that followed it were not performed as well as what had come before. Lennon’s attempt at comedy had broken the band’s groove.

Anyone who thinks, as Scott B. does, that McCartney is not to be taken seriously “as a musician” should watch this clip of McCartney’s well-drilled band performing the Beatles’ “She Came in through the Bathroom Window” as recently as 2005. As for McCartney’s being an “extremely trivial artist”: His “Hey Jude” is worth more than all of Lennon’s songs combined—although Lennon does a nice job at the 1:52 mark here of pretending he actually had something to do with it. (Think Lennon and Harrison were unaware how little they had to do with that recording—maybe the Beatles’ biggest hit? Watch George Harrison’s reaction—and changing of the subject—during the interval from 1:19 to 1:49 here, as one of the congenitally-clueless Smothers Brothers praises the “Hey Jude” video clip to his face as one of the Beatles’ greatest presentations.)

LA replies:

These are interesting observations, but I question the whole drift of this discussion. The Beatles were an organic unity, each member filling his part in the whole. To break down their music and their performances into, “Lennon was terrible in this,” and “McCartney was good in this,” is to miss everything. It’s just the wrong way to listen to them. It was not by accident that Lennon and McCartney formed a partnership whereby all of their songs were by “Lennon and McCartney,” even those songs that were written solely by one or the other. That expressed the essence of what they were about. If “Hey Jude,” which I think was the greatest Beatles song, was truly solely the work of McCartney, they why did he do nothing of one hundredth of that quality after the Beatles broke up? Because Lennon and McCartney, and the Beatles as a whole, were a gestalt. The composition of their songs, even if only one person worked on a song, was taking place within that gestalt. Which was also, between the two songwriters, a creative competition.

Stephen T. writes:

I think one reason for Lennon’s decline was in fact his serious hard drug use. He was unmatched by any of the others in his appetite for drugs. Harrison did a fair amount of psychedelics but gave them up relatively early and McCartney rarely ventured beyond weed. Lennon, however, consumed LSD “like candy” (his words) and was snorting heroin by the mid-70s (his famous cross-country trip in a station wagon w/Yoko was actually a strategy to kick the habit.) He also used cocaine and was, by his own admission, a functioning alcoholic until the late 1970s. Few people can mess with the mental chemistry and venture down those dark pathways without being tinged by it in a life-altering way. I have observed a bit of that up-close and, even in those who have “recovered,” I perceive that there is something subtly askew or altered about them for the rest of their life.

Will Dial writes:

Scott B. wrote:

“…he’s also an extremely trivial artist. Nice guy that he is, I don’t take him seriously as a musician.”

This is right up there with the inexplicable “Ringo-was-a-terrible-drummer” meme that I’ve long recognized as an infallible “tell” of the non-musician. In twenty years of playing in bands in NYC (from the late seventies to the late nineties), I never came across a serious musician who had anything less than respect for either one of them. (Besotted Lennon-worship was for wannabes.) “Joyous songs…up to and including Revolver”? He’s been listening to a different John Lennon, I think. Leaving aside the often maudlin love-gone-wrong songs (“This Boy” and “Yes It Is” come immediately to mind), what about “I’m a Loser”? Or “Help”? Or “Run for Your Life”? I could easily add to this list. “Ticket to Ride” is one of the bitterest songs in the Lennon-McCartney catalogue—the sentiment is John’s, the artistry of the arrangement (the only thing “joyous” about the song) is Paul’s. I’d say that, as much as John’s gifts languished in the absence of Paul (as you argued), so Paul’s languished in the absence of John. But to dismiss McCartney as a “nice guy” but “extremely trivial artist” is gratuitously to slur a man with a remarkable melodic, lyric, and instrumental gifts. Such an attitude completely misapprehends the Beatles and everything they accomplished—which is, I guess, inevitable following the apotheosis of John Lennon almost 30 years ago.

LA replies:

I think anti-McCartneyism has a lot to do with leftism, or at least vestigial leftist-type attitudes. Lennon was the true counterculturalist; was bitter and alienated and acerbic, and suggested some utopian transformation of humanity. McCartney liked life, was not seeking to tear things down. I remember when Lennon died, some writer, probably at the Village Voice complained, “Why is it always the Lennons and the Kennedys [meaning the charismatic great men who challenge and change society] who get killed, not the McCartneys and the Nixons [meaning the squares and defenders of the status quo]?” Yes, for the committed counterculturalists, McCartney was the equivalent of Nixon. And also there was the supremely countercultural implication that such exponents of the establishment deserved to be killed.

I’m not suggesting that Scott has such attitudes. But his astonishing dismissal of half of the Lennon-McCartney song-writing team reminds me of them.

LA continues:

Also, the people who tear down McCartney are following the example of their hero Lennon, who started it all with his post-Beatles interviews tearing down the group and McCartney in particular. Lennon was just a nasty human being. But again, the genius of the Beatles was the way his unpleasant edge became a part of the ebullient totality.

John B. Writes:
I was surprised to learn, via Dimitri K., that McCartney’s “Mrs. Vandebilt”—which I think is how it’s spelled on the album (Band on the Run)—was a big hit in the U.S.S.R. This would seem to be confirmed by McCartney’s performing the song in Kiev, in 2008—by request.

September 7

Kathlene M. writes:

McCartney may have been sentimental in many of his post-Beatle songs, but a few of his later works had sublime moments, like “Calico Skies,” “Little Willow” and “Somedays” from Flaming Pie (1997). McCartney’s lyrics and melodies could capture the bittersweet moments of life so simply, such as this from “Somedays:”

Sometimes I laugh
I laugh to think how young we were
Sometimes it’s hard
It’s hard to know which way to turn

Some days I cry
I cry for those who live in fear
Some days I don’t
I don’t remember why I’m here.

Or this from Little Willow:

Bend, little willow, wind’s gonna blow you
Hard and cold tonight
Life, as it happens, nobody warns you
Willow, hold on tight

Paul McCartney is right up there with Bob Dylan in my opinion.

Scott B. writes:

Sorry for the emails last night. I have an unfortunate tendency to witter on about John Lennon’s (musical) genius when I’m drunk. Sorry to inflict that on you.

Kidist Paulos Asrat writes:

I’m so glad Kathlene M. picked up on Paul McCartney’s songs of later years. I agree with her that somehow McCartney “found himself ” in his later (post-Wings) songs. This makes me wonder if he was a bigger contributor to the Beatles in the Paul/John duo—both melodically and lyrically. I attribute his decline to his omnipresent, over-possessive wife, who even joined his band Wings. I think she cramped his style for all those Wings years, until she got sick with cancer and passed away. John never made that comeback. (Or should he also have outlived his draconian wife to succeed?—I don’t think so!)

Posted by Lawrence Auster at September 06, 2009 09:00 PM | Send

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