John, Paul, George, Ringo and Nick
So the Beatles are recording again. So we recall how fab the four were. So we worry a bit about the remaining three. So what's to live up to? They weren't so great first time round. By Nick Coleman
Wednesday 05 April 1995
None of which alters the fact that I can't be doing with them. I don't hate them. I wouldn't insist, for instance, that they're overrated or that they constitute in some people a form of nostalgia for a decade that delivered sex, drugs, long trousers and the World Cup to grown-ups, and sod-all to the under-10s. Certainly not. It's greyer than that. Softer. I just can't be doing with The Beatles. Which is an altogether different order of contemptuous diffidence. Between The Beatles and I there exists a nasty, creeping pathological thing. I am disturbed by The Beatles, in much the same way that I'm disturbed by certain combinations of buttons and wool, and heights, and the jellyfish legs you get in eggs.
The Beatles got off to a poor start in my life when, in 1964, at the age of four, I was given a Beatles record ("She Loves You": chubby boys in a row in black polo-necks) and my mother acquired from somewhere a Beatles tea-towel, with badly drawn drums and guitars and JPG&R smiling fit to bust on it. This thing hung on the back of the kitchen door for years, getting wispier and wispier with the burden of daily washing-up like a flag of surrender to a Zeitgeist my parents have always affected to despise.
My parents - being good parents and having themselves been children of the Blitz - loathed pop music with a vengeance. So what was I to make of this complex message?
Pop music is awful, read the message, therefore the house shall be equipped with a Beatles record and tea-towel, with which the infant mind will be subtly conditioned to a sense that pop is indivisible from domestic drudgery. They weren't daft, my mum and dad. "Pop music is dreadful stuff," they were saying. "However, The Beatles are perfectly acceptable in our book." The message hit home like a brush with a mohair cardigan. The Beatles were just a pointless pop group.
Obviously this is orthodox stuff. The most important transaction in pop music takes place between a finished pop record and the unconscious mind of the pop consumer, caught unawares in its daily plod between confusion and despair. Subjectivity is all. The desire to have good taste is, at best, a self-dignifying diversion. Frankly, I was also appalled by Mick Jagger from the off, but then so, quite clearly, were my parents - so by the time of "Satisfaction" and its appeal to the short-trousered sensualist in us all, I was ripe for the picking as a hard-core Rolling Stones fan. No, my early struggles with The Beatles were only formative, not conclusive, and I now regard them as the rich soil into which deeper roots of alienation would later coil.
It's partly a generational thing. If you were, say, 13 in 1973, as I was, and just coming into the first flowering of adolescent factionalism, then it was as primarily important then as it is now to sort out who to hate. And The Beatles, having only recently died and gone to heaven, were already established as the great canonical institution of British pop. Already they were the Shakespeare, the Dickens and the Mr Kipling of fashionable taste, and the ravishing rule of subjectivity that had always sustained me had been taken out of pop and replaced with something that reeked of chalk dust and blackboards. By the early 1970s, The Beatles were an absolute and a given, and it was simply not permissible to listen to Sgt Pepper and hear a lot of fussy, sentimental, ornamental flimflam done up in twee allusions to music-hall and kitchen-sink melodrama.
Worse, in spite of dying and going to heaven, The Beatles had pulled off the abominable trick of not actually going away. Here was Paul McCartney on Top of the Pops sitting on a hay-bale singing "Mary Had a Little Lamb"; there was Ringo Starr on chat shows gumming up on the subject of his acting career with a berk called David Essex; while in New York sat John Lennon, in bed with his mad wife, looking like a compost heap. The Beatles remain, in my view, the single most important justification for the existence of Gary Glitter.
Then there was Beatles Mysticism, which began with the Maharishi, climaxed briefly in rumours of McCartney's death, run over on the zebra crossing in Abbey Road, and then settled down into a sub-literary cult based on textual analysis of The Albums.
This was the most maddening business of all.
On leaving school, and while stooging behind the counter of a record shop for the duration of my "year off", I fell in admiringly with a bunch of recent graduates from the local university, all of whom were three or four years older than me. They were the first people I'd ever met who knew more about pop music than I did, and could talk about it with an erudition that suddenly voided my rowdy sensualism.
They liked all the right things: punk, soul, American Anglophile pop, Joni Mitchell, disco. They also liked The Beatles. No, they revered The Beatles. They revered them so much that they wouldn't talk about them ever, under any circumstances, but would exchange laden glances over their pints of Greene King, as if to explicate by concealment the fathomless depths of their understanding of what The Beatles had to say. The Beatles, it was to be inferred, were saving something that required special understanding, and the sophisticated equipment required to decode these texts was not to be conferred on just any old person.
This was the last straw.
It would be disingenuous to claim that this sort of droog-ish litism has no place in the psychologically democratised hyper-world of popular culture. Disingenuous and wrong. On the contrary, the form of cultural exclusivity we know as "hip" has always been the engine of popular music, the force that's lent it drive, range and traction against the hegemony of establishment culture. Be-bop was specifically conceived to be beyond the accomplishment of white swingers. Punk was designed to give everyone who wasn't a punk a headache. Rap is a form of discourse that outrages and shuts out those who are content for black folks to be merely soulful. Hip is invariably a good thing, one way or another.
But The Beatles defeat me on all counts. They were chubby. They were matey. They were sentimental. They were a family, not a gang. And they had the gall to suggest that, underneath, we're all a bit Beatley, if we'd only open up and admit that chubby, matey, sentimentality is the best that we can hope for in a world redeemable only by love. Worst of all, they had, and still have, the ear of the masses, despite the claims of my friends to a special relationship that passes mortal understanding.
Simply, The Beatles have always made me feel small and no different. Just another washer-up. Although I am prepared to stick my neck out in smart company and say that the reason I have a blind spot about The Beatles is because they tried it on and got away with it, despite the fact that they had the drummer from hell.
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