genius and after

No phenomenon in the history of entertainment was as great, no exponents of popular music so breathtaking in variety and novelty. But when the Sixties ended, so did they. And when they reached the mystic age of 27, they lost their magic. Ian MacDonald, author of a brilliant book on the Beatles, considers the power of anno DominiIan MacDonald is the author of 'Revolution in the head: the Beatles' records and the Sixties', published by Pimlico
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One day in the late Seventies, the lobby bell rang in the Lennons's New York apartment. The caller was Paul McCartney. Though they had occasionally conversed by telephone, this was the first time in nearly a decade that the 20th-century's biggest-selling musical partners had been within walking distance of each other.

Lennon was about to invite his old friend up for a chat when he realised McCartney was carrying a guitar: he wanted to jam, maybe write a song. Lennon was firm. Those days were gone: he was an adult, a married man. If Paul thought he could drop by unannounced, ignoring the second Mrs Lennon as though the Seventies hadn't happened, he could think again. Crestfallen, McCartney left. The reconciliation never happened.

Only months later, Lennon was assassinated a few feet from where McCartney had been standing, and, in the aftermath of his death, some commentators suggested that with this event the Sixties had finally ended. But McCartney's hopeful visit also touchingly acknowledged something personal: that, even though he could still sell records, he had run out of steam by 1975 and the launch of his pleasant but predictable Band on the Run. During the Eighties, he attempted new partnerships with Eric Stewart, once of 10cc, and with Elvis Costello, but these were minnows compared to John Lennon and quite unable to inspire an artist who had punched the same creative weight on "We Can Work It Out" and "A Day in the Life". As for George Harrison and Ringo Starr, neither has pursued his post-Beatles musical career above the level of dilettante. Operating on their own, the members of the most lavishly talented of all pop groups have declined into something dismayingly close to mediocrity. Why?

Pop/rock is essentially young man's music, an artificial extension of adolescent anger, irreverence, sexual urgency and masculine gang mentality. Usually, marriage cuts peer-group ties, but other factors can leave a pop star bemusedly stamping on the same old gas pedal without obtaining the same old power surge. One of these is, for want of a more scientific term, a loss of pizzazz at around the age of 27. It is remarkable how often a Youth Culture figure finds, at 27, that his powers either begin to wane or, if he's lucky, transmute into something mellower, even more mature.

Elvis Presley's career was the first major proof of this, skidding off the road after "Devil in Disguise" and sinking into showbiz kitsch. Most of his generation (among them Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis and the Everly Brothers) fell to the same syndrome, as did the careers of outstanding Sixties' songwriters such as Smokey Robinson and Holland-Dozier-Holland, and later performers such as Jimi Hendrix, Pete Townshend, Marc Bolan, Rod Stewart, Brian Wilson, Lou Reed, Jim Morrison and Randy Newman.

Generally, only two types of artist evade the Big Two-Seven and keep the pop fires alight into their mid-thirties. They are either confirmed bachelors, like Elton John and Freddie Mercury, or oddballs, like David Bowie, Brian Ferry, Sting and Frank Zappa, whose careers, by perverse coincidence, seemed to start at 27. All these late developers are unusually bright by pop standards, and sufficiently self aware to renew themselves. Sadly, while the Beatles were clever enough to sense, as they reached the fateful age, that something was awry, they were not quite self aware enough to do anything about it.

Not that they didn't try. Much as Bob Dylan in 1967 had attempted to change tack by going into retreat at Woodstock, the Beatles, working on what became Let It Be at Twickenham Studios in 1969, tried to get back to their past. The theory, to which all four subscribed, was that the intensive artifice of their studio work since 1966 had dissipated their corporate spirit. Work on the vast double album, The Beatles, had sprawled badly, and they had begun snapping at each other, unable any longer to harness mutual rivalries in the cause of art. The "Get Back" project was meant to clear the air and restore the solidarity of their early career.

They reckoned without the Big Two-Seven. In front of film cameras at Twickenham, and later at Apple, the Beatles came apart. Grown men, they discovered, could not simulate the ambition and collective energy of adolescence. Their womenfolk were on their mind, the collapse of the Apple fantasy had made finance imperative, and, as tempers dissolved over musical details, it dawned on them that they didn't need to put up with each other any more.

Grimly hanging on during summer 1969, they produced their swansong, Abbey Road, an album recorded in the same condition of bilious segregation as The Beatles, but largely made possible by the emollient presence of "Uncle George" Martin. The group knew it was over: the bust-up was signalled in the widening personal differences between Lennon and McCartney and in the radically divergent music they were writing as a result. All they lacked was a pretext for formalising the divorce.

To understand why they could not have gone on, we need only imagine what the Beatles' 12th LP would have been like had they somehow sunk their differences. Starr would certainly have stuck it out as long as the atmosphere avoided open warfare. Harrison would have been more cautious. He'd had a big hit with "Something" on Abbey Road, and should have had enough clout to get four numbers on the next album; also, his songs had been demoted for so long that he had saved up the makings of what eventually became his triple album debut - indeed, rumour has it that "Isn't it a Pity," which appears in two versions on All Things Must Pass, was originally offered for Revolver nearly five years earlier.

There were no problems for McCartney. By himself, he could have recorded "Every Night", "Teddy Boy", "That Would Be Something" and "Back Seat of my Car". He might have tempted Lennon into joining him for the rawly soulful "Oo You" and the striving authenticity of "Maybe I'm Amazed," but Lennon would have had nothing to do with "Teddy Boy", which he hated, or the comfy "Another Day"; and, as for "The Lovely Linda", McCartney would surely only have proposed it had Lennon tendered "Oh Yoko" (in which case, Starr and Harrison would doubtless have upped sticks).

Lennon would have been the main obstacle. Had this putative Beatles album begun in early 1970, "Instant Karma" would have been its opening track and lead single, with no arguments from the others. "Jealous Guy" would likewise have made the grade, though as yet it lacked a lyric. But what of "Mother", "I Found Out", "God" and "Remember"? Most of Lennon's new music would have been too personal to have sat on a Beatles album. He was already some distance beyond the Big Two-Seven.

Time and place are integral to creativity, and the extent to which the Beatles and the Sixties needed each other cannot be exaggerated. Early in the decade, they mirrored their era of upward social mobility and technology- driven consumerism with infectious, good-time music and carefree lyrics. They took the drugs of the time - alcohol and amphetamine - and cruised the surface, letting success propel them onwards. Then, late in 1964, they encountered marijuana, and they and their music grew unsettled - wanting something deeper but uncertain what this might be. Conditioned by their working-class backgrounds and the Sixties projection of classlessness, they looked to their roots in Liverpool and, in Rubber Soul, floated comedy song ideas derived from music hall and the Northern playhouse tradition (a concept expanded upon with Sergeant Pepper). Yet, instinctive as they were, they could not reason out the stylistic renaissance they knew they had to achieve.

It was only when LSD arrived, bringing an "alternative" outlook for which inner freedom was more important than material success, that the pieces fell into place. Inspired by the counter-culture and its view of the "straight" society to which they had hitherto unwittingly belonged, the Beatles began making records that addressed their society instead of merely reflecting it. Often discussed as if it sprang out of thin air, the group's "new sound" on Revolver was intrinsically linked to the onset of the second half of the Sixties, when social aspiration gave way to moral idealism. By the same token, once "their" Sixties, a time of vibrant optimism, started to sicken in 1968, so did the Beatles. Lennon's troubled "Revolution" opened the first fissures in their facade.

The sensitivity to social context which enabled the Beatles to remake their career in 1966 has been surpassed only by David Bowie in pop and, in their respective idioms, by Stravinsky, Picasso and Miles Davis. If, in 1969, the group's second shot at transcending themselves foundered on the sort of shouting-match solo artists are able to avoid, they nevertheless displayed at their peak a mutual understanding that kept them near-faultlessly in tune with both each other and their era - a shared, self-educated, "sceptical impressionability" which made them eerily like a Gestalt to outsiders.

The heart of the Beatles was an X-factor: a near-telepathic connectedness that provided home-from-home support, friendly competition and the haven of a common outlook on life. This is what they missed in their solo careers, and what Paul McCartney was wistfully searching for that late Seventies day on a pavement in New York.

More specifically, he was seeking completion. Though unique in functioning most of the time as two independent songwriters rather than as composer and lyricist, Lennon and McCartney formed a close partnership for most of the Sixties. If their characters and personal musical styles were conspicuously different, they were still enough alike to allow seamless collaborations on many of their early records, and were perfectly complementary later on when they made songs out of unfinished pieces they each happened to have lying around.

For the first two-thirds of the Beatles' career, they were genuinely tight, aware of how good they were and loyal in the face of the outside world. Lennon knew that, while McCartney could be superficial, he was also the better musician and melodist and, if pushed, could rival him as an expressive writer. Conversely, McCartney's diplomatic charm and mainstream instincts worked as a brake on Lennon's aggressive sarcasm. It was an ideal match. They laughed at the same things, thought at the same speed, respected each other's talent, and knew that their unspoken urge to best and surprise each other was crucial to the continuing vitality of their music.

Yet the introspective Lennon needed McCartney less than McCartney needed him. Though often portrayed as feathering his own nest in the Beatles, McCartney was far more committed to the band than his partner. Lennon, furthermore, would scheme just as deviously to get his way ("He could be", recalled a wry McCartney in 1986, "a manoeuvring swine."). After their break-up, there was a lot of pride at stake and, consequently, much bad mouthing, mostly from Lennon. Honest enough later to withdraw many of the vicious things he'd said about McCartney, Lennon remained too self- absorbed to admit that his post-Beatles music was missing anything, let alone that this might perhaps be that friendly friction with his old mate.

McCartney, wounded and bewildered by Lennon's attacks on him at the beginning of the Seventies, could have been excused for barricading himself behind similar self-justifications. It is to his credit that he never did this; he just got on with his own career. Even more to his credit is that he finally faced the obvious fact that Lennon and McCartney apart were less than half the songwriters they had been together. What he didn't grasp was why the split was irreversible. In turning McCartney away, Lennon was typically blunt and truthful: Face it, Paul, it's over. That's life.

To the last, their contrasting personalities saw the world in fundamentally different ways. The irony is that, at the very end, the greater idealist, the greater "dreamer", was not John Ono Lennon but James Paul McCartney. And not a bad thing to be

Ian MacDonald 1995

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