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Discussions: The Beatles

By Aidan Galea & Henry Hauser; August 24, 2011 at 4:30 PM 


You just had to know this one was coming. In the latest installment to our running Discussions series, our writers discuss the band to end all bands: The Beatles.

HENRY HAUSER: Pontificating about the objective “best” Beatles album is pretentious and boring, so let’s banter about our favorites.

Set against a backdrop of vivid green foliage, 1965’s Rubber Soul reveals the fish-eyed distorted heads of those mop-topped invaders from Liverpool. Most – Paul, George, and Ringo – stare longingly into the void; only John Lennon greets us with swelling irises and a scantily concealed murderous glare. Driven by unabashed love ditties (teen bopper “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” Francophilic “Michelle,” and pre-psych “Girl”), the LP ends with Lennon’s promise to kill his woman if she ever cheated on him. He actually sounds like he’s looking forward to it. Maybe there’s more to Rubber Soul than daisy meadow strolls with “mee-shell, maw bell”?

AIDAN GALEA: Out of all the bands to discuss, we have the difficult task of examining The Beatles. Unlike some people, I have no concessions with naming them “The Best Rock Band of All Time.” So much so, I happily consider them to be the greatest creative geniuses of the 20th century, analogous to the likes of DaVinci. Us discussing them doesn’t necessarily have any merit, as the number of books regarding the Fab Four outnumbers the total years of our lives combined. However, I think their influence is such that they can inspire endless conversation.

When it comes to Beatles albums, I feel naive for often dismissing their younger works (read: Please Please Me to Rubber Soul). Many critics argue that their turning point was indeed Rubber Soul, but I don’t feel that they truly broke through some other worldly musical barrier until Revolver. Where do you think the band came into their own?

HENRY: On the U.K. release of Rubber Soul, there’s just a few smooth nanometers of vinyl separating McCartney’s bubbly, effervescent “Drive My Car” from “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)” – John Lennon’s sitar saturated, psych-folk waltz. But that’s it right there. Light years of creative growth and evolution in that three-second gap. And at the end of “Norwegian Wood,” Lennon starts a fire in the middle of that Scandinavian woman’s house. Trashing the living quarters? Sounds like rock ‘n roll to me. “The Word,” a funky jolt of optimism, transitions into the the deliberate, lewd vocal delivery of “Michelle” to anchor side one.

What’s kind of heat’s Revolver packing?

AIDAN: To me, Revolver was always the album that stepped out onto the ledge and made some very bold statements. Maybe it simply stands out to me because it shows the band beginning to diversify their instrumentation with the help of George Martin. While “Got To Get You Into My Life” nonchalantly boasts some upbeat brass, the obvious example is McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby.” It’s one of those Beatles songs that people can get unreasonably upset at; it’s simply too great for its own good. The grandiose evolution cannot be attributed to Paul himself, with album closer “Tomorrow Never Knows” also displaying those great strides. I will forever be a McCartney man, and with songs like “For No One,” can you really blame me? It would be naive to dismiss Revolver as Paul showing off before the rest of the Beatles peaked, but “I’m Only Sleeping” portrays the dichotomy of the song writing duo perfectly. Paul plays the innocent fool, with his songs toying with some kind of childish storytelling fancy, while John sheds layer after layer of insight on life’s more thoughtful quandaries.

If you were to subscribe to the idea that Revolver was simply McCartney showing his forward-thinking talents before the rest of the Beatles, then it can be safely assumed that Sgt. Pepper embodies the best of Lennon.

So what be it, Henry: Paul or John?

HENRY: Lennon or McCartney — that’s like choosing which parent you love most when mom’s named Theresa and people call your dad The Mahatma! As a born and bred New Yorker, I’m instinctually drawn to Lennon’s scathing, sarcastic cynicism. He’s an audacious lyricist, and never one to let musical conventions stand in the way of his songwriting.

But how could we overlook Sir Paul’s climatic suite to close out Abbey Road? “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” with striking flourishes of falsetto, segues seamlessly into the nostalgic yearning of “Golden Slumbers,” as McCartney belts a vocal that is at once raspy and delicate. On “Carry that Weight,” triumphant horns give way to a cathartic, communal burst that hint ominously at the hefty burden of celebrity that John, Paul, George and Ringo would be forced to bear for their entire lives: “Boy, you’re gonna carry that weight / Carry that weight a long time.”

“Hello, Goodbye,” featuring McCartney’s comically sparse vocabulary, is right up there among the greatest pop ditties of all time. Everyone knows lyrics count for squat in pop music, and the best pop songs are those that snap and crackle without getting bogged down in the words. On the other end of the spectrum, “Helter Skelter,” a violently coarse punk number, really showcases Paul’s range.

But why can’t George Harrison get some respect? “Tax Man,” off your beloved Revolver, is a socially conscious number that rivals The Kinks’ “Sunny Afternoon,” and “Here Comes the Sun” will always and forever be the track I turn to when “the ice is slowly melting.” Harrison was a major trailblazer in integrating eastern instrumentation into popular music, even if he was little brainwashed in India by that wry Maharishi. He even recruited Eric Clapton on “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” – major props for talent scouting. Any love for George?

AIDAN: Although the McCartney-Lennon argument will linger on long after we are dead, I often am intrigued with the “what could have beens.” Lennon himself once stated that he himself would’ve been more suited to the likes of “Oh Darling” from a vocal stand point, and I can’t help but wonder what Lennon’s rendition may have sounded like. Even though Paul often does his own portrayal of “Give Peace A Chance” live, it surely would be interesting to hear what a large majority of Lennon songs would’ve sounded like had Paul had sung them, and vice-versa. Lennon’s vocals would’ve lent a large amount of credibility to the likes of McCartney’s “Helter Skelter,” but attempting to imagine Lennon trying “Martha My Dear” is even more bizarre.

A common argument that I hear from Lennon fanatics is that Paul is far too kooky and immature, lacking the introspect that Lennon possesses. However, when you listen to something such as the masterpiece that is “A Day In The Life,” I will admit that it is easy to dismiss Paul’s seemingly simple lyrical contribution. It’s impossible to deny him of those more philosophical moments when his final line is, “somebody spoke and I went into a dream.” Personally, I feel that sole line could be easily compared to “Strawberry Fields”‘ “no one I think is in my tree” but it’s all up to interpretation, and I may just be riding the Paul fanboy wagon.

It’s impossible to forget Mr. Harrison! While it’s not within the realms of The Beatles, he definitely produced perhaps the greatest solo album of them all with All Things Must Pass, which to me, is only second to Band On The Run. Within the Beatles’ discography, I find it hard to forgive Paul and John from limiting George’s input at times, because as Abbey Road shows, he – and his immaculate guitar work – is a force to be reckoned with. While “Taxman” is undoubtedly a highlight of Revolver, I am one of the few fools who finds it almost insufferable, only to be saved by what I believe to be the best guitar solo within any given Beatles song. As far as George is concerned, however, he certainly has some hidden gems. Most notably for me is that of “It’s All Too Much” from the forgettable Yellow Submarine, an album that really serves no purpose in my mind but to play as a George Martin solo album. However, it does hold one of the most memorable riff-driven Beatles songs in the form of “Hey Bulldog,” featuring an infamous schizophrenic vocal trade off between John and Paul.

But I digress. Perhaps the greatest debate amongst Beatles aficionados is that of the band’s magnum opus. It’s very easy to recognise Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road as the obvious stand outs, but due to a fragmented worldwide release, Magical Mystery Tour is frequently overlooked. Do you think the album is overlooked in terms of their discography despite containing a series of phenomenal songs, or does it truly receive its dues?

HENRY: Folks rag on Magical Mystery Tour purely out of relativism and vindictiveness. Not only is it their LP with the least original material, but Magical Mystery Tour also set the soundtrack for the Beatles’ highly forgettable waltz onto the silver screen. Magical Mystery Tour, as a film, lacked the unguarded, innocent, unpretentious charm of A Hard Day’s Night. It also failed to channel that whimsical revelry that made Help! a cult classic. The film Magical Mystery Tour was bloated, pompous, and sloppy. The album, on the other hand, was anything but.

The LP’s opening cut and title track has Paul playing the carnival barker, as he invites us to a comical, kinky wonderland. But McCartney’s “Penny Lane” seals it for me. Deftly capturing the buzz that lingers around after a wholesome, idyllic afternoon, wafting reverb and a sunny piccolo trumpet solo give way to Paul’s crisp purr: “Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes / There beneath the blue suburban skies.”

Alas, no Beatles banter would be complete without a line on Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If forced to give up this epic of epics for the rest of your days, preserving only a single track, which would it be?

AIDAN: Preserving one single track is an impossibility. That’s the most brilliant aspect of the Beatles; you can have a new favourite song every day. If I were forced to pick a single track, at this moment in time it would be a draw between two Sgt. Pepper tracks: “A Day In The Life” or “She’s Leaving Home.” The former is an obvious answer, as Lennon’s forlorn perspective – both lyrically and vocally – are placed in perfect juxtaposition with the classic juvenile approach of McCartney. Essentially, it’s a sum of their best qualities. Some may question “She’s Leaving Home” being a contender for one of their greatest songs, but it’s through this stunning track that I came to realise the true significance of Martin’s input. We have strayed away from the question of “Who is the fifth Beatle,” but to me, the answer will always be George Martin.

HENRY: I’ll take “She’s Leaving Home” – I’ve always been a sucker for tragic violin arrangements.

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Other Discussions:

Tom Waits
The Velvet Underground
Led Zeppelin
Sigur Rós
Pavement

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