Friday, August 05, 2011

Locked and Loaded

To me, it seems as if the Beatles have always been around.

I cannot recall a time when I did not know the words of their earliest hits — and let's be honest about this, the words from some of those early songs were pretty simple.

(I mean, come on — "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah ...?")

As far as I was concerned, the Beatles had always been part of the musical landscape. There had never been a time when they had not existed, and there would never be a time when they would not exist.

That was not the way it really was, of course. The Beatles were a phenomenon, forever a part of the fabric of the 1960s. The individual members went their separate ways in 1970 and enjoyed varying degrees of success on their own — but they never scaled the heights as individuals that they had mastered as a group.

Obviously, there was a time when the Beatles did not exist. But I'm still enough of a fan to say that I do believe they — or, at least, their music — will live forever.

Be that as it may ...

Forty–five years ago, it could be argued that the Beatles were more popular than anything or anyone else in recorded history.

In fact, it was.

In March 1966, John Lennon told The Evening Standard of London that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus, kicking off a series of demonstrations and record burnings by irate religious groups in the American South.

A little more than five months later, Lennon held a press conference in Chicago to apologize for the remarks.
"I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I would have gotten away with it. I'm sorry I opened my mouth. I'm not anti–God, anti–Christ or anti–religion. I was not knocking it. ... I was not saying we are greater or better."

John Lennon
Aug. 11, 1966

A few days before that press conference, the Beatles released the album that is considered the third–greatest of all time by Rolling Stone"Revolver."

George Harrison, Rolling Stone observed, said that he saw little if any difference between "Revolver" and the album that came before, "Rubber Soul."

"[T]hey could be Volume 1 and Volume 2," he said.

And, in a way, I think he was right about that.

They were different records, of course. But they were both part of what I have come to regard as the Beatles' middle period. They had progressed past their breakthrough phase, when the emphasis was on catchy popular tunes, and were evolving into serious artists who sought to say something meaningful and lasting in their music and lyrics.

I guess I have always seen "Rubber Soul" and "Revolver" as opposite sides of the same coin. Like its predecessors, "Rubber Soul" was heavy on the love songs, but there was more maturity in the lyrics. It was clearly influenced by what was called "folk rock" at the time.

The music of "Revolver" had a harder edge. Its themes were darker, but the lyrics showed the same sense of insight.

The Beatles had moved beyond "Please Please Me," but they had not yet reached "Sgt. Pepper" in their musical evolution.

They were betwixt and between, occupying a musical Middle Earth, with George Harrison having a greater influence on the music than ever.

For example, "Taxman," my favorite song to play each April 15, appeared on "Revolver" — but that was perhaps the most traditional of the songs on that album.

Most of the rest of it was experimental in one way or another — instrumentation, lyrics, subject matter in general. As Stephen Thomas Erlewine wrote for, "[a]ll the rules fell by the wayside."

Really, what else could one say about an album that contained songs like "She Said She Said" (rarely had popular music devotees been exposed to lyrics as dark as "She said/I know what it's like to be dead/I know what it is to be sad ...") or sounds like Indian sitars or general studio experimentation?

That would be normal for the Beatles in the years ahead, but it was a departure from anything they had done previously — even "Rubber Soul" was more acoustic than "Revolver," which introduced listeners to all kinds of unfamiliar, even unsettling, sounds.

In their pioneering way, the Beatles were leading popular music into the future.