50 years ago today, The Beatles released their first single, “Love Me Do”. Pop Lifer couldn’t let this anniversary pass without comment. A longer version of this article is available at the Huffington Post.
50 years to the day after the release of their first single, “Love Me Do”, it may be high time to take a fresh look at The Beatles. Yes, the Fab Four: Britain’s last and maybe final global conquerors, the dead cat bounce of a diminishing Empire, the fairy tale of working class boys made good and the composers of songs so ubiquitous that they almost have the quality of nursery rhymes (and we’re not just talking about Ringo’s efforts).
But approaching the band with fresh ears is a tough task. To have even half a chance it is necessary to divorce what we know from what we hear. So try an experiment and for a few seconds – say the length of “A Day in the Life’s” closing note – contemplate The Beatles. Try it. Contemplate like you’re George on an Indian mountain top.
You’ll probably find your head filling with the images and sounds of established pop history. Your head might flit to the piano landing beginning of”A Hard Day’s Night”; or the carousel swirl of “Strawberry Fields Forever”. You might picture four lads looking sharp in suits on the run from screaming girls or four men with beards and issues – divorces and death just behind and not far away.
But if you can clear your head, you’ll hear that “Love Me Do” is tight and tidy enough but unremarkable, maybe even a little dull. Of course, it’s now associated with four sweating Beatles thrashing away in The Cavern. As such “Love Me Do” is a great “once upon a time” but it is not a great song. 50 years ago to this day was historically important but musically insignificant.
From this point on the singles became far more remarkable. On “She Loves You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” “Twist & Shout” and “A Hard Days Night” The Beatles’ early exuberance and energy can barely be contained. We may laugh from 21st century Gaga Land at the innocence of wanting to hold a girl’s hand, but Lennon’s breaking point vocal of “Twist & Shout” is visceral and overwhelming. In fact, it possesses an energy and verve rarely found on those later Beatles albums lauded as their true musical legacy.
Which brings us to where the narrative and music take on separate lives of their own.
The story runs something like this. The pre enlightenment mop tops of “A Hard Day’s Night” and the Ed Sullivan show were a band on the churn. Hit after hit, quip after quip, the as yet unsatisfied genius of Lennon & McCartney was sculpted cannily by Martin in the music studio and presented perfectly by Epstein for the TV studio. The Beatles, before they took independent control of their facial hair, were essentially the world’s best ever boy band.
They only became by popular wisdom the best band ever when curiosity lit a spark as well as a joint. The Beatles moved from “Yesterday” to “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Pop became (pinch your nose) “high art”. In the drop of a key change, The Beatles became the intellectual property of a global avant garde. The matching suits were dispensed with. The songs got longer.
The freedom that a post touring Beatles took into the studio was for the most part exploited to produce some astounding work. However, there is a reasonable case to be made that the Lennon testing the leash in the early years, and straining it on “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, wrote better songs than the Lennon immersed in free love and given a free rein on the “White Album “and “Let It Be”. Indeed, although the boy band Beatles produced by-numbers album fillers, the Beardy Beatles produced just as many self-indulgences or failed experiments.
We would take “Twist and Shout” to our desert island; we would flee to said island, should we have to endure “The Long and Winding Road” ever again.
The Beatles is a great story and 50 years on, it may be time to let it slide comfortably into mythology. The Beatles were a great band but it would be a disservice to their music if we didn’t at least try to separate it from this myth. Turn off your mind and listen again.
Pop Lifer will continue a Beatles Re-View, trying to listen to each subsequent single with fresh ears, in real time +50, with Please, Please, Me – released on January 1963/re-viewed January 2013.