On the 50th anniversary of Abbey Road, Philip Bounds pays tribute to 'four cultural subversives' through the prism of an alternative Top Ten of their songs
The Beatles are back in the news. The fiftieth anniversary of the release of their album Abbey Road provoked an outpouring of commentary across the world. Much of this writing was strikingly ambitious, using Abbey Road as a means of focusing on the state of Britain as the 1960s drew to their close. For example, in a fine article in the New Statesman, David Hepworth emphasised something which many of his ageing readers might prefer to forget: British culture has changed so much since the Sixties that the Beatles now seem like imposing landmarks from a lost world.
As stimulating and insightful as much of it was, most of the Abbey Road commentary struggled to overcome the constraints which inevitably impose themselves on Beatles journalism. The need for a clear, unambiguous message – the need to encapsulate the Beatles' outlook in as few words as possible – meant that the band's Hydra-headed contradictoriness was overlooked. There was also a sense that too many writers preferred to focus on the best-known aspects of the story, failing to explore the fascinating byways of Beatles history. One began to wonder whether journalists commissioned to write about the Beatles might one day feel obliged to eschew the linear conventions of their craft. Perhaps a future generation of David Hepworths and Bob Stanleys could experiment with disconnected paragraphs, highlighting the Beatles' glorious inconsistencies without sacrificing an overall sense of coherence. The famous and the arcane could be presented in stimulating counterpoint.
Four cultural subversives
All of which brings us to the magic of lists. Beatles fans adore lists. Nothing delights them more than a Guardian feature on the band's twenty best songs or their fifteen most infamous quotations. What follows is a lighthearted attempt to devise a list that can focus our attention on the band's contribution to British cultural history. The list consists of ten of their less famous songs, each of which tells us something essential about the Beatles' impact on the British psyche. The rationale for examining this material is simple: The significance of the better-known tracks has long since been buried beneath a layer of nostalgia. As we dig down to try and identify the social meaning of each song, the Beatles' extraordinary restlessness hoves into view. Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr stand revealed as four cultural subversives whose radicalism sometimes veers perilously close to apolitical conservatism. Beliefs enthusiastically embraced on one album are casually discarded on the next, only to be echoed at some point in the future. It is hard to escape the sense that these were four men for whom commitment was less important than a joyous exploration of all the available alternatives. Some people believe that the only way to change the world is to adopt a position and then bang on about it until it begins to get through. The Beatles begged to differ. The Beatles changed the world by changing their beliefs as often as possible. At the same time, there's no doubt that the band's overall stance was one which the contemporary left must surely find congenial.
So here we go....
1. "Twist and Shout" (1963)
The conventional view is that the Beatles' career divides neatly down the middle. At some point in 1965, already the most influential musicians in pop history, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr suddenly transmogrified from gifted entertainers into serious artists. The men who once sang about holding hands now turned their attention to drugs, politics and psychedelic experience.
Perhaps the antithesis is a bit too neat. The songs the Beatles recorded between 1962 and the middle of 1965 were certainly less sophisticated than those which came afterwards; but many of them were shot through with intimations of artistry. Much of their early work evinces a fascinating tension between form and content. The four Beatles seek to compensate for the triviality of their songs by imbuing their performances with an extraordinary emotional weight. The words and the melodies hark back to their adolescence but the tone prefigures the darker world of adulthood.
None of the early tracks illustrate this more powerfully than "Twist and Shout", the titanic finale to their first album Please Please Me. (This is the only song on the list whose relative obscurity might be thought questionable. I can only say that I ran the list by a number of younger friends and few of them had ever heard of it. A surprisingly large number of people seem to know the Beatles only through their most famous singles.) A call-and-response holler written by Phil Medley and Bert Burns in 1961, "Twist and Shout" is about as trivial as it's possible for a song to be: "Well, shake it up baby, now/Twist and shout!" What the Beatles manage to do is turn it into a study of a very recognisable type of adult derangement. Lennon's famously unhinged vocal ˗ guttural, imploring, slurring words into phrases and phrases into lines ˗ speaks of a man whose capacity to experience even the simplest pleasures has long since haemorrhaged away. Like a half-cut malcontent in a late-night brothel, he begs his partner to up the erotic ante in a desperate effort to feel alive again. The question he implicitly poses would recur time and again as the Sixties went by: In a culture for which the expression of deep feeling is everything, what happens when our emotions let us down?
The other exemplary feature of "Twist and Shout" is its collective ethos. Like most of the Beatles' greatest songs, it's a true group performance. Everyone contributes something unique. Harrison's riffs are as crisp as the creases on a pair of freshly ironed mohair trousers. Starr's fills are irresistibly propulsive. McCartney's harmonies light up the room like delinquent fire works.There's an especially thrilling example of musical telepathy between 1:27 and 1:35. Just for a second, as the famous sequence of ascending harmonies reaches its climax, Harrison's voice wobbles. Realising full well that the track's momentum is under threat, McCartney compensates for his bandmate's lapse with a galvanically energising roar. The result is that the second half of "Twist and Shout" sounds even more ferocious than the first. It was recorded on a chilly February night in 1963. It's never been bettered.
2. "Ask Me Why" (1963)
At Paul McCartney's twenty-first birthday party in 1963, the DJ Bob Wooler made a crack about John Lennon being gay. Lennon responded by beating Wooler up. It was an emblematic moment. With their moptops, camper-than-thou collarless jackets and exuberant onstage behaviour, the early Beatles were widely perceived as provincial gender benders. Teenage girls adored them because their masculinity was softer, more teasingly self-parodic than that of their short-back-and-sides contemporaries. At the same time, their implicit challenge to gender norms took place within definite boundaries. Quietly blurring the distinction between masculine and feminine was one thing. Being mistaken for what Private Eye liked to call "pooves" was quite another.
The Beatles' Janus-faced approach to gender bending is thrown into vivid relief on "Ask Me Why", the B-side to their second single "Please Please Me". The track is a pitch-perfect tribute to the Shirelles, the Crystals and all the other American girl groups whose music the Beatles loved so ardently. Its gorgeously languid textures, yearning melismatic phrases ("I love you woo woo woo woo...") and playful stop-start structure evoke the immersive intensities of teenage romance with unashamed sentimentality. Lennon effectively sings from the perspective of an adolescent girl, proclaiming a love so redemptive that it at once cancels past misery and guarantees future bliss.
And yet, and yet. No one will ever mistake "Ask Me Why" for a Culture Club outtake. Lennon is no Boy George. There is something irreducibly masculine about the self-possession with which he delivers his vocal, even in the places where he palpably strains to hit the notes. And when the track comes to an end, it does so with unseemly abruptness. It's almost as if the four boys from Liverpool have suddenly become embarrassed by their exploration of the eternal feminine, concerned that their audience might be getting the wrong idea. There was no place for the concept of gender fluidity in Harold Macmillan's Britain.
3. Money (That's What I Want) (1963)
The Beatles hoped their version of Barrett Strong's "Money (That's What I Want") would close their second album as explosively as "Twist and Shout" closed their first. It didn't. For all its undeniable power, "Money" lacked its predecessor's air of Dionysian spontaneity. Its rip-it-up vocals were slightly too calculating; its piano-driven arrangement slightly too perfunctory.
Where "Money" scores points over "Twist and Shout" is in the insight it affords into a corner of the British working-class mind, c.1963. The critic Ian MacDonald was absolutely right when he emphasised the utter sincerity of the Beatles' plea for filthy lucre. Here are four young men whose financial credo can be summed up in a phrase from Marx's Capital: "Accumulate! Accumulate! That is Moses and the prophets!" The interesting thing about their version of "Money" is what it implies about the means by which wealth can be achieved. Channelling the spirit of a thousand gangster movies, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison feel no compunction in making their interlocutor an offer he can't refuse. Like so many other proletarian malcontents in the heartlands of a decaying empire, they take it for granted that the threat of coercion is a more effective path to the good life than selling one's labour power for a wage.
In the decade or so before the first Beatles' records were released, the idea of "classlessness" had become a staple of British political discourse. Politicians from across the ideological spectrum believed that Britain had taken great strides towards becoming a genuine meritocracy. Most of the barriers which prevented hard-working youngsters from getting to the top had long since been dismantled, or so the likes of Harold Macmillan and Rab Butler assured us. A single listen to "Money" suggests that large swathes of plebeian Britain had a more realistic approach to things. As Lennon, McCartney and Harrison jab their fingers in the listener's chest and demand that he hand over his wallet, they confirm something the panjandrums of British capitalism could never quite conceal: Privilege is still endemic. Class matters.
4. "If I Fell" (1964)
In a highly evocative essay entitled "Eight Arms to Hold You", Hanif Kureishi argued that the Beatles exerted a quietly subversive influence on perceptions of class in post-war Britain. His point was a simple one. It is common for unequal societies to justify the subordination of the lower orders by associating them with a lack of intelligence and creativity. Miners, shop assistants and bus drivers are held to be too shallow ˗ too lacking in intellectual and creative sinew ˗ to be allowed to take decisions for themselves. Power and wealth must therefore be monopolised by the sort of well-to-do folk who are alone capable of writing books, composing symphonies and designing buildings. What was so startling about the Beatles was that they threw these assumptions about class and creativity into crisis. There had been many working-class pop stars over the course of the previous decade ˗ Cliff Richard, Tommy Steele, Billy Fury ˗ but the Beatles stood out because they wrote their own material. The Lennon/McCartney songbook proved that the badlands of proletarian Liverpool could incubate musical genius as effectively as the drawing rooms of Bloomsbury. Indeed, as Kureishi reminds us, some people felt so threatened by the Beatles that they fell back on the claim that their songs were actually written by Brian Epstein and George Martin, two polished middle-class gents whose cultivated accents were matched only by their respectable side partings and expensive suits.
Some of the Beatles' songs can best be understood as a species of meta-pop. Whatever their ostensible subject matter, they allegorise the process by which working-class upstarts seek to enter the world of song and bend it to their own purposes. One of the most powerful examples from their early repertoire is "If I Fell", included on the soundtrack to A Hard Day's Night in 1964. Delicate, sweet and irresistibly melodic, it sounds on first hearing like a poignant tribute to the enchanted universe of the English lullaby. I defy anyone to hear it and not think of "Lavender's Blue" or some other staple of a settled middle-class childhood. What sets it apart from the tradition of the lullaby is the quality of the singing. The duet between Lennon and McCartney transcends the sonics of bourgois adulthood and suggests a dingier world of workmates harmonising in the pub. If Lennon opts for a sort of subdued provincialism ˗ hinting at the demotic forthrightness of the Liverpool accent without ever going the full Scouser ˗ McCartney soars like an ingenuous teenage boy dreaming of his big break. Somehow it all comes across like an act of calculated provocation. Proud of their gifts as melodists, Lennon and McCartney make no bones about their lowly social origins. Their message? Working people have been underestimated for too long.
5. "The Word" (1965)
Rubber Soul emerged blinking into the world in December 1965. Autumnal, introspective and quietly ill-at-ease, it's widely regarded as the first truly serious Beatles album. Its folk-rock ambience and lack of surface glitter announce a step change in the band's attitude to life. The boyish exuberance of the early albums has gone forever. The new Beatles wear tasteful suede jackets, gaze thoughtfully out of the window on windswept nights and wrestle with the daemon of melancholy. The smell of marijuana pervades the air like incense.
The weirdest song on the album is undoubtedly "The Word", a melodically nondescript but sonically fascinating slab of mid-tempo experimentation. Most critics have interpreted it as the Beatles' first statement of faith in the emerging counterculture. As Lennon, McCartney and Harrison drag the track forwards with some ostentatiously vaulting harmonies, they proclaim their belief in the redemptive power of divine love. Indeed, many people would regard "The Word" as downright messianic in its evocation of what Ian MacDonald has called "Love Militant as a social panacea". Open yourself up to the spiritual essence of things ˗ berserk yourself into an ecstatic awareness of the divine oneness at the heart of all creation ˗ and a life of benevolence, insight and radiant happiness must surely follow. Already the pied pipers of an international youth cult, the Beatles now seek to put their influence at the service of a spiritual revolution.
Let me suggest an alternative interpretation. There's a case for saying that "The Word" is less a statement of faith than a parodic commentary on other people's credulity. At its heart is a warm but sceptical tribute to Britain's rich traditions of ideological eccentricity. When Lennon tells us that "I'm here to show everybody the light", he sounds for all the world like one of those half-demented lay preachers who declaim their faith outside supermarkets and cinemas. Far from setting himself up as a British version of Timothy Leary or Ken Kesey, he comes across like an amused observer of Britain's religious and political margins. The sense that the Beatles' intentions are fundamentally parodic is reinforced by the pronounced element of sonic caricature. Those compelling three-part harmonies are a bit too forced to be entirely convincing, soaring upwards but falling well short of the Kingdom of Heaven. Also, like "Ask Me Why" before it, the track ends with a sort of brutal fare-thee-well abruptness. Improvising a brilliant three-note figure on the harmonium, the Beatles' producer George Martin serves notice to his errant lads that the time for parody is at an end.
The real significance of "The Word" is that it clarifies the Beatles' attitude to ideas. As cultural omnivores, intent on taking full advantage of the expanding intellectual horizons of post-war Britain, they flitted from one idea to another in a restless search for meaning. However sincere they might have been at any given moment, their real commitment was not to a particular ideology but to the protean joys of ideological exploration. Knowing instinctively that consumer society melts everything solid into air, they regarded ideas as handy tools for the continuous reforging of the self. There was no message; only a succession of states of mind. They were willing to listen to anyone.
6. "Rain" (1966)
When the Beatles began to see themselves as serious artists, their ambition increased a thousandfold. Much of their work between 1966 and 1967 ˗ the years of Revolver, Sgt.Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour ˗ demanded nothing less than a wholesale transformation of human consciousness. The spur to their ambition was their copious intake of LSD. Convinced that acid had enabled them to transcend the workaday realities of sense-experience and apprehend the universe in all its celestial glory, they now saw it as their duty to "turn on" the world. Once the human sensorium had been transformed by chemical means, the final collapse of all the economic, political and cultural structures which oppressed mankind would surely follow.
The greatest of all their psychedelic songs is also one of the least well-known. Released in June 1966 as the B-side to "Paperback Writer", Lennon's "Rain" has a fascinatingly hybrid quality which gestures to the Beatles' past while simultaneously anticipating their future. At one level its conventions are entirely typical of a mid-tempo slab of British Beat. Short, tightly structured and compact, it's as musically disciplined as anything on With the Beatles or Help! Where it differs from the earlier songs is in its startlingly innovative textures. Agitated into a new form of musical life by its desire to evoke the manifold complexities of the LSD experience, "Rain" shimmers, drones and caresses like Sufi trance music heard on a sun-drenched London pavement. The standard of the individual performances is extraordinary. Lennon's lead vocal oscillates between cosmic yearning and messianic urgency. Harrison's raga-inflected guitar moves through the soundscape as sinuously as a bejewelled snake. McCartney's bass leaps and bounces and skips ahead like an amplified pixie. Ringo triumphs in his new role as percussive cosmic joker. Nowhere else in the Beatles' oeuvre do Lennon and McCartney harmonise as compellingly as they do in the chorus. Straining at the upper end of their registers before collapsing into a languorous haze, the two men compress the antinomies of the visionary experience into a few transcendent seconds.
The tension between the song's tight, disciplined form and its soaring, expansive content is no accident. It is reproduced on most of Lennon's early psychedelic songs, notably "Dr Robert", "And Your Bird Can Sing" and the titanic "She Said She Said". It embodies an intuitive spiritual wisdom which not all the Beatles' contemporaries ˗ not even the Beatles themselves as the months went by ˗ were always inclined to remember. The psychedelic experience was by no means the failsafe panacea of Timothy Leary's dreams. As revelatory as it could undoubtedly be to the most self-disciplined minds, it also had a fearsome capacity to swallow people whole and spit them back out in a state of debilitating self-absorption and paranoia. When the Beatles adapted the rigid conventions of British Beat to the wholly unforeseen task of evoking the music of the cosmos, they were imploring their listeners never to lose control of their own visionary capacities. An ecstatic glimpse of God could rapidly curdle into a species of mental poison without a structure to contain it. "Can you hear me?", sang Lennon, "Can you hear me?". Not everyone could. Not everyone who went on the trip managed to come back.
7. "Julia" (1968)
When the Beatles started recording a new album in the summer of 1968, they had begun to understand the meaning of adversity. The year since the triumphant release of Sgt. Pepper had not been an easy one. Their beloved counterculture was on the verge of implosion, thrown into crisis because its anti-industrial fervour and immoderate faith in hallucinogenic drugs now seemed naive and irresponsible. Brian Epstein's death in the summer of 1967 left them feeling rudderless and insecure. Magical Mystery Tour had been widely dismissed as a piece of unintelligible psychedelic self-indulgence. Their brief obsession with the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi made these supremely streetwise Liverpudlians look like witless dupes. Important relationships had broken down and important new ones had begun. The world that had once embraced the Beatles so fervently now seemed to be turning against them.
Their response to this unaccustomed bout of turbulence was embodied in The Beatles, a sprawling two-record set now universally known as The White Album. Its stylistic heterogeneity is a matter of legend. As the critic Derek Jewell put it in his review of the album in The Sunday Times, it's a veritable "world map of contemporary music". Some listeners believe that the Beatles should have exercised a little discipline, discarded the filler and boiled the album down into a perfectly formed single player. This is to miss the point. The cardinal fact about The White Album is that it's an attempt to create an alternative artistic universe. Temporarily estranged from a world that had dared to question them, the Beatles set out to encompass the whole of human life in song. The less-than-transfixing tracks ("Piggies", The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill", "Rocky Raccoon") had as much of a role to play as the self-evidently magisterial ones ("Long, Long, Long", "I'm So Tired", "Blackbird"), each of them conspiring to seduce the listener into a self-contained universe-in-miniature. The result was the finest expression of art-for-art's-sake principles in Britain since The Picture of Dorian Gray.
Stylistically fragmented, The White Album is bound together by a startling homogeneity of mood. All the songs evince a curiously anaemic and hollowed-out quality, one which deconstructs the idea of an alternative aesthetic universe even as it affirms it. Facing inwards rather than outwards, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr find their natural vitality deliquescing into something altogether more dreamlike, wan and impersonal. The process is illustrated to best effect on Lennon's "Julia", an arpeggiated ballad of unprecedented delicacy. Nowhere outside the ambient-tinged rock of the 1980s has anyone conveyed a more powerful impression of singing from the heart of a dream. Because Julia was the name of Lennon's late mother ˗ and because the lyric contains a number of oblique references to Yoko Ono ˗ the song is often interpreted as an enraptured tribute to the unfathomable depths of womankind. My own feeling is that Lennon is engaged in a sort of Jungian negotiation with himself. When he says "Half of what I say is meaningless ˗ but I say it just to reach you", he sounds as if he's reaching down into his inner world and imploring his unconscious to flood his mind with visions. The interesting thing about the song's imagery is how elusive and insubstantial it seems. All those windy smiles, seashell eyes and morning moons seem to hover on the outskirts of consciousness, defying any attempt to pin them down. The price of seeing art as an alternative to reality is that the emotions slowly become tranquillised.
8. "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" (1968/2018)
The White Album's mood of wan impersonality extended even as far as its out-and-out rockers. Recorded at a more relaxed time and at a less tension-filled place, songs such as "Birthday", "Helter Skelter" and "Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey" might have bristled with communal energy. On The White Album they provide startling evidence that the compact between the Beatles and rock 'n' roll had begun to break down. The four of them sound like broken men, bewildered to discover that piercing riffs, up-tempo guttural roars and booming tom-toms can reinforce barriers as well as dissolve them. Never have the Beatles played with such snarling ferocity. Never has the gap between the band and its audience sounded so unbridgeable.
One exception proves the rule. The "super deluxe" edition of The White Album, released in the autumn of 2018 to mark the album's fiftieth anniversary, contains a thrilling fragment of an impromptu studio jam of "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care". It starts out lightheartedly but suddenly the four old friends are catapulted back to their Hamburg salad days, blowing the studio door off its hinges with some demonic rockabilly. McCartney howls himself into a state of palpable derangement. Lennon and Harrison somehow fashion their guitars into a runaway freight train. Ringo plays with a fine blend of urgency and casual contempt. At the end, in a piquant tribute to the history that shaped him, McCartney affects a Mississippi accent and wryly intones the line that kicked off Presley's version of "Milkcow Blues Boogie" in 1955: "Hold it, fellers". It lasts for precisely forty-two seconds, but somehow ˗ like Blake's grain of sand ˗ it contains an entire universe.
Why was this gloriously unrestrained track so different from everything else on The White Album? Perhaps it had something to do with what Oscar Wilde famously called the "truth of masks". Setting out to pastiche his boyhood hero Elvis Presley, McCartney becomes temporarily self-forgetful and channels the spirit of an age when rock was more about adolescent vigour than twentysomething introspection. At any rate, "(You're So Square) Baby I Don't Care" provides a compelling answer to an important question. If adolescent concerns are an integral part of rock 'n' roll, what use can the music conceivably have for older listeners whose teenage years are long behind them? Echoing Hazlitt, the Beatles show that the truly vital people are those for whom the "guiding star of their youth still shines from afar". There is no avoiding the grim compromises of adult life; but blessed memories of the years before the fall can prevent a man growing old before his time. In my beginning is my end.
9. "You Never Give Me Your Money" (1969)
If the Beatles had soldiered on like the Rolling Stones, the Kinks and the Who, what sort of music would they have made in the 1970s? We will never know. The only predictable thing about the most restlessly protean band in rock history was its bewildering lack of predictability. Nevertheless, some clues can perhaps be found on Abbey Road, their magnificent swansong album recorded in the spring and summer of 1969. It has to be said that the portents are highly disconcerting. Two features of Abbey Road suggest that the Beatles were on the verge of embracing the power-hungry, wealth-flaunting aesthetic of what Tom Wolfe famously called the "Me decade". The first is its unprecedented slickness. In stark contrast to its grainy predecessors, Abbey Road glimmered and sparkled like the luxury goods that were beginning to provide the cultural elite with a highly ostentatious set of status markers. Like the hyper-realistic commodities portrayed in the paintings of a Holbein or a Tenier, the album's surface textures have a tactile quality which seems to encourage the listener to reach out and grab his share of consumer society's multiplying wealth. (Admirers of the art critic John Berger will catch my allusion here.) The other startling feature of the album is its occasional egocentricity. The "I" who speaks on Harrison's "Something" or Lennon's "I Want You (She's So Heavy)" carries more weight than on previous albums, suggesting men who have a pronounced sense of their own importance and expect to get their way. If these characteristics had been carried forward into the 1970s, the Beatles might have ended up creating a new form of bourgeois art. Somehow one can see them flying into Mustique for one of Princess Margaret's notoriously louche parties, thrilled by their seamless integration into the upper reaches of the British class structure.
Abbey Road's incipient bourgeois individualism is shown off to best effect in "You Never Give Me Your Money", the single most dazzling song in McCartney's peerless songbook. The song glues together a number of distinct fragments, each of them addressing the thorny issue of the relationship between wealth and leisure. At first, accompanied by a plaintive piano and a wriggling, unsettled bass line, McCartney finds his mind wandering during an exasperating set of business negotiations: "You never give me your money/You only give me your funny paper". Then, in a moment of blessed liberation, he starts to fantasise about turning his back on the world of work and embracing a life of voluntary leisure. Sounding a bit like an English Al Jolson as a honkytonk piano steadies his nerve, he sings from the perspective of a working-class youngster or a middle-class student who suddenly finds himself thrown out of work. Blithely indifferent to the looming prospect of poverty, he looks foward to an age of bohemian experimentation with undisguised excitement: "But oh, that magic feeling ˗ nowhere to go!" Then there's another shift. After a brief interlude of glistening three-part harmonies, Harrison's guitar tortuously ascends a steep mountainside in search of a dimly glimpsed plain. Upwards ˗ always upwards. Newly liberated, McCartney makes his triumphant reappearance in a thunderclap of opulence. Singing in a lower register than usual ˗ brooking no opposition but oozing a sense of fun ˗ he urges his wife and kids to grab their belongings and head for the limo. The Liverpudlian prole with bohemian aspirations has long since disappeared. This is the internationally fêted multi-millionaire, cheerfully surveying the landscape as he instructs his chauffeur to accelerate. McCartney's inner class struggle has been won by the big battalions of his personal bourgeoisie.
The closing seconds of "You Never Give Me Your Money" hint at the existence of a guilty conscience. Perhaps realising that their celebration of wealth-fuelled hedonism conflicts with everything they've ever stood for, the Beatles revert to countercultural type. As some glinting arpeggios bring the listener down from his limousine high, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison strike a note of fragility as they harmonise some lines from a children's nursery rhyme: "One, two, three, four, five, six, seven/All good children go to Heaven". Slowly the track fades into the languid, mock-Spanish textures of Lennon's "Sun King". But what of it? The time for winsome displays of childlike innocence is long gone. The Beatles have gone over to the party of wealth and status. There's no going back now.
10. "Free As A Bird" (1995)
Towards the end of the 1980s, George Harrison was asked about the likelihood of the Beatles getting back together. He responded by saying that the band could never reunite while John Lennon remained dead. He was wrong. In the early 1990s, while the three surviving Beatles were working on the so-called Anthology project, Yoko Ono gave them a cassette of three incomplete piano demos which Lennon had recorded towards the end of his life. Employing Jeff Lynne rather than George Martin as their producer, McCartney, Harrison and Starr convened at McCartney's farm in Sussex and set about finishing the tracks by adding instrumentation, vocals and lashings of studio wizardry. Two of them ˗ "Free as a Bird" and "Real Love" ˗ were eventually released as singles and featured on the first two Anthology albums. Opinions differ as to the quality of these wholly unexpected late additions to the Beatles oeuvre. Some people regard them as ill-advised and uninspired codas to one of the greatest back catalogues in rock history. Others hold them in higher esteem. My own feeling is that "Free as a Bird" is a masterpiece, not least because the message it conveys seems like a pitch-perfect summation of everything the mature Beatles had learned during their tumultuous careers.
Recorded on what one imagines as a crisp but melancholy autumn afternoon in New York, Lennon's original demo was an inchoate but curiously haunting affair. Sounding vulnerable, meditative and regretful in equal measure, Lennon indulges in an Icarus-style fantasy of breaking free from his earthly bonds and taking wing. It's scarcely one of his most inspired lyrics, but a curious note of ambivalence compels the listener's attention. On the one hand, Lennon sees himself floating entirely free from earthly ties, bidding adieu to family, friends and society at large as he pursues an Emersonian ideal of personal autonomy. And yet, in the same breath, he can't resist thinking of himself as a "homing bird" whose keenest pleasure is returning from the turbulent outdoors to a place where it's always "home and dry". Does liberty involve striking out on one's own or surrendering oneself to the warm embrace of the community? The question hovers in the air as Lennon's fragile vocal meanders this way and that.
It falls to the three surviving Beatles to provide an answer to Lennon's conundrum. The demo of "Free as a Bird" contains an incomplete middle eight. Addressing another human being for the first time in the song, Lennon asks "Whatever happened to the life that we once knew?" but then trails off. In a profoundly moving instance of musical empathy, McCartney finishes the lyric by taking his old friend's question and running with it. His voice propelled cautiously upwards by long-suppressed emotions, he bemoans the absence of the "touch" that "used to mean so much" and then drives his message home: "It always made me feel so free". Lennon's opposition between the individual and the collective is duly deconstructed. It is only by mobilising the power of the collective that the right of the individual to engage in what Mill once called "experiments in living" can be secured. The doctrine is enacted a bit later in the track when a second, radically truncated middle eight ˗ this time sung by Harrison ˗ unleashes a glorious instrumental break. As Harrison's vintage Fender reaches yearningly for what he once called the "spiritual sky", celestial harmonies are borne aloft on the breeze like Vaughan Williams's skylark. Each element in the mix is burnished by all the others but nothing is ever subsumed by anything else.
If "Free as a Bird" examines the deep interconnection between the individual and the collective, it also raises the issue of the relationship between the past and the present. By expressing such keen regret about the breakdown of collective ties, the track implies that the postmodern age ˗ the age of market fundamentalism in excelsis ˗ can only be redeemed by following the example of a more culturally vital past. But to which period of history should we make our appeal? One answer to that question is furnished by the track's richly evocative textures. Perhaps influenced by the sonic preferences of the Britpop movement, the fiftysomething Beatles gesture towards the sound of their late period. The vibe is mildly psychedelic but the arpeggios, incandescent harmonies and lush acoustic guitars recall the last hurrah of Abbey Road. In that sense the Sixties' most prolific spokesmen are making a case for the exemplary qualities of their own period of cultural dominance. But their journey through history doesn't end there. After a nicely languid false end, Ringo pulls off a twitchily urgent fill and we're launched into a brief, playful, semi-atonal outro. The last thing we hear is Harrison paying tribute to his beloved George Formby with a nifty riff on the ukelele. The reference here is not to the neophiliac Sixties but to the industrial working-class communities of the Beatles' youth. The sense that the band is rendering an overdue homage to the men and women who formed them is powerfully reinforced by Geoff Wonfor's promotional video, a virtuoso evocation of a lost Liverpool where the Beatles and their bohemian entourage cheerfully share the pavements with dockers, slum kids and factory workers. The story has come full circle. Approaching the twilight of their careers, three enormously rich men and their departed friend ˗ the onetime members of a band who did so much to put the British working class on the map ˗ give a heartfelt vote of thanks to the people they left behind.
Chippy class warriors, aspiring socialites, opponents of materialism and eternal spiritual explorers
In the days before cultural hierarchies began to implode, we were often told that the popular arts were condemned to an inferior position by their escapism and their lack of nuance. No serious person needed to engage with a pop song or a thriller because such things failed to reflect society and gave expression only to trivial, endlessly repeated ideas. These days the situation seems much less clear. Inspired by its own immersion in contemporary culture, a populist intelligentsia has shown that popular art is deeply rooted in the social structure and open to innumerable different interpretations. Nothing corroborates their arguments more powerfully than an engagement with the music of the Beatles. Exploding into British society at a time when received pronunciation dominated the airwaves and male homosexuality was still illegal, the band was a force for change from the word go.
Their pride in their working-class roots and their scepticism towards macho convention did much to unsettle class and gender stereotypes. Yet their approach to the issues and trends of their day was anything but dogmatic. Inconsistency was the medium in which they moved. Their wistful faith in the redemptive possibilities of teenage romance soon gave way to a bedazzled advocacy of mind-altering drugs. The young men who longed for money and all the trappings of wealth became impassioned opponents of materialism. The chippy class warriors of the early 1960s briefly became the aspiring international socialites of 1969, only to use their last recorded work to express a respectful and entirely sincere tribute to the traditional working class. What drove them forward, in the words of the German socialist Eduard Bernstein, was the belief that the "ultimate aim is nothing....the movement is everything". Each Beatle felt instinctively that the content of any individual belief is less important than the restless desire to embrace the next big thing. In so doing they foreshadowed an age in which the exploration of the self will be humanity's main concern.
The day before his untimely death in December 1980, John Lennon gave an interview to the broadcaster Dave Sholin. Looking back on the decade he had done so much to define, he said simply this: "The thing the Sixties did was show us the possibility and the responsibility that we all had. It wasn’t the answer. It just gave us a glimpse of the possibility". There could scarcely be a better epitaph for his band's extraordinary career. The Beatles stand before us as a symbol of the eternal spiritual explorer, anxious to move forward before the flame of idealism is snuffed out forever.
Philip Bounds is a historian, journalist and critic. He is the author of a number of books, including Orwell and Marxism (2009), British Communism and the Politics of Literature (2012) and Notes from the End of History (2014).