This is an occasional series, about books I read many years ago, usually from Didsbury Library, that I seek out to re-experience, to see if the things that appealed still affect me the same way, and to measure the change in myself between then and now.
The latest of these is Twilight of the Gods – The Beatles in Retrospect by Wilfrid Mellers.
Until now, I’ve been re-reading and reviewing exclusively fiction, but Mellers, a noted and highly-respected musicologist, produced an erudite survey of the music of The Beatles – mainly as a band but also covering the first, post-split albums by each member – from the point of view of the music itself, in the same manner as he and others of his ilk, would analyse, assess, praise and explain the works of Beethoven, Bach, Mozart et al.
It was a controversial book, sneered at and derided from both sides. The classical scholars were horrified at their standards and demands being applied to a mere pop group, even one so exalted as The Beatles: to them, Mellers was not so much slumming as rolling in ordure. And the pop/rock community, including The Beatles themselves, were derisive and dismissive of the very idea of applying strict musical theory to their music.
I’m sure it was that which drew my attention to the book: I’d started getting the New Musical Express in February 1972 and I can’t imagine there wasn’t a satirical review of the book at some point. I know that when I saw it in Didsbury Library, I knew what it was and was eager to read it.
It’s hard to know what to say about this book. Neither then nor now do I understand more than half of it. It’s full of staves of music, which I can’t read, and is full of musical terms that, even with the benefit of several pages of glossary, I can barely understand, and is so dense in the use of these that if I tried to consult the glossary every time, I would never finish the book.
I can follow the overall description of the progress of The Beatles’ music, from the initial primitivism of their early singles and albums – described as ritual music, or trance-inducing – to the growing sophistication of the various stages of their musical development. And its helpful that Mellers’s assessments of the various merits of the albums is in rough accord with mine (at least until the final phase, where he rates Abbey Road much higher than I do – I have no Beatles albums after Magical Mystery Tour).
But it’s obvious that Mellers regards The Beatles, and particularly Lennon and McCartney, as tremendously gifted natural musicians. Their use of musical effects, such as melissma and glissando, to name just two terms I don’t get, is detailed and praised, despite the act that their application is in almost every case accidental, unplanned and natural.
It seems that the pair’s instincts, as composers as well as musicians, combined with their expert use of the studio and the formal assistance rendered to them by George Martin, enabled them to invariably select musically adventurous forms that were ideally suited to the ideas and emotions they wanted to express.
Not that Mellers slights Harrison or Starr, making it plain that whilst their contributions, musically, may be slight in comparison to the major writers in the band, they were nevertheless essential components in the collective identity of The Beatles, the shared experience of being Liverpudlian working class men at that time and in that place.
Twilight of the Gods, an overblown title for which I can find no justification in or out of the book, was published in 1973, allowing Mellers to end by looking at the different approaches taken by the individual Beatles in their post-split-up solo work, a period long enough to enable all members to release two albums, except for Harrison, whose first was a triple-album offering more sound overall than any of the other three.
Even here, Mellers concentrates more upon Lennon and McCartney who, separated from the scrutiny of the other, go down very different routes towards the uncompromised music they wish to make (McCartney does not profit by the distinction, at least not to my eyes, just as he certainly doesn’t to my ears).
It’s still all very much above my head, except when Mellers makes reference to certain of the lyrics, and there’s still a certain surreallity to the idea of subjecting pop/rock to this level of formal analysis. But Mellers is sincere in his beliefs and in the value of the music and even an imperfect understanding of his arguments fails to render them risible or overdone.
In the end, the book’s interest lies in it being one of the first, if not the first, to examine The Beatles’ music rigorously, and to conclude that it was not merely valid, but serious, and to describe it in musical terms usually confined to the more formal, more trained Classical music. For this, Mellers was scorned on all sides. The book is out of print and comparatively costly to obtain but, understand it or not, I’m hanging onto my copy.