Some Books: Wilfrid Mellers’ ‘Twilight of the Gods’


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.

Imaginary Albums: Lost 70s Volume 15


It’s that time again. After fifteen compilations over sixteen years, we have still not yet come to the bottom of my memories of the more obscure Seventies pop music. As always the key to this compilation is that the song has been pretty much forgotten, usually but not exclusively because it was never successful in the first place. There are 21 tracks on this latest outings and, as usual, there’s a rough chronological order to things, and there are a preponderance of tracks from 1971. Honestly, I don’t remember it being this crowded with obscurities when I lived through it.

Old Fashioned Girl – John Keen
We kick off with Speedy Keen’s first song after Thunderclap Newman split up, if they could ever truly be said to have been together in the first place. ‘Old Fashioned Girl’ was a great rock song with a screaming guitar and a compulsive chorus. For some strange reason, given that everyone knew him as Speedy, this, and the first album, were released under the name John Keen, with which the self-styled ‘bleeding long-nosed rock’n’roll herbert’ had been born. I have more to say about this on The Infinite Jukebox, here but this is the kind of opener that gets anything off to a good start.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Tq2syZBYVEY
Haunted – Bob Clarke
From the start of 1971, I began selecting a single of the week, a habit I maintained for the next half-decade or so. Without fail, I would pick some new single that had come to my attention and which thrilled me. This was not always the easiest thing to maintain: there were weeks when the selection of new records was extremely scanty, and for weeks when the family had gone away on holiday to the Lakes, where medium wave radio reception was absolutely shit and I barely got to hear any music at all, I had to allow those selections a two week run because I wouldn’t know what to choose the following Monday. And there were plenty of occasions when I would catch a song once, nominate it for myself, and then discover that it was on no-one’s playlist and I would never hear it again. This was one of those songs. I don’t think I heard it more than two or three times at best, ethereal and, so my memory told me, laden with spooky sound-effects. I loved it. For over thirty years, if not even longer, I forgot it completely, then it popped up on a YouTube sidebar. It’s not what I remember, but then I no longer remember anything but the circumstances. Perfectly pleasant stuff. What made me love it is now as much a vanished thing as 1971 itself.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ukHf_LfGud0
Walk in the Night – Jr Walker and The All-Stars
This is another of those slightly dodgy entries, a track that reached the UK top 20, and one that was very popular for a very long time. But even this seems to have slipped into a kind of audio limbo, not having joined the ranks of those classic Tamla-Motown singles that those with the best of taste revere and cherish. Junior Walker was a sax player, and the band did a lot of backing tracks for Motown, together with the odd single, either a sax instrumental or a song with limited lyrics to suit Walker’s limited range. ‘Walk in the Night’ was a quasi-instrumental, a smooth, easy-loping melody, a gentle dancing beat, with sax breaks flowing smoothly and a bunch of girl backing singers contributing the title line and a lot of ooh-oohing. Smooth as anything, one of those late night dancefloor-fillers, the ideal lead in to the slow snogging session. It remained in people’s memories far longer than such limited hits usually do, and it should never have lost its place.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vivus6MCOyA
Sing Children Sing – Lesley Duncan
In the early Seventies, Lesley Duncan was an already successful backing singer and songwriter, whose beautiful ‘Love Song’ had already been recorded by both Elton John and Olivia Newton-John. She was also getting an increasing reputation for her own singing, a deep, near-husky voice on beautiful songs, with messages on ecology that were ahead of her time. ‘Sing Children Sing’ went down a storm with Radio 1 DJs and was played continually. I didn’t like it. It was too downbeat, too dry, too sententious for my then little-developed tastes. It flopped, like many turntable hits that I couldn’t get behind but which, years later, I came to recognise for their brilliance. ‘Sing Children Sing’ came back into my head only lately. I played it for nostalgia and stayed to play it again because its simplicity and its unostentatious vocals proved to be deeply moving. It’s taken me more than forty years to appreciate the quality of this song, and of the late Lesley Duncan. I’m glad I didn’t leave it any longer.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p87zXD_sUXc
Day By Day – Cast for Godspell
Everybody remembers Jesus Christ, Superstar, but not too many people who weren’t there at the time remember that it was not the only religious musical at the turn of the Seventies. The other one was Godspell, more famous for giving David Essex his start (though let’s not be too hard on it for that). Godspell was a bit more hippy-trippy, crossed with an element of gospel, and wasn’t written by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, which gives it a bit more cred, street-wise, but not so much kudos on the longevity front. This was the single, an explicitly religious song, which I hated at the time, but whose energy and enthusiasm and sheer peppiness has evidently bled into my memories and taken up deeper roots than I ever imagined.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OqEHaQ1RbME
What is Life – George Harrison
When the Beatles officially split in 1970, there was a long silence, musically at least. George Harrison was first out of the traps, greeting 1971 with ‘My Sweet Lord’, and rapidly following it with the triple All Things Must Pass album. The rumour was that the album was basically every song Harrison had written that the Beatles had refused to record all at once, and given the general standard of his work after that point, it’s at least an arguable case. I’ve never listened to the album, but if it was strong enough that Harrison could afford to waste a song like ‘What is Life’ on the b-side of ‘My Sweet Lord’, it must have been strong indeed.
‘What is Life’ is George the rocker, hammering out an addictive riff, supplemented by some fierce brass, as he roars into an impassioned love song, or it might be God who he’s enquiring what his life might be without the object’s love. Either way, it’s a fantastic track and I preferred it to the a-side. In the UK, Olivia Newton-John had a Top 20 hit with a cover that demonstrated succinctly what was deemed to be commercial: the riff is flattened slightly, the sound sweetened, the repetitions reduced and a descant tone introduced so that the audience doesn’t get bored. And the love Livvy is singing about is definitely not religious, but romantic (and not carnal). What a waste of a great song.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fiH9edd25Bc
September in the Rain – Dinah Washington
There have been some oddball choices in this series – Guy Marks, anyone? – but there will be some puzzled faces at this selection. Surely Dinah Washington is not Seventies music? How can she qualify? Do you really like something like this? Well, the answer to the last such question is, yes. Improbable as it seems, much as my tastes and instincts in music are removed from the kind of stuff my parents enjoyed, I love this record. It’s the same as any other genre of music: no matter how unpalatable it may be to your general tastes, something will come along that, for no easily discernible reason, will slide through your prejudices, and I have loved the easiness and freeness of this arrangement, the confident delivery, the wonderful smoothness of its old-fashioned sound ever since I first heard it. In the early Seventies. The song itself only dates from the early Sixties, and for some reason it was reissued in 1972, or thereabouts, and got a lot of airplay, enough for me to hear regularly, so either Radio 1 actually played it or I was listening to more Radio 2 than I remember. Whether this is a Sound of the Seventies or not, it’s a Sound of My Seventies.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fk-jh3xocd0
Spill the Wine – Eric Burdon and War
One of the features of these later compilations is the number of songs they include that I hated at the time, but have now changed in my attitude to. By 1970, Eric Burdon’s career was in tatters. He had broken up the Animals in 1967, gone from being a Newcastle hard-ass bluesman to a psychedelic flower-power dreamer, and this collaboration with War, a black band themselves moving uneasily between soul and rock, was a shapeless, unstructured thing, alternating between meandering hippy narrative and an impassioned appeal to spill the wine and save/take? that girl. I still don’t understand it. But my ears are now so much more broadly attuned to what I couldn’t understand when I was young (which all you Burden fans will appreciate).

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W77Kwh6f0TE
Vehicle – The Ides or March
Now this really is a case of nostalgia above everything. When I was first listening to pop music, in those early days of discovery in 1970, this blast of jazz-rock with its rasping vocals was big on Radio 1, and I hated it. There was this, and Blood, Sweat and Tears’ ‘Spinning Wheel’, getting all the airplay but thankfully never selling. ‘Spinning Wheel’ is still far beyond any personal pale, no matter how my tastes shift, but when I listen to ‘Vehicle’, I remember hating hearing it more than I hate hearing it. Do you understand what I mean?

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=sxJFjO4Skgo
Brown-eyed Girl – Ian Matthews
With the exception of ‘Woodstock’, I was pretty ignorant of Ian Matthews’ career when he came out with this cover of Van Morrison’s justly-celebrated first solo single, in 1976. It’s softer, less distinctive, more orthodox and Matthews’ voice doesn’t have the rasp that Morrison brought to this jaunty remembrance of time and love past, but I still like it. A good song need not only be celebrated in a single form.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e_L8cyTyT_o
Mary Skeffington – Gerry Rafferty
This is the most recent song to arrive in the Lost 70s pot, a memory that floated up out of a short session of skipping through Gerry Rafferty/Humblebums songs on YouTube. I recognised the name, I recognised the song, but that’s about all. I don’t know when I got to hear this, I am not even certain that it was this version that I heard, and I am certain that I thought of it as traditional back then, though Rafferty is the writer and it’s apparently about his mother. All I remember is that I remember this, and it is gentle, fair and takes me back. That I don’t know where it takes me to is no reason to exclude this. (Addendum: looking up the YouTube link has exploded the mystery: I knew it best back then from an album track cover by Olivia Newton-John, played by my mate Alan. Three Livvy cross-overs in one compilation!)

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8aaWgpmvx8g
Black-skinned Blue-eyed Boys – The Equal
In contrast, this one has been waiting the longest to be included in a compilation. The Equals, fronted by a teenage Eddy Grant, are usually thought of as a Sixties band, and few remember that, after a succession of singles that only really brushed up against the top 20, this went all the way to the top 10 in early 1971. It’s a splenetic burst of anti-war agitprop, with pop underpinnings, protesting the overwhelming presence of black men in the US Army in Vietnam, and it’s aggression could sustain it for far longer than the three minutes it lasts. It ought to have been more celebrated, but hey, no matter how loose enough now children the Equals were, their time had gone. Eddy Grant had more to offer later, much later.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=P5G3Ffta-ic
We’re gonna change the world – Matt Monro
It’s nearly fifty years since this song was on the radio, in 1970, usually on those Radio 1 shows that shared the frequency with Radio 2: Pete Murray, Jimmy Young, Terry Wogan, et al. Matt Monro, born Terry Parsons, was an easy-listening singer, more my parents’ meat than mine, but this is a vigorous pop tune with a striking chorus, and the song has left me confused for that near fifty years. On the surface, it’s a protest song, a bustling story of a morning when women are rising, collecting, gathering to hold a protest in support of peace. Monro names them, several of them, traces their path into a greater flow, but each verse ends with the contrasting figure of Annie Harris, who isn’t involved: going back to bed, going off to work, following dull patterns whilst this tide of female protest builds, drawing all the excitement to it. Come with us, Monro urges, run with us, we’re gonna change the world. But this isn’t a protest song. It never has been, despite the enthusiasm and energy it puts into talking up what the marchers are doing, what they are aiming for. The women are stupid, ineffectual, misguided. Annie Harris has avoided them for good reason. One’s dragged away by a policeman, another has her face slapped (with the underlying implication that it serves her right, the stupid, interfering cow). Meanwhile, Annie Harris is the true hero, she knows her place, she’s in the office, typing. For a moment, she pauses, and thinks of Don, glances at his last letter: ‘Died for others to live better’, then brushes away a tear and carries on, no doubt Keeping Calm whilst she’s at it. He’s the true hero, the man. He gets things done whilst these stupid women merely witter and Annie Harris knows her place. It’s a horrible, utterly conservative, disgusting mess disguised as a jolly paean to the spirit of the time, and the desire to see things improve. How stupid these women are, to think they can change anything. A wierd song, a poison pill, coated with the sugar of an energetic chorus. Fifty years only makes it look more foul.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mx_12cvgTqI
Peace – Peter
I didn’t have many mates at school, and one of them moved away when his parents went to live in Tenby. His gran still lived about ten minutes away by bike, and he used to come back to Manchester every summer, and we’d meet up, play subbuteo, talk music. I was at his gran’s that Friday afternoon when it got too nice to play subbuteo indoors, so I biked home to get my football for a kickaround, and I saw my Dad for that last brief time, before he went back into the hospital to die in as much comfort as they could find for him. The following summer, Steve C was back. I was listening to Radio Luxembourg in the evenings, but he was tuning in to RNI, Radio Nordsee International, pirate radio whose frequency I could never find. They played this ballad/anthem, and he loved it. I never heard it. It’s here for him, if he ever reads this blog.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dsvSBGF4MQM
Mamy Blue – Los Pop Tops
In 1971, we hadn’t yet quite got the idea of inviting a Europop record back into our homes when we came back from summer holidays. That dismal practice only began in earnest two years later, with the chirpy Swede, Sylvia (no relation to Sylvia of ‘Pillow Talk’), and that act of cultural war, ‘Y Viva Espana’. This early, all we had to put up with was this sententious piece of drippy gloom, with people lazing around intoning various variation of ‘Mamy Blue’ and the word ‘Oh’, whilst the singer practiced his fake sincerity. It was responsible for more abrupt switchings off of my transistor radio than anything else that summer, but, as the years go by it has become… well, tolerable. Nostalgia for lost youth can be a punishing thing.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=22T8wpN01bQ
Amoureuse – Kiki Dee
Pauline Matthews from Bradford had been around for half a decade and more before she broke into the Top 30 with this slow, sensual song about shagging a bloke for the first time. She’d found a measure of fame in 1969 or thereabouts, by becoming the first white English woman to be signed by Motown, but that was all she got out of the deal. To get that far, she’d changed her name to the slightly more poppy Kiki Dee, suggesting kookiness and all sorts of Sixties girl-singer lightness. ‘Amoureuse’ was a world away from all those impressions, intense and rich in sound and voice. It was what Dave Marsh described as Topic 1: do I or don’t I? Unlike the Crystals, Kiki wasn’t concerned about what he would think of her in the morning, but what she would think of herself. Based on a song as smooth and melodic as this, I don’t know if she came, but she certainly deserved to stay.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wEcJMJK8_Us
Heartsong – Gordon Giltrap
An instrumental from a guitar virtuoso that was a minor top 30 hit and became background music for BBC factual programmes like holidays shows for many years. More recently, the BBC started snatching instrumental breaks from songs by Doves, which were a lot more classy and engaging, but this was not a bad little piece of music to have on tap.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=GWTU4vXTV0I
Garden party – Rick Nelson and The Stone Canyon Band
By 1972 or thereabouts, there was a big hole in the middle of the day on Radio 1. You had bozo DJs out to promote themselves from breakfast through to about midday, and bozo DJs out to promote themselves from 2.00pm until the end of independent radio 1 transmission at tea-time. In between, there was a massive dislocation of expectations, in the form of ex-radio Caroline DJ, Johnnie Walker. You see, Walker’s USP was seriously unique on daytime radio: he was into the music. The music. Really. You wanted the good stuff, the serious, thoughtful non-bubblegum/boyband shit, you listened to Johnnie Walker. Walker lasted like this until 1976 before moving to America, believing that American radio offered more in terms of the music than Radio 1 offered in supermarket openings. This 1972 single by Rick, formerly Ricky Nelson, about his experiences in trying to play contemporary music to an audience wanting only golden oldies, was a gentle, laid-back country rocker that had a very great influence on Walker. If memories are all I sing, I’d rather drive a truck, Nelson sang. At least we got four more years out of Walker, when we really needed someone like him. I wish I’d realised that I could have had even more from John Peel all that time.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-JNcWvHTLjc
Stay with me till dawn – Judy Tzuke
Another song about a first night spent shagging with a bloke. There was six years and a musical upheaval between Kiki Dee and Judy Tzuke, who looked and sounded incredibly Southern Californian but actually came from London. Musically, Ms Tzuke had written an intense ballad, with heavy strings but otherwise sparse instrumentation, for a voice that occupied a higher register than Ms Dee, and six years on there was no suggestion that this was her first time ever, just her first time with someone she wants to know. It was 1979, the height of New Wave, the death knell for Southern California, even when this wasn’t really from that laid-back state. It was just as gorgeous, and Judy Tzuke made Stevie Nicks look like a mile of bad highway. In the end, Kiki Dee had the longer career: Tzuke never repeated this record’s success. But not many people get to make a sound like this. She has nothing to be ashamed of. And if this was about anyone in particular, then he was one seriously lucky bastard.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nDLfNkwLr1U
Where were you – The Mekons
You can always tell we’re reaching the end of one of these compilations when the punk tracks start to come out. ‘Where were you?’ was much beloved of Peely. The Mekons come from Leeds and they called themselves after the Mekon so that’s two strikes against them already, but the aggressive and scruffy charm of this student bar favourite has yet to be exhausted. They not only don’t make records like this any more, they can’t.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=71s-T8oUTQs
Good Technology – The Red Guitars
This is not a punk record. Nor is it a New Wave record. But it wouldn’t have existed without either form. The Red Guitars came from Hull, and this is a slow burner, building with a seemingly ponderous certainty towards a finale with screaming guitars. It’s one of those tracks that don’t leave any room for a following song, which is why it’s at the end here and why no-one can remember any other Red Guitars tracks.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Cs0OkiCZNRI

Some Books: Mark Shipper’s ‘Paperback Writer’


In 2014, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I began an occasional series about such books. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
The latest of these books is Mark Shipper’s Paperback Writer.
This 1978 novel is not a Didsbury Library book. Indeed, I never saw it anywhere in any library, though it was published in Britain in 1979: my original copy was the very first American import I ever owned, and was bought from the main bookstore in Nottingham (whose name I can no longer recall) that summer, some eight or nine months after reading a review in the New Musical Express that made me desperately want to read it: enough so that I paid the slightly-inflated cost of buying an import book, despite money being perennially tight when I was in my Articles.
As you may have guessed from the title, it’s about The Beatles. It’s about their history from 1961 in Hamburg through to their unsuccessful comeback album and tour (supporting Peter Frampton) in 1979. But as we all know, there was no such comeback, not in 1979 nor, after December 1980, would there ever be one.
Shipper was a rock writer, founder of the well-regarded American fanzine, Flash, and a writer for Phonograph Record Magazine, which doesn’t sound a very hip publication, but who gave him the ‘creative freedom’ to write Paperback Writer. After which, and one further book, he apparently dropped out of sight, and his continued existence was last noted in 2008.
The novel takes the known framework of the Beatles’ career and does interesting, nasty things to it. We’re forewarned by the sub-title, The Life and Times of the Beatles, the Spurious Chronicle of Their Rise to Stardom, Their Triumphs and Disasters, Plus the Amazing Story of Their Ultimate Reunion, but it’s the blurb to the author photo that says it best: “In an exclusive interview for this book, Ringo Starr tells the entire Beatles story to author Mark Shipper (right). Shipper then proceeds to lose his notes on the way home, forcing him to make up his own version of the story.”
I remember finding the book incredibly funny, exploding into raucous laughter at nearly all the jokes, though in time the laughter faded and, several years later, I moved the book on. Reading it again in 2016, I chuckled at a very early gag: the book’s first conceit was that the Beatles were a quartet of leather-jacketed Teddy Boys whilst Paul McCartney was a prim, well-dressed singer with a solo album out on a Liverpool-based able, leading to conflict and opposition between the two sides until they decide to join forces. McCartney joins the band in Hamburg, the scene being described by bartender Hans Daun – but the extract is thirty lines of untranslated German!
That one was still funny, though nowhere near as funny as the absurdity of it in 1979. As for the rest of the book, it’s heaped up and overspilling gags of all kind, it’s pointed fracturing of the Beatles story? Not a giggle, nor even a titter. I didn’t have to go deep into the book to recognise that there was no going back to the mindset with which I’d enjoyed this so thoroughly in the hot, lonely summer of that year.
To give an example of how Shipper bends the story, apart from the McCartney gag (complete with made-up cover for this extremely rare LP) already mentioned, in Shipper’s universe, Brian Epstein was not manager of a local record shop but, instead, a plumber. In that capacity, he’s called to the Cavern Club to fix blocked toilets whilst The Beatles are playing. In the Ladies, he finds a wild, debauched scene with underage teenage girls fixing each other up with heroin: if the Beatles inspire this kind of response, he wants in. And it’s better than plumbing.
This of course leads to running jokes about Epstein’s continuing negotiation skills being supplemented by fixing record company bosses’ grandmothers’ leaking taps.
Everywhere we turn, the book is salted with twists on the true sequence of events. Shipper salts the everyday story with future events: George Harrison’s religious beliefs play their part behind the scenes far earlier than expected, especially in the infamous incident when Lennon claimed the Beatles were now bigger than Jesus. Yoko is thrown into the story far earlier than she actually appears, as Mick Jagger’s girlfriend, leading to a completely different take upon why Lennon provided the Stones with ‘I wanna be your Man’ for their second single, and considerably different lyrics.
It’s a tangled mess of a tale, funny in its initial impact, but whereas Terry Pratchett can be repetitively funny, the same jokes causing laughter time and again, whenever a book is read anew, Shipper’s stuff doesn’t make it past the first moment of introduction.
Nevertheless, I continued to the end, to the totally fictitious section, about the comeback. This is the best part of the book because this is the part that’s allowed to get serious, underneath the continuing humour.
Shipper leads in with the preposterous notion that Linda McCartney was a great musician and got an offer to join Steely Dan. Paul thinks of this as a betrayal but her counter offer – lead billing, Linda McCartney and Wings – is met with flat refusal: Lennon would never let me live it down. That’s the key to it, broken up for nine years or not, Paul McCartney is still a Beatle. He always will be. They all will. Sooner or later, they’ll get back together, not just because their solo careers are either shit or meaningless, but because each of them has only three other people in the world who understands what is was like, like it meant to go through the greatest phenomenon of all time.
It’s a moment when Shipper dives deep below the banality of what he’s doing, and identifies something about the most famous band of all time that we all of us never considered.
The joke is, naturally, that the comeback is a disaster. Individually, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison can’t write decent songs any more (Starr never could) and together the magic doesn’t come back. The album, the comeback, commands the highest advances in history – until anyone hears the music. And suddenly the Beatles can only get a gig if they agree to support… Peter Frampton. With the Sex Pistols as co-second lead.
Even live, the band can’t get anywhere until they do the really old oldies, those first songs, the ‘She Loves You’s and ‘I want to hold your hand’s. The embarrassing ones, the ones they hate for over exposure.
It’s Lennon, aptly, who defines it: they’re Bill Haley. Bill Haley’s the prisoner of ‘Rock Around The Clock’. He can’t play anything else because nobody wants to hear anything else. For years,the fans wanted the Beatles back, but it wasn’t really the Beatles they wanted to return, it was their own pasts, to each and every one of which the Beatles had been the soundtrack. It didn’t matter how stupid it was to listen to a forty year old man going on about wanting to hold a girl’s hand, it took them back to when holding her hand was a significant step forward. The Beatles were prisoners of everybody’s past, not just in Shipper’s horrifying perceptions, but in real life too.
Would it have been so had a Beatles reunion come in real life? We’ll never know. Already, when this book was written, the window of opportunity in which that might have happened had narrowed far more tightly than anyone of us would have imagined before that dark December morning and the news that broke over our breakfast tables. But in those closing chapters, Shipper gets into our heads and hearts in a way that makes me wonder, and wonder hard.
Only in this area does the book survive, does it become worth reading. The humour”s banal and it hasn’t traveled well down the decades, not least in that in 1979, it was still transgressive to have the Beatles dismissed as a joke. Or is it my sense of humour that’s changed over nearly forty years? I’ve evidence to prove that it hasn’t, but who really knows?
So this is going back in the resell pile, whilst I ponder what would it have been like if they’d come together again, and really played that concert of all the oldies and I had the chance to see and hear myself…

Macca


As if you didn’t know

For me, there is very little of Paul McCartney’s post-Beatle music that’s worth house-space: a year either side of Band on the Run (which I once owned) and that’s about it. Oh, and thanks almost entirely to hearing it for the first time with the utterly charming Rupert the Bear video, I do have a soft spot for The Frog Chorus. This despite never having gotten into Rupert, even as a very small boy.

And I freely confess that when it comes to the Beatles, I am far more taken with John Lennon’s contributions, though I am nothing like musical enough to say why. Perhaps it’s because, underneath it all, McCartney was the Great Sentimentalist, whose emotional music was rarely to be entirely trusted because it came far too easily, whilst Lennon was the Hard Man, whose romanticism had to be pulled out of deeper places, and which became more personal as a consequence.

Take two songs, both from A Hard Day’s Night, the film and album, both gentle, slow-tempo acoustic ballads, both love songs. Though both are credited to Lennon/McCartney, it’s open knowledge that, after the first couple of albums, most songs were primarily composed individually, with the primary writer the lead singer.

But that’s not the only reason why it’s so easy to identify track 5’s ‘And I Love Her’ as penned by McCartney, and track 3’s ‘If I Fell’ by Lennon.

I’m not going to discuss the song’s various merits musically, but let’s compare the lyrics, the substance of the songs. ‘And I Love Her’ has no substance, it’s about as deep as the first layer of dust on a concrete floor. McCartney loves her. It you saw her, you’d love her. He loves her. At night, the stars are bright and the sky is dark, but he’ll always love her. He loves her.

Many years ago, I read noted Musicologist Wilfred Mellers’ book, Twilight of the Gods, which subjected the Beatles’ songs to analysis for how they achieved their effects, in a similar manner to how classical works are approached. Mellers defined the early Beatles love songs, like ‘Love Me Do’ as ‘eden-songs’, in which the emotion is simple, indeed naive. ‘And I Love Her’ qualifies in this bracket, relatively late though it is.

In contrast, ‘If I Fell’ has deeper concerns. Lennon has met a girl, someone special, someone with whom he could easily fall in love. He’s clearly tempted. But love is more than fluffy feelings. He already has a girl, who loves him. He stands between the two women, knowing the decision to be very important. If he chooses the new woman, his current girlfriend will be hurt, badly. It is not just important but vital that he chooses correctly. If the new woman is all he thinks she might be, if what is offered is true love, commitment, the real thing, he will go to her.

But if it’s just a passing thing, a fling, a bit of fun, something ephemeral, then he will cleave to his existing girlfriend. He will not hurt her for a bit on the side.

In one sense, this is a song about a man deciding whether to break his girlfriend’s heart, but on another, Lennon is singing about repsonsibility, between one another. He’s been in love before, he sings, and found that it is more than just holding hands, the nod to the early Beatles classic deliberate and thoughtful.

In Lennon’s song, love is about commitment, between people, and it is not to be thrown away unnecessarily.

All this comes about because of the recent news of Paul McCartney initiating action in America to recover the publishing rights of ‘his’ Beatles’ songs, beginning with a selected 32. Under American copyright law, which differs from the British ‘life plus seventy five years’, the creator of a work of art can recover rights to it after the expiration of two periods of twenty-eight years.

It’s been the cause of much more sniping and snidery about McCartney, a large proportion of which being about him being richer than Croesus and therefore hardly in need of the additional money the rights to the songs would bring in, but which is substantially also about the fact that John Lennon was killed in 1980 and McCartney is still alive thirty six years later.

Lennon’s death, and the natural process towards secular canonisation that started the moment we all heard that shocking news, established a gulf between the two principal Beatles’ songwriters. It was almost mandatory to take a side – were you a Lennonist or a McCartneyite?

I’ve already identified myself as being, in theory, in Lennon’s camp. His post-Beatles music was exceedingly mixed, but his highs were far higher than those of McCartney’s and McCartney’s lows are incomparably awful.

But what’s the point? I might prefer Lennon’s songs, but that doesn’t mean that I disdain McCartney’s. The guy who wrote ‘Yesterday’ and who carried the tune around for two years because he didn’t believe it could be original. The Beatles could not have been what we relish them for, could not have contributed so much to the development of music if either of the pair were not there. They may not have written together often after the first couple of years, but no song was begun without the thought of the other, the need to pass the other’s quality controls, their bullshit detector, the paramount desire to outdo.

Whatever I may think of McCartney’s music, now or for decades, it does not alter one jot that he is an artist. That status does not depend upon the quality of what he produces (which might not impress me but which has a very expansive following nevertheless), it’s simply what it is. McCartney has spoken many times of hearing ‘Yesterday’ being credited to Lennon/McCartney, and has refused many times to sing Beatles songs on stage because it means having to pay someone else for the privilege of singing his own songs.

Snipe all you want, but from my incredibly lower perspective, I know exactly what he feels. Your work is your own, and there is a personal connection that goes above and beyond monetary considerations.

But at the bottom of it, I find the hatred towards McCartney confusing and dismaying. He was a Beatle, and like the other three, he was an integral part of the group. They were as they were because of him, in exactly the same manner that they were as they were because of John. And George. And Ringo. Whether I prefer John’s music to his, the plain fact is that he wrote some incredible songs that will still be being sung in other centuries.

The older I get, the harder it gets to see why such things matter so viscerally to so many people. Is it so beyond conception that one can like someone’s music without feeling the compulsion to belittle someone else’s? Can you only love Lennon’s music if you commit yourself to hating McCartney’s?

Or are we damned to believe Robert Wyatt’s line from the hypnotic ‘Gharbzadegi’: “How can I rise if you don’t fall?”

I’m also depressed, if not surprised, at the tenor of the attitude to McCartney seeking to reclaim the rights to his own songs. He wrote them. He lost control of them due to appallingly bad business advice. But his desire to take them back arouses scorn and contempt, on the irrelevant ground that he doesn’t need the money from them.

That’s what it’s all about to so many people now: money. It’s the only thing in their heads and so they won’t accept that a person can be motivated by anything else.

Not even ‘Mull of Kyntire’ justifies that.

Blurring the Lines


Not that any money will change hands for many years yet, if ever, but today’s US Court decision that Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines is a rip-off of Marvin Gaye’s Got to Give it up has been interesting for the response to the decision.

I have no personal opinion on the question. I am an admirer of Marvin Gaye’s music and thus familiar with Got to Give it up, not that I count it as anywhere near his best work, but in order to determine the extent to which I think it’s been copied would mean having to listen to Blurred Lines, which is something I have no intention of doing in this life, or indeed any others I may somehow get to experience.

Not that it may be necessary to actually compare the two recordings. Indeed, I understand that the court ruled that the Gaye family’s copyright vested only in the sheetmusic to the song, and not the recording, leading to the absurdity that the Jury’s decision was based on NOT hearing Marvin Gaye.

What’s intrigued me is the comment from one of Thicke and “co”-writer Pharrell Williams’ lawyers that this could have a ‘chilling effect on artists who wish to ‘pay homage’ to music of older generations.

My instant reaction was the purely cynical one of ‘well, yes, it is going to have an adverse effect on those who want to rip off their elders and betters’.

But as the day has gone by, there’s been widespread alarm from some unlikely sources that this will indeed prove a restriction on musicians who wish to utilise the influence of older songs and recordings in building their own music.

Let’s go back to the circumstances of the judgement. The jury listened to the Robin Thicke song (gosh, you poor poor people) and compared it to Marvin Gaye’s sheet music. Surely that implies that the jury found sufficient musical similarity between the two songs to constitute plagiarism without addressing the subject of Pharrell Williams’ stated intention to invoke Gaye’s ‘style’ and the recording’s ‘atmosphere’. Ironic, given that one report suggests that the recording does directly steal – I’m sorry, I mean ‘homage’ – actual elements of the Gaye recording.

Some of the reporting isn’t really worth the pixels it occupies: I simply refuse to take seriously the maunderings of one commentator who criticizes the Nineties’ judgement against free, unrestricted, unlicensed sampling (you know, stealing bits of other people’s actual music)  for hindering the development of hip-hop music.

In answer to this quaking-in-multiple-boots, I’d point out Billy Joel’s Uptown Girl of many a year ago, in which Joel set out to recreate the style and and sound of the Four Seasons as a tribute to them. Uptown Girl was a great song and a great recording, that wouldn’t be out of place in a set consisting of Frankie and the guys’ biggest successes, but the big thing about that was that Joel achieved this without ripping off any actual Four Seasons’ songs.

So maybe people who want to bask in the musical achievements of others ought to give thought to a bit of originality along the way.

Admittedly, the task of doing so gets harder every year. Music is inherently limited when it comes to melodious combinations of notes, and it gets harder and harder every year to avoid plagiarism of something. I’m always reminded of George Harrison and My Sweet Lord, who was sued successfully for plagiarism of The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine. The judge ruled that plagiarism had taken place, but that it was unconscious. The greatest irony about this case for me is that, in all the years and all the times I’ve listened to My Sweet Lord in the knowledge of this verdict, I still cannot hear the Chiffons in it.

As a writer, copyright is a concern of mine. In the unlikely event of anyone setting out to rip off one of my books, and the even unlikelier event of it selling like hot cakes, I think the money should be going to me, who put a lot of time and effort into the writing, as opposed to some shyster who nicks it for himself (or herself: plagiarism is an equal opportunities offence). So I’m naturally behind those who create for the first time as opposed to those who take what has been created and jiggle it about ever so slightly and call it their own. I’ve no bloody sympathy for Thicke and Williams (and I’ll no doubt have even less if I ever find myself forced to hear the bloody record). Reflecting the masters is one thing, nicking their creations another thing entirely, and until the next round in Court, you boys have been caught with your hand in the cookie jar up to the elbow.

Fellow travellers, be warned.