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.

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.

Change Still Has To Come


The news has been announced today of the death of Joe Cocker, from cancer, at the age of 70. I’m not going to pretend that it affects me deeply: Cocker’s music, and his gravel-throated vocals, were not really to my tastes, but like so many I love the single that enabled him to give up being a gas-fitter in Sheffield, the 1968 cover version of the Beatles’ ‘With a Little Help From My Friends’, from the legendary Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

There were cover versions galore of Beatles’ songs throughout the Sixties, with many bands owing a brief chart career to being first to release a near carbon copy of a track off the Fab Four’s latest long-player, but the object was to come as close as was humanly possible to reproducing what Messrs John, Paul, George and Ringo had made of things.

That wasn’t what Cocker did. Instead, he ripped up and threw away the jolly, almost oafish sing-along arrangement that backed Ringo Starr’s more or less flat vocals, turning the song into a blues rock extravaganza, with guitar from the Yardbirds’ Jimmy Page shortly before that band turned into Led Zeppelin, drums from Procol Harum’s B. J. Wilson, organ by Tommy Eyra, and backing vocals from reknowned session sisters Sonny and Sue.

The two versions are radically different, almost impossible to reconcile as the same song. Indeed, Cocker’s re-arrangement was so out there, it was parodied by Bill Oddie on the classic radio comedy, I’m Sorry, I’ll Read That Again, by applying an identical arrangement to ‘On Ilkley Moor Ba’ Tat’.

After pulling up the song to play on YouTube, I found myself path-tracing: choosing a song from the sidebar, moving from one to another, seeing where the options took me. And it’s brought me here, to Sam Cooke, to this. Go on, play it, go off and listen, for this is more than a song of great beauty, of superb singing, from inside the depths of a man’s soul. It’s a landmark song, a song that, on the eve of change, looked into the heart of the need for that change, and back into what was and had been for far too long.

Sam Cooke came from Clarksdale, Mississippi, in the South: the South of segregation, repression, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan. He’d originally been a star of gospel music but crossed over into secular pop, scoring an American No. 1 with his debut single, the sweet, smooth, ‘You Send Me’.

Cooke wrote the song in response to hearing Bob Dylan’s ‘Blowing in the Wind’, to hearing a white singer singing about racism. In part it was inspired by Cooke’s experiences in being refused accommodation at a whites-only motel, but the song, in both its words and its voice rises above a single incident to take into its hands a belief that it cannot be like this for much longer, that A Change Is Going To Come.

After recording the song, Cooke performed it once on TV, an impromptu broadcast at his manager’s urging: the tape wasn’t retained and Cooke, spooked by the music and the vision he’d laid, never sang the song again in his life. He was shot and killed in controversial circumstances ten months later.

In a way it’s as extraordinary as Otis Redding’s ‘Sitting on the Dock of a Bay’: a very late piece of music that sees the singer in a reflective mode about his life as a black man in the turbulent, Civil Rights Sixties, a song unlike the music he would regularly perform. But whilst Redding looked within, Cooke looked without. For Change was, indeed, about to come, on the heels of Cooke’s death, with the faith and optimism that permeates this song.

But that was fifty years ago, and A Change Is Gonna Come is still not what it should be, which is history. Prophecy yes, for change has come, and we are a world away from the overt, licit racism of those times, but we have not come so far that we do not need to go further yet, and that is without the growing tendency these past four and a half years to want to slide back, to go back to those times and embrace them as somehow good, somehow better. That there were things in those times that were better than those we have now is true: but it was not the racism, the grinding of people into poverty and humiliation because their skin did not look like ours.

Listening to this song fills me with awe. It read the air, it smelled the wind, it spoke of hope in that moment when hope seemed the last thing to have. It still rings with meaning today, and with Xmas about to swallow us up, let’s take time to recall that.

And to hope that we too can say, with true hope in our hearts, that a Change is Gonna Come.