The Americans in the blogosphere are going Beatle mad at the moment. It seems that we have just passed the fiftieth anniversary of the Fab Four first landing on American soil. Delightful.
I’ve just read a blog post (one among many) about this happy event. This particular post chose to concentrate more on the post-Beatles work of John Lennon than on the body of work created by the group itself. It was an interesting read. I know comparatively little of John’s work from the 1970s and so it always intrigues me to hear what others make of it (saving up the knowledge against the day when I will find time to explore it for myself!)
I did take issue, though, with some of the attitudes expressed in the blog post. The piece was well written and made good points, and certainly the writer was well aware of the problematic aspects of Lennon the song-writer: his arrogance, his solipsism, his pretensions. Nonetheless, the essay fell back all-too-easily on that old notion: that music somehow has greater validity, and indeed value, if it is “raw”, “honest”, “uncompromising” and so on, regardless of the intrinsic merit of the craftsmanship on display (I should also note that the piece was more occupied by Lennon the word-smith than with Lennon the tune-smith).
The writer of the piece in question sees lots to admire in Lennon’s post-Beatles work, yet finds the Beatles’ music too cheery and sweet. Fair enough: that’s a subjective opinion. I did, however, want to take (gentle, polite) exception to this seeming dismissal of the group. When I began to formulate a comment to leave on the blog post, I found myself being too long-winded, so I decided that it was best to create a blog post of my own. And this is it.
The Beatles were a mainstream pop group offering their fans cheery, catchy pop tunes. But it is important to see that they were doing so – even from their very beginnings – with a level of sophistication (both musical and lyrically) that was extremely rare within that pop mainstream. You could let so many of their songs wash over you (relishing their verve and sweetness) but surely any music lover should be attuned to their many innovative and delightful quirks.
I’d like to explore just one example, from dozens that I could give. “It Won’t Be Long” (appropriately, one of Lennon’s songs) is no masterpiece, but it is a little gem. It has all the catchiness and breathless fun of a good pop hit of the era, and yet, within its short span includes several, innovative touches. It opens with the chorus which is, somewhat unusually, in a minor key. The major-key verse that follows has an unexpected harmonic shift making the opening three-bar phrase unsettlingly chromatic. Here we have a short phrase, starting with the tonic E and descending to the dominant B, that manages to include all the possible (chromatic) pitches in between (note though that C# is only included as a grace note – when John sings “Every night” he slides from C# to B on “nigh-ight”). This kind of melodic approach would be unremarkable in a piece by Strauss or Wagner or in a melody by a be-bop jazz composer, but in a piece of bubble-gum pop at the time it was downright avant-garde! The verse is equally quirky rhythmically. Instead of rounding off the first three-bar phrase to four bars (as you would expect), Lennon launches immediately into a repeat, resulting in a seven bar verse (i.e. three plus four bars, rather than the text-book four plus four) which gives the song an urgency that matches its premise (“It won’t be long – yeah yeah”). The middle eight is more orthodox, though still very accomplished with its backing-vocals counterpoint.
So, here there is a bouncy pop tune that could go unnoticed among all the up-beat inconsequential records of the time. Or at least it could until someone took the trouble actually to listen to it. There’s sunshine, sure, but there is shadow in those chromatic notes in the verse. And does the high-spirited sexual urgency (“It won’t be long…”) gain a hint of danger by dint of that unexpectedly short (three rather than four bar) opening phrase of the verse? And is there something not entirely wholesome in the adolescent longing of that minor-key chorus, and the drooping countermelody of the middle eight?
Lennon went on to write even better songs, and any number of really great ones. I would contend, though, that his greatness lies not in his “rawness” (which is often just truculence) nor in his “uncompromising honesty” (which is often mere posturing) but in his ability to take the basic building blocks of the pop song and create something unexpected, delightful, and entirely without contrivance. That is true art.