The Beatles — Only This Time, Music

Do you have trouble throwing books out? Me too – even though every nook and cranny of our apartment is stuffed to the gills with them. My wife, though an avid reader herself, has a huge problem with this ever-worsening sitch. But today, I want to tell you why I’m so glad I have the constitution of a pack rat. This affliction led me to finish a book I couldn’t have enjoyed nearly as much when I started it. Confused? Onward – and don’t fret: alongside you are no less than the Beatles.

I probably picked up A DAY IN THE LIFE: The Music and Artistry of the Beatles by Mark Hertsgaard from a hallway book-bin at Bantam Books, where I was working in March 1995 when it came back from the printer; my copy indicates it’s the first printing by our sister company Delacorte Press. I brought it home and at some point began reading. Probably about seventeen years ago.

This book began as a New Yorker article, a profile of Mark Lewisohn, perhaps the world’s most reliable authority on the Beatles. To research his piece, Mr. Hertsgaard read everything he could find, from Albert Goldman’s seamy THE LIVES OF JOHN LENNON (sorry, no link: you’ll have to find this piece of crap for yourself) to Hunter Davies’ official 1968 biography THE BEATLES, and everything in between. He discovered that in all the myriad literary sifting through the group’s rags-to riches rise and tabloid-style breakup, “there was no single volume that did justice to what matters most about the Beatles: their music.”

So he wrote it.

Mr. Hertsgaard walks you through the Beatles’ recorded output and explains, sometimes with keen musicological insight which assures but never bores, exactly why they may have been the premier musical creators of the 20th century. We pause for important songs, revel in important moments in those songs. Plus, the author — who has clearly had some musical training — has studied hundreds of hours of demo tapes that help him recount the evolution of significant material. No matter how intently you may have listened to the Beatles’ music (I was a teenager in their heyday, so trust me, I was tuned in), you will learn something new. For example, I never realized that John and George were singing a few bars of “Frere Jacques” behind Paul’s lead vocal on “Paperback Writer,” or that on one recorded version of “Revolution,” John clearly sings, “But when you talk about destruction/Don’t you know that you can count me out…in”. Mr. Hertsgaard’s descriptions of the non-lyrical punches and musical fillips that make these songs so memorable are so compellingly written that you can’t resist digging through your Beatles albums to give them a listen while reading. Here’s where my multi-year gap occurs, and where a remarkable realization dawns.

I can distinctly remember sitting in our old apartment, where we haven’t lived for going on seven years, plowing through the first few chapters of this book with headphones and a Discman. I can also remember that this process became tiresome: I wanted desperately to jump right to the instant being referred to. I also realized even at the time that in an earlier era, the days of vinyl and rosés, such random access would have been yet more cumbersome.

Well, a few days ago I grumblingly pulled this book off the shelf to make room for others, dimly remembered both my long-ago enjoyment and frustration, and found an ancient bookmark inside. I hadn’t even made it halfway through! I picked up the Beatles story, only this time my albums had already been digitized, and I could now jump directly to a “middle eight” or a drum fill without losing concentration. I finished the book in a flash, and I’ve just begun it again. Seventeen years later, reading it was a wholly different experience, but guess what: even after all that time, the music and Mr. Hertsgaard’s lovely explication of it are still as vital as they were the day I first cracked the sucker open.

There are lots of things to bemoan in our bandwidth-heavy age, like the surfeit of information, and even the deterioration of the warm “ringing” sound which isn’t found in the digital recordings to which our ears have become unalterably accustomed. But one thing hasn’t changed at all: the majesty of the Beatles’ body of work. It isn’t of its time; it’s of all time. Whether, as Paul once said, people will one day listen to the Beatles the same way we listen to Mozart can only be answered by the funky future dudes in CLOUD ATLAS. But, as their producer George Martin said, “if we’re talking about contemporary music, we’re talking about Boulez as well as the Beatles, and I claim the Beatles were the most important writers of contemporary music.” Number One, this book makes the musicological case – since it is about the music, there are only brief forays into history to set the stage – for the Beatles’ sovereignty as writer/performers. Number Two, our technology has improved to the point that you can now follow along and prove it for yourself. Nothing to get hung about, but in the end, the love they took was far less than equal to the love they made.


4 Responses to The Beatles — Only This Time, Music

  1. klhoughton says:

    Good to see I’m not the only one who has been obsessing over middle eights all day.

    ‘ I never realized that John and George were singing a few bars of “Frere Jacques” behind Paul’s lead vocal on “Paperback Writer,”’

    I knew about Frere Jacques–the advantage of a cheap stereo system is that you end up hearing one speaker only on occasion–but never realized George had joined in on the giggle.

    “if we’re talking about contemporary music, we’re talking about Boulez as well as the Beatles, and I claim the Beatles were the most important writers of contemporary music.”

    Well, if you want to bash them by comparing them to a mediocre conductor, I guess you have to have been their only great producer. (Produced by George Martin, over-produced by Phil Spector” should be the Clarion Call of a generation.) I probably still prefer Lieber-Stoller (the Bacharach-David catalog of the same time period is pop-comparable to Lennon-McCartney, but lacks range), but the feelings are different–L/S is “we can do anything,” while L/M is “we can do anything, and just think what we can do next.” Think Eddie van Halen v. Jimi Hendrix.

    • Tom Dupree says:

      But Leiber & Stoller didn’t perform. Setting aside the issue of sheer range — none of the great pop songwriting teams you cite [and I’ll add Goffin-King, Boyce-Hart, Mann-Weil, even Holland-Dozier-Holland] had anywhere near the versatility of John & Paul — there’s the cold evidence of auto-interpretation. In the final chapter, the author points out the Beatles’ advantage over, say, Gershwin and Elvis [the great songbook vs. the great performer], or Cole Porter and Sinatra, or Dylan and…nobody, b/c Dylan does not have the performance chops as well. The only plausible contender, he states, is Duke Ellington. [I personally would nominate Smokey Robinson, but then I didn’t go to the trouble of writing the frickin book.] Performance counts. As the author observes, it’s hard to come up with a cover of a Beatles song that tops the original.

      P.S. I think George Martin was only trying to open up the discussion to all sorts of long-hair music; IOW, “Boulez” was just a metaphor.

  2. Bill Fitzhugh says:

    Nice piece. Can’t wait until the book can be done on a reader with the pertinent song parts at your fingertips…


  3. Steve Perry says:

    Yep. And how lucky we’re we to come of age with the boys from Liverpool … ?

    P.s. batten down the hatches, Mississippi, yon city is not rigged for the big whirlies …

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