Until I drenched my tattered soul with heavy metal and then punk, The Beatles were everything to my musical world. It started with a coupon from the Daily Mirror allowing me a discount on any album: I chose Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (with all the cutouts!), and became immersed in a bizarre panorama that opened my ears and tainted my mind with images of circuses, traffic wardens, diamonds and sitars for the musically arid years between 1974 and 76.
The story has been well-rehearsed over and over again. Having given up the gruelling touring and hysteria of Beatlemania in 1966, Paul, John, George and Ringo proceeded to lock themselves in a studio, with only occasional excursions into the outside world, until their messy divorce in 1970. The products of those years feature in the Festive Fifty sporadically, since they were an important part of John Peel’s career: he started in American radio as the sole English correspondent at KLIF, promising to deliver the letters of pubescent American girls to their idols.
However, few were prepared for the experimentation that made Strawberry Fields Forever (FF 1976 #17) a million miles from I Want To Hold Your Hand. This track was, surprisingly, originally intended for Sergeant Pepper, but instead turned up as a double A-side with the winsome (and surely constant double entendre) Penny Lane. It’s basically John describing a children’s home in Liverpool in a cracked tenor, and Ringo providing the thumping, double-tracked and backward-played drumbeat. This was not the first time the band had used music played in reverse (Rain toyed with that), but here it became a signpost to the other-worldly, a raison d’etre rather than an add-on.
From here on in, things could never be the same, and the release of Sergeant Pepper in the middle of the Summer Of Love (and Peel being the first British DJ to play it) was a watershed in music that still leaves its mark. Whatever you think of the music therein, and how it’s been over-analysed and eulogised out of all proportion, it’s hard to deny that there was nothing quite like this at the time. There had been more radical excursions (the Velvet Underground’s earth-shattering debut, for example), but this dragged the cut-up tape, the exotic instrumentation, and the tracks that could never be performed live directly into the mainstream. The album, ostensibly a programme of entertainment by the eponymous band, concluded with a vivid portrait of dream and reality contrasted, culminating in a chord played on three pianos simultaneously and allowed to fade to black. A Day In The Life (FF 1976 #9) sounds rather quaint now, but its status as the song in which the Beatles exorcised their ghosts forever is unquestionable.
The boys obviously knew they had the Midas touch, but the self-indulgent and fatuous TV movie Magical Mystery Tour really took the piss. Unwatchable even now, it just goes to show that you can’t do what you like and expect the public to go with you, especially not if it’s premiering on Boxing Day 1967. The accompanying LP still sold in truckloads, but the rot had set in, and it took many years for the wonderfully batty I Am The Walrus (All-Time FF 2000 #45) to be seen for the masterpiece it is. Lennon takes a set of images firmly embedded in the mind of late 60s Middle England and overlays them with a snarling delivery that presages the anger that would spill out in his first solo LP (still, to my mind, the best thing he ever did).
There have been various stories about the origin and meaning of Hey Jude! (FF 1976 #14), but whether you believe that Paul wrote it as part of a marriage proposal to the betrayed Cynthia Lennon, or that it was for her son Julian, or even that it’s about two lesbians, let’s be honest here. It’s grandiose tosh. It starts with a strong melody, some memorable words, and then degenerates into a free-for-all long fade-out of ‘na na na na na na na’s that seem violently at odds with the lyricism of the beginning. Self-indulgent to the core.
The ‘Fab Four’ would continue to make some marvellous music in the White Album and Abbey Road, but these were works by four solo artists stitched together, and not cohesive efforts in the way that Rubber Soul and Revolver were. I saw a programme on the BBC many moons ago which controversially argued that Lennon and McCartney never wrote any songs together: whether true or not, it certainly seems that the roots of dissension were sown long before it became common knowledge. We should not be surprised. The film Help! featured the boys living together in the same house. Bound by commercialism to record together even when they wanted to break free, that hothouse atmosphere must have been how it really felt.