Friday, June 1, 2007

More on the Beatles

It is always hard to compare national sentiment between countries but it is interesting to see differences in popularity between the UK and the United States. For instance, the Beach Boys were far more popular in the UK than in the United States and maintain a level of critical acclaim there far beyond what they have in their own country.

With respect to the Beatles, things are less clear-cut, but things seem to be pretty even on both sides of the Atlantic in terms of their popularity. The Beatles did have more number one songs in the United States, particularly after 1966, where songs such as Penny Lane, Something, and Let It Be all hit number one, while inexplicably failing to reach number one in the UK. Hey Jude was far more popular in the U.S. than in the UK, staying at number one for 8 weeks, while Hello, Good-bye was more popular in the UK, but both hit number one in both countries. The Ballad of John and Yoko hit number one in the UK for three weeks but was not released in the US, due to its mention of Christ in the lyrics. Eight Days a Week, Yesterday and The Long and Winding Road all hit number one in the U.S., but were not released in the UK while the Beatles were together. The only non-Beatles composed single to hit the top ten wasTwist and Shout. Which was a U.S. number one on the Cashbox single charts, but not Billboard, where it hit number two.

The truly amazing thing about the Beatles on both sides of the Atlantic is that once Capitol Records began handling the Beatles in the United States in 1964, every single Beatles studio LP album of new material went to number one on the album charts in both countries. In the UK, the Beatles had 11 straight such albums, from 1963 until they broke up in 1970, that went to number one. In the United States, where albums were shorter and consequently, they released more of them, the Beatles had all 14 of their Capitol albums containing new studio material go number one, from 1964 to 1970.

This does not include Yellow Submarine, which only had four new songs, and which only charted at number 2 in both the U.S. and U.K. because it was unable to dislodge the Beatles' White Album from the number one spot.

40th Anniversary of Sgt. Pepper

It's hard to believe but it has indeed been 40 years since the Beatles released perhaps the most influential rock album of all time, Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. In a like manner, Paul McCartney is about to turn 65, an age that he himself seemed unable to fathom all those years ago, when he asked, "will you still need me, will you still feed me, when I'm 64?" Poor Sir Paul.

In the spirit of the times, I have been reading many works devoted to the Beatles and their art and history, as well as their amazingly well-done autobiography, entitled, Anthology. There are a couple of things that really jumped out at me.

First, the improvement in the Beatles' musical abilities was nothing short of breathtaking. When they first went down to Hamburg to play what might be considered, semi-professionally, in tawdry taverns, they really had a long way to go in terms of mastering their instruments and knew only a limited number of chords. Their bass player, Stu Sutcliffe, apparently couldn't play at all and would turn his back to the crowd in order that they not notice that he didn't know what chord the band was in.

Within two years, at the time of their first recording contract, while they had improved immensely, they still had very poor instruments and amplifiers and neither of the drummers that they wanted to use for the recording of Love Me Do, were considered acceptable. After Sutcliffe left the band, replaced by McCartney on bass guitar and Ringo Starr took over on drums, things improved somewhat, but the group still seemed far from adept on their instruments. During Beatlemania, it often didn't matter anyway because it was impossible to hear anything at their concerts. Nevertheless, by 1963, the group had become accomplished rock and roll performers, whose covers of American standards such as Twist and Shout, Money and You've Really Got a Hold on Me were electrifying.

By 1965, with the composition of Norwegian Wood, Help, Ticket to Ride and Yesterday, the Beatles had reached the highest echelon of popular music creation, rivalled only by fellow prodigies Bob Dylan and Brian Wilson. It was an incredibly fast ascent, explainable, perhaps, only by the vast talent of the group's three songwriters, Lennon, McCartney and Harrison, as well as the musical virtuosity of McCartney, who seemingly overnight, was an accomplished bassist, guitarist, drummer and pianist, and Harrison, who forays into the sitar, and later, extended guitar solos, added much to the Beatles' post-Beatlemania sound.

The second thing that really surprised me, is that Ringo Starr's "luck" as being chosen as the fourth Beatle, has been overstated. Granted, he came in just before the group really took off, but this was because, due to the new recording contract, George Martin, their producer, told their manager to get rid of drummer, Pete Best, whom he saw as incompetent.

Ringo Starr, who depending on the source, was either no better, marginally better, or far better, than Best at the time, was chosen for a couple of reasons.

First, he was the drummer for a rival group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, which up to that time, had been more popular than the Beatles. Starr and his group had often played in the same clubs as the Beatles and was very familiar with their musical style. Second, Starr knew the Beatles personally and was actually a far better friend of the other three than was Best, and had the effervescent type of personality that characterized the group, while Best was quiet and aloof. The truth of the matter is that Starr took a chance on the Beatles in the same way that they took a chance on him and the result was music history.