Wednesday, November 22, 2006

I loved The Beatles when I was 15 - heck, didn’t we all? Them and Orwell. Perfect. But I’ve not read any Orwell in a dozen years and I’ve barely listened to The Beatles in that time either. Maybe it’s the dodgy mastering on those first batches of CDs in the 80s. Maybe it’s that I’ve moved on, used them as a springboard into other things, a basis for a musical exploration that’s as broad as my imagination can manage. Maybe it’s because - hush - they’re not actually as good as they’re made out to be, and all that talk, all that mythologising, all those legends are just marketing for some decent pop songs, some fortunate zeitgeist coincidences, and a bit of psychedelic whimsy.

Or maybe it’s because I simply forgot about them, because they’re so… ubiquitous? Obvious?

People used to say that Oasis sounded like The Beatles. They don’t, and they never have. No one has, not really. Obviously a million and one people have stolen an idea or a melody or whatever from them here and there - obviously The Beatles themselves stole a few things in their time too - but no one has ever actually done anything quite like the Fab Four.

Love is a strange thing. For 40 years The Beatles have refused to be sampled, but now, in the 00s, the two surviving members consent to having their music remixed and recontextualised for a show by Cirque du Soleil, seemingly because George Harrison and Guy Laliberte (Cirque du Soleil’s founder) happened to share a passion for motor-racing. I have no idea what the show itself is like. I don’t imagine, in the scheme of things, that many Beatles fans will ever get to see it.

By the way, that remixing and recontextualising? They got George Martin to do it, aided and abetted by his son Giles and a host of technicians and engineers at Abbey Road.

When I first heard about Love I was skeptical, perhaps even cynical. I thought my tastes had moved way beyond The Beatles, that they were an adolescent love affair that had faded. When I saw the tracklisting I was even less fussed - sure the big obvious numbers where there, but half my personal favourites - “Baby You’re A Rich Man”, “She Said She Said”, “Happiness Is A Warm Gun” - were missing. And, for heaven’s sake, have we not just had enough of The Beatles, of all the goddamn babyboomers, already?

Actually sticking Love in a CD player and plonking some headphones on though… It could prompt me to start saying ridiculous things, like I’ve fallen in love with The Beatles again. Like… , while Love is actually playing, it’s almost tempting to believe all that guff that fanatics have spouted over the years about all recorded music since being pretty much unnecessary. Obviously it isn’t, but… even “Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite” sounds good here.

So what is it about Love? It works on two levels. First and foremost is the remixing and recontextualisation, that segues “Blackbird” into “Yesterday” and “Come Together” into “Dear Prudence”. One could write this off and say “oh, it’s only a soundtrack” or bemoan the fact that it’s George Martin and not Dangermouse at the controls, but you’d be missing the point. Love isn’t about some po-mo mash-up for the MP3 age – it’s the philosophy behind side 2 of Abbey Road, stretched over 78 minutes, only instead of a two-minute snippet of “Mean Mr Mustard” it’s done with “Hey Jude” and “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)” and “Back In The USSR” and “Because” (stripped to just vocals and atmospheric birdsong – in concept it sounds… trite? But in execution, oh gosh!) and two dozen other songs that you’ll probably already know inside out and that, far from being revered and made grandiose and immune to the passage of time and weight of history as some kind of po-faced preservation exercise, are actually just made more enjoyable. Yes, it’s respectfully done, but it’s not stifling, it’s not dry, it’s not conservative.

The second, and most important way Love works is the sheer sound of it. The Beatles have always sounded pretty rubbish on CD, because those early 1987 pressings were done before the medium was fully understood. The stereo mixing is appalling – for twenty years people have been moaning that Ringo’s a rubbish drummer, cos he’s all squashed up in one channel – instruments and voices are placed unsympathetically, the sound is thin and lacking warmth. Love gets it right. George and Giles Martin have given the music a richness, a liveliness, a detail and a warmth that was always missing. You could tell the songs had these things but the actual delivery of the content was flawed, now… they’re right in front of you, so obvious and so clear.

McCartney may be a crotchety, ego-driven pillock these days, but by God he can play bass guitar (and write a song too) - just get that incredible throb in “Come Together”. And Ringo! So maligned for so long, proves I was always right to defend his sticksmanship – ushered out of his one-channel prison his drumming comes alive, has real weight, scope and feel that we’ve never quite been exposed to on CD. Just listen to him rattle through “Strawberry Fields Forever”. Awesome. George was the leanest, hookiest player ever bar Steve Cropper, and not a bad writer either. And Lennon? Enough has been said about him. The Beatles aren’t about the individuals in the band; they’re about alchemy. And now the sonics are right too, that alchemy is all the more apparent.

Amusingly, Love has made me go out and buy the Yellow Submarine Songtrack from 1999, because that is also remastered and features (oh my!) “Baby You’re A Rich Man” amongst other things. I’m even considering picking up 1, even though the tracklisting is arbitrarily and conceptually limited, just because I hope it will sound almost as good as Love does. I’m sure I read something with Neil Aspinal earlier this year where he said they were working on proper full remasters of all The Beatles’ material. If they’re doing it properly, then this can’t come soon enough. I don’t know if The Beatles are the best band ever or not – I don’t think any band is the best band ever – but as far as making weird, compelling, catchy, wonderful pop music goes, they’re pretty peerless. And after a dozen years of knowing what they sound like and therefore not bothering to listen to them very much at all, I’m now all excited about hearing them again.


Wednesday, November 22, 2006

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Nick Southall was born in southwest England at the tail end of the 70s, and is the youngest of three brothers. He has a degree in popular culture and philosophy and has written about music for Stylus Magazine, The Guardian and Drowned In Sound, amongst others. He likes red wine, expensive headphones, spicy food, and the Hungarian national football team of the 1950s. His favourite record is the last one he listened to. You can contact him by email via sickmouthy @ gmail dot com should you so wish.

All material copyright Nick Southall 2006/2007/2008

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