IT'S THE WHITE PIANO, perhaps, that is remembered more than any other image of him. The skinny, thin-nosed man, his hair falling down either side of his face and framing his little round glasses, as he sits at the keyboard in a cool, pale room on a balmy summer's day and sings his simple song of peace:
Imagine there's no countries
It's a vile song, cheap, self-serving, saccharine and fraudulent; a betrayal of its composer's best and worst instincts, which often coincided. He knew it himself, comparing it to an earlier song of his, calling it “bullshit” and “sugar-coated Revolution.” John Lennon could be his own harshest critic, and there's no denying that he needed to be. Nobody else was going to tell him.
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too . . .
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world
Lennon's unreleased solo archives have now been exhumed to form what is effectively the latest volume in the Anthology series tracking the history of Beatles. Just as no other band could withstand such exhaustive compiling, so no other Beatle merits this kind of individual scrutiny. We wouldn't have the patience. When you consider what Paul McCartney has had the gall to put out over the years, the mind boggles at the thought of what he's kept back. The news that he has seen fit to issue an album of his late wife's music exemplifies his preference for sentiment over quality control.
Almost 30 years after The Beatles ceased to function as anything resembling a unit, the mystique that surrounded them is as powerful as ever. Whether they like to admit it or not, it has carried the surviving members through the decades - not necessarily in terms of commercial success, but certainly in terms of the affection in which they're held. Like veterans of a popular war, it's not so much that they can do no wrong, more that they once did something so right that the balance is forever tilted in their favour.
The Beatles are statistically the biggest, probably the best and unquestionably the most influential rock band ever. Pop music has yet to get over them. The leading British rock act of our time, Oasis, have never pretended to be anything more than The Beatles with fewer chords and bigger amps. The latter's span as a group matched that of the Sixties. They reflected and defined every phase of that decade, and with their usual immaculate and accidental timing, ended with it.
They brought an ambition and imagination to pop that has inspired thousands of bands, then and since, to make plenty of marvellous records and innumerable awful ones. And then, nothing. Just four famous men, doodling and dabbling and resting on their hard-won laurels. Overnight, it seemed, the only Beatles who still mattered, who still had an effect, were the Beatles in the past.
If only it were true. In fact, the solo Beatles have exerted an influence on pop music as stifling and malign as their collective impact was positive. It wasn't their fault. They were simply, as ever, pleasing themselves. But without each other to worry about, they were that much easier to please. Nearly every kind of flatulent excess, grandiose whim and whining self-justification that has become commonplace in the music business since the start of the Seventies was either pioneered or legitimised by an ex-Beatle. John Lennon liked to flatter himself that punk rock was down to him. He didn't know how right he was.
The trouble was that, even after The Beatles ceased to be idols to the world at large (Lennon and Euro-hippies excepted), they were still role models for other musicians. Not so much for their music, which (Lennon again excepted) soon ceased to be of much importance, but in their pop star conduct as it related to the buying public.
If a Beatle did it, it had to be all right. If a Beatle wanted to make records featuring the well concealed talents of his missus; or treat the studio as a therapist's office; or put out a triple album padded with pointless instrumentals; or play country music, badly, with his famous mates; or organise charity concerts with his famous mates; or lend his name to the recorded results of shitfaced sessions with his not-quite-so-famous mates; then that was just fine. They'd been in the Beatles. They could do whatever they damn well pleased.
Again, they were more right than they knew. The reason people put up with it was because these were, after all, Beatles. Whatever a Beatle did was by definition interesting. The same didn't necessarily hold true for other rock musicians, but - monkey see, monkey do - they weren't about to let that stop them. So, as the Seventies plodded on, audiences got accustomed to seeing arrogance substituted for talent; celebrity confused with merit; judgement supplanted by egomania; and worst of all, self-importance taking the place of fun. Aside from glam - and that was largely a local, British phenomenon - mainstream rock found itself leeched of sex, merriment and pleasure by disciples of the ex-Beatles. And rock fans let them get away with it - cheered them on, even. Then, at the end of the decade, those same fans had the cheek to launch a Disco Sucks campaign. Disco didn't suck. It was one of the few areas in pop where the former Beatles held no sway.
You could say that people get the music, and the pop stars, they deserve, and there's something in that. But in 1970, what had anybody done to deserve Paul McCartney's first, self-titled album?
PAUL AND JOHN
The McCartney LP wasn't the first record credited to a lone Beatle. But it was the album that self-professedly marked the break-up of the band - to the intense chagrin of John Lennon, who thought he'd made that decision.
For the next few years, as distant antagonists, Lennon and McCartney would have as strong a bearing on each other as they had done as close collaborators. They would echo one another, put discreet slights or overt attacks onto their records. The mutual competition which had pushed The Beatles forward would now start prodding them in strange directions.
Already seething from the bitter and protracted dissolution of their group, the two started to take rancorous swipes at each other in public. Press copies of McCartney came with an insert, a snide little self-interview in which McCartney couldn't resist the temptation to rap Lennon over the knuckles. Lennon responded with the vitriolic “How Do You Sleep” on his Imagine LP, which also featured a typically droll and well-aimed gibe in the form of a back-cover photograph. On his second album, Ram, farmer Paul was shown on the sleeve cheerfully grasping the eponymous animal by the horns. Lennon in turn appeared wearing a tank top, trainers and a sardonic grin, wrestling a pig by the ears.
Lennon invariably got the best of these exchanges. Anger and malevolence brought out his sharp wit and lent fire to his music. McCartney just looked petty. He was a soft target. His solo output so far was unbearably cosy, cloying and domesticated (Lennon called it, with withering accuracy, “granny music”.) Just as Lennon had involved Yoko Ono in his own work, so everything McCartney did was co-credited to his wife Linda. Here again Lennon had the advantage. Ono, for all that she has been reviled, was an artist of singular and recognised vision, and in some circles she's now considered an avant-garde musical heroine.
Lennon would at times mutter that “avant-garde” was French for “bullshit”, and when it came to Ono, he wasn't necessarily wrong. But her screaming contributions to the Plastic Ono Band's live shows had an edge to them that could be startling and even shocking at times. Linda's efforts, too, were shocking, but in a rather different sense. The notion of letting someone so inept near a recording studio or a stage was beyond avant-garde; it was revolutionary, years ahead of its time. If only she had possessed a solitary idea of her own, it might have been the McCartneys rather than the Lennons who could claim to have pre-empted punk.
Lennon's first two albums after leaving The Beatles were as abrasive as McCartney's were homely. Both are great records. John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band is a series of cries from the psychiatrist's couch - songs about losing his mother and his faith and probably his car keys - rescued by Lennon's conscious decision to keep his lyrics plain and avoid the mind's-eye gibberish of the sub-Dylan singer-songwriters gaining favour at the time.
Again, this kind of dear-diary stuff is fascinating because, after all, he was John Lennon. You really wouldn't want that much information about anyone else, a point that the resurgent, post-Morrissette school of navel-gazers could do us all a favour by bearing in mind. Imagine, apart from its awful title track, contained some superb work: “Jealous Guy”,, “Give Me Some Truth” and the aforementioned “How Do You Sleep”, which had McCartney bang to rights:
You live with straights who
“Another Day” was, in fairness, one of McCartney's better solo numbers, a pretty, low-key song of almost Scandinavian melancholy. And the way he was living would have been nobody's business but his own if he hadn't spread it across his records. Trying to keep up with Lennon was doing him no good. His leaden attempt at rabble-rousing, “Give Ireland Back To The Irish”, made Lennon's own clumsy political sloganeering sound like the work of Voltaire. And it wasn't helped by the b-side, a mawkish rock version of the nursery rhyme, “Mary Had A Little Lamb”.
tell you you was king
Jump when your momma
tell you anything
The only thing you done
And since you've gone
you're just another day
McCartney and Lennon had one thing in common, though. They had kicked off what would become known as the Me Decade with unrepentant Me albums. It's hard not to conclude that Lennon had a more interesting Me than McCartney.
McCartney must have realised that the theme of Paul and his charming lady wife enjoying their lovely home would swiftly exhaust its limited appeal. He formed a group, Wings, whose first album lifted the rustic cover design of John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band. Then, at last, he started to rock.
With songs like “Maybe I'm Amazed” (a bona fide white soul belter) and “Hi Hi Hi”, he'd already hinted at his solo potential - the potential to be the biggest MOR act of the Seventies, which Wings duly became. Even Lennon had to make the back-handed admission that Band On The Run was “a good Paul album”. George Harrison, meanwhile, remarked drily of McCartney's hugely successful late Seventies tours, “If you want the Beatles, go and see Wings.” The massive live set, Wings Over America, shows McCartney at his post-Beatle best - a cunning blend of nostalgia, volume, technically masterful melodies and songs which, with just a little judicious editing of the kind Lennon was no longer available to supply, might have been brilliant.
Lennon himself would never quite touch the heights of those first two records. But a John Lennon album was always an event in a way other ex-Beatle albums weren't. There was always something there - “#9 Dream” and “Whatever Gets You Through The Night” on Walls And Bridges; the title track of Mind Games, which you can bet Richard Ashcroft has played a few times - to make your ears prick up or your jaw drop. In 1975 he made the self-gratifying Rock'n'Roll LP (establishing the idea that a pop star has the right to waste your time with an album of uninventive cover versions) and retired to be a house-husband. He re emerged shortly before his death in 1980 with Double Fantasy, whose paeans to domestication sounded uncannily like those that McCartney had indulged in 10 years earlier. Lennon's, ironically, had better tunes.
The year that Lennon died was also the year that McCartney disbanded Wings and went back to his old ways with McCartney II. If ever an album didn't demand a sequel, it was McCartney I. McCartney II was no improvement. Nothing he's recorded since has been of the slightest significance.
GEORGE AND RINGO
Ringo Starr, having little to prove after the end of The Beatles, proceeded not to prove it. His back catalogue is of interest mainly for moments like “I'm The Greatest”, when other Beatles would gather for near-reunions. His continuing All-Starr Band sums up the practice of celebrity pals playing for old fans, and good luck to 'em as long as they don't block the corridor.
George Harrison, on the other hand, had everything to prove, and hit the ground running at full tilt. He had developed into a fine writer, with a stockpile of songs pushed aside by the precedence of Lennon and McCartney. He put them all into an enormous opus, All Things Must Pass. The Beatles, with the White Album, had invented the double LP which might have been a single. Harrison went one better, creating a triple album which should have been a double. It contained “My Sweet Lord”, which gave Harrison the satisfaction of being the first ex-Beatle with a Number One single, and was later judged in court to be a direct lift from The Chiffons' “He's So Fine”. Harrison could have been warned about the dangers of accidental plagiarism by Ringo, whose hapless rewrites of hit songs in Beatles days used to have his bandmates rolling about with laughter.
All the same, “My Sweet Lord” was a good rehash, and there were was no shortage of more original numbers, including the one which summarises Harrison's rather dour artistry, “Isn't It A Pity”. All Things Must Pass ranks, along with the first two Lennon records, as one of the few solo Beatle albums worth owning in its entirety - almost. The last third consists of drab instrumentals in which Harrison the guitarist fails to accomplish what he achieved so beautifully in the final minutes of Abbey Road. Harrison went off the boil directly afterwards and that, save the occasional singalongafab hit, was that.
He did, however, perform one act more imitated than any other ex Beatle's. He invented the pop charity blow-out. His Concert For Bangla Desh was unprecedented, launched with the best of motives and in difficult circumstances. It immediately became a blueprint for packs of immensely rich pop stars to badger the much poorer public into coughing up money. The formula also provided those stars with an opportunity to preach to the masses, play endless self-congratulatory jams which even the worst of them would never dare foist on an ordinary paying audience, and generally be seen to do the world a good turn.
No question. We owe The Beatles a lot more than we'd like to.