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conservatories and concert halls, the second division went to Tin Pan Alley, which supplied most of the world’s pop from 1890 to 1960. After the Ball (1893) is sentimental kitsch and sold five million sheet versions; Alexander’s Ragtime Band (1911) picked the pockets of real rag time; the songs of Tin Pan Alley’s golden age in the 1920s, 30s and 40s were, in Noel Coward’s words, ‘‘ potent but cheap’’. Broadway had to wait until Sondheim for its Mozart.
The salvation of 20th-century pop was black American music: spirituals/shout, ragtime, jazz, blues, gospel, soul, R&B, funk. Black pop music, or ‘‘ race music’’ as it was called in the 30s, was brimming with the genius of musicians such as Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, America’s Handels and Purcells, none of whom had economic alternatives to pop. Tin Pan Alley was not only fertilised by jazz, but harvested and processed by it too. Like Bishop, Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Rodgers and their ilk were fine tunesmiths but it’s hard to believe their work would have had a fraction of its reputation had the jazz community not been obliged to use those tunes to get itself heard. Gershwin’s Summertime (1935), a simple but tasteful synthesis of late romantic and jazz and probably the biggest hit from the entire era, was on the verge of obscurity until Billie Holiday recorded it in 1936 — its Donizetti moment. The song lives far more through its covers (Charlie Parker in 1950, Miles Davis in 1958, John Coltrane in 1961) than in its original operatic form.
If Gershwin’s debt to African-Americans is great, then rock ’ n’ roll’s is unpayable, because it simply was black music: dumbeddown 40s jump swing. The rock ’ n’ roll revolution of 1956 was the moment when black American music finally punched its way out of the black charts and into the mainstream. White America and the large recording companies first whitened it — Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis — and then stamped it out, so that by 1962 Tin Pan Alley was back in the US pop charts.
The Beatles were one of a great number of European rock ’ n’ roll covers bands who kept the music alive, and in one of the great ironies of music, brought rock back to the US in the early 60s, to an ecstatic reception. But by then their original songs were no longer formulaic rock ’ n’ roll. Love Me Do, No 17 in Britain in late 1962 and No 1 in the US in 1964, is a very basic pop song, beneath the notice of a Tin Pan Alley hack — three chords, minimal bluesy melody, childish lyrics. But a musician’s neck hairs tremble nevertheless. Paul, John and George already had that luscious out-of-tuneyet-in-tune unison singing sound; vocal harmony lines used stark fourths and fifths and not just the sugary thirds usual in rock; the harmonica solo is raw and cheeky; McCartney’s bass playing is foundational yet imaginative; and the form of the song is cleverly asymmetric. There’s perky melody-lyric chemistry. Beatles guru Ian MacDonald: ‘‘ A bare brick wall in a suburban sitting-room.’’
The touring years 1963, 1964, 1965 and the first half of 1966 were a pressure-cooker of songs. Fans effectively imprisoned the band when not performing, and the combination of rivalry and co-operation, tetchiness and affection, which characterised the relationship between them produced not only a sequence of hits but a consistent ascent to their aesthetic summit — the three albums Rubber Soul, Revolver and Sgt Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1965, 1966 and 1967 respectively, and their associated singles.
Lennon’s most covered song from this time is Strawberry Fields Forever, which he wrote in 1966 for Pepper (it ended up being released in February 1967 as a double-A-sided single with McCartney’s Penny Lane). Lennon’s first demo, in C, had a verse only, ‘‘ psychoanalysis set to music’’ as he later said (‘‘There’s no one on my wavelength / I mean, it’s either too high or too low . . .’’). Though simple in structure, the song is utterly sophisticated, but at the same time completely intuitive — time signature changes, clever harmonies, triplet syncopations all sound perfectly spontaneous. Lennon’s singing is full of Indian inflections, and his guitar playing has some nice passing notes. Harrison throws in seasoning on slide guitar. It’s as if the whole song is a hook. It’s gorgeous: up go the neck hairs.
And yet there was more, and better, to come. In the final version, melody, harmony and structure are intact, but guitars and electric bass are superseded by orchestral instruments and a Mellotron (fabulous George Martin arrangements). Harrison’s tasteful slide riffs are now nightmarish orchestral glissandi, courtesy of a tape vari-speed, which is also used to darken the song by downward transposition (the final version is roughly in B flat). Lennon’s voice now sounds woozy. There’s a mad backwards coda. Psychoanalysis becomes psychosis.
With hindsight, the most surprising thing about the Beatles was not that an unremarkable covers band of apparently unprodigious musicians should transform itself into a powerhouse through sheer incarceration, or that competition/co-operation should produce such astonishing compositional results (Purcell, Elgar and Britten did the job on their own). It was that, having reached the heights of 1965-67, the Beatles lost their touch in subsequent years. This did not happen immediately, not least because they were able to dip into their song banks. Lennon’s Come Together (on Abbey Road), for example, is an R&B masterpiece — in feel as raw and bluesy as Love Me Do, but with very intelligent harmony, drumming that is restrained but imaginative, and a bass ostinato from McCartney that is a minor miracle.
But the magic of Lennon’s music faded through the 70s, his stronger songs — Love (1970), Imagine (1971) — appearing very soon after the Beatles had split. His love ballads such as Oh my Love (1970) and Woman (1980) are little more than touching testaments to his happiness. # 9 Dream (1974) has some pleasing twists but would barely merit a place on the White Album.
So, how great is Lennon’s music? During the 60s, both as an image and a sound, the Beatles were shorthand for the entire decade. But more remarkable is the endurance, so far, of that fame. The album 1, released in 2000 on the 30th anniversary of the band’s break-up, is still this century’s biggest-selling album worldwide — not bad for a collection of 30-to40-year-old No 1 hits. Yesterday is probably the world’s most covered song. Although cumulative sales of Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road are surprisingly low in the world rankings — top 20, with about 30 million sold apiece, a list topped by Michael Jackson’s Thriller (about 100 million), followed by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (about 50 million) — in a poll of pop musicians themselves, Pepper, Revolver and Rubber Soul are voted as three of the world’s five greatest albums of all time. For all this the man deserves his airport.
As for standing alongside Purcell and Handel, we would like to think his greatest songs from the mid-60s have enough musical substance to keep raising musicians’ neck hairs through the generations. But we fear that, as for Bishop and Gershwin, biggest does not necessarily mean best.
From top, the Beatles on the in 1964; the band in the early 1960s; Lennon’s widow, Yoko Ono, stands by a poster marking the release of a DVD of songs and film of her husband in 2003