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The Weekend Australian - Review - - Feature - The Spec­ta­tor

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.

Ed Sul­li­van Show

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

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