John Len­non

It’s time to put the Bea­tles’ achieve­ments in proper his­tor­i­cal con­text, ar­gue Miko Giedroyc and Ben Reed

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

His sound and im­age are short­hand for the 1960s. But was he really a ge­nius?

THE Bea­tles re­leased their first hit sin­gle, Love Me Do, a lit­tle more than 50 years ago, in Oc­to­ber 1962. Within 12 months, John Len­non and the other three Bea­tles were house­hold names through­out the world, and in the years since then Len­non’s rep­u­ta­tion has ex­panded with each new wave of lis­ten­ers. He even has an air­port (Liver­pool John Len­non Air­port: ‘‘ Above us only sky’’). Have we now placed him among the great­est English com­posers and mu­si­cians of all time — say, Dun­sta­ble, Tal­lis, Byrd, Pur­cell, Han­del, El­gar and Brit­ten? Will his­tory’s ver­dict be that Len­non truly de­serves to rub shoul­ders with th­ese ge­niuses, or was he an ac­com­plished crafts­man with a pretty face?

It is tempt­ing to evade com­par­i­son by say­ing he was a dif­fer­ent kind of mu­si­cian, a writer of pop songs rather than a cre­ator of grand works of art. But un­til rel­a­tively re­cently, all com­posers, Pur­cell and Han­del in par­tic­u­lar, made it their de­lib­er­ate busi­ness to write pop songs.

What are they? A pop­u­lar song is writ­ten to ap­peal to ev­ery­one, not just mu­si­cians and mu­sic con­nois­seurs. In its most ba­sic form it is less than four min­utes long and has lyrics ar­ranged in an ac­ces­si­ble form (verses, a re­peated cho­rus, maybe a bridge or vamp); a sim­ple, ad­he­sive melody; un­fussy in­stru­men­tal ac­com­pa­ni­ment; and a reg­u­lar beat or pulse. It is de­signed to be re­mem­bered, to pass the ‘‘ old grey whis­tle test’’ and thus to be bawled out while drink­ing and watch­ing games, hummed at work, whis­tled at home, danced to, marched, fought and died to — to be a part of daily life, ‘‘ ev­ery­day beauty’’, as Roger Scru­ton calls it.

A pop song is the mu­si­cal equiv­a­lent of a sketch or, as Len­non liked to say, a post­card. Good pop songs come quickly to their writ­ers, un­like sym­phonies or nov­els, some­times in an in­stant. Quite of­ten they spring up from the writer’s in­ter­nal ‘‘ song bank’’ of ideas, frag­ments of melody-lyrics stored for later use. Of­ten they have some kind of hook, an eye­brow-rais­ing moment or fea­ture. Their pop­u­lar­ity guar­an­tees money, so plagiarism abounds. And while by def­i­ni­tion they are of their time, good ones are time­less in their mu­si­cal es­sen­tials, and used in whole or in part — ‘‘ cov­ered’’ — by other mu­si­cians for gen­er­a­tions. It is not non­sense to com­pare pop songs by Pur­cell and Len­non.

Songs suc­ceed for many rea­sons. There are ephemeral songs that caught the spirit of their times ( Eve of De­struc­tion); nov­elty songs with the sta­tus and tran­sience of a good joke ( Shad­dap You Face); self-ful­fill­ing fash­ion bub­bles ( Kung Fu Fight­ing); oth­ers suc­ceed by sheer chance. Mass mar­ket­ing, which re­volves around brand recog­ni­tion, pre­dom­i­nates, and yet one-hit won­ders are re­fresh­ingly fre­quent. Most pop songs are about ro­man­tic love and many suc­ceed sim­ply by be­ing sexy. Con­tent or mes­sage within lyrics is not of­ten a fac­tor. A sad fact of post-Bea­tles pop is that lyrics are of­ten writ­ten by the com­poser, who is usu­ally bet­ter at com­pos­ing than lyric writ­ing. In their early years, the Bea­tles were es­pe­cially lazy lyri­cists (for its first few weeks, Yes­ter­day car­ried the words ‘‘ Scram­bled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs’’).

But with really good songs, it’s al­most al­ways the melody, and the chem­istry be­tween that and the rhythm of the words. ‘‘ Melody,’’ Mozart said, ‘‘ is the essence of mu­sic; I com­pare a good melodist to a fine racer, and coun­ter­pointists [those who ar­range songs for voices and in­stru­ments] to hack post-horses.’’

Cre­at­ing ev­ery­day beauty is per­haps the high­est call­ing for any artist, and the ac­knowl­edged greats of Euro­pean mu­sic did not shrink from it un­til the lat­ter part of the 19th cen­tury. This is be­cause they were work­ing en­ter­tain­ers who had to please the cloth-eared as well as the con­nois­seur, and sell tick­ets to all of them.

Pur­cell placed his ge­nius at the dis­posal of which­ever au­di­ence he served. In ad­di­tion to grand works of art, he wrote pure pop ( Lil­libulero, which be­came the BBC World Ser­vice jin­gle, pub­lished in 1691), frisky odes ( Nymphs and Shep­herds), bois­ter­ous show songs ( Come Away, Fel­low Sailors), rous­ing hymns ( West­min­ster Abbey — Christ is Made the Sure Foun­da­tion) and dra­matic mood pieces (Cold Ge­nius song). His lyric-melody touch is fault­less: all his mu­sic is ac­ces­si­ble, but deeply sat­is­fy­ing. Fairest Isle is a widely ac­claimed art song; but it might also be one of the great­est pop hits ever writ­ten. It ticks all the boxes: a catchy tune that bounces off Dry­den’s lyrics, a sim­ple struc­ture over a nice three/four lilt.

Han­del was less will­ing to adapt than Pur­cell, and his work, like the great­est of Len­non and McCart­ney in the mid-1960s, is hardly ever plain enough to meet our def­i­ni­tion of pure pop. But Han­del also had a fault­less lyric-melody touch, and a real show­man’s abil­ity to get his au­di­ence to soar ( Zadok the Priest), to trem­ble ( I Know that my Redeemer Liveth) and to go home hum­ming the big tune (Alla Horn­pipe from the Water Mu­sic). He was a com­mit­ted cuckoo when it came to tuck­ing away good melodies for later use, and a man who died rich be­cause his mu­sic was pop­u­lar. Beethoven con­ferred the ul­ti­mate pop ac­co­lade upon him: ‘‘ He is the master of us all . . . go to [Han­del] to learn how to achieve great ef­fects by such sim­ple means.’’

Schu­bert’s Ser­e­nade of 1826, whose lus­cious melody came to him while look­ing at po­etry in a beer garden and had to be writ­ten down on the back of a menu, was, even in trans­la­tion, a Top Ten sheet-mu­sic hit in the English-speak­ing world. Lighter songs by Mozart ( Away with Melan­choly) and Haydn ( A Prey to Ten­der An­guish) were also big hits there. Chopin’s Pre­ludes were writ­ten in a hurry in 1838-39 — he needed money — and based heav­ily on ‘‘ pick­ings from his port­fo­lios’’, as his bi­og­ra­pher Fred­er­ick Niecks put it. The Pre­ludes are surely one of the great­est pop al­bums of all time, al­beit with word­less songs. Many have been cov­ered ex­ten­sively; no 15 in D-flat (the Rain­drop), which has been greatly used in films, is a melodic mas­ter­piece and a blue­print for the pop bal­lad.

How­ever, the block­buster hit of the 19th cen­tury in the English-speak­ing world, Home, Sweet Home (1823-24), was com­posed not by Schu­bert or Chopin, but by a barely re­mem­bered English­man, Henry Bishop. Home, Sweet Home, as pop­u­lar in rel­a­tive terms as Sum­mer­time and Yes­ter­day put to­gether, was per­formed ev­ery­where and cov­ered se­ri­ally, in par­tic­u­lar by Donizetti in Anna -Bolena (1830). It has a dig­ni­fied, wist­ful melody, a sim­ple for­mat, a hook in the form of a sud­denly chanted cho­rus and it’s a per­fect sin­ga­long, an English Stille Nacht (Silent Night). So shouldn’t Bishop be up there with Han­del and Pur­cell? What about the other cre­ators of 18thand 19th-cen­tury hits: Arne, Hook, Fos­ter and Sul­li­van, many of whose songs were equally beau­ti­ful and not much less pop­u­lar?

No. Not be­cause they weren’t prodi­gies and vir­tu­osi, and not be­cause they didn’t write se­ri­ous works, too (some of them were, and did). Not even be­cause their work is hit-and­miss (Han­del and Pur­cell sel­dom had off days). To achieve last­ing great­ness, a com­posers work has to raise the neck hairs of mu­si­cians and mu­sic ex­perts over gen­er­a­tions. And there isn’t enough in the works of Bishop, Arne, Sul­li­van et al, pop­u­lar or oth­er­wise, for to­day’s mu­sic com­mu­nity to rel­ish.

There isn’t usu­ally enough in pure for­mu­laic pop songs in gen­eral: Lil­libulero is fine, but could have been writ­ten by any of a num­ber of tune­smiths (it may even have been). Pop song­writ­ers look­ing for a last­ing legacy need to have writ­ten more sub­stan­tial pieces. It is prob­a­bly a sense of this that drove Gersh­win, and Paul McCart­ney, to write or­ches­tral mu­sic for the con­cert hall.

The with­drawal of great Euro­pean com­posers from pop­u­lar mu­sic came in the sec­ond half of the 19th cen­tury, coin­cid­ing with the growth of the state as a fun­der of art and ed­u­ca­tion. With Stravin­sky, Schoen­berg, Ravel and Richard Strauss safely tucked away in

Pave­ment trib­ute to John Len­non in Hol­ly­wood

John Len­non in New York

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