Tuesday, 6 December 2011
My favourite Beatle
Ringo probably wouldn't have been the people's candidate for favourite Beatle before this outburst, not because of any other ill-advised Youtube postings, or for any animosity towards Thomas The Tank Engine, but simply because he was the fourth member of a group that featured three of the most talented singer-songwriters of his generation.
In spite of their oneness, and the inability of anyone outside Britain to tell them apart in 1964, everyone tends to have a favourite Beatle. At various points in their career and afterlife the world seems to have had a collective favourite. In the eighties, after his death, it was undoubtedly John Lennon; when Oasis and the Anthology series brought their music back to the Britpop table in the nineties, John was still regarded as the most innovative, the most significant, the sharpest Beatle.
George was the underdog, the indie Beatle. It might be something to do with the recent folk boom, or the general feeling of achievement by understatement in the most lauded pop (Fleet Foxes, Animal Collective) of the last few years, but a straw poll amongst friends, colleagues and musicians places George at the top of the table in 2011.
Of course, favourite Beatle and best Beatle aren't the same thing. "It's a peculiar testament" says Todd Rundgren, whose links to the group are a public spat in the NME with Lennon in the seventies and played in Ringo's All Starr Band two decades back. "'Favourite' used to just mean the cutest, or the funniest. Now each has his own body of work it's different."
Gem Archer's own Beatles obsession began when he was fed tapes by his cousin from the age of 8. "I remember hiding The Beatles At The Hollywood Bowl in the schoolyard. Punk was happening and people thought they were poofs, because they wore ties and stuff. Some kid came to my door and sold me his sister's copy of Imagine for 50p. I was known as the Beatles fan in the village."
Lennon was his favourite, "of course. It was a journey with him. It still is, man. He's still there with all of us. He was perfect - the Rickenbacker, the hair, the boots - but he was imperfect. Completely human. He let his hair down on all of us."
The odd thing about John Lennon, the most anti-establishment Beatle, is that he is now the one with an airport named after him, the one who wrote the cosy, fathomless, unofficial world anthem Imagine, the one who created proto-Live Aid 'event pop' with All You Need Is Love, and thus, in 2011, the most revered by the establishment. Gem Archer's wife "is a teacher, and they teach him now: Recent History, year 5. It's because he grew up in the war, and then he preached peace. And of course there's no danger of him spoiling it by shooting some granny now."
Altman's first taste of the Beatles "was Please Please Me, on the radio in the wintertime. I'd never heard that sound before. It was a bit like the first time I heard Hendrix, exciting and vibrant. The next stage in my Beatles habit was getting Please Please Me, the album, for Christmas. I left it on the Dansette record player, and it warped. I remember desperately trying to iron it flat on an ironing board with a damp towel on top. A sad end."
As he grew up with the band Altman would "listen out for George's contributions, the songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver, like Taxman. They were quite special. And they built up to All Things Must Pass - every musician has an apex and I think that was his."
They never met. "Pete Best was the technical advisor on Birth Of The Beatles, and he was the only Beatle I met. The only quote I heard from any of them about the film was that Ringo found it quite amusing." Altman still sounds slightly disappointed by this.
George's allure could also be down to his vagueness, which allows fans to fill in the blanks any way they wish. John and Paul are open books, foibles exposed, but if George had a dating profile it would be of the one photo, one-liner variety, mystique unquestionably enhanced. He was the only Beatle without an obvious role. "Paul was the cute one" recalls Todd Rundgren, "John was the smart one; each had a bailiwick they were in charge of. Ringo was the cuddly one. The short, homely, cuddly one. Girls liked Ringo, at least girls who thought Paul was out of reach, too cute by half."
In the early eighties, while he was still Orange Juice's singer, Edwyn Collins had his My Top Ten list printed in Record Mirror. Alongside entries by Al Green and George McCrae was The Beatles' She Said She Said - Edwyn wrote that he particularly liked "George's astringent guitar". I was a huge Orange Juice fan - I remember having to look up "astringent".
When Edwyn Collins met his partner Grace Maxwell he told her his "favourite guitarists were John Fogerty and George Harrison. When people say they don't like The Beatles, they may as well say they don't like fresh air. 'I hate fresh air!' It's ridiculous."
After Collins had a stroke in 2005, lying in a hospital bed, he didn't want to hear any music. Three years before, he had written a song called The Beatles, which managed to lyrically condense their career inside four minutes. "After nine or ten weeks Grace brought in an old tape I'd made, a compilation. The first track, I remember, was Promised Land by Johnnie Allen, and the second had me in tears."
"Tears?" laughs Grace, "You were in floods! You were bawling."
The song was Photograph, sung by Ringo Starr, and written by George Harrison.
Mojo has featured some combination of Beatles on their cover more than a dozen times in just under 200 issues. Editor Phil Alexander reckons there are still plenty of untold, or at least unexplored, stories to make them newsworthy. He has noted George's ascent to the summit. "You can see why people say George now - he was the coolest. Not acerbic like Lennon, not thumbs aloft, and he wasn't playing the Ringo good guy role. He was mystical and cool. He's the fashionable choice. Stupid as it might sound, I think the unsung hero of The Beatles today is Paul."
As a teenager, Anneliese Midgley worked in Liverpool's Beatles Shop on Mathew Street. "People would ring up and say 'Can I speak to The Beatles?' We got a bundle of letters for them every day. Not everyone was a loony, some were just asking for mugs, or fridge magnets, or where Paul lived, but quite a few would say 'I LOVE YOU' in scrawly capital letters. Paul got the most, definitely. George? No. He was really the outsider, not like today. He was not as fashionable."
In her nineties stint at the shop, Anneliese met all three surviving Beatles - Paul left the greatest impression on her. "I was 14 and I'd got a Saturday job there. It was just before he did the Liverpool Oratorio. He was rehearsing at the Philharmonic one week, and me and my best friend waited outside. His crew were really nice - they could tell we were just kids, not crazy fans. We went most days, and Paul would come out and say hello. It must have been easter, 'cos one day he brought us all creme eggs."
Up in Glasgow, Grace Maxwell had to use her imagination for a Beatle fix. "You know the metal poles that hold up clothes lines? There were four in our back garden. We'd make each one a Beatle. You'd run over, snog the clothes pole, and say which Beatle it was. Mine was Paul. Does that sound weird?"
"Paul is the best Beatle" reckons Anneliese. "It's obvious. Take Double Fantasy and McCartney II, made in the same year (1980). I heard Front Parlour (from McCartney II) in a club in Shoreditch a few years ago, and everybody was asking what it was, everyone thought it was some German electronic group. Paul was thinking of the future, how the eighties would be. On Double Fantasy, John was going back to his roots, again. Boring, really. Paul still makes a real effort, and maybe that's just not fashionable."
Phil Alexander is inclined to agree. "John's crusading mentailty made him a cult figure, compounded by his passing. He was the bravest - the records he made with Yoko are still controversial, so ahead of their time, but Paul still wants to do new things even to this day. The last Fireman record was really musical and brave, despite the bizarre, politician aura around him."
A compilation of tracks from the last five McCartney studio albums would, I reckon, be enough to cement his legend. They contain songs that are at least equal to any of his post-Beatles output, and good enough for the thumbs aloft, 'good little band' persona to be forgotten: The End Of The End is quite possibly the saddest, and most elegant song written by any sexagenarian pop star.
The Beatles' reach goes beyond just their music. "If anybody was going to make the sixties explode it was John Lennon" says Gem Archer. "It wasn't David Crosby. It certainly wasn't Elvis. And Dylan didn't put himself up for it, did he?"
And Ringo? His comments about Liverpool on the Jonathan Ross show have to be seen as tongue in cheek, his fanmail comment the outburst of a grouchy 69-year old having a bad day. Anneliese Midgley, who has only had to field a fraction of the questions from Beatles nuts that overworked Ringo has, nails the conundrum.
"My favourite Beatle is The Beatles. They're like four quarters that make up a circle. They're inseparable."
Posted by Bob Stanley at Tuesday, December 06, 2011