Tuesday, 6 December 2011

My favourite Beatle

"This is a serious message", it begins. "Peace and love", it says at least once too often. Ringo Starr's weird trashing of his own reputation, first on his website and then all over on Youtube in 2008, made for painful and hilarious viewing. To give him credit, the man has attempted to sign everything he's been sent by fans since 1963; he was almost 70 and wanted to tell the world he couldn't keep up. Of course, it might have helped if he hadn't added that all future fanmail "will be tossed", or delivered this minor news item with the scary line "I'm warning you with peace and love."

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."

Ringo could probably have claimed the crown when the Beatles first broke in the States, a time when they - and Ringo especially - were regarded as some new breed of being: half human, half haircut. "I did several tours with Ringo and he was terrific to work with" says Rundgren. "Briefly I worked with him pre AA, on a Jerry Lewis Telethon in the late seventies, and he wasn't at all like John Lennon on the rampage, he was... a little more jovial. It was the first time I'd had any dialogue with Ringo and he must have remembered it fondly because he called me up years later. He was always level headed and easy to deal with. It was the other crazies in the All Starr Band I had to look out for! Half the band were in AA and the other half needed to be. But Ringo was terrific. He just enjoys playing music, it's obvious."

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."

In the days before every Beatles-related event meant blanket media coverage, a small film like The Birth Of The Beatles could sneak out on the BBC almost unnoticed. Forgotten by many, it can now only be found on pirated dvds. The kid with the quiff playing Hamburg-era George was John Altman, who would define small screen infamy a few years later when he first appeared in Albert Square as Nick Cotton. His favourite "was always George. He was a Pisces, like me, and I thought I looked a bit like him. Similar ears. I think that's one of the reasons I got the part in Birth Of The Beatles. This kid used to flick my ears from behind in the playground, you know what kids are like. My mum said don't worry, Clark Gable had ears like that and he was a pin-up. So that made me feel better. I wonder if George got stick for it at school."

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."

Rundgren's favourite is also George. "For me, his contribution was to elevate guitar to a special status. I'm unaware of anyone using the expression 'lead guitar' before The Beatles, and that was a position highlighted by George Harrison. It drew guitar players into taking their playing more seriously. Solos on records could've been anything - a saxophone, an ocarina - but on Beatles records I'd always look forward to how that little interlude would be filled by lead guitar. In the case of George Harrison it was concise, accessible, a bit clever. It was also short and accessible enough for most guitarists to work out, even without George's finesse."

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."

If favourite Beatle and best Beatle are not the same thing, it could be true that Paul McCartney - the most successful songwriter in British pop history - is undervalued. "It's just deeply unfashionable to say Paul is your favourite" says Alexander. "It sounds callous to wonder how people would feel if he died tomorrow because it might just happen, and I don't mean to use death as a barometer, but it's true - I think they'd say he was the best Beatle. After John Lennon died, Paul said that his exterior had been a front, and I sometimes wonder how he views his own exterior. The way he often says 'we were a pretty good little group', that kind of false modesty, can be irritating, but if he believed everything people said about him he'd go mental. To have survived what he survived, you have to respect him."

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."

Todd Rundgren, possibly keen to start another spat with a Beatle in the British press, feels a little differently. "George peaked around the Bangladesh concert. Ringo did Photograph, that was a good song. John's career was healthy because of album oriented radio, he wasn't played so much on AM. But Paul was getting regular Top 40 attention, even if it was a crappy piece of junk like Silly Love Songs. He's so erratic. He pulled it off with Band On The Run. But the stuff with Michael Jackson - Say Say Say and The Girl Is Mine? Dreck! It's weird. He's too willing to do anything. When he thinks he's not on AM radio enough he makes an attempt to do it and it comes out embarrassing, back to his baby talk again. He doesn't realise how much things have changed."

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."

5 comments:

  1. That Anneliese knows what's what.

    ReplyDelete
  2. My favorite Beatle is Ringo, and I will defend him to the death. He's the only decent one. And he's not a freeloader; he was a brilliant drummer, and you know, when he joined the Beatles he was a bigger star than they were. But what really sets him apart is his humanity. The only Beatle who was genuinely working-class. His turn in "A Hard Days Night", walking along the canal with his camera, meeting the little boy -- that was brilliant stuff.

    Paul's reputation has been rehabilitated somewhat in recent years, as he has made a particular effort, starting with his biography written by Barry Miles, "Many Years From Now", which somewhat shatters some illusions of "the square Beatle" -- Paul was the one who lived in London, going to the theatre and avant-garde concerts by Berio and Stockhausen, while JOHN was the suburban dope living in his mansion miles from anything, whacked out of his gourd on who knows what.

    John was, to be honest, a bit of an asshole: recall the infamous Tampax on the forehead episode, to name just one. It's tragic that he was murdered of course, but it's instructive to remember that before he was Mr. Peace Advocate he was another loud, shouty ignoramus advocating violent revolution: Off the pigs, man. In his defense, lots of people were a bit difficult in the early seventies.

    George wrote some great songs, and played the lead on "And Your Bird Can Sing", for which I'll forgive him anything, but truth be told he could be a little...dim. And a bit of a religious prig; remember "The Lord Loves The One (Who Loves The Lord"? No? Patti Boyd says that whenever she tried to talk to him about the crateloads of girls he was bringing to their house to shag he would just start chanting his mantra to get rid of her.

    Maybe I'm just less forgiving of "rock star behaviour" than the average rock journalist was in 1974. I dunno.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Pretty much agree on all those points, Fnarf. Ringo missing baked beans in India (or, at least, saying he did) adds to his Rutle-y appeal. For me he is the Beatles. And yes, he's a singular drummer.

    George was pretty, and from a 2011 perspective looks the most modern, but do I ever feel sorry for Patti Boyd.

    John was a git, but a very witty git, and at least wore his faults on his sleeve.

    Paul, I thought, came across as a try-hard in Many Years From Now, while also revealing that he didn't need to; he's the real conundrum.

    ReplyDelete
  4. 'Lots of people were a bit difficult in the early seventies'- #LOL - as I believe the Young Set say.

    Paul!

    Paul Paul Paul.

    Pauly.

    Paul.

    Without him: scouse rock 'n' roll, three hit singles, nothing.

    With him: string quartets, cornets, clarinets, tape loops, orchestras 'freaking out', Donovan, 'Golden Slumbers kiss your eyes'.

    Love your work x

    ReplyDelete
  5. People bring a lot of baggage to Paul. Probably because he carries so much around with him. But critics can't seem to view anything he produces without suspicion: What is he up to? What is he trying to prove?

    If you go back and actually read Many Years From Now, I think you'll find it's actually one of the best Beatles books around because not only does it tell us a bit (emphasize a bit, since McCartney is highly protective of his real self) about McCartney, it tells us quite a bit about who did what in the Beatles and sets the band in an interesting historical context.

    Paul deserves a real biographer -- someone like Peter Guralnick who did the terrific Elvis bio. Hopefully it will be a biographer who both understands his faults and appreciates his music. (That's the big problem with that Fab book that came out recently, its author is a hack who was more interested in McCartney's fights with Heather Mills and had little or no understanding of his solo music. Plus the Fab book is utterly sexist in its treatment of Linda, and highly prudish in its finger-wagging critique of Paul's sex life and pot smoking. Weird, weak book.)

    But perhaps no one is going to write that book until McCartney dies and people speak up about him. He's an enigma wrapped in a conundrum.

    ReplyDelete

 
Site Meter