John, Paul, George, Ringo and the real fifth Beatle, Yoko, are all a myth, you know. David Keenan goes in search of anyone who dares to admit they've never liked the fab four, their legacy or their nauseating lyrics
QUESTION: What year did Paul McCartney write Silly Love Songs? Answer: 1963, 1964, 1965, 1966, 1967 ... yeah, so it's a cheap shot but doesn't it feel good? In the 32 years since The Beatles split, their reputation has become so unassailable, so tied up with ideas of 'Britishness', that it's tantamount to cultural treason to say you don't like them. These days they attract the kind of unquestioning consensus normally reserved for cute newborn babies or Middle Eastern dictators. Where are the dissenting voices, the musicians who are unwilling to bow before the behemoth?
On the very weekend that the faithful assemble in Liverpool at the Beatles Week festival, it's tough to find anyone prepared to stand up and be counted as an out-and-out Beatle hater. I've spent the past week on the phone to friends and musicians trying to goad them into having a go at the fab four, but as soon as I reveal my purpose -- to puncture the myth of The Beatles once and for all -- they clam up. After five days of ringing round looking for a lead I eventually find someone prepared to testify against their pernicious influence, a friend of a friend based in ... uh ... Germany.
At my wits' end I call Tony Wilson, ex-head of Factory Records and the subject of Michael Winterbottom's film 24 Hour Party People. A self-consciously iconoclastic loudmouth and an ex-punk too, he's sure not to let me down.
'I think their work is fantastic and has remained fantastic,' he deadpans. 'I think they're the most important item in culture in the 20th century.' Dammit. Why?
'The music industry is all about songs,' he insists. 'That's what I love about this business, it's full of bullshit, it's full of hype, it's full of emptiness, and yet all that's irrelevant because in the end it's all about great songs. Pop music is a joint project. The real writer, whom you never see, isn't Will or f***ing Gareth, they're irrelevances. But when you get to the real core of rock music, instead of pop music, in many cases the writer is also the performer, and it was The Beatles who created that, they did everything. Before they came along you sang other people's songs.'
Of course, this is a gross simplification of the facts. The idea that before The Beatles every group consisted of a bunch of jobbing hacks churning out conveyor-belt cover versions is nonsense, even if it suits British cultural historians to situate rock music's year zero somewhere in Liverpool. Just as punk would claim it birthed the independent DIY record company in the 1970s, despite a proliferation of grass-roots labels throughout the 1950s rockabilly and 1960s garage-rock scenes, the idea that The Beatles were the first musicians to write their own hits deliberately overlooks countless wild 1950s rockers such as Charlie Feathers, Buddy Holly and Johnny Cash.
'But it's all about albums,' Wilson maintains. 'Before, they were simply long-playing records consisting mostly of cover versions. With The Beatles' third album [A Hard Day's Night; the first two contained covers] we got the first modern album.'
So what about Bob Dylan? 'Ah, well, that's a good point, my friends and I always argue over whether it was Dylan or The Beatles who made the first modern album.'
(For the record, the answer is Dylan. His second album, The Freewheelin' Bob Dylan, came out in 1963. Despite lifting melodies from earlier folk songs, every track was an original penned by Dylan.)
But The Beatles haven't always enjoyed the widespread consensus that they do today. 'No Elvis, Beatles, or The Rolling Stones in 1977!' trumpeted The Clash on the B-side of 1977's White Riot single, before going on to 'sod the jubilee!' Punk was arguably the peak of anti-Beatles sentiment. Bassist Glen Matlock was reputedly fired from The Sex Pistols for liking them, and Half Japanese famously announced No More Beatlemania! In the wake of punk, The Beatles suddenly sounded like music that your dad would listen to.
Wilson, who has heard a rare recording of The Beatles live at The Cavern in 1962, believes they could have been mistaken for an early Sex Pistols -- 'it was as rough and as violent and as raucous as that.' He continues: 'It's funny, I was in some fancy hotel in Hong Kong last autumn with some scousers and they said I should check out this band, a cabaret band, and when I saw them it was just so weird, they were doing a Beatles medley and they sounded wonderful and perfect. If you saw The Beatles you'd walk out of the room because it would have been unpleasant, noisy, raucous, guitars out of tune ...'
It's a good point; perhaps the problem with The Beatles lies not with the reality of the group but rather with the way they've been hijacked and neutered, repackaged as part of heritage culture alongside manicured lawns, cricket, stately homes and small, ugly dogs. McCartney's performance at Buckingham Palace for the Queen's golden jubilee only confirms how much a part of the establishment he's become. These days he's basically synonymous with Cliff Richard.
Scottish post-punk star Edwyn Collins touched on this idea on The Beatles, a track from his Doctor Syntax album, which surfaced earlier this year. He described it as 'the story of The Beatles compressed into four minutes'. Lines like 'Let's hear it for the fab Beatle ... let's hear it for the quiet Beatle' parodied the cartoon caricatures they've become (marketable caricatures that were, bear in mind, initially self-created via promo flicks like Help, a series of cartoon shorts and the animated feature Yellow Submarine). My beef with The Beatles hype is that, thanks in no small part to Oasis and the rise of Britpop, their legacy has been reduced to that of simply penning 'great tunes'.
Yet at their best there was so much more to them than that. For a group who consistently tried to push the envelope in the late 1960s, who began to adopt avant-garde techniques and use the studio as a tool, who pioneered psychedelia with records that came soaked in mind-bending effects and referenced the Tibetan Book Of The Dead -- how comes it that whenever someone comes along claiming to be influenced by them, you can bet your ass they'll sound as workaday as Liverpudlian labourers Cast or as ordinary as self-consciously average blokes such as David Gray?
Nobody has truly followed or expanded upon The Beatles' real legacy; can you really see Noel Gallagher marrying an ex-Fluxus performance artist who had previously worked with avant-garde composer John Cage, and then going on to cut a series of form-destroying sides that combined primal scream therapy with psychedelic blues and the ecstasy of free jazz?
And so we come to Yoko Ono, the much-maligned fifth Beatle. I firmly believe that if it hadn't for been for Yoko, The Beatles would have been a much duller proposition. She undoubtedly fired Lennon's imagination, sparking a competition between Lennon and McCartney as to who could go furthest out. This, in turn, spurred McCartney on to stellar peaks like Helter Skelter. Yet Beatles fans hate Yoko. They don't like the idea of their idols becoming pretentious (ie creatively ambitious). Ono always gets the blame for breaking up the boys' club. Neil Innes and Eric Idle's fantasy rock biopic, The Rutles, perhaps the most incisive and funny critique of The Beatles ever formulated, brilliantly satirised the way Beatles fans demonised Yoko by having her played as a female Nazi commandant. But for me the fact that Lennon -- and The Beatles -- were open to Yoko's influence at all puts them head and shoulders above all the 'tunesmiths' who claim to follow them.
Yet, no other group were such patsies when it came to swallowing their own myth whole, and The Beatles' constant in-jokes and terms of self-reference are enough to madden even the hardiest fan-boys. Although the stuff about 'the walrus was Paul' is irritating enough, it's the retrospective jewels written by the ex-Beatles that are truly insufferable.
While George Harrison's When We Was Fab was undoubtedly the most nauseating memoir, it was John Lennon's track God, from 1970's Plastic Ono Band, that truly took self-importance to newly inflated levels. Having professed his lack of belief in such minor figures as Buddha, Jesus, Elvis and Dylan he drops the real bomb: 'Don't believe in Beatles ...', allowing the piano to die into a long silent passage so that we can gasp at the significance of this final disavowal before picking up the next line. It's one of the most excruciatingly hammy moments of narcissism in the history of rock.
The myth of The Beatles is greater now than at any time in the past 30 years, which is partly down to the monstrous industry that they've spawned, from biopics like Backbeat through the Anthology series, the cynically staggered release of rarities and the reworking of demos by the surviving members (such as 1995's execrable Free As A Bird). The dawn of CDs and the resultant flurry of reissues also helps explain their current popularity. Older music is more available and easily digestible than ever, backed up by a clutch of classic-rock magazines dedicated to the maintenance of a long-established canon.
Regardless of the reality of The Beatles' status, it's sad to see such a degree of reverence and unity in modern music. The Beatles, like the Sex Pistols, are both now firmly enshrined as explicable paradigms, as incontrovertible blueprints for the next generation of musical so-called revolutionaries. It's stifling.
Eventually I turned to the internet in my search for the lonely voice of protest, and there I hit paydirt. Jonny Whiteside's fantastically over-the-top essay Let It Be: How The Beatles Ruined Everything is digital satori.
'In the months following JFK's assassination, America underwent a national process of disassociation, burying its head in the bloody Texas sand,' he rages. 'Only then, in that state of shock, did the Beatles' caucasoid, sugar-coated solipsism make sense. No Oswald, no domestic [American] success for the Fabs.'
Give that man a guitar.
Song of the moment-Drive My Car
"If they can dig it, please dig it."-George