By Tony Sokol
The Beatles, they were pop sensations. The beginning of the mainstreaming of rock music, the band created an industry. There were few venues for rock and roll outfits of that size when they started. The Beatles were also the premiere indie-rockers. They’d earned that privilege.
Some of the earliest flexing of their independent muscles resulted in charges of artistic self-indulgence. It took years before filmmakers were able to properly explain what The Beatles were doing in the film Magical Mystery Tour. The incidental music in that film was unlike anything the band had put on vinyl as well. Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band blew open minds and doors into sonic possibilities that had always been a natural trajectory for the band. The White Album kicked open the remaining doors.
John Lennon died 34 years ago and studies of his music still reveal that his independent streak was part of what revolutionized rock music. The early songs he wrote with Paul McCartney, and the instrumental “Cry for a Shadow,” he wrote with George Harrison, couldn’t be contained within the three chord progressions of rock and roll and the blues. The Beatles also mixed time signatures, something unheard of in rock and roll as it threw off the dancers, and took on independent subjects.
There’s a Place, an early Lennon song, dealt with introspection and could possibly be seen as a precursor to the Beatles explorations of eastern spirituality. Similar in theme to Brian Wison’s classic Beach Boys track “In My Room,” John sings about getting away to a place in his mind where he can’t be touched. Lennon also sang about being tired often, as in I’m So Tired and I’m Only Sleeping, so there is always the possibility that he was just making a lyrical allegory for taking a nap.
John Lennon often said that “Please Please Me” was about oral sex. The rhythm guitar and mouth organist gave lip service to the practice in other songs, like “Going Down on Love,” “It’s So Hard,” where he sang “Sometimes I feel like going down,” and on “I Found Out,” when he sang “She looked so beautiful I could eat her.” A film clip of an early rehearsal finds Lennon joking, “and so I did.” But “Please Please Me,” which was the title of The Beatles’ first album, was his first outing.
Happiness is a Warm Gun is a very prog-rock song couched in doo-wop chord changes. In the break, the guitars of John Lennon and George Harrison go into a waltz beat, while the rhythm section of Paul and Ringo Starr hold a steady four count. The resulting mesh creates a false seven time and the band seems to lose their footing until they bring it all back when the timing matches.That distorted guitar lead is actuall fuzz sax.
The Beatles first foray into audio collages was the now-legendary Carnival of Light. Paul McCartney was in the thrall of swinging London and the theater and classical music crowd. “Revolution 9” is one of the most hotly debated songs in the Beatles catalog. Melody fans wring their hands at the audio collage that purportedly tells two stories, one forwards and one backwards.
Forwards, Revolution 9 is the soundscape of mounting dissolution with political solutions, ending on the soccer field of international diplomacy where citizens scream to block that kick. Backwards, legend has it that Revolution 9 tells the story of the mythical car crash that took the life of Paul McCartney. Played either way, it is a haunting experience that deserves attention. According to the Abbey Road sessions, “Revolution 9” was worked on by all the Beatles, with Harrison logging in quite a few hours on it.
Lennon also followed the offbeat politics of the sixties new left. While he did attend some demonstrations, not as many as Mick Jagger, who co-wrote “Street Fighting Man,” Lennon preferred the self-appointed role of “clown for peace.” He understood that, as a musician, his solutions might have seemed naïve, but the point of his sonic protests were to spur conversation. Even when he was defending his “the Beatles are bigger than Jesus” remarks, Lennon self-deprecatingly called himself illiterate. He understood that intellectually, political thinkers might find him lacking, but emotionally, he hit the mark with every downbeat. Also, notice an odd time signature change on “Give Peace a Chance.” It’s only one measure, like the one measure of 5/4 time on the album version of “Revolution,” but it shows an idea out of step with reality but perfectly in tune with the times.
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