On the first of June 1967 my journey home from school took me past a tiny shop in Wakefield called The Record Bar. I always stopped to see if there was anything new in the window.
On this day, nestling between The Monkees’ Headquarters and The Supremes Sing Rodgers and Hart, was the heart-thumping cover of a new arrival, arrayed in colours I hadn’t yet learned to call ‘psychedelic’. A closer look revealed this to be the new record that John and Paul had been talking about on the radio. I stood there quivering with thwarted desire. I’d never been that excited by a record before.
I’ve never been that excited by a record since. That doesn’t mean there haven’t been exciting records. There have. But the planets of popular music, technology and culture would never again align to produce a moment as pulse-quickening as the weekend after the release of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. We didn’t know that then. We thought there was no reason this golden streak couldn’t carry on. After all The Beatles had travelled from I Saw Her Standing There to Strawberry Fields Forever in around four years. There was surely no reason to think pop music couldn’t keep on changing as quickly and excitingly for ever.
Now we know. Now we know The Beatles were the exception rather than the rule. This group who invented the whole idea of being a group were the best group there would ever be. There would be creditable silver medallists: The Stones, REM, U2, The Isley Brothers, The Wailers – insert the name of your favourite here while admitting that next to The Beatles all of them ploughed comparatively narrow furrows.
But the fact is that those of us who grew up in the 1960s were utterly spoilt by The Beatles. In the years since, we have regretfully come to realise that the first kiss was the best one we were ever going to get.
Even at the time we knew they were better than good. In the sleeve notes to 1964’s Beatles For Sale, writer Derek Taylor predicted the kids of 2000 would get ‘the same sense of well-being and warmth’ from listening to the music as the people of 1964. He was right about that. But I don’t think even Derek realised just how exceptional his clients were.
Derek sadly didn’t live to see the many thousands of bands who attempted to follow The Beatles’ template while at the same time being, for all their good intentions, unfit to touch the hem of their garment. For all the garlands that posterity has placed upon their brow The Beatles remain underrated.
How can they be underrated? Because we think too much about the legend and not enough about the reality. We overlook what made them exceptional back then and inconceivable today. Here are a few of the key things we forget.
The Beatles came from the pre-Beatles world. They were formed out of the first generation of rock fans. They devoured every new record by Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander, Smokey Robinson, Carole King and the rest of their favourites. They took them apart and saw how they worked. By the time they started to seriously write their own songs they had mastered scores of brilliant compositions by other people. The Beatles played covers to earn the right to write their own songs. That’s why they were so good.
In fact, The Beatles were far better than they needed to be. They could play, they could sing, they could arrange and they even forced their most musically gifted member to play that most despised instrument, the bass. In 1962 the music business didn’t know what to make of them because there weren’t any other groups who took this 360° approach to making music.
Within a year they’d graduated to something of an altogether higher order – making records. And each of those was definitive, impossible to improve. (There is only one cover of a Beatles song that is better than the original.*) We carry these records around in our hearts. That’s why The Beatles don’t need awards. They live inside us.
The Beatles weren’t cool. In fact, the Beatles were showbiz. They could have played
a wedding and they would have been brilliant. In fact, what impressed George Martin when he met them wasn’t their music. It was their rapport. It was their ease in social situations. It was their hard Liverpudlian charm. The Beatles knew they were there to entertain. They had an act and they maintained that act even when the music stopped.
They kept the ball in the air through press conferences, photo sessions and endless meet and greets. They were clever without being educated. They were smart without being polished. They always had something to say. They were never boring. They taught a generation of British baby-boomers a new way of carrying themselves, a new way to be.
The Beatles were competitive as hell. Lennon invited McCartney to join the group because he knew that the younger boy could do things he couldn’t. It was this commitment to topping each other that kept their standards so high for so long, particularly once George started writing. Fifty years ago they pulled Paul’s Penny Lane and John’s Strawberry Fields Forever off Sgt Pepper and put them out as what was the best double-A-sided single of all time. Think how much confidence it takes to do that. Then they climaxed their new album with A Day In The Life, a John Lennon song crossed with a Paul McCartney song, delivering the freshly fused item with a panache even their most talented peers never came close to equalling.
And finally, The Beatles knew when to stop. Fifty years after Sgt Pepper we now know careers in pop music can last longer than careers in The City. This is usually more in the interests of the bands than the fans. You never regret leaving a party early but you often regret staying too late. That’s what The Beatles believed. They didn’t linger. When it was over they knocked it on the head and never went back.
Had John Lennon lived they might have done, which would obviously have been good for John Lennon but not for their legend. As it is The Beatles’ recorded legacy endures because, unlike those of all their peers from the 1960s and 1970s, it isn’t disfigured by the inevitable years of decline. Their catalogue is all there in its perfect brevity. It’s forever fresh, forever young and, thanks to digital technology, forever at our fingertips.
Go on. Spoil yourself.
David Hepworth discusses Sgt Pepper and the Summer of Love at Chalke Valley History Festival, 26 June-2 July, cvhf.org.uk. His new book is Uncommon People: The Rise and Fall of the Rock Stars
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This article first appeared in the June 2017 issue of Saga Magazine.
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