The Beatles: The Brilliance of Both/And

or Nowhere Man and Koo Koo Kajoo

What hasn’t been said about The Beatles?

I’m gonna go out on a limb here and say they were The Greatest:)

Just bought the complete Beatles video anthology–very cool. And confirmed what an awesome LIVE band they were. Wow. I still can’t figure HALF the chords they use. And noticed how structurally sophisticated and sturdy their melodies are. Most bands these days seem stuck in Grooveland–nothing wrong with that. But variations on blues however funky and fun, generally don’t grab my cortex and stand up over time. This is why most of the Stone’s stuff since 1982 bores me. The Stones were neck and neck with them. For a while. But the Beatles were rigorously grounded in melody–all their magical harmonies and momentum and just right placement of mood and instruments served the foundation of melody. Moreso than any band I can name. Even when they rocked.

That’s why that one writer said there are so few Beatle covers. Their performances defined the song. (Was it Adam Gopnik in the NEW YORKER (“Carry That Weight,” May 1, 1995??) What more can be said on the subject? Can you imagine a fresh take (that actually brings something new to the party) on, say, NORWEGIAN WOOD, or TOMORROW NEVER KNOWS or SHE’S LEAVING HOME (speaking of Both/And–a heartbreaking runaway from conformity story, or a snide young man’s joke about a “loose” woman?) or you-name-it?

They defined perfection. Why would anyone re-write an Emily Dickinson poem? Or make Citizen Kane a musical? Or refilm “Psycho”?

And I gotta say for the hundredth time: How the FUCK did they do it?

I mean, I can say somewhat honestly that I am a musician. I’ve played the guitar for 47 years. I know a little about music. And I have not a fucking clue at how they arrived at their art. I’m not just talking complexity.  I mean play LET IT BE on the piano. It’s the simplest, almost dumbest thing in the world–A child could figure it. How the fuck did they do it?

The pizzicato intro guitar on I FEEL FINE. Which Lennon continues to play WHILE he sings–Try THAT sometime! I can’t get past “Baby’s good to me you know she…”

The twirling yet tight three leads on YOUR BIRD CAN SING.

The “TIT TIT TIT” on the Pseudo Greek melody (GREEK!!?) GIRL.

The weirdness complete weirdness of NOT A SECOND TIME. Heard that one lately?

The Drum beat on HARD DAYS NIGHT–What the fuck is that? Listen to it! How the fuck???

The astounding change in time on the bridge of SHE SAID SHE SAID (that shouldn’t work but does) and then the heartbreaking, honest “When I was a boy…Everything was right.” Christ.

How do they make a tortured song like HELP sound joyous?

How do they repeat COME ON 8 times in PLEASE PLEASE ME and send chills up the spine? Two fucking words!!!!

Or the stacked harmonies of BECAUSE. Chilling without the instruments. Perhaps even more powerful than the original.

Yer author scratches his head again and thanks the universe we were alive to hear this shit. And he thinks about irony.

I believe part of what made the Beatles great was their irony.

See, The Fabs did it right. Someone in the New Yorker defined their provisional humorous aesthetic as: “If I were to write a song about a girl who had just left me and I was mourning her loss I’d be singing a song like…Yesterday…” This comic distance allowed them to try on any number of musical hats. But that wasn’t what made them great. If they  stuck there they would have become mere novelty artists: Roger Miller, Tom Lehr, Ray Stevens.  But The Beatles were masters of Both/And. Parody and Passion–often in the same song. “Rocky Racoon.” “Honey Pie.” “I’m So Tired.” Hell–Scan the tracks on the White Album (an album named after its absent cover!) and you’ve got a catalog of Postmodern Techniques. But, what made them great was: They Believed this shit. They rocked.

Strip away Lennon’s irony and what have you got? PLASTIC ONO BAND-his first solo album after the breakup. And, though I love it, I wouldn’t want to Live there.

I guess I land in the middle: Somewhere between John’s dopey self-consciousness and Primal Screams. Between Paul’s heavy-handed charm and his irresistible domestic celebrations of romance. Between George’s portentous spirituality and his witty, sane and mellifluous guitar. In that pocket that Ringo happily occupies that serves the song and swings and refuses to solo and can’t believe how lucky he is to be there. That place where John emerges from his necessary word-tripping surrealism and let’s it all hang out: “I’m Crying!”

Question: Would it be as wrenching, though, without the setup of the”Koo Koo Ka Joo”?

Note: I wrote most of this circa 1995 when the original Beatle’s Anthology was released.

The only thing I can think to add is this: Does everybody remember and get how FUNNY The Beatles were? Before them pop groups were pretty stiff and inarticulate. (I’ll give you Elvis/Jerry Lee/Little Richard) The Fab Four bought Joy everywhere they went. They were always winking, joking, making fun of everything. They weren’t a star and his band. They were a team. A Band of brothers, They modeled an alternative reality of equals. They exercised mental and emotional muscles we didn’t even know existed. Of Course, that much money, fame, power, and that big of a megaphone–no wonder they got a little pompous near the end.

But, in a time when our hero/president had been shot dead before our eyes. When you could get expelled for long hair. When you could literally be drafted and killed overseas before you even got laid. When black people still used separate public lavatories–I saw one when I was a boy. When the Cold War came this close to annihilating the planet…(Truly, people. It almost happened.) Suddenly there were these four jesters with ridiculous haircuts–does anyone else remember how Outrageous they were? They sang beautiful harmonies, and played weird guitar chords, and wrote their own songs. They made you feel  fantastic for two and a half minutes at a time.

They were sexy as hell.

And they seemed to be saying to all of us: “The emperor is naked. Let’s play as if there were no rules.”

And, by the way. Dude. She fucking loves you.

By Patrick O’Leary



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