It was 50 years ago today… well, this week, that the Beatles released their first hit single, ‘Love Me Do’, on 5 October 1962. Within 12 months, John Lennon and the other three Beatles were household names throughout the world, and in the years since then Lennon’s reputation has expanded with each new wave of listeners. He even has an airport (Liverpool John Lennon Airport: ‘Above us only sky’). Have we now placed him among the greatest English composers and musicians of all time — say, Dunstable, Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Handel, Elgar and Britten? Will history’s verdict be that Lennon truly deserves to rub shoulders with these geniuses, or was he an accomplished craftsman with a pretty face?
It is tempting to evade comparison by saying that he was a different kind of musician, a writer of pop songs rather than a creator of grand works of art. But until relatively recently, all composers, Purcell and Handel in particular, made it their deliberate business to write pop songs.
What are they? A popular song is written to appeal to everyone, not just musicians and music connoisseurs. In its most basic form it is less than four minutes long and has lyrics arranged in an accessible form (verses, a repeated chorus, maybe a bridge or vamp); a simple, adhesive melody; unfussy instrumental accompaniment; and a regular beat or pulse. It is designed to be remembered, to pass the ‘old grey whistle test’ and thus to be bawled out while drinking and watching games, hummed at work, whistled at home, danced to, marched, fought and died to — to be a part of daily life, ‘everyday beauty’, as Roger Scruton calls it.
A pop song is the musical equivalent of a sketch, or, as Lennon liked to say, a postcard. Good pop songs come quickly to their writers, unlike symphonies or novels, sometimes in an instant. Quite often they spring up from the writer’s internal ‘song bank’ of ideas, fragments of melody-lyrics stored for later use. Often they have some kind of ‘hook’, an eyebrow-raising moment or feature. Their popularity guarantees money, so plagiarism abounds. And while by definition they are of their time, good ones are timeless in their musical essentials, and used in whole or in part — ‘covered’ — by other musicians for generations. It is not nonsense to compare pop songs by Purcell and Lennon.
Songs succeed for many reasons. There are ephemeral songs which caught the spirit of their times (‘Eve of Destruction’); novelty songs with the status and transience of a good joke (‘Shaddap You Face’); self-fulfilling fashion bubbles (‘Kung Fu Fighting’); others succeed by sheer chance. Mass marketing, which revolves around brand recognition, predominates, and yet one-hit wonders are refreshingly frequent. Most pop songs are about romantic love, and many succeed simply by being sexy. Content or message within lyrics is not often a factor. A sad fact of post-Beatles pop is that lyrics are often written by the composer, who is usually better at composing than lyric writing. In their early years the Beatles were especially lazy lyricists (for its first few weeks, ‘Yesterday’ carried the words ‘Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs’).
But with really good songs, it’s almost always the melody, and the chemistry between that and the rhythm of the words. ‘Melody,’ said Mozart, ‘is the essence of music; I compare a good melodist to a fine racer, and counterpointists [those who arrange songs for voices and instruments] to hack post-horses.’
Creating everyday beauty is perhaps the highest calling for any artist, and the acknowledged greats of European music did not shrink from it until the latter part of the 19th century. This is because they were working entertainers who had to please the cloth-eared as well as the connoisseur, and sell tickets to all of them.
Purcell placed his genius at the disposal of whichever audience he served. In addition to grand works of art, he wrote pure pop (‘Lillibulero’, which became the BBC World Service jingle, published in 1691), frisky odes (‘Nymphs and Shepherds’), boisterous show songs (‘Come away, fellow sailors’), rousing hymns (Westminster Abbey — ‘Christ is made the sure foundation’) and dramatic mood pieces (Cold Genius song). His lyric-melody touch is faultless: all his music is accessible, but deeply satisfying. ‘Fairest Isle’ is a widely acclaimed art song; but it might also be one of the greatest pop hits ever written. It ticks all the boxes: a catchy tune which bounces off Dryden’s lyrics, a simple structure (AABA*, repeated twice) over a nice 3/4 lilt.
Handel was less willing to adapt than Purcell, and his work, like the greatest of -Lennon and McCartney in the mid-1960s, is hardly ever plain enough to meet our definition of pure pop. But Handel also had a faultless lyric-melody touch, and a real showman’s ability to get his audience to soar (‘Zadok the Priest’), to tremble (‘I know that my Redeemer liveth’) and to go home humming the big tune (Alla Hornpipe from the Water Music). He was a committed cuckoo when it came to tucking away good melodies for later use, and a man who died rich because his music was popular. Beethoven conferred the ultimate pop accolade upon him: ‘he is the master of us all…go to [Handel] to learn how to achieve great effects by such simple means’.
Schubert’s Serenade of 1826, whose luscious melody came to him while looking at poetry in a beer garden and had to be written down on the back of a menu, was, even in translation, a Top Ten sheet-music hit in the English-speaking world. Lighter songs by Mozart (‘Away with Melancholy’) and Haydn (‘A Prey to Tender Anguish’) were also big hits there. Chopin’s Preludes were written in a hurry in 1838/9 — he needed money — and based heavily on ‘pickings from his portfolios’, as his biographer Niecks put it. The Preludes are surely one of the greatest pop albums of all time, albeit with wordless songs. Many have been covered extensively; number 15 in D-flat (the ‘Raindrop’), which has been greatly used in films, is a melodic masterpiece and a blueprint for the pop ballad.
However, the blockbuster hit of the 19th century in the English-speaking world, ‘Home, Sweet Home’ (1823/4), was composed not by Schubert or Chopin, but by a barely remembered Englishman, Henry Bishop. ‘Home, Sweet Home’, as popular in relative terms as ‘Summertime’ and ‘Yesterday’ put together, was performed everywhere and covered serially, in particular by Donizetti in Anna -Bolena (1830). It has a dignified, wistful melody, a simple format, a hook in the form of a suddenly chanted chorus and it’s a perfect singalong, an English ‘Stille Nacht’ (Silent Night). So shouldn’t Bishop be up there with Handel and Purcell? What about the other creators of 18th- and 19th-century hits: Arne, Hook, Foster and Sullivan, many of whose songs were equally beautiful and not much less popular?
No. Not because they weren’t prodigies and virtuosi, and not because they didn’t write ‘serious’ works, too (some of them were, and did). Not even because their work is hit-and-miss (Handel and Purcell seldom had off days). To achieve lasting greatness, a composer’s work has to raise the neck hairs of musicians and music experts over generations. And there isn’t enough in the works of Bishop, Arne, Sullivan et al, popular or otherwise, for today’s music community to relish.
There isn’t usually enough in pure formulaic pop songs in general: ‘Lillibulero’ is fine, but could have been written by any of a number of tunesmiths (it may even have been). Pop songwriters looking for a lasting legacy need to have written more substantial pieces. It is probably a sense of this that drove Gershwin, and Paul McCartney, to write orchestral music for the concert hall.
The withdrawal of great European composers from popular music came in the second half of the 19th century, coinciding with the growth of the state as a funder of art and education. With Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel and Richard Strauss safely tucked away in conservatoires and concert halls, the second division went to Tin Pan Alley, which supplied most of the world’s pop from 1890 to 1960. ‘After the Ball’ (1893) is sentimental kitsch and sold five million sheet versions; ‘Alexander’s Ragtime Band’ (1911) ‘picked the pockets of real ragtime’; the songs of Tin Pan Alley’s Golden Age in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s were, in Noel Coward’s words ‘potent but cheap’. Broadway had to wait until Sondheim to get its Mozart.
The salvation of 20th-century pop was black American music: spirituals/shout, ragtime, jazz, blues, gospel, soul, R&B, funk, etc. Black pop music, or ‘race music’ as it was called in the 1930s, was brimming with the genius of musicians like Scott Joplin, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Fats Waller, America’s Handels and Purcells, none of whom had economic alternatives to pop. Tin Pan Alley was not only fertilised by jazz, but harvested and processed by it too. Like Bishop, Gershwin, Kern, Berlin, Rodgers et al were fine tunesmiths but it’s hard to believe that their work would have had a fraction of its reputation had the jazz community not been obliged to use those tunes to get itself heard. Gershwin’s ‘Summertime’ (1935), a simple but tasteful synthesis of Late Romantic and jazz and probably the biggest hit from the entire era, was on the verge of obscurity until Billie Holliday recorded it in 1936 — its Donizetti moment. The song lives far more through its covers (Charlie Parker in 1950, Miles Davis in 1958, John Coltrane in 1961) than in its original operatic form.
If Gershwin’s debt to African Americans is great, then rock’n’roll’s is unpayable, because it simply was black music: dumbed-down 1940s jump swing. The rock’n’roll revolution of 1956 was the moment when black American music finally punched its way out of the black charts and into the mainstream. White America and the large recording companies first whitened it — Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, etc — and then stamped it out, so that by 1962 Tin Pan Alley was back in the US pop charts.
The Beatles were one of a great number of European rock’n’roll covers bands who kept the music alive, and in one of the great ironies of music, brought rock back to the USA in the early 1960s, to an ecstatic reception. But by then their original songs were no longer formulaic rock’n’roll. ‘Love me do’, No. 17 in the UK in late 1962 and No. 1 in the USA in 1964, is a very basic pop song, beneath the notice of a Tin Pan Alley hack — three chords, minimal bluesy melody, childish lyrics. But a musician’s neck hairs tremble nevertheless. Paul, John and George already had that luscious out-of-tune-yet-in-tune unison singing sound; vocal harmony lines used stark fourths and fifths and not just the sugary thirds usual in rock; the harmonica solo is raw and cheeky; McCartney’s bass playing is foundational yet imaginative; and the form of the song is cleverly asymmetric. There’s perky melody-lyric chemistry. Beatles guru Ian Macdonald: ‘A bare brick wall in a suburban sitting-room.’
The touring years ’63, ’64, ’65 and the first half of ’66 were a pressure cooker of songs. Fans effectively imprisoned the band when not performing, and the combination of rivalry and co-operation, tetchiness and affection, which characterised the relationship between them produced not only a sequence of hits but a consistent ascent to their aesthetic summit — the three albums Rubber Soul, -Revolver and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in ’65, ’66 and ’67 respectively, and their associated singles.
Lennon’s most covered song from this time is ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’, which he wrote in 1966 for the forthcoming album Pepper (it ended up being released in February 1967 as a double-A-sided single with McCart-ney’s ‘Penny Lane’). Lennon’s first demo, in C, had a verse only, ‘psychoanalysis set to music’ as he later said (‘There’s no one on my wavelength/ I mean, it’s either too high or too low…’). Though simple in structure at Take One (V, V, Ch, V, Ch, instr V), the song is utterly sophisticated, but at the same time completely intuitive — time signature changes, clever harmonies, triplet syncopations all sound perfectly spontaneous. Lennon’s singing is full of Indian inflections, and his guitar playing has some nice passing notes. Harrison throws in seasoning on slide guitar. It’s as if the whole song is a hook. It’s gorgeous: up go the neck hairs.
And yet there was more, and better, to come. In final version, melody, harmony and structure are intact, but guitars and electric bass are superseded by orchestral instruments and a Mellotron (fabulous George Martin arrangements). Harrison’s tasteful slide riffs are now nightmarish orchestral glissandi, courtesy of a tape vari-speed, which is also used to darken the song by downward transposition (the final version is roughly in B flat). Lennon’s voice now sounds woozy. There’s a mad backwards coda. Psychoanalysis becomes psychosis.
With hindsight, the most surprising thing about the Beatles was not that an unremarkable covers band of apparently unprodigious musicians should transform itself into a powerhouse through sheer incarceration, or that competition/co-operation should produce such astonishing compositional results (Purcell, Elgar and Britten did the job on their own). It was that, having reached the heights of 1965-67, the Beatles lost their touch in subsequent years. This did not happen immediately, not least because they were able to dip into their song banks. Lennon’s ‘Come Together’ (on Abbey Road), for example, is an R&B masterpiece — in feel as raw and bluesy as ‘Love Me Do’, but with very intelligent harmony, drumming which is restrained but imaginative, and a bass ostinato from McCartney which is a minor miracle.
But the magic of Lennon’s music faded through the 1970s, his stronger songs — ‘Love’ (1970), ‘Imagine’ (1971) — appearing very soon after the Beatles had split. His love ballads like ‘Oh my Love’ (1970) and ‘Woman’ (1980) are little more than touching testaments to his happiness. ‘#9 Dream’ (1974) has some pleasing twists but would barely merit a place on the White Album.
So, how great is Lennon’s music? During the 1960s, both as an image and a sound, the Beatles are shorthand for the entire decade. But more remarkable is the endurance, so far, of that fame. The album 1, released in 2000 on the 30th anniversary of the band’s break-up is still this century’s biggest-selling album worldwide — not bad for a collection of 30/40-year-old No. 1 hits. ‘Yesterday’ is probably the world’s most covered song. Although cumulative sales of Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road are surprisingly low in the world rankings — top 20 with about 30 million sold apiece, a list topped by Michael Jackson’s Thriller (about 100 million), followed by Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon (about 50 million) — in a poll of pop musicians themselves, Pepper, Revolver and Rubber Soul are voted as three of the world’s five greatest albums of all time. For all this the man deserves his airport.
As for standing alongside Purcell and Handel, we would like to think that his greatest songs from the mid-1960s have enough musical substance to keep raising musicians’ neck hairs over the generations. But we fear that, as for Bishop and Gershwin, biggest does not necessarily mean best.
This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated 6 October 2012