HIT AND MYTH
Updated: Jul 15, 2020
In the course of his iconoclastic track "God" released in 1970, John Lennon denounced his belief in all manner of deities and concepts but most notably he sang "I don't believe in Beatles". Coming as it did in 1970, and just after Paul's loose press release inserted into his album "McCartney" where he announced the end of his time with the band, this was obviously a means of drawing a line under the history of the Fab Four.
And yet, it certainly wasn't.
In fact, the band had always been aware of their own mythology and were perfectly happy to be particularly self-referential both as a band and even more so as solo artists. They were very knowing about their fame and fortune and would regularly use it as a source of inspiration to excite their fans (particularly if their sales had been a little on the sluggish side).
For me, this all begins with "All You Need Is Love" where in the closing bars of the anthem to the summer of love, you can hear Paul dropping in a drawling monotone chant of the chorus of "She Loves You". This song had always been the benchmark of what they did not want to be doing later in their careers (when they turned 30!), - touring a cabaret version of their old act. In 1967, it seemed a very deliberate way of them saying that's what we were and (defiantly) no longer.
As the song was premiered in front of what was then one of the largest multi-territory TV audiences ever, this was obviously no improvised throw-away, despite its delivery.
The following year, during the recording of "The Beatles" (The White Album), they recorded perhaps the most mythological of all Beatle-related songs, "Glass Onion". Here is a song littered with references to themselves - song titles, lyrics and of course the famous line "The Walrus Was Paul". Beatle aficionados will know that this song became one of the leading exhibits for the conspiracy theory that Paul had actually died back in 1965 and this was John's way of giving out clues to their fans about the cover-up.
Whatever it was, it certainly showed a band very much aware of what their legacy should be. Indeed, later on the album they cross-refer to "Ob La Di Ob La Da" (their own confection) in the lyrics to "Savoy Truffle". Their fans would devote a lot of time to interpreting what all of this meant.
indeed, the pressure on all of the band (and the attendant unpleasantness of the break-up) is certainly a driving force for Lennon's outburst in "God". But he doesn't leave it there because in the track "How Do You Sleep" on the following year's "Imagine" he is very pointedly attacking Paul - "...the only thing you did was Yesterday" - a song John never played on.
The acrimony of this time also inspired Ringo to write a track called "Early 1970" as the B-side to the marvellous "It Don't Come Easy" which outlined his confusion and sense of loss at the breakdown of the band and its attendant relationships - particularly with Paul. Actually all three of the others would appear later on his "Ringo" album in 1973 but not together of course.
Less surprising is that in the wake of the early demise of John, all the then remaining three wrote tribute songs to their former bandmate. Ringo's "Imagine Me There" borrows some familiar Mellotron whist Paul's "Here Today" (from "Tug Of War") is deliberately simple and stark perhaps as a means of atoning for his "Yeah it's a drag" quote to journalists on being dazedly doorstepped about John's assassination. It comes to life in a live setting where its sincerity is very obvious. That said, if you watch the "Coming Up" promo, McCartney is only too happy to take on Beatle Paul as one of his personas - he certainly has always seemed the most comfortable reminiscing on the subject.
George managed to get his first chart hit in over 6 years with "All Those Years Ago" which he actually rewrote from a previous song to fit the tribute. It was also the first record that all three performed on since the break-up, having met up at Ringo's wedding to Barbara Bach -though admittedly Paul is on handclaps only. But this in itself, was sufficiently exciting. Again, it feels heartfelt and actually a little bit angry which perhaps gives it its edge.
Perhaps because Paul has always tried to keep up his live appearances, he has always been happy to revisit his Beatles back catalogue and so this has always helped him exorcise the ghost of his former band. In tribute to George, rather than a song on an album like "Never Without You" which Ringo recorded, he has tended to play a low-key and surprisingly moving version of "Something" on (would you believe) the ukulele, which seems to far better capture the long-standing friendship between them.
However, for the others, the Beatles keep needing to manifest themselves in their work. In 2014, Ringo released "Postcards To Paradise" which managed to stuff in a myriad of lyrical references for no other reason than to remind us of his pedigree, all set to a rather dirge like Eastern influenced track. George, meanwhile, had produced something far more effective with 1987's "When We Was Fab" which he had produced with arch-Beatles fan Jeff Lynne as another nod to his past. He always maintained it was just intended to be a joke - but again I'm not so sure.
When the Threetles reformed for the Anthology in the mid 90s, unsurprisingly, the tone was hugely reflective of their influence and the depth of their recorded catalogue. The promo created by Joe Pytka for "Free As A Bird" is full of Beatle Easter Eggs - clues, clips, song references. It's "Glass Onion" in full effect, a fan's wet dream and visually much more exciting than the actual song, itself, the technical production of which (being derived from an old cassette) was far more impressive than the actual output. Hats off again to Jeff Lynne.
So what's the point of all this?
I believe that the Beatles remained an itch that none of them felt able to say was put to bed completely - an itch that continued to need scratching. Admittedly, if you had been at the forefront of one of the world's most incredible cultural movements then the effect on you would be profound and the need to keep returning to the well for inspiration seems perfectly understandable.
However, so determined were they all, at least initially, to put the Beatles in the past that I still find it interesting that they consistently wanted to keep topping up the mythology surrounding themselves. No other act seems to have been so adept (or even so willing) to do so and while generations of fans seem dedicated to analysis, it keeps the band a source of fascination (and a little mystery) still.