I’ve just been reading Amis & Son: Two Literary Generations. That’s a whole other story, and I only mention that particular work here because of some words it contains that made me start. The author, Neil Powell, describes ‘When I’m Sixty-four’ and ‘Lovely Rita’ thus: ‘the two songs which despite their jaunty surfaces most clearly reveal the Beatles’ underlying callousness and contempt for other people’. I’ve known the Beatles, as a band and individually, to be roundly criticised for many things, pertaining both to their personal conduct and their musical output, but I’d never before come across all four of them being damned simultaneously for their attitude to humanity at large. Powell seems to be some kind of jazz enthusiast, which may account for his hostility to glorious pop music but also makes his description of ‘Hey, Jude’ as ‘seemingly endless’ the most outrageous cheek imaginable. Anyway, given their status as colossi, I suppose the Beatles are always on my mind to some extent, but Powell’s cruel words made me think afresh about what, for me, have always been the most intriguing Beatles puzzles.
First of all, why did George Harrison feel the need to be such a gloomy, whiny bastard? I would hazard that any book about the Beatles features George having a good old bleat about how John Lennon and Paul McCartney didn’t show him sufficient appreciation and how difficult it was for him to get his songs on the albums. While wearing a variety of unpleasant shirts, he certainly goes to town regarding his sufferings in The Beatles Anthology. Personally, I think G Harrison is lucky that he got any of his songs on the albums. To start with, he gave the world such horrors as ‘Blue Jay Way’ and ‘Within You Without You’, the songs on the Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band respectively that virtually no listener of these fine albums ever listens to again after having played the whole LP once for the sake of completionism, and this is all without even considering the abysmal ‘Old Brown Shoe’. As far as I’m concerned, the only Harrison-penned Beatles songs that score a passing grade are ‘Something’ (a C in my book, even if Frank Sinatra was moved to cover it), ‘Here Comes the Sun’ (a B plus) and ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’ (for my money, the only solid A). Also just making it into the passing-grade list is ‘Taxman’, which is, of course, Harrison having a moan about how terribly unjust it is that he, at the time probably one of the people who lived highest on the hog in the whole of Britain, was actually being expected to pay any income tax.
Then, post the band’s break-up, while every member of the Beatles produced horrendous solo work at some stage, George took the biscuit with ‘Crackerbox Palace’. Not only is the song itself perhaps the worst in the history of music, Harrison fails at any time to show the slightest charisma or most basic razzle dazzle in the accompanying video, even while being wheeled around in a pram by Neil Innes (who is, naturally, dressed as an English nanny), or when driving a tractor while accompanied by various crazily dressed folk, who appear throughout and are clearly there to distract the viewer from George himself. What I want to know is, what did Harrison seriously imagine his glorious alternative-universe existence would have been? Did he honestly have the nerve to rage to himself, ‘If only I’d not happened to go to school with Paul McCartney, I could have avoided joining the most successful band of all time’? If George hadn’t been one of the Beatles, he would likely have wound up as a bus conductor, which, while an honourable occupation, would have allowed him far less time to sit round and contemplate his grievances and so, I would imagine, would not have been to his satisfaction either.
Probably the other Beatles-related question that has occupied my mind the most these many years is whether John and Yoko would have managed to avoid getting divorced had John not been assassinated. Now, if there’s one thing I enjoy, it’s a Beatles-themed biopic, such as Two of Us (2000) about a mythical meeting between Paul and John at the Dakota in 1976, at a time when there was talk of the Beatles reuniting. The IMDb synopsis notes: ‘Paul, the consummate entertainer, is intrigued by the possibilities. But, John, still fighting his inner demons, is content keeping Beatlemania a thing of the past’. My absolute favourite variety of Beatles-themed biopics, though, are those about the Fab Four’s lady wives. For example, I relished The Linda McCartney Story (weirdly, also made in 2000) my clearest memory of which is Linda Ko, as Yoko Ono, barking nastily while at a recording session, ‘John’s was much better than Paul’s!’ (John Lennon is played by Tim Piper, who, it seems, portrayed Lennon in a play called One Night Only, and appears to have no other credits at all.)
Richest of all, though, is 1985’s John and Yoko: A Love Story. It features Mark McGann as John Lennon (two of the most striking things when looking at McGann’s body of work are, first, has there been an English actor who hasn’t appeared in Casualty?; and, second, that he auditioned for the role of Dr Who but it went to his brother Paul. Let’s see a telemovie about that!). I believe that Ono was closely involved with the making of John and Yoko, which, no doubt, explains why its focus is largely people telling Yoko (Kim Miyori, who in the behind-the-scenes featurette that I recall being presented with John and Yoko back in the days when the midday movie had presenters, talked of her awe at meeting ‘the legend’ herself) how great she is. For example, John, hearing the B52’s ‘Rock Lobster’ on the radio, telephones Yoko to comment on her clear influence on the ‘new wave’ and the fact that the world is finally catching up to her artistic vision, while Yoko listens and smiles with quiet satisfaction. I would really like to know whether Lennon, had he lived, would have by, say, the era of Guru Josh, finally have become disenchanted with Ono’s particular mix of enormous conceit and slender talent.
Which brings me to my final question, about why Lennon biographers, or any biographer for that matter, should feel the need to note that their subjects aren’t able to see into the future. This struck me forcibly while I was reading Philip Norman’s John Lennon: The Life. Norman writes that in a photo session in 1964, ‘a craggy Gothic pile known as the Dakota Building’ lies across the way and says, portentously, that ‘Mugging dutifully for the cameras in the icy-fingered cold, John has no inkling of the place where he will one day live, and die’. Wouldn’t it be much more noteworthy if he had? Also, had John had the gift of soothsaying, he might at least have known in the nineteen seventies that the day would come that he’d regret his (as Norman puts it) ‘short-lived craze for floppy clothes and berets’.