Monday, 18 April 2011

Why are you so negative?

The full title should be: Why are you so negative about the Beatles' solo albums? Which is something I've read quite a lot in comments on US Amazon, and on random Beatles message boards and websites. You know: "Doggett's book is fine, but he really seems to have a problem with albums by Paul/John/Ringo/George" (delete as appropriate). And the answer to the question is quite simple: it's because I judge them by the same high standards that I would apply to the Beatles.

As I've said before on this blog, You Never Give Me Your Money wasn't a book about the Beatles' solo careers, so the only time I've mentioned the music is when it is relevant to the story I was telling - about the Beatles as an institution, and about how the four of them had to struggle to live in the shadow of what had gone before. So that explains why, for example, when I talk about Ram in the book, I discuss it in terms of what it says about Paul's relationship with John (quite a bit), how John reacted (badly), and what the critics thought of it (generally, they hated it). If you zoom ahead to the acknowledgements at the end of the book, you discover that Ram is one of my all-time favourite albums. But that's not relevant to the narrative of the book, which is why I don't make the case for it in the text.

Having said how much I love Ram, I would have to admit that I don't think it's a perfect album, not by any means. Think about it realistically: song-for-song, is Ram a better album than A Hard Day's Night? Or Revolver? Or Abbey Road? I don't think so. Now, it may be the case that given the choice, I might prefer to play Ram tonight instead of any of those Beatles albums. But that doesn't make it a flawless masterpiece.
Then we can move down the line and say - OK, I love Ram, but what about Red Rose Speedway? Well, I played that in the car the other week, and I enjoyed it, but is it really a great album? Or even a good McCartney album? How many Beatles albums are better than Red Rose Speedway? What's that you say - all of them? You're probably right.

So that's the way I approach these records: just because I'm a fan (and I am, honest), that doesn't mean that I think that everything the Beatles ever did, together or definitely solo, is a work of genius. What's more, it doesn't help anyone if I pretend that all their albums are superb. Just imagine that I was writing a book about the Beatles, and I said, "Then John Lennon issued Wedding Album, a masterpiece; and Ringo followed through with Sentimental Journey, another masterpiece . . ." - fine, until someone actually plays either of those records, and goes, "What????"

I would much rather be honest and say, upfront, that most of the Beatles' solo albums aren't as good - by whatever objective standard you care to mention - as most of the Beatles' records. Most John Lennon records aren't as good as Plastic Ono Band. Most of Paul's don't match up to Ram. Most of George's can't equal All Things Must Pass. And most of Ringo's . . . well, I enjoyed Beaucoups Of Blues and Ringo, and let's leave it there.

Meanwhile, here's a list of albums that I don't think are worthy of the Beatles' collective name: Mind Games, Wild Life, Dark Horse, Goodnight Vienna (and that's only the beginning of the list). But I could guarantee you that if I were to play any of those records right now, I would actively get pleasure from them - partly for nostalgic reasons, partly because I love the people who made them, and partly because there are enough small, idiosyncratic pleasures to be had from listening to those records to make it worth my while. But I would never want to go into print and recommend that newcomers to the Beatles' music start with those records, because they're simply not good enough.

You can call that attitude "negative", if you want; but I prefer to call it "realistic". Now, where did I put that CD of Wild Life? . . .