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? . . .


  1. I agree completely Peter. I don't know why so many people have such an unrealistic view. You can still be a huge fan but not love absolutely everything they did.

  2. Maybe it would be more interesting to compare individual songs from the solo carreers, and many, many songs are worthy of the Beatles catologue, I´d say a good percentage of their solo songs.
    Of course, in the solo carreers each one had to write the whole album, and sing the whole album, so it´s really difficult to compare the Beatles´albuns to the solo carreers albums, but song by song , there are many high standands achivements in Paul´s, John´s and George´s solo carreers . Tahnk you

  3. Excellent point Pablo. Yes I agree that it's better to go song by song. There are many many solo songs that would be worthy of a Beatles album. I just thought of several. And you are absolutely correct that the entire album by a solo Beatle would have to be written and sung alone, as opposed to the ensemble set up they enjoyed when they were a quartet, bouncing ideas off each other and actively collaborating.

  4. I have this argument regularly Peter, particularly with McCartney fans.

    Personally McCartney's last decent album was Band On The Run, there's been bits on others since, but I've always felt that he needed someone in the studio with him saying "That's rubbish Paul."

    Does anyone listen to a Lennon album that was released after Imagine.

    I caught up with the Word Magazine Podcast over the weekend and an excellent listen it was too.

    One point to take you up on is the Beatles 1's and Love etc.

    You're comparison of them to Beatles albums is unfair and misses the point.

    They were essentially an introduction to The Beatles, largely an awareness campaign, a sort of Red and Blue for the relevant decade.

    Serious Music fans will own the albums, they might buy something like Love out of curiosity, the market is different.

    They are for the non serious music fan, 70 odd minutes of Beatles is enough for them or alternatively the new generation who will move on to the original albums.

    The Anthology albums were aimed at serious fans and were a collection of different versions and outtakes.

    Music Collecting is obsessive and I have so many bootlegs, collections of outtakes etc that I don't listen to now.

    It doesn't mean that I didn't want to hear them, I did, but I'm not going to reach for them that often which is the nature of that sort of album.

    They did what they were intended to do. Hepworth and Ellen raising the point that no one goes back to them is the nature of the beast, doesn't mean they are bad.

    That area is best served by dvd and Anthology does just that and warrants repeated viewing.

  5. I'll go further in defense of Love - as an avid Beatles fan I adore this album.

    Why? Because after having listened to the originals over and over, your ear stops hearing new things in them. Various things can change this - the remasters were a big deal, but also something as small as hearing them on a new stereo or with better speakers can bring out details or little moments you've missed.

    However, Love was an amazing experience for me. By mixing the songs differently, by pulling pieces out of one and injecting into another, the album did two things for me. It re-invigorated my love of these songs by reviving their unpredictability - I just didn't know, and couldn't sing in my head, what was coming next, so I had to really listen. And by mashing up similar songs in the catalog, they pointed out compositional quirks and themes that even those of us who do focus on the Beatles musically may have missed.

    Is it the best introduction to Beatles music? Maybe not, but for this avid fan, it was as close as you could get to a live concert - the real source material presented slightly differently, but authentically, in a way that made you reconsider what was really driving the songs you know almost too well.

  6. Love is great, if you let the initial anger over remixing untouchable songs go. Eshamov - go see Love in Vegas, you will move the Love cd to even higher heights. For Beatle nuts it is a must see and spiritual event.

  7. To further elaborate on what Pablo and Cyeaiky wrote … In 1966 the group released one album, and Paul and John each just had to come up with 5 songs, George 3, and they wrote one for Ringo. Now look at 1973: they released the albums Band on the Run, Mind Games, Ringo, Living in the Material World, and (yes) Red Rose Speedway. I think you can carve an album that would be close to Revolver quality out of that, though of course it would never have the power to blow people’s minds like they did in ’66-‘68. The solo Beatles would never match the visionary innovation of the “Day in the Life” era, but now with iTunes, etc., we don’t have to buy mediocre albums to enjoy the best of their later work. Fantastic, riveting book, by the way, read it twice. I look forward to devouring the Bowie book.

  8. For goodness sakes people. It is obvious why Beatles albums are better than their solo counterparts. In a solo album the writer has to come up with a full albums worth of songs whereas in the Beatles they had to come up with between a half or third of an album. Take any year after the split and only take the best third of the output of each Beatle , add a Ringo song for good measure and you have a great album. It's not rocket science.

  9. oh and by the way, 'Tomorrow' and 'Some people never know' would grace any Beatles album and are you seriously suggesting Bip Bop is any worse than Wild Honey Pie or Why don't we do it in the Road ?