Here Comes The Sun-Gods
The Apollonian Spirit Of The Beatles – 1965-1970
It was Nietzsche who first postulated the theory of Apollonian art. He used the term because Apollo, as the sun-god, represents light, clarity, and form - elements he considered essential in the creation of art. And the Beatles were a four-headed Apollo that lit the world with lyrical clarity and melodic form. Of course Nietzsche was also a fan of Dionysus, the wine-god, who represents drunkenness and ecstasy - and Friedrich would probably have enjoyed being exiled on Main Street with the Stones! But in the century's battle between the Apollonian and the Dionysian forces in mankind... between good and evil... between the Beatles and Stones - ultimately it has been the Beatles' joyful exuberance at the sunlit uplands of life itself that has most profoundly captured the human heart.
At the time of its unfolding, the Beatles story seemed like one glorious continuum. But viewed with 40 years of hindsight – three distinct acts in their improbable journey into mankind’s heart are apparent. From the fabled Saturday afternoon in July 1957 (when the teenaged Lennon and McCartney first met and became instant musical blood brothers) to December 1961 was the First Act. These were years of evolution from rock ‘n’ roll admirers and skiffle copyists to nascent self-contained pop group. From January 1962 to October 1965 – their Second Act revealed a gift for buoyant reinvention of popular music and a giddy optimism that rejuvenated a world reeling from the JFK assassination. They turbo-charged us out of the Eisenhower-gray shrouded 1950’s into the translucent multi-colored, multi-cultured 1960’s.
But it was their Third Act from October 1965 to the summit point of October 1969 (when their last recorded work “Abbey Road” was released) that immortalized them. The toil of the early years… the promise of their middle era… all came to a fruition beyond the wildest imagination in that glorious four-year finale. If there was a piece of music that could convey those last Fab Four years it would be the orchestral crescendo that concludes their masterwork “A Day In The Life.” The Beatles swept themselves and the world along a gathering tide of musical invention that swooshed inevitably towards a grand climax of majestic proportions and the satisfying resolution of that definitive last chord.
The unfortunate postscript of 1970, when the dream truly was over, revealed the human foibles behind our musical gods. They broke up, they sued each other, they acted like…. well like us. Like any family - with all the petty squabbles that sometimes overshadow the deeper bonds of love that bind. And that was a disappointment only by contrast to what had preceded it. In retrospect, while the manner of their dissolution was regrettable (a pink-ribbon-wrapped finale and exit would have made a better ending to the fairy tale), at least they exited the stage at their height. Never to have a “Sunset Boulevard” style descent into unbecoming fads (c.f. the Stones go ‘disco’… Elvis goes Vegas… etc etc.) The Beatles as a group left us with as crystalline and perfect a recollection as we hold of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and John F. Kennedy. Forever young...
One of the keys to understanding this immaculate Third Act lies in a meeting that took place in August 1965 in the improbable setting of Bel Air. It was the denouement of a nine-year love affair. From March 1956 when the 15-year-old John Lennon first laid his ears and eyes on Elvis Presley – he wanted to be him. He wanted to be that swaggering, rebellious rock ‘n’ roll star. He gathered fellow-travelers Paul McCartney (in 1957), George Harrison (in 1958) and finally Ringo Starr (in 1962) who shared that passion. Together they synthesized much more than just Elvis. They absorbed rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, soul, folk, country, rockabilly, jazz, swing, Brill Building pop, calypso, blues, dance-band crooning, English music hall, vaudeville – and myriad other shards from the musical universe. But at its heart lay John Lennon’s passion to be like Elvis Presley. Until the fateful day he met him. “Never meet your heroes” is the adage – “they can only disappoint you.” And so it was to be.
For when John Lennon finally met Elvis he discovered the tragically empty façade that Presley had become. The physical obesity had not yet manifested itself – but the sterile vacant cadaver living in ivory tower isolation – divorced from musical invention, devoid of any intellectual curiosity and apparently content to be the pawn of a greedy manager – was in Lennon’s eyes as obese spiritually as Elvis’ body became ten years later. He was a red-neck, reactionary shell of the old Elvis. The fan had hit the shit… And the fan resolved that he would not emulate his former idol. There was now something that Lennon wanted even more than his 1956 wish to be like Elvis. He wanted to be NOT like Elvis. He wanted to be the opposite of Elvis. He didn’t wish to become enslaved to fame. He didn’t wish to stagnate creatively. And he wanted to use such fame as he had for good purposes – not for indolent self-indulgence.
This was an unspoken resolve – but the manifestation was apparent before the year was out. And though Lennon perhaps felt the disappointment about Elvis more keenly than Paul, George and Ringo – the four Beatles were united and resolved in their constant quest and thirst for new directions.
What happened over the next four years was unprecedented in popular music. Until then musical performers - be they soloists or ensembles – did not “progress” creatively. They IMPROVED. They got better at doing essentially the same thing. Sang better, played better, wrote better. But they tended to mine the same basic seam of music they had started in – simply providing a higher standard of entertainment for their fans. In other spheres of the arts – playwrights, poets, film directors might aspire to break new ground. Serious jazz musicians certainly did. But the world of popular music - both before the rock era and in its aftermath - was not predicated on creative advancement and innovation. It was rooted in entertainment that simply became more polished.
The Beatles led the charge in changing that. They were not alone. Other artists took up the standard and joined what became an unnamed but fearless crusade. Dylan, The Who, Jim Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye and many others. But the undoubted leaders in this pioneering movement were the ever-evolving Beatles.
It certainly wasn’t some carefully planned strategy or articulated manifesto. “Gee… rock ‘n’ roll is kind of stagnant as an art form. Wouldn’t it be great if we could distill our collective musical knowledge and undertake a voyage of discovery into uncharted territory and revolutionize popular music? Simultaneously changing the socio-political and cultural landscape of our generation…”
Uh…no. There was no such meeting! (Or if there was – the minutes have alas been misplaced!)
What happened was not the result of calculation. It was the flowering of nascent genius in an era when creativity was prized, when taking risks was championed, when it was de rigueur to seek a fresh sound and canvas for each new recording. Artists prized themselves on trying to break new ground. It was a thirst to offer something exciting. A willingness to experiment and even to risk failure in the quest to create something daring. It was listening to your peers and learning, borrowing (and occasionally stealing!) from them. But that was okay – because they would steal from you too. There was a journey afoot. And you were either on the bus or off the bus.
It is hard now in the present era to fully comprehend both the quantity and the quality of what the Beatles achieved in those 4 short years. Let’s deal with just the sheer quantity first.
We now live in a world where a band can take a week in the studio just to get a drum sound they are happy with. Where a band will take a year or more to eke out ten songs to complete the album. A year or two on the road to promote the album – issuing singles culled from the album. Then 2-3 years off while the band recover from all that first-class travel and hotels and adulation – not to mention the millions they’ve raked in. And eventually the struggle will re-commence to come up with another 10 songs to cobble together a follow-up album.
With a ferocity and pace that would exhaust today’s youngsters, in an era before computers and 64-track recording – in just an eighteen-month period the Beatles wrote, arranged and recorded “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver” and “Sgt Pepper” – the trio of albums that are perhaps their crowning glory. “Rubber Soul” a collection of songs bathed in warm optimism. “Revolver” sharply-edged and acutely bright. “Sgt Pepper” suffused in Edwardian imagery, British to the core yet glorying in the day-glo intensity of 1967. Oh and at the same time - they toured the world, recorded a few ‘throwaway’ singles not on the albums (such as “Strawberry Fields Forever” “Penny Lane” “We Can Work it Out” “Paperback Writer” “All You Need Is Love”) came up with the forerunner of the music video (and filmed several of them), wrote songs that they gave away to other artists, wrote books (John), film scores (Paul), pioneered what became the western interest in world music (George) and re-invented rock drumming (Ringo) etc etc. Exhausted yet?
And that just addresses the quantity. What is even more astonishing is that each of those three albums broke considerable new ground. There were quantum leaps in artistic imagination from album to album. Melodies became more inventive. Harmonies defied all known rules, rhythms and time signatures became complex, lyrics became insightful and addressed serious topics never before tackled in popular music. Did I mention that their album jackets were becoming inventive artworks rather than being mere packaging?
Was this creativity undertaken while they were ethereal artists tucked away in splendid isolation in the proverbial cottage in the country? No, the muse struck them while they were in the eye of the biggest entertainment hurricane to ever strike the planet. And without a whimper or moan about the stress and strain. They just did it.
In summation – pop became rock. What was mere entertainment became a respected Art form. And most unlikely of all – they took their original fans with them on this exhilarating journey into the unknown. And gathered new ones on the journey. The Beatles had the gift of making innovation and experimentation accessible – without compromise. We reveled in the freshness. We didn’t yearn for more of the same. We became accustomed to the fact there would always be something fresh, new and inventive from the Beatles because it had become their creed – their pride to reinvent the form rather than rely on familiarity and complacency. For once there was no divide between critic and consumer.
“Magical Mystery Tour,” “The Beatles” (aka “The White Album”) and “Abbey Road” followed. The well-intended but misfired “Get Back” sessions that preceded the recording of “Abbey Road” (and eventually became the posthumous “Let It Be” release) was the only mis-step in the path to The End. And the only Beatles musical project to misfire was like the finest hour of ordinary artists – so theirs was no disgrace.
The Beatles did not accomplish this journey alone. The four-headed messiah that lifted the spirits of the century had the good fortune and perhaps providence – to have been served by Three Wise Men. Sir George Martin was that most rare and wise of producers. Unlike the vast majority of producers who felt the need to impose their own style and life-lessons on their artists – Sir George was like an enlightened teacher who instinctively understood that his role was to nurture his young charges and encourage their growth. It was the tending of a patient, intuitive gardener that enabled the Beatles’ full creativity to flower and yield its abundant fruits.
Derek Taylor worked for Brian Epstein as an assistant and press officer in the seminal year of 1964 – and was then summonsed to return by the lads in 1968 to preside over their publicity in the crucial Apple years. Taylor (who in full disclosure I must declare was my boss and mentor in the early 1970’s and a good friend thereafter) was as remarkable as George Martin in the music world. Urbane, literate, witty, sophisticated and attuned to the counter-cultural zeitgeist – he fulfilled a vital role in what has become the lasting legacy of the Beatles. It was Taylor who stitched together the disparate threads of the Beatles creative output – and presented it to the world as a whole cloth… a philosophical view of the world. Though their earlier songs had been innocent love songs for the most part – uninformed by the later ponderings on life’s more substantive issues – it was Taylor’s genius to recognize that nonetheless all the songs (naïve period as well as latter-day) sprang from the same wellspring of optimism. He identified the seam of positivety that ran throughout their canon – and having identified it – he wove it into the Bayeux tapestry of their story – so that his perception became our lasting reality.
Lastly – and most importantly – the third key figure was their manager Brian Epstein. Without their talent – he could have done nothing. But conversely – without his vision, passion, tenacity, taste, and unconditional love for them – the Beatles today probably have been the seventh most popular lounge act on the cruise ship ‘n’ cabaret circuit. No disrespect whatsoever to their gargantuan talent. But three of them had been toiling together since 1958. There were over 300 “beat groups” in Liverpool alone when Epstein happened on the Beatles. They were clearly the best. But in the narrow-minded, anti-youth, anti-provincial world of early 60’s Britain they could not have been arrested – still less recorded or placed on TV without his persistence in pursuing a record contract – and wisdom in sugar-coating their stage appearance for TV producers with sartorial elegance and those oh-so sweet synchronized bows.
His brilliance in securing them their three consecutive Ed Sullivan Show appearances and the promotional commitment of Capitol Records in the US (after the label had rejected them FOUR times) is alone testament to his achievements. His greatest legacy though was the fact that when the Beatles started their musical journey into the unknown (that could have been disastrous to Epstein’s personal finances if the teen fans had rejected the new music) – Epstein took a position then unknown in artist management. Unlike the Colonel Tom Parkers who populated talent management in that era (“don’t change the formula – stick to doing the type of songs the kids like”) Epstein positively embraced their aspirations and took pride in their growth. If it had negatively impacted his earnings he would have cared not a whit.
His tragically early death in August 1967 (ruled an accidental overdose) spelled the end for the Beatles. “When Brian died I knew we’d had it” said John. And he was right. For while the Beatles were the talent and the godhead – Epstein was the glue that held the four independent spirits together. The fact that Epstein is still not in the Non-Performers section of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame (alongside the many other deserving souls who have been inducted) borders on criminal negligence. Over 25,000 signatures on the www.BrianEpstein.com website to date respectfully calling for this oversight to be remedied have so far been ignored.
So that is what the Beatles gave to their universe. An incandescent shining moment that lasted in real time from 1963 till 1970. But then – in rare defiance of the laws of celebrity physics – they have stayed ascendant. Unlike most entertainers who eventually slip into a lower profile - offset by the occasional revival – the Beatles star continues to burn bright. That is because the music of the Beatles was not ultimately ABOUT the 1960’s. It was born DURING the 1960’s and it reflected, illuminated and galvanized those years. But the music itself was, and remains, timeless. Like all great art - be it Beethoven or Shakespeare, Cole Porter or Van Gogh – what the Beatles created was art that engaged with the noblest part of the human spirit. The part that yearns to make itself and the world a better place. We are all the richer for that spirit… They were the Sun-Gods. They came. They sang. They conquered. And in the end - the love they gave was equal to the world they saved…
~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Humorist-producer-radio host Martin Lewis has been involved in Beatles-related projects since 1967 when (while just a 14-year-old schoolboy) he was commissioned to compile the discography for the official biography of The Beatles. Among his many Beatles-related credentials: He was a consultant on the Beatles' "Anthology" and "Live At The BBC" projects; he was Producer of the DVD Edition of "A Hard Day's Night"; Associate Producer of the "Beatles on Ed Sullivan" DVDs; he instigated and produced 2004's "The Fab Forty!" celebrations of the Beatles' first US visit. He is a protégé of former Beatles publicist Derek Taylor for whom he worked in the early 1970's. Lewis currently hosts the daily primetime morning show on Steven Van Zandt's "Underground Garage" channel on Sirius Satellite Radio. He also has several breakfasts in development and a lunch in turnaround...