The generally unkind reaction on Twitter to Sir Paul McCartney’s appearance at the Olympic opening ceremony is further evidence that familiarity breeds contempt. McCartney’s dyed hair is reaching a Ronnie Reagan level of ridiculousness and his unrepentantly ‘sixties peace-and-love, man, persona is out of time in the edgy decade of the 21st Century. But, as Paul Gambaccini once remarked, every time Paul McCartney leaves a room the correct reaction is to think “there goes Mozart.” That can never be taken from him.
A post-revolutionary world finds it difficult to imagine life in a pre-revolutionary one. John Lennon said that before Elvis, there was nothing, but he could say that because he was John Lennon. It was like Sinatra saying Tony Bennett was the best crooner in the world. We all know they’re only saying it to be nice.
The Beatles revolutionized music to such a degree that the revolution is now the establishment. Classical music had disappeared up a blind atonal alley by the 1950s and 60s, from which its never fully returned – The Beatles reminded the world that harmony and melody still have a place and, although the classicists themselves would be loathe to admit it, may yet play a play in the return of that high art. Check out Howard Goodall’s excellent discussion of this on You Tube. It’s superb.
Without The Beatles, rock music would have been limited to three chord tricks and twelve bar blues. The Beatles opened it up to a whole new world of depth. Without The Beatles, there could never have been a Bohemian Rhapsody. The Beatles blazed a trail for all to follow.
The Beatles were many bands rolled into one. Magpies who, to borrow a phrase from Mike Scott, heard the Big Music. They looked on all imposters just the same, and drew no distinction between Franz Joseph Hayden and John Lee Hooker, Ravi Shankar and Sir Arthur Sullivan. It all went into the pot.
In five years, The Beatles went on a learning curve from Rubber Soul to Let It Be that is unprecedented in popular music, and will never be matched because that’s not now the music industry works any more. Now, music is made like sausages, in factories.
The rock’n’roll ethos that rejected Tin Pin Alley has itself been consumed by Stargate and Xenomania. Pop has eaten itself. Hit records are made the same way as toasters and tricycles, with ISO 9000s and nothing left to chance. The commercialism is so successful that within six months it’s safe to use the songs in TV ads. The only thing missing is the humanity.
McCartney has never been forgiven for writing anything as good as Yesterday in the past quarter-century. Westlife’s Flying Without Wings isn’t as a good as Yesterday either, but it sold over 200,000 copies in the UK alone. Nobody’s calling for Mark Chapman to shoot them, even though the case can certainly be made.
There’s a movement to intellectualise pop music, not least because the exponents of pop’s golden era, the ‘sixties, are in the autumn of their days and everybody likes to look back on a life and see footprints.
There’s a strange deification of the Beatles that exists outside of the music too, that’s part of the continuing narcissism of that ‘sixties generation. But chances are Freddie Mercury was right when he said that pop songs were like disposable razors – you use them for three minutes, and then you throw them away.
McCartney is still big. It’s the music that got small. Modern music is something that plays in the background while you’re hoovering, and that can be used again to tell you about a great deal on life insurance. But in the centuries to come, when people look back to see peaks of musical achievement in the west, they will see men after whom music was never the same again. Beethoven at the start of the 19th Century, Richard Wagner at the end of it and McCartney in the middle of the 20th. That’s who that hoarse old guy with the funny hair was at Olympic opening ceremony on Friday night.