Rock 101

The Beatles: Recording Sessions, subtitled “The Official Abbey Road Studio Session Notes, 1962-1970,” by Beatlesologist Mark Lewisohn, was published nearly ten years ago to practically no fanfare. The book, a painstaking journey through almost every take the group ever recorded, chronicles the band from their first venture inside the studio to play for George Martin in early June 1962 to the unhappy remixing of the last Let It Be tracks just shy of eight years later. Lewisohn is the ultimate Beatles fan, and such devotion to minutiae is somewhat off-putting. But at some point the uniqueness of the book struck me; no comparable document exists for artists of similar stature in any other medium. There’s no similar accounting of Shakespeare’s drafts, no guide to every scrap of music Mozart wrote or tapes of him playing each of his pieces; nor, in more recent times, does there exist an analysis of every frame of film shot by Griffith, say, or even Bergman. What can match this meticulous account of the evolution of inspiration?

Anthology 2, the second two-CD collection of Beatles archival material, delivers what volume one didn’t: a convincing account of the basis for the band’s utter musical and technological domination of pop music for a key period in the mid-60s and of course its reputation in the years since. It’s the (necessarily incomplete) sound track to Lewisohn’s book, and indeed, he supplies the liner notes. This record’s centerpiece is not “Real Love,” the three surviving members’ second ghoulish tampering with a work tape from John Lennon’s late solo career. Rather it’s the leadoff tracks of the set’s second disc. Here we hear the development of Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields Forever,” from a cautiously plucked acoustic demo to a variant of its crushing final electronic version. We revel in massive constructions like “Strawberry Fields,” “A Day in the Life,” and “I Am the Walrus” for the way they balance tensions, first between the songs’ studied lyrical surrealism and their intimations of humanity (in “Strawberry Fields,” the insistence of Lennon’s vocals; in “I Am the Walrus,” emotional moments like the “I’m crying” refrain bubbling up through the “yellow matter custards” and “semolina pilchards”), and second between the gentle acoustic feel of certain instruments and the reverberating electronics of others. The result is something inhuman and alive, real and hyperreal all at once.

Since it is the technology that allowed the artists to construct those tensions (indeed, it’s the technology itself that intrudes to give them force), by virtue of the time and place, and with of course the added benefit of their popularity, the Beatles were groundbreakers in a way that later creative bands couldn’t be. As they proceeded they were creating a syllabus, so to speak, for a class on modern record construction. Some songs on Anthology 2 are of course incidental (a variant version of “It’s Only Love”), others trifling (a different arrangement of “Your Mother Should Know”). What officially unreleased material the set offers is uninteresting (a couple minor Lennon-McCartney compositions and an instrumental snoozer called “12-Bar Original”). It’s also important to remember that a lot of the group’s innovation came from songwriting advances that had nothing to do with technology per se. All that said, the set still makes it clear that something new was happening in early 1966. Lewisohn notes, almost in passing, that the band had worked “nearly every day for five years” (this is probably not hyperbole: another Lewisohn book is a day-by-day accounting of the band’s career) before taking three months off. The quartet returned to the studio in April, and during the first two days of sessions they recorded the epochal “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Over the next 18 months (Anthology 2 takes us through the Sgt. Pepper and Magical Mystery Tour sessions) almost everything the group did was something that no one else had done before–everything from new ways of using strings and the new generation of keyboard instruments to the adventurous recording of traditional instruments, singers’ voices, and diverse found sounds (snatches of conversation, counting, alarm clocks, animal noises), all put to the service not of avant-gardism but of impeccable pop.

Occasionally Lennon, McCartney, and producer Martin were brought down by their fellows. George Harrison is represented here by an alternate version of “Taxman,” in which he is not grateful for being born in a country that allowed a complete dweeb like himself to be a millionaire and having to drive away weeping girls with a stick at the age of 25. Still, one is finally left with a sense of something like respect for a band that rigorously innovated while enjoying a level of popularity that should have prevented it. What comes through again and again is the band’s unerring taste. They were helped a great deal by Martin, and taste is perhaps not the word to use for a song like “I Am the Walrus.” However dazzling each track here is, the finished version has more weight, more gravitas, more balance and truth. What they made and how they did it was different from what came before, and, as teen idols come and garage bands go, remains persuasive and dominant to this day. It’s called rock.