People and things that went before

I admit it: except as the other, the opposition to the classical music I loved so well, they were hardly part of my growing up at all. I knew the name was spelled with an 'a', and a friend of mine did succeed in getting me to listen to "Eleanor Rigby", perhaps on the theory that if I heard strings, I might decide I liked it. But it didn't really take. For me, then as now, music means pipe organs and choirs. I didn't think it was fun to be told by the period that I had to be free -- what kind of freedom is that? And are we really better off if there's nothing to get hung up about? I doubted it then, and I doubt it now. So half my life went by. I did graduate work in historical musicology, sang Renaissance music with Richard Taruskin, taught Gregorian chant and Giulio Caccini to Juilliard students. And finally I saw them, during those TV specials in 1995. What did I see?

Stupendous performers they were, rhythmic and relaxed, yet fully concentrated on putting the song over "from us to you," happy, and completely 'in your face,' without the hostility which has become so much a part of our time. In a word, enthused, 'filled with the god,' like no others.

What strange voices they have, curiously buzzy, like bright, small-scale reed stops in a pipe organ, clear, steady, penetrating, well individualized, yet with a perfect and instantaneous blend. The melodies as they sing them are somehow legato and accented at the same time, and they project the occasional 'cheets' and 'sha-la-la's as carefully and as perfectly as the main words.

I was surprised at how little they actually danced around. Of course, a single wag of a mop-cut head was quite sufficient to launch more than a thousand thousand cries of anguished and excited pleasure, so what more did they need? But what really astounded me was that I sensed they were achieving their effects mostly with the music itself, which they seemed to just set in motion and let do its work. How could this be? Everyone 'knows' that people don't really listen to music.

Nonsense! The technicalities of music are rather arcane, and many can't give a learned name to what they hear, but that's not to say people don't hear it. In fact, most of the songs, from the simplicity of 'Love Me Do' through the wizardry of Abbey Road, make superb use of gestures built out of the very most basic possibilities of the musical material. Think of 'Please please me'. Its rhythmic motive begins immediately after the beat, and carries you over into the beats which follow, and there's a gesture which climbs the scale inexorably towards a high note which everyone can hear even if they can't name it. These give the song a forward-driving force which is not only irresistible and unstoppable, it's completely objective, 'hard-wired', woven into the fabric of the piece. It's as strong as Bach, and for the same reason.

How I do love those sudden shifts between major and minor! Sometimes these are blue notes, but not always. 'Can't buy me love' is a textbook example of verses in the minor mode and refrain in the major. 'Hard Day's Night' has just the reverse pattern. Some of the prettiest chords in 'Yesterday' or 'She Loves You' sound the way they do because of an unexpected substitution of the one kind of chord for the other.

Let's face it: rock 'n' roll songs are a miniature form. There is no room for expansion, and, like a good karate chop, you've got to get everything right the first time. Yet the internal contrasts in their songs are as sudden, as breathtaking, and as inevitable in retrospect as Mozart's. Think of the middle section of 'I want to hold your hand', or "You're not the same", from 'I'm looking through you'. Their songs are admirably different from each other in layout, yet they hold together as a body of work because of certain curious aspects of style. Of these I think I am especially fond of the sudden upward leaps, or of the little melismas, many notes on a single syllable, which break out from time to time (for example, "no reply-y-y-y"), and I am absolutely mad about the way the texts often seem to come out in a layered rhythmic scheme, with some phrases set to predominately longer note values, and others coming out in a sudden patter of rapid syllables.

It seems they were not schooled musicians in the conventional sense. What lesson should we draw? Not only that you have to get good advice, and take it, but that in life you don't have to study everything, you have to study something completely. For them, it was American rock 'n' roll, which they learned through recordings, and recordings became their real final product. What was America to them? An imaginary landscape. Think of Sweet Little Sixteen, which lists all those American cities. What did they know of those places, but what did it matter? They were focused instead on elements which survive the process of recording and reproduction, and these are simple, hard, objective elements of composition and performance, for another example, the expert and expressive pitch bending with which Lennon sings "Ain't she sweet." Oh, me oh my, ain't that perfection!

And what do I make of that decade now, a generation later? It remains the principal battleground of our culture wars, highly questionable for me because of the way its devotion to subjectivity led it astray in its search for freedom. They eventually gave way to this subjectivity, especially John Lennon. But the music, the way they put those little, clearly profiled, objective chunks together, makes them immortal. How fortunate for them, and for us, that they had each other, as a force both friendly and critical, to help them keep their songs comprehensible, pithy, and sophisticated. They developed their innate skills with hard work, and protected these skills with an artistic integrity which kept them on their musical path. In this way, they not only completely fulfilled the genre from which they started out, but in their development they also utterly exploded it, and, in so doing, did as much as anyone to articulate that period, even as they were being swallowed up by it.

Yes, the name is spelled with an 'a'. Definitely with an 'A'.

© Thomas Baker

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