Sunday, March 27, 2011

Deconstructing the Beatles: Part V, The 'We're Not in Hamburg Anymore' Songs

Today's New York Times travel magazine has a feature called Twist and Stout! which examines the contemporary scene in Hamburg, Germany, the city where the Beatles demonstrated the intestinal fortitude they would need to become world sensations.

In clubs like the Kaiserkeller, which still exists, they gave true meaning to the phrase "the hardest working m(e)n in show business," playing gritty rock and roll for hours on end in the most raucous circumstances imaginable. Today, Hamburg is to Europe what Austin and Seattle are to the U.S. - a veritable hotbed of around-the-clock indie rock. 

But that was then. Starting in 1965, the Beatles turned their attention to expanding what they were capable of producing both sonically and in subject matter, moving further and further away from their original roots. We fans marveled at the newfound complexity of what we were hearing on Rubber Soul and Revolver, and in singles like Eleanor Rigby, Paperback Writer and Rain.

But they left the concert world in August of 1966 (the last official concert, held at San Francisco's Candlestick Park) and became entirely a studio band, adopting a no-holds-barred approach to experimentation. The first single to arrive in the new world order was Strawberry Fields Forever, the first album Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

I would be lying if I said that I reacted to the shift positively - I did not. Although there were flashes of artistry to come that were stunning, I broke with loving them unconditionally about this time. Too much of their output was monotonous or ridiculous and the influence of drugs on their music saddened me. More to the point, it did not speak to me. I still remember the Life magazine interview (June 16, 1967 to be exact) in which Paul McCartney admitted to have used LSD, and spouted off about how we only use one-tenth of our brain. The Age of Innocence was officially over, and at 14, it terrified me.

Decades later, my attitude hasn't changed much. Most of what I love about the Beatles was in the can before they quit the road - fortunately there is so much of that! Reading Here, There and Everywhere, the memoir by their engineer Geoff Emerick, last year, it was easy to see what they were doing. They were amusing themselves; it was all pure whimsy. Once their egos began to clash and it was clear they were coming apart, I truly believe we were lucky to get anything good. But there were exceptions, where the music was original AND a pleasure to listen to. Leaving aside songs like Let It Be, which I think could have been written on either end of the timeline, the ones I will never forget follow. 

Estivator's Picks for Best 'We're Not In Hamburg Anymore' Songs

A Day in the Life
Side two of Abbey Road plus Oh! Darling and I Want You (She's So Heavy) on side one
While My Guitar Gently Weeps 

1 comment:

Holly A Hughes said...

Interesting. I didn't mind the shift -- but then I was stuck in the Midwest where they rarely toured and I'd never had a chance to see them live. I loved the idea of them in the studio getting geeky with all the tools in their paintbox. I wasn't even a druggie, nowhere close, and yet I totally responded to the mind-expanding stuff. I liked it on a visceral level, same as I liked the "raw nerve" songs you wrote about so well above.

But back then, nobody was allowed to have no opinion on this -- the Beatles were just too central to the youth culture. Even today, you make a casual reference to an obscure Beatle track and everybody over a certain age gets it. What other band has so many of its back tracks regularly played on the radio?

I'm amazed when I realize that certain major songs -- "Michelle" and "Blackbird" for example -- were never released as singles, and yet everybody knows them as if they were Top Ten hits.

The impact they had still amazes me. Thanks for sparking this discussion.