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The Beatles at 60: In times of trouble, listening to their music is like returning to the Bible | The Independent

The Beatles at 60: In times of trouble, listening to their music is like returning to the Bible | The Independent

The Beatles at 60: In times of trouble, listening to their music is like returning to the Bible | The Independent
April 02
10:06 2020

The Beatles formed nearer in time to the Spanish Flu (1918 -1920) than our current Covid-19 pandemic. This year is the 60th anniversary of the band’s formation but, weirdly in some ways, I’m listening to their music now more than ever.

As the Arts continues to be affected by Covid-19 – festivals cancelled, shows postponed, releases pushed back – the one thing we have some control over is what we listen to, read or watch at home. Music, as we all know, can affect our mood in multivalent ways. We can find relief and solace in music, as humans have always done. We can’t travel very far but we can travel in mind via song. Our grief at this time will take different shapes and so our music will too.

Right now, on this strange ghost ship we find ourselves in, music can be a temporary raft of connection. When I’m missing my friends, I’m listening to “212” by Azealia Banks, because I can picture them dancing to it at a house party a few years ago. When I’m sad because I don’t know when I’ll be able to hug my Dad again, I put on “Lovely Day” by Bill Withers. But I keep returning to The Beatles and, specifically, “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”.

I haven’t really listened to The Beatles for years, decades, even. While writing about music in my twenties, I was thirsty for tracks that did “something new”. I wanted novel sounds and techniques; music that stood apart in originality and invention. If it didn’t do that, I wasn’t interested. So I shelved The Beatles away and deemed them irrelevant.

But now, the world has changed. We are in the dystopian future most expected to take slightly longer to arrive, if at all. I need something cooling, soothing and familiar and The Beatles are fulfilling this for a few reasons.

First, for the reason my three-year-old will allow me to play it: the strength of melody and the rhythmic charge. There is a kinetic immediacy to the songs. They pull you in with percussion, hooks and key changes that appear like a rainbow. “Live now, this moment,” said John Lennon, and the songs are like that. Immediately uplifting, sunny, good-time tunes written, mostly, by two friends in close, creative collaboration. The songs are blithe, optimistic, buoyant: anything that transmits cheer is a necessity at the moment. “Culture? it’s not culture, it’s a good laugh,” as Paul McCartney said.

Second, and I’m sure this is common, The Beatles feel familiar because I first loved their music in childhood. When everything feels overwhelming and strange, ”Sgt Pepper“ is a kind of sonic womb. It reminds me of safer, more certain times, typing out the lyrics to ”Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds“ on my red typewriter on a summer evening when I was eight or nine.

But I wonder if there is another reason I’m turning to Sgt Pepper, the album where the band experimented with tape-echo, varispeed, dissonance, sound-effects and ideas borrowed from avant-garden composers such as Stockhausen. It’s familiar, but it’s also a strange, kaleidoscopic world, one that resonates today.

Paul McCartney, left, with John Lennon, Ringo Starr and George Harrison, 1963

Take ”A Day in the Life“. For a start, the lyrics are about ways of seeing, perception, the processing of information. The music is organised like a collage, lurching from act to act, before resolving the orchestral dissonance with that E major piano chord at the end played on multiple instruments (let us hope for the resolving chord soon). Even though I know it well, it can be quite vertiginous and surprising. The ”Woke up, fell out of bed“ section is like an alarm clock in itself, mirroring life going on as normal now, as best it can, within the confines of our homes. The comb. The cup. Alas, no bus.

For The Beatles are more than just their songs. They bookend the social and psychological world that ended in the 1950s and has ramped up since the 1960s. It wasn’t just The Beatles that began in 1960 – it was the new world, our modern world of freedom, convenience, consumerism, technology, secularism, individualism and materialism, which has gone on much the same, for many of us, until the last few weeks. Because of their timing, The Beatles are, to use the concept coined by the environmental philosopher Timothy Morton, almost a kind of hyper-object: so vast, dendritic and entwined with our evolution of the past half century. It’s like returning to the Bible. Or eggs and soldiers.

In Sgt Pepper, you can hear the dramatisation of what the late, great Beatles scholar Ian MacDonald called ”this generational yearning for a spiritual life beyond the banality of the material one“ in the sky and celestial imagery. You can hear that hippy ideology of community and togetherness, which we’re all needing right now, as the cracks in our atomised society are showing, in ”When I’m 64“ and ”With a Little Help From My Friends“. And you can dance to the title track in your kitchen, while making the sixth cup of tea of the day, which might relieve a little tension, as it has done for people now for decades.

Source: The Beatles at 60: In times of trouble, listening to their music is like returning to the Bible | The Independent

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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