Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The top mysteries surrounding The Beatles

Guest post by Marc McDonald

(Ed. note: Let's take a short break from our political coverage, with all the attention today on Michigan and Arizona, and delve into some the best music ever made, including a must-watch video... This is Marc's third guest post at The Reaction. His first, on how Steve Jobs represented much of what's wrong with the U.S. economy today, can be found here. His second, on how Ronald Reagan laid the groundwork for the death of capitalism, can be found here. For more of his writing, check out his great blog, Beggars Can Be Choosers. -- MJWS)


Marc McDonald is a Texas journalist who runs the progressive political blog Beggars Can Be Choosers. 

I've long been a fan of The Beatles. And I've long been fascinated by the topic of unexplained historical mysteries. So for this article, I thought I'd combine the two.

As one of the 20th century's biggest pop cultural phenomena, The Beatles have been endlessly analyzed and discussed in literally thousands of books over the years. But for all the analysis, there remain a few lingering mysteries about this band. And with the passing of the decades, it's unlikely a lot of these mysteries will ever be explained.

So, here, in my opinion, are the top mysteries surrounding The Beatles:

1. What was the origin of the song title "Eleanor Rigby"? Not long after this 1966 song was released, Paul discussed its origins in an interview. The title, he claimed came from two sources. "Eleanor" was the first name of an actress, Eleanor Bron, who'd worked with the band on the film, Help!. And the name "Rigby" came from a shop sign that Paul once spotted in Bristol. And for many years, that was the accepted explanation for the song's title.

Then, in the 1980s, fans discovered the grave of an "Eleanor Rigby" in the graveyard of St. Peter's Parish Church in Liverpool. Rigby, who'd died in 1939, was buried on a site close to where Paul had first met John in 1957. (In fact, as teenagers, both Paul and John had spent time sunbathing near the spot). The grave's discovery was an amazing, spooky coincidence, and Paul has since admitted that the name "Eleanor Rigby" may have stuck in his subconsciousness for years and inspired the title of his 1966 song. But if that's the case, then why in 1966 did Paul give interviews specifically citing other sources for the origin of the song's title? A definitive answer on this mystery remains elusive.

2. When The Beatles recorded their swansong album, Abbey Road in 1969, did they know at the time that it'd be their final studio album? This is a mystery that has long divided Beatles historians. The Beatles themselves in interviews over the years have given contradictory answers to this question---the answer to which has been lost in the haze of time. Note that The Beatles did record a few studio sessions in 1970 to put the finishing touches on the Let It Be album, which (although it was released after Abbey Road) was actually mostly recorded in January 1969, before the summer sessions that produced Abbey Road.

3. What was going on with all those wild and crazy studio sessions in 1967? The year 1967 was a tremendously productive period for The Beatles. The band generated an enormous amount of creativity during the sessions that produced the Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. And yet, if you look at the day-by-day studio logs (as has been noted by Lewisohn), there were a number of truly strange sessions in 1967 that never produced anything other than highly disorganized noise. During a number of these sessions, the band spent many hours doing endless takes of "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," a true oddity of a song. During other sessions, the band aimlessly jammed in lengthy sessions that produced nothing but unlistenable noise (often played on out-of-tune instruments). One of these sessions was on June 1, the very day the Pepper album was released. (One might have thought that after the exhausting marathon Pepper sessions, The Beatles would have taken a break from the studio).

What was going on at these wacky sessions? And what was the point? Why the strange obsession with the throwaway ditty, "You Know My Name?" It's odd how the band's 1967 sessions alternated between the extremes of tightly focused, disciplined sessions and other sessions that were anarchic, sloppy and totally unproductive.

4. What ever happened to The Beatles' infamous lost recording, Carnival of Light? Long considered the holy grail of unreleased Beatles recordings, Carnival of Light was recorded in 1967 during a session in which the band also worked on "Penny Lane." The existence of Carnival was brought to wide public attention in Lewisohn's Recording Sessions book. Supposedly the song is an experimental piece that lasts around 13 minutes. There have been repeated hints over the years that the piece is on the verge of release. But these never pan out. In 1996, Paul McCartney sought to include the piece on the band's "Anthology" set, but the other band members vetoed this decision. Then, in 2008, McCartney indicated that the piece was nearing release, but nothing further has been heard since.

5. Who was behind the cryptic voice that repeated the words, "Number 9," in John Lennon's "Revolution 9," the musique concrete piece that has baffled many a listener of the band's 1968 album, The Beatles (popularly known as "The White Album")? To get the various sounds used in the recording, Lennon and collaborator George Harrison rummaged through the sound effects vaults at Abbey Road studios. The most prominent sound fragment features a voice repeating the phrase, "Number 9." As Beatles author Mark Lewisohn noted in his The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions the identity of that mysterious voice has been lost to history.

6. Why, exactly, did The Beatles break up? Nobody seems to be able to fully agree on why the most popular and successful musical act of the 20th century broke up at the height of their commercial and creative success. Ask any Beatles expert (or member of the band, for that matter) and you'll get conflicting and contradictory answers. Was it because of Yoko? Or was it the usual "musical differences" clash that has driven many bands to split? Was it a desire to simply move on and do something different? Or was it money disputes? A case could be made for any and/or all of these reasons. But the definitive answer remains elusive. 

Whatever the reason for the breakup was, though, it was such a powerful reason that the band remained split forever. To get an idea of just how decisive the band's breakup was, consider this: not only did The Beatles never record together again, it's possible that all four members of the band never even met up once in all the years after 1970. The band's final publicity photos date from August 1969 and not one single photo has ever emerged that show the band members together after 1970. In the years since the split, two or three members would occasionally meet here and there, but never all four together at the same time. Band members collaborated on a few of Ringo's solo albums, but it appears unlikely that all four were ever together in the same spot at the same time. Sometime in August 1969, a photographer snapped a photo of the band, not knowing that this was literally the final photo that would be ever taken of The Beatles together. 

The answer to some of these mysteries may be cleared up in Lewisohn's upcoming official biography of the band, a book that Lewisohn has been working on for decades. This massive work will be released in three volumes, starting in summer 2012. In a recent interview, Lewisohn promised that the book will offer many new revelations and insights. The signs are good that Lewisohn can deliver on this promise. After all, his Recording Sessions book is one of the definitive works on The Beatles and itself was a fascinating source of new insights about the world's most famous band.

One thing Lewisohn's past work has revealed is that The Beatles' story is so rich that, the closer you look at their work, the more fascinating it becomes. It's the total opposite of the old saying, "If you like sausage, you should never watch how it is made." With The Beatles, the closer you look, the more intriguing their story is. Virtually every song has a fascinating behind-the-scenes story. But for all the books written about the band over the decades, Lewisohn has noted that The Beatles' story "has been told often, but rarely very well." Here's hoping that Lewisohn's labors will finally produce a biography worthy of the band. 

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  • I don't know if it'd count as a "mystery" or not. But one of the most unusual things about the Beatles stems from a scene in the movie, "Help," where the lads are all wearing disguises. If you look closely, it's actually a quite extraordinary scene.
    The disguise worn by John looks exactly like the appearance that he adopted in late 1969, with the long, flowing hair, the granny glasses, and the full beard.
    The disguise adopted by Ringo is a dead-ringer for the appearance he had during his later solo career in the mid-1970s. Meanwhile George's appearance looks exactly like he would appear, two years later, in 1967.
    All in all, it's a very unusual scene, which in 1965 showed what the band members would look like in later years.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 10:21 PM  

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