Would a 1971 Beatles album been their best? #BeatlesWeek

Beatles last photoshoot
Just Imagine…

Imagine, if you will, that John had never met Yoko, that George had been allowed to contribute more than just Something and Here Comes The Sun, that Ringo had more to his canon than novelties like Octopus’s Garden and Yellow Submarine, and that Paul hadn’t felt it necessary to issue the writ that effectively wound-up The Beatles in April 1970 (even though John had actually left some months before, and the band was effectively no more).

Imagine if the greatest band in the history of pop music – which just eight years previously were a bunch of leather-jacketed herberts from Liverpool knocking out rockabilly songs in dingy Reeperbahn bars – had carried on to this day? What if they were still going, like the Stones and The Who, and, indeed, like McCartney himself?

It is, of course, an academic discussion. When The Beatles officially broke up much of the magic that had been forged by the not-as-chance-as-you-think meeting of Lennon and McCartney at that Woolton church fête in 1957 had long gone. The common assumption is that the rot – resentment, envy, drugs – had set in and life amongst the former chirpsome mop-tops was decidedly sour.

The reality, however, is somewhat different. What complicates things is the chronology: Abbey Road was the final Beatles album to be recorded, but Let It Be was actually the last to be released (in May 1970). While Let It Be was recorded amid a somewhat strained atmosphere of casual drug use and Lennon becoming increasingly detached due to his being besotted by Yoko Ono, Abbey Road was recorded in a pretty convivial atmosphere, though many have likened it to a couple’s final fling before a long expected break-up. “Conscious uncoupling” would probably be the modern parlance.

There’s no doubt, however, that The Beatles – as a creative unit – were over when they took to the roof of 3 Savile Row in London for their famous rooftop performance. Even now, watching the film again, there is a decidedly perverse vibe about them, and not just because of the yellow plastic cape Ringo appears to be wearing. It shouldn’t be forgotten, however, that their disintegration was gradual. Along with his addiction to Yoko, John had begun using heroin, worsening his paranoia, his depression, and the causticity and verbal cruelty that was a part of his personality from a very early age (as described in Philip Norman’s definitive biography John Lennon: The Life).

Paul, always the more level-headed of the two, simply became progressively frustrated by the Apple Corps bureaucracy, by aspects of Allen Klein’s management, and by the ever-increasingly complicated finances surrounding the band. Rather than being the Beatle who wanted to end The Beatles, McCartney would have kept the band going.

Conscious uncoupling

Even, though, in those dying days of the Fab Four, there was still a strong sense of the creative bond between John and Paul. There’s was without doubt a fraternal love, one that replicates itself so often in music, be it Jagger and Richards or Albarn and Coxon. In the Abbey Road sessions, Lennon and McCartney would often complete recordings together themselves while Ringo and George were elsewhere. Whatever tore them apart was still holding them together, in music at least.

The ten or seven-year ride of The Beatles – depending on whether you count performance or recording years – were the most extraordinary in British music history, then or since. In that relative blink of an eye, John, Paul, George and Ringo evolved from besuited boys-next door to being responsible for the most remarkable collection of pop music ever written.

So, could it have continued? What if 1970 had never happened, and The Beatles had released another album in 1971? As the posthumous release of Let It Be (Naked) demonstrated, with its stripped-back mixes as they’d originally been intended, The Beatles had come full circle from rock’n’rollers to fully-fledged rock band, laying the trail for the progressive rock era of the next half decade. Which is what makes imagining a post-Beatles Beatles album interesting, especially when you examine the individual creative fervour that produced more than 20 records between them over the next five years.

Tempting as it is to consider McCartney’s output with Wings, as well as Lennon’s gaining strength as one of rock’s elder statesmen, the exercise of imagining what a 13th Beatles album might have sounded like means we really must only consider those albums that appeared sequentially after the band’s breakup. That means ruling out George Harrison’s Indian-influenced 1968 wigout Wonderwall Music and, thankfully, we must rule out Ringo Starr’s Sentimental Journey, the politely regarded collection of standards like Night And Day, Whispering Grass and Have I Told You Lately That I Love You?

By the same token we can rule out Lennon’s Two Virgins (yep, the one with the tackle-out front cover), its equally misjudged 1969 follow-up, Unfinished Music No.2: Life With The Lions, and Wedding Album, which took the notion of the vanity project to a monotonal extreme. Completists might also argue consideration for the Plastic Ono Band’s Live Peace In Toronto 1969 concert album, with its performances of Blue Suede Shoes, Yer Blues and Give Peace A Chance, plus lead guitar work from Eric Clapton. Instant Karma!, Lennon’s full-on, Phil Spector-produced single which became a standout solo hit should be considered, too, but it is still not eligible.

All Things Must Pass

All Things Must Pass

Which means that McCartney’s McCartney was probably the first album a Beatle would release after the ink had dried on the cessation papers. However, in consideration, McCartney highlights the dichotomy at the heart of The Beatles’ demise. Because in being, essentially, a collection of improvisations, jams and other works-in-progress (all played by McCartney himself) with Maybe I’m Amazed and Every Night the only two songs that feel fully-formed – it underscores the uneven power that seemed to exist within the band, with McCartney increasingly regarded as defacto leader and chief creative (a problem that would befall many a band – Brian Jones and the Stones, Roger Waters and Pink Floyd, Peter Gabriel in his latter stages in Genesis).

This explains George Harrison’s All Things Must Pass. Quite simply, the most complete post-Beatles album. Unlike McCartney’ seemingly semi-formed songs (and Ringo’s second stab at sentimentality, September 1970’s country-tinged Beaucoups of Blues which continued to perpetuate the belief that he was clown prince Beatle…), the triple-disc All Things Must Pass was an unleashing of Harrison’s songwriting, that more than being just The Beatles’ shy lead guitarist, he had in his pocket big, brash songs like Wah-Wah, the happy-clappy campfire singalong of My Sweet Lord as well as Isn’t It A Pity, replete with quintessential Beatle chord changes.

Built up over the course of 1968, 1969 and 1970, All Things Must Pass brought Harrison and Clapton closer (and Clapton closer to Harrison’s wife, Patti Boyd) via stonking blues jams like Plug Me In and Out Of The Blue, which owed plenty to Clapton’s Cream experience. The album also drew on Harrison’s expanding circle of musical friends, draftees from the emerging blues-folk-country rock scene like Delaney & Bonnie and the core of what became Derek and the Dominos, plus Ringo, Bob Dylan and Billy Preston (who provided the keyboards on the Let It Be album). A 19-year-old Phil Collins also played congas on one track, a handful of years since being cut out the A Hard Day’s Night movie while a child actor.

None of the post-Fab albums appeared haphazardly. All had record company scheduling, and band politics behind them. Which is probably why the John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band album was released just 12 days after Harrison’s. It can certainly be considered an equal to All Things Must Pass in terms of its impact, if not the uniformity of its writing quality. It is a raw album, influenced by the depths of Lennon’s history, the experiences of The Beatles, from his bouts with depression and attempts at therapies to deal with it. From the off, Mother digs deep painfully into Lennon’s childhood abandonment, his father Alf’s absence and his mother Julia’s separation from her son and eventual premature death in a car accident (which he returns to with My Mummy’s Dead). Working Class Hero is still one of the finest songs Lennon ever wrote.

One album further on, Imagine would provide Lennon with, arguably, his most iconic songs. But on John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, Love – a song of devastatingly beautiful simplicity, featuring Lennon on guitar and vocals and Phil Spector on piano – highlighted Lennon’s unashamedly, softer emotional underbelly, contrasting the sandpaper-rough cynicism that pervaded so much of his younger personality. That is never far away, however, and resurfaces unequivocally on God, with its “…don’t believe in Beatles” and “the dream is over – what can I say?” declaring, bitterly, the end of the greatest ride in the history of pop.

Greater minds than mine have over-rotated on The Beatles as a band, as individuals, as a collection of individuals in a band, as brothers, as enemies, trying to figure out whether they were the world’s happiest musical accident. Lennon’s churchyard encounter with McCartney was not exactly the accident it is often painted as being; Ringo left Rory Storm & The Hurricanes for The Beatles simply because it was a better paying gig. If any of this was pre-ordained, I’ll leave to others to figure out. Whatever contrived to put these four together, they created – and continue to give – a musical legacy of supernatural brilliance, one that surpasses, still, almost all – actually, all – of their rivals.

1971 – The Beatles release their follow-up to 1970’s Abbey Road, with a double album, Got Back. On the cover is the band walking across the Abbey Road zebra crossing towards the EMI studios.

SIDE 1

Maybe I’m Amazed – McCartney is often derided for his over-sentimentality. Here he proved that he could rock out as a vocalist as well as being The Beatles’ most soulful member, especially with his piano work. One of his very best, and lyrically honest and far from the McCartney accused by Lennon of “hiding in the spotlight”.

Art Of Dying – horns, Eric Clapton on lead guitar, and the sort of live sound that The Beatles would have loved to have played live…had they still been playing live that is – this is George Harrison letting himself off the leash with an expansive piece of of-its-time rock.

I Found Out – Lennon’s sequel to Come Together, and sonically, its twin, I Found Out rocks along with the grungiest of guitar as it spits at organised religion – including, notably, the Indian mysticism and gurus that Harrison had become ingratiated with. It would have been a lyrically contentious inclusion…

Oo You – McCartney gets all Led Zepp with a rifftastic half-jam, which most of the stuff on McCartney seemed to be. Isolated, Oo You feels like another hangover from the Let It Be sessions.

I’d Have You Anytime – Harrison, more than any of the other Beatles, embraced the blues more forthrightly, an influence that manifested itself strongest on Let It Be. Here it re-emerges with the deftest of touches.

SIDE 2

Every Night – McCartney’s warmth as a truly unique melodicist shines through in stark contrast to Lennon’s more lugubrious fare.

Love – a song of devastatingly beautiful simplicity, featuring Lennon on guitar and vocals and Phil Spector on piano – highlighted Lennon’s unashamedly, softer emotional underbelly, in contrast to his more caustic tendencies.

My Sweet Lord – its provenance contested (Harrison was found to have ripped off The Chiffons’ He’s So Fine, although he admits to have borrowed from Oh Happy Day), this is George at his most quintessentially hippy-dippy spiritual. A classic by any measure, even if not the most original…

Wah-Wah – in my honest opinion, the ultimate Beatles song-never-recorded. Big, brash and covering every inch of soundscape, with horns and slide guitars and a vocal Lennon would have loved to have put his nasal tones to.

SIDE 3

Working Class Hero – perhaps hard to countenance on a Beatles album, especially as the first track on Side 3, but why not? Stark and without any more accompaniment than an acoustic guitar, Lennon becomes a Liverpudlian Woody Guthrie, addressing class distinction and his own history with the bitterest of taints. An interesting contrast, perhaps, to the more obvious examples of the Fabs’ “peace’n’love” sentiment.

Loser’s Lounge – the great comedian Bill Hicks once hissed: “Don’t tell me The Beatles didn’t do drugs – they even let Ringo sing a few tunes!”. It’s the accepted fact that Ringo’s turns in front of the microphone as a Beatle were largely tongue-in-cheek novelties, thanks to his somewhat shaky singing voice and the comic persona that built up around his appearance in the Beatle movies. This is probably the best from the country album Beaucoups of Blues, with the strict brief of supplying some light relief.

All Things Must Pass – the title track of Harrison’s monster solo album, as a Beatle record this would have the same anthemic quality as a Hey Jude, even if represents a settling of the guitarist’s account with the band that took the world by storm.

SIDE 4

Momma Miss America – McCartney’s relative absence as a songwriter on this hypothetical album is due largely to the paucity of finished product on his McCartney album. This bluesy instrumental demonstrates the work-in-progress of that record, but also suggests the sort of cohesion the four Beatles still had in the studio, even in the band’s death throes.

What Is Life – the last word on this Beatles album goes to George Harrison. All Things Must Pass was the most rounded of all the immediate post-Beatles releases, bringing to the fore Harrison’s confidence as a songwriter – hinted at by the sheer magnificence of Something. What Is Life is that confidence writ large, with its big, gospel feel and a phalanx of studio talent (including Clapton) populating every spare square inch of sound.

Isn’t It A Pity – at seven minutes long, the perfect Side 4 outro and an exquisite Harrison composition, one which serves to prove that McCartney didn’t own the monopoly in The Beatles on melody or, for that matter, Lennon owning the monopoly on acerbic lyric writing. A sad reflection on life as a Beatle, even though its origins date back to 1966, and it could even have appeared on Sgt. Pepper, the band’s undisputed creative zenith.

By Ashley | August 11th, 2014





AshleyWould a 1971 Beatles album been their best? #BeatlesWeek
  • Scott Murray

    Loved your article, I often try to imagine what a 1971 Beatles album might have been like… Curious, why only four songs per album side?