Sunday, April 7, 2019

Albums of the Imagination: Beatles 70/71

I know what you're thinking, another blog post about an imaginary Beatles album. Hey, we live in troubled times, so why not write about the Fab Four? 

The Beatles recording career unofficially ended over the summer of 1969 as the four of them completed work on Abbey Road. As the latter stage Beatles albums indicate they were all becoming separate individuals with different styles and artistic interests. Their output in 1970 and 1971 highlighted their diverging paths in dramatic ways. They had a lot to say. What if the era could be condensed into a Beatles album?

John's Plastic Ono Band burned all bridges with the past with its spare minimal tracks of stunning anger, sadness, guilt, and faint hope. The follow up Imagine in 1971 was more optimistic in outlook, featuring some of the most beautiful songs of the 20th century.

Paul's eponymous solo debut McCartney featured him on all the instruments. Like John's Plastic Ono Band Paul took a minimal approach, sounding homemade and joyously nonsensical. McCartney's 1971 follow up Ram was more muscular and ambitious in scope, setting the foundations of 70s arena rock.

Yet George had the most to say with All Things Must Pass, a triple record magnum opus. "My Sweet Lord" and "What is Life" would become massive hits.

Ringo's underrated two releases of 1970 Sentimental Journey and Beaucoups of Blues are full of stellar arrangements, ideal comedown records after navigating the heady material of his old band mates. Sentimental Journey could be titled "Ringo Goes Sinatra", while Beaucoups of Blues was compared to Bob Dylan's Nashville Skyline with its country influences (ironically, future Dylan would spend almost a full decade doing Sinatra).

My idea was not to put together a compilation of the familiar hits, but to highlight the Beatles speaking to each other, sometimes past each other. The four of them stayed with and developed ideas as solo artists that preoccupied them as Beatles. The songs were sequenced with that in mind.

Side One

Valentine Day (Paul)
Wah Wah (George)
I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama (John)
Run of the Mill (George)
Well Well Well (John)
Long Haired Lady (Paul)
Without Her (Ringo)

Side Two

What is Life? (George)
Imagine (John)
Too Many People (Paul)
Awaiting on You All (George)
Love (John)
The Backseat of My Car (Paul)
Stardust (Ringo)

So, what if the Beatles had put aside their differences and decided to pool their resources for at least one more album? Titled simply 70/71, the record was an attempt to address the past, present, and future of the band. 

Opening with "Valentine Day" an instrumental from McCartney that begins the record with a low key, but suggestive fragment, a mock overture recalling the subterranean Quarrymen days. "Wah Wah" was written by Harrison on the day he walked out of the Let it Be sessions out of frustration. George needles John and Paul with lyrics like "You made me such a big star/Being there at the right time/Cheaper than a dime." The high spirited production drowns out the cynical vibe of the lyrics.

Lennon's "I Don't Wanna Be a Soldier Mama"  is a tripped out jam that speaks to his anger at the roles society assigns to people. A parallel to "Working Class Hero"" and the agitprop of his 1972 record Sometime in New York City, the track taps into Lennon's growing activism. George's "Run of the Mill" is one of saddest tracks on All Things Must Pass dealing with the fallout of the Beatles break up, produced with unforgettable horns and piano. John's "Well Well Well" from Plastic Ono Band was another primal scream into the abyss, a screed on the counterculture and establishment's inability to effect change. A fade into Paul's "Long Haired Lady" makes for a nice segue way, with Paul crafting a basic pop song into a theatrical extravaganza. Ringo's "Without Her" is a melancholy country tune that brings side one to a subdued conclusion. 

Harrison's "What is Life" opens side two on a high note. The song was a top ten hit in America and the United Kingdom where it was the top selling single of 1971. "Imagine" is Lennon's most important statement as an artist, extending the idea of the Beatles into a post-Beatles world. Paul's borderline menacing song "Too Many People" from Ram is the type of song Lennon would aim at other people, here Paul appears to question Lennon's self righteousness. "Awaiting on You All" speaks directly to the listener, spiritual, yet grounded in reality. The mantra of the song, "If you open up your heart, you will know what I mean" is pan-spiritual in sentiment.

"Love" is connected to many other Lennon songs, "The Word" and "All You Need Is Love" come to mind. On Plastic Ono Band the song provides a respite from the emotional turmoil on the record and speaks to John's maturity as a songwriter. Paul's "The Backseat of My Car" is an elevated rocker reminiscent of Abbey Road that captures the romance and exhilaration of the road. Ringo's jaunty version of "Stardust" ends the album on a lightly comic note, a call back to "Goodnight" on the White Album, an appropriate Hollywood ending.

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