The early Beatle material is not hard to adore. There is a puppy like quality about the albums from Please Please Me to Beatles for Sale which has a surprising endurance, surprising given the pop core of the songs. These albums are collections of singles plus fillers, which was standard industry practice: check out the Elvis albums of a similar vintage, mostly soundtrack albums for his increasingly bad movies, and you’ll find very little noteworthy except the singles. The Beatles soundtracks are symphonic by comparison, even the rather contrived A Hard Days Night which has the largest allotment of fillers of any Beatles album (even then those songs are of a quality that makes Elvis look distinctly amateur, or ruthlessly professional, depending on the way you want to look at these things). The early Beatles material is music that still sounds good on the radio, and I have no doubt it must have done the business in 1963.
The mid sixties saw the growth of a musical vocabulary, of technical capabilities, and of commercial ambition: all of which can be seen on Help, Rubber Soul, and Revolver. Most of the songs on these three albums are about that process of growth, sometimes in slightly immature forms, but those albums all project an adult audience. In industry terms this was revolutionary, expanding the market from the teenagers (who had set the tone of releases from “Heartbreak Hotel” to “Do Wah Diddy”) to adults who had real, profitable, discretionary income. The later material is a glorious smorgasbord of music, so particular and engaging that I am somewhat abashed by the terms in which I wish to describe it. There’s been a recent surge in quaintly messianic Beatles nostalgia regarding the fortieth anniversary of the release of Sgt. Peppers which has a hagiographic tone and though I can’t bear that sort of unproblematic adulation I know that I could only offer something pathetically similar regarding the late Beatles period. This is the nature of adoration; this is the simplicity and complexity of love. Love, the album, inspires none of this. It is cute, it is clever, it is pleasant but I cannot love it. I think, perhaps, that this reveals something of the limitations of my critical faculties.
I’ve spent the last several weeks assembling a mighty, but incomplete, collection of tracks by The Band. I started with a five disc set of outtakes and live tracks I downloaded via bit torrent. From there I sought out the commercial releases, live and studio recordings plus a best of. From there I went to bootlegs of live shows in the early seventies, and I even found a couple of sad tracks released by Richard Manuel in the eighties. I am presently seeking out the solo works by Robbie Robertson and Levon Helm. I don’t believe that there is inherent merit in this kind of collection. I could have loved the low tech Americana of The Band by buying a greatest hits collection but instead I have done something quite different. I have excavated the ground surrounding the artefact (in this case the artefact was on the Bob Dylan thirtieth anniversary concert album, to which The Band contribute another wonderful version of “When I Paint My Masterpiece”) and attempted to understand it by addressing all that surrounds it. This is archaeology, possibly of a banal kind, but the methodology is roughly equivalent.
I can’t write consumer advice, bubbling with enthusiasm on the basis of newness; communicating the lucidity of a first impression. My dispatches are tools of limited application. For good or ill, I write as an historian, attempting to locate the contexts in which the works I discuss are produced, marketed, and consumed. In a retro Marxist sense I am always looking for the superstructure which enables production and consumption, but rarely do I believe that these supporting structures are exclusively economic. The structures are, for me, points of connectivity. For that reason I prioritise the artefact as the instrument of connectivity, rather than the market which is the mechanism for that connectivity. The consequence of this is that when I consume those works I attempt to map the interdependence between works, to establish the locations where something can be articulated because of what was said before, and what was said after. In so doing it can be possible to recognise the courage, the intelligence, the grace, the folly, or the crassness of an artefact. Mapping the interdependence of cultural works is, without doubt, a kind of fetish. There is pleasure and satisfaction in listening to multiple versions of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” attempting to locate the differences and determine what difference they make, but precious little that is communicable.
It is for this reason that I have found little to say about Love. The connections it makes are not subterranean, they are surface. Love is a kind of gloss, a kind of packaging and marketing. It connects to the rest of The Beatles ouvre but only in such a manner as to reprise those connections without the structures that made them meaningful. There is no archaeology to Love, and all I can excavate are the reasons for my disappointment.