Yes, he’s at it again. Bloody song of the day.
I have an excuse – I’ve been stimulated by third party provocateurs. You see, I just finished watching a popular music documentary series produced for CNN by Tom Hanks’s Playtone company, which went decade by decade up to the 2000s, with clips and commentary by various famous people, some of whom even knew what they were talking about. I’m a sucker for this sort of retrospective, and the nostalgia that’s always evoked.
One thing that struck me was the way that the talking heads almost invariably wound up concluding that the decade under review was for sure the best. The 80s were the best. No, the 2000s were the best. Nobody had ever heard anything like the stuff in the 90s. Name any form of popular music you like, and the very best example comes from the 70s. Disco was great. Fleetwood Mac was great. Madonna was great. Nirvana was great. Tupac was great, and Biggie Smalls too. Lady Ga Ga is great, and so’s Katy Perry, and Kanye.
Yes, well…there’s great music in every decade, sure enough, and every decade has its peaks. Yet I always find myself drawn back to a time now receding into the distant past, when the very greatest music of its era was not only uniquely plentiful but also the most popular, when every second song you heard really was revolutionary, when the melodies soared, the words were ever more poetic, and the arrangements ever more elegant and complex – when that new thing on the radio really was unlike anything you or anybody had ever heard. This wasn’t the music of my formative years; my time was the Seventies and Eighties, I was still just 15 when Kiss was big, and 22 when Culture Club was huge, and if I was in love with the music that was in the air when I was growing up and paying attention, I’d be waxing eloquent about Convoy, Disco Inferno, Bohemian Rhapsody, My Sharona, Ran So far Away and Saved By Zero. I hated the most popular music of my adolescence and early adulthood, and cast about desperately for an alternative, finding it in the songs of a decade prior, which seemed a long time ago, even then.
Every decade has its high points, but there are peaks, and then there are peaks, you know? For me, one in particular stands out, more than 50 years on. It was in June of 1967, and the occasion was the very first international satellite broadcast, Our World, during which nations from all over the globe were given a few minutes to beam out anything they pleased, anything at all that they thought would convey something interesting or meaningful about themselves. There were just a couple of rules: no heads of state or politicians, and it had to be live, not taped. Other than that, participating countries were told to have at it. Canada’s contribution was an interview with Marshall McLuhan, as befit this first real-world realization of the instantaneous global village. Spain broadcast a segment with Pablo Picasso.
The UK, most famously, offered up its Beatles.
Something between 400 and 700 million viewers (estimates vary widely) were thus ushered in to Abbey Road Studio Two, to see the boys laying down a backing vocal track for a new song soon to be performed live, George Martin and Geoff Emerick in the booth tweaking the knobs (most video clips omit this part of the segment, which is attached in black and white, above). This is a genuine recording session. Once the backing vocal track is laid down, the tape is rewound, the orchestra is ushered in, and the Beatles debut live their brand new song, All You Need is Love, singing and playing over parts that were previously recorded.
Contemporary luminaries such as Donovan, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Keith Moon, Graham Nash and Marianne Faithful are in attendance, sitting cross-legged on the studio floor, as, improbably, the orchestra opens with the familiar strains of the Marseillaise. Then they’re off.
The rollicking, anthemic song for the whole world was written by Lennon, whose mandate was to produce something light on words with a simple message that would be more readily understood by the non-English speakers in the audience. He obliged with the chorus (which was helpfully set out in different languages on sandwich boards that audience members displayed at the end), but being John, he sprinkled the verses with apparent non-sequiturs that have had even the most accomplished English speakers guessing ever since, though to me the message seems quite simple, and consonant with the theme: strive all you want, and imagine yourself accomplishing great things, if that suits you, but you’ll never transcend the bounds of the possible, and really there’s nothing that matters except the love you manage to give and receive while you’re here. There’s nothing you can do that can’t be done, nothing you can sing that can’t be sung. You don’t need the hollow achievements touted by our shallow, materialistic culture. What does it prove? That stuff is an illusion. You’re missing the point. All you really need is love.
People really believed in that sort of thing in those days.
Just look at them sitting there, headphones on, enjoying the hell out of making the record. They’re just coming off the dizzying success of Sgt. Pepper, and they are at that moment, without question, the coolest people alive, with the world at their feet, and everybody listening, everyone at once all over the planet for the very first time.
There’s a small, lovely little interaction near the conclusion, when Paul shouts All to-gether now! Every-body! – he looks over at John, and their eyes meet as both smile at each other, enjoying the moment as they lay down what sounds like a perfect take (though John was typically unsatisfied, and insisted on further overdubs). Endless discord and mutual antagonism were just over the next rise, but at that moment they were still in complete sympathy and perfect harmony, Lennon-McCartney, symbiotic, almost a single being, doing what nobody had ever done before in a manner that would never quite be replicated.
As if aware of the status they’d one day enjoy in the annals of Western music, they had the song close out with interwoven strains of notable works selected from several different eras: Greensleeves, Bach’s Invention No. 8 in F major (the baroque trumpet voiced by David Mason, of Penny Lane fame), In the Mood, and then, cheekily, their own She Loves You, as John inserted the Beatles into the pantheon.
Their best song? Nah. Their finest moment? Absolutely.