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Come together: the collision of culture, chemistry and magic that created the Beatles

Fifty years since the height of their fame, the band’s legacy is more important than ever, writes authorised Beatles biographer Hunter Davies.

Why did Paul Johnson, in his 1964 attack on Bill Deedes for praising the Beatles (see page 23), drag in the fact Deedes was an Old Harrovian? Because he himself went to a minor public school, Stonyhurst? Or because someone who went to Harrow, and presumably could speak fluent Algebra at the age of six, should know better?

And why did he have to attack pop fans for their “cheap confectionery . . . chain-store make-up . . . open, sagging mouths”? All sounds like a sneer to me.

It is interesting that, in lashing out at the Beatles, Johnson has a go at jazz – which the Beatles also hated. In their early years, they had trouble getting bookings at the Cavern Club, a jazz venue, and got only the less popular dates. John Lennon’s own sneer at jazz fans was to describe them as the sort of people who wore Marks & Spencer pullovers.

Johnson was right to point out how our leaders do love tagging on to any popular bandwagon, especially among the young, as Blair and now Cameron still do; but that wasn’t new. A couple of years earlier, in an important speech, Harold Macmillan, not exactly a cool cat, quoted (in fact, half sang) a popular song of the 1930s, “She Didn’t Say Yes” (“she didn’t say ‘yes’, she didn’t say ‘no’; she didn’t say ‘stay’, she didn’t say ‘go’ ”). That showed how in tune the prime minister was with pop culture.

Johnson was also right about Juke Box Jury, presumably one of the TV pop programmes he was lambasting. It ran on BBC TV from 1959 to 1967 – playing records, can you imagine, on a television show. So-called experts voted them a Hit or a Miss. It was appalling, truly awful. Which was why we all loved it.

The thing about popular culture is that liking it, or not liking it, has little to do with brains or intellect, education or social background. It is the backdrop to our lives, influencing us at vital stages, sinking into our souls, usually staying with us for ever.

Johnson, naturally, was being provocative as all opinion columnists have to be, rubbishing stuff that everyone else is drooling about. Which isn’t new, either. Poor old Wordsworth: in 1807, not very long after he and Coleridge had become flavour of the month for their Lyrical Ballads, he got a right good kicking from the Edinburgh Review. “Childish”, “tedious”, “miserable” and “disgusting absurdities” were just some of the reviewer’s insults about his poems. Sharper, pithier insults than any Johnson used about the Beatles. “Apotheosis of inanity” and “bottomless chasm of vacuity” are a bit of a mouthful. Sounds more like 1864 than 1964.

Bill Deedes proved to be spot-on. The Beatles did “herald a cultural movement among the young” that became “part of the history of our time”. No argument there.

One of the strange things about the Beatles phenomenon is that the further we get from them, the bigger and more influential they become. The scruffiest scrap of paper signed by them is worth a fortune. Universities all around the world are studying their work. The 50th-anniversary celebrations this year of their arrival in New York seemed to receive just as much coverage in the United States as the band did back in 1964. Quite recently, there have been two academic books suggesting the Beatles helped bring about the fall of communism. Even I wouldn’t go that far.

But why have they lasted? And where did it all come from? How did they create their songs when they had no musical training and could not read or write music? Since 1964 about 2,000 books, many of them highly academic, have tried to analyse and explain the secret of the Beatles.

Even more mysterious is the question of how, having got started, they suddenly metamorphosed, discarding childish, hackneyed, borrowed forms to blossom into the most admired, most studied, most gifted songwriters of our age. All good artists develop, but in the case of the Beatles the transformation was dramatic. Who would have thought that the minds responsible for the banal lyrics of “Love Me Do” would go on to produce “Eleanor Rigby”?

In defence of Paul Johnson, it has to be said that in February 1964, when he was writing, very few people were praising the Beatles’ lyrics. But raving about their music, by the intellectuals, had already begun.

On 23 December 1963 William Mann, the music critic of the Times, was extolling the “Aeolian cadence” of their songwriting and their ability to “think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes”. The tune Mann had picked on was “Not a Second Time”, one of those that rarely appears today in Beatles fans’ top faves. It had just come out on their second album, With the Beatles.

The big breakthrough in the quality and variety of their songs – music and lyrics – came in 1965 with Rubber Soul. They went on developing and experimenting, introducing us to new sounds and instruments, for the next five years, till they packed up for good in 1970.

It’s often forgotten how long John and Paul had been at it. At the age of 16, they might not have been speaking Greek, but they were already creative, composing their own songs and writing poems and stories. Both had a literary bent, read widely, appreciated good writing, knew exactly what they did like – The Wind in the WillowsAlice in WonderlandTreasure Island – and what they didn’t.

It is also overlooked that John and Paul, along with George, passed the eleven-plus exams, went to very good grammar schools and had a grounding in Eng Lit. The influence of their grammar-school education, and their early reading, emerged as their lyrics progressed and developed.

Of course, no one really knows where words come from. “Songs are like rabbits: they like to come out of their holes when you’re not looking,” said Neil Young. T S Eliot observed that the words in a poem were there merely to “divert” the mind. This is even more the case with lyrics, which often get chosen for their sound, to fit the musical mood, rather than to convey precise meaning.

Paul and John met through music – and for no other reason. They didn’t attend the same school or even live in the same area. In fact, they had never met before Saturday 6 July 1957, when John’s little schoolboy group, the Quarrymen, played at a church fete in Woolton, Liverpool, and Paul was brought along by a mutual acquaintance.

Paul, just turned 15, had his guitar with him, and after watching the Quarrymen perform he was introduced to John, the group’s leader, and proceeded to demonstrate his expertise on the guitar, playing a number called “Twenty Flight Rock”. John was impressed but tried not to show it, of course, being tough, being the boss. He realised that Paul knew more chords and was probably a better guitarist than him, so for a week he pondered whether it would be a good idea to introduce a rival into the group. On reflection, he decided it would and invited Paul to join. A year later, George Harrison, who was at the same school as Paul, a year younger but already as good a guitarist as either of them, was introduced by Paul to John and he, too, became one of the Quarrymen.

And so began the long, hard slog with the world showing no interest in what they were doing – which was begging for humble engagements at parties and village halls and, mostly, John and Paul sitting in Paul’s house with their guitars, head to head, pushing, criticising each other, trying to compose songs. The first and obvious explanation for their musical ability is their family backgrounds. John’s father, Freddie, who went off to sea, had a good singing voice (so he told me, and of course I believed him) and would entertain his friends at get-togethers with a song or two, but he never did it for a living. His own father, also called John Lennon, had toured the States as part of a group of Kentucky minstrels.

John’s mother, Julia, played the banjo, well enough to teach him some basic chords. She also played the accordion, according to her daughter Julia Baird (John’s half-sister), and had a good singing voice but could not read music. Yet John’s aunt Mimi, who brought him up, was so against him playing guitar she made him practise outside in the porch. She appears to have had no interest in music, at least popular music. John refused all music lessons, but he learned to play the mouth organ as a young boy, after a fashion. His uncle George (Mimi’s husband) had given him a cheap one and in 1952 he took it with him on a bus trip to Edinburgh to stay with his aunt Elizabeth, playing it for the entire journey. The driver told him to come back to the bus station the next day – and presented him with a much better one.

Paul had a much stronger musical heritage. His father, Jim, although never a full-time professional musician (he spent most of his working life as a cotton salesman), did have his own little jazz band before the war: Jim Mac’s Band. Paul remembers loving all the family gatherings where his uncles and aunts would sing songs and play instruments. In this, the McCartneys were fairly typical. Many working-class families could boast someone able to play the piano or the fiddle – self-taught, and always on call for an old-fashioned family knees-up.

Jim played the piano and the trumpet (until his teeth went) and the family had instruments in the house, but because he played by ear he felt unable to teach Paul how to play, not knowing the rules and the language. Paul did have a couple of lessons, then gave up. Yet his aptitude was clearly always there, encouraged by Jim, who told him that if he learned the piano he would always be invited to parties.

As for George, neither of his parents seems to have been very musical. His father, a bus conductor, owned a guitar but it appears he didn’t play it while George was growing up. George’s mother, Louise, enjoyed a sing-song and, unlike John’s aunt Mimi, she actively encouraged her son when he joined the Quarrymen, going along to watch them play.

Ringo does not feature as a composer or lyric writer of any Beatles songs apart from “Don’t Pass Me By” and “Octopus’s Garden”, and his family background appears to have been totally non-musical. In 1967, I did track down his father, also called Richard, who separated from Ringo’s mother when Ringo was very young. He was then living in Crewe, working as a window cleaner, and was not keen on talking. Ringo did not pass the eleven-plus and go to grammar school; he spent much of his childhood in hospital with various illnesses.

Paul’s mother, Mary, died in 1956 from breast cancer. Paul was 14 and his younger brother, Michael, recalls it was around then that Paul’s obsession with playing the guitar began. Was it a compensation mechanism? Would it have happened otherwise? The first song Paul remembers writing was “I Lost My Little Girl”.

Mary McCartney, like George’s mother, was Roman Catholic, but neither Paul nor George was sent to a Catholic school. Both boys attended Church of England Sunday schools, as did John. Paul was a keen choirboy. Though none of the Beatles’ parents was overtly religious, or even a regular churchgoer, the boys followed working-class conventions of 1940s and 1950s Britain whereby children were sent to church or Sunday school on a Sunday, giving their parents a break and perhaps the opportunity for a bit of a Sunday-morning cuddle.

Did Catholic mothers and Church of England attendance have any influence on their musical tastes? A case has been made for the effect of religion on their music: think of “Lady Madonna” and “Let It Be”. And what of their Irish ancestry? Paul and John had Irish roots, as did George. The Irish, so we are always told, are very musical. And have a way with words. So they also say.

Then there is humour. Merseyside culture is built on mockery, irony, sarcasm, satire, not taking yourself or others too seriously. Liverpool has been described as “a designated area of outstanding natural sarcasm”. As the Beatles’ lyrics progressed, there were jokes, puns, wordplay, pastiche. Even when being terribly serious and preachy – which they could be at times – they usually ended with a laugh.

If Brian Epstein had not come along as their manager, would they have made it? Or if their producer George Martin had not encouraged and allowed them from the beginning to record their own compositions? I think they would. Their talent would surely have been recognised.

Yet there is one “what if?” about which I’m not so sure. What if Paul’s mother had lived? As a trained nurse and midwife, she was keen on her sons’ education and on their economic and social improvement. I am sure that when Paul, aged just 18, came home to announce he wanted to go off to Hamburg with John to play in some dodgy-sounding nightclubs, she would have put her foot down, insisted he stay on and go to college, train as a teacher. And Paul, being a good son, might well have obeyed. In which case, even before they had properly begun, John and Paul might well have gone their separate ways.

One of the most common clichés about genius is that it is 10 per cent inspiration to 90 per cent perspiration. The Beatles certainly worked hard. When they first appeared they were assumed to be overnight sensations. In fact, they had spent the six years leading up to 1963 unknown and mostly unpaid, slogging away.

When I was observing them at Abbey Road in 1967, during the making of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, I was always amazed how many takes they would record, going on and on, late into the night, while they all sounded much the same to me. And at Paul’s home beforehand, in his little studio at the top of the house, he and John would take for ever, trying out endless variations of lyrics and music. They would move on only when the other one agreed: yeah, that will do.

It is strange that Paul never composed with George, who turned out to be an excellent songwriter, when they went to the same school. Perhaps it was because George was younger, and a late developer, that Paul never sat down and composed with him. Perhaps there was nothing there between them. With John and Paul, though, the vital spark shone from the moment they met.

The band’s biggest single musical influence was therefore not family background and not Liverpool, nor even the hard grind – it was each other. We didn’t know all this back in 1964, or how they would develop. But we can now see it was the combination of Paul and John, their rivalry, competing and contesting, making the other try harder, do better. That was the real secret of the Beatles’ success, and made them part of the history of our time. 

Hunter Davies is the authorised biographer of the Beatles. His book, The Beatles Lyrics , is published by Weidenfeld & Nicolso

Hunter Davies is a journalist, broadcaster and profilic author perhaps best known for writing about the Beatles. He is an ardent Tottenham fan and writes a regular column on football for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2014 issue of the New Statesman, What the Beatles did for Britain

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Shami Chakrabarti’s fall from grace: how a liberal hero lost her reputation

Once, it was trendy to say you liked the former director of Liberty. No longer.

It might be hard to remember now, but there was a time when it was trendy to like Shami Chakrabarti. In the mid-2000s, amid the Iraq War backlash and the furore over identity cards, speaking well of the barrister and head of the human rights campaign group Liberty was a handy way of displaying liberal credentials. She was everywhere: Question Time, Desert Island Discs, Have I Got News For You. A young indie band from Worcester called the Dastards was so keen on her that it even wrote a song about her. It included the lyric: “I turn on my TV/The only one I want to see/Is Shami Chakrabarti.”

The daughter of Bengali immigrants, Chakrabarti was born and brought up in the outer-London borough of Harrow, where she attended a comprehensive school before studying law at the London School of Economics. Her background was a great strength of her campaigning, and during the most authoritarian years of New Labour government she burnished her reputation.

Fast-forward to 13 September 2016, when Chakrabarti made her House of Lords debut as a Labour peer. Baroness Chakrabarti of Kennington wore a sombre expression and a rope of pearls looped round her throat beneath her ermine robe. It was hard to recognise the civil liberties campaigner who was once called “an anarchist in a barrister’s wig” by Loaded magazine.

Yet Chakrabarti has also been cast in another role that is far less desirable than a seat in the Lords: that of a hypocrite. On 29 April this year, Jeremy Corbyn announced that Chakrabarti would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour Party. The inquiry was prompted by the suspensions of Naz Shah, the MP for Bradford West, and Ken Livingstone, for making offensive remarks that were condemned as anti-Semitic. On 16 May Chakrabarti announced that she was joining Labour to gain members’ “trust and confidence”. She said that she would still run the inquiry “without fear or favour”.

The Chakrabarti inquiry delivered its findings on 30 June at a press conference in Westminster. The atmosphere was febrile – there were verbal clashes between the activists and journalists present, and the Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth was reduced to tears. The report stated that Labour “is not overrun by anti-Semitism, Islamophobia or other forms of racism” but that there was an “occasionally toxic atmosphere”. It listed examples of “hateful language” and called on party members to “resist the use of Hitler, Nazi and Holocaust metaphors, distortions and comparisons”. Many Labour supporters were surprised that the report’s 20 recommendations did not include lifetime bans for members found to have shown anti-Semitic behaviour.

Then, on 4 August, it was revealed that Chakrabarti was the sole Labour appointment to the House of Lords in David Cameron’s resignation honours. Both Chakrabarti and Corbyn have denied that the peerage was discussed during the anti-Semitism inquiry. But critics suggested that her acceptance undermined the report and its independence.

In particular, it attracted criticism from members of the UK’s Jewish community. Marie van der Zyl, vice-president of the Board of Deputies of British Jews, said: “This ‘whitewash for peerages’ is a scandal that surely raises serious questions about the integrity of Ms Chakrabarti, her inquiry and the Labour leadership.” A home affairs select committee report into anti-Semitism in the UK has since found that there were grave failings in the report for Labour.

Two further incidents contributed to the decline in Chakrabarti’s reputation: her arrival on Corbyn’s front bench as shadow attorney general and the revelation that her son attends the selective Dulwich College, which costs almost £19,000 a year in fees for day pupils (£39,000 for full boarders). She said that she “absolutely” supports Labour’s opposition to grammar schools but defended her choice to pay for selective education.

Chakrabarti told ITV’s Peston on Sunday: “I live in a nice big house and eat nice food, and my neighbours are homeless and go to food banks. Does that make me a hypocrite, or does it make me someone who is trying to do best, not just for my own family, but for other people’s families, too?”

This was the end for many of those who had respected Chakrabarti – the whisper of hypocrisy became a roar. As the Times columnist Carol Midgley wrote: “You can’t with a straight face champion equality while choosing privilege for yourself.”

Hypocrisy is a charge that has dogged the left for decades (both Diane Abbott and Harriet Harman have fallen foul of the selective school problem). The trouble with having principles, it is said, is that you have to live up to them. Unlike the right, the left prizes purity in its politicians, as Jeremy Corbyn’s squeaky-clean political image shows. Shami Chakrabarti started the year with a campaigning reputation to rival that of the Labour leader, but her poor decisions have all but destroyed her. It’s difficult to recall a time when a liberal icon has fallen so far, so fast. 

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood