Tomorrow never knows

The moment of creation remains a mystery in this look back at the Beatles

Radio 2's documentary marking the 40th anniversary of the release of the Beatles' White Album (22 November, 7pm) memorably used a mass of interviews with the articulate engineers present during the fractious recording, focusing on their revolutionary use of microphones under water, or the days spent with the band crammed into a broom cupboard in Abbey Road for the hell of it (with, one always imagines, the dreaded Yoko on her bed of bean sprouts in the corner, not just saying things like this record should sound like a tangerine - you know, girlfriend stuff, stuff you could cope with - but turn the bass up here, and down there, I mean really scary specific shit like that).

All this was compelling (couldn't you just listen to this kind of thing all day?), but there was (there always is) a hole at the centre of such a documentary: the moment of creation remains utterly mystical.

At one point an engineer says of John, "To me he was always looking somewhere, was always focused somewhere else, and he used to go into these strange moods and then he'd sort of come back again . . . and he had these round glasses on and . . . maybe it was drugs or just reminiscing or he was just thinking, who knows, who knows . . ." and the man sounded so stumped by the memory, as though over the years that image had really squatted in his mind.

Another recalled the time Paul was hanging around with nothing much to do and went into the studio on his own and "got on with it, and then afterwards he said, 'Do you want to hear what I've just done?' and showed me 'Why Don't We Do It In the Road?'". And this nice smart engineer just laughs, 40 years later, in amazement.

What isn't mentioned is that the original cover for the record was going to be the band dressed up as bloodstained butchers, and it was going to be called A Doll's House, which fits the album perfectly. This spooky house with its different rooms. Sexy Sadie and Bungalow Bill and Honey Pie. And neither does it point out that a song like "Blackbird" reveals more about Paul than most others - that there is real anxiety in the song, real emotion and stress (you know this guy is beginning to hurt) where "Here, There and Everywhere" and "The Fool on the Hill" and all the gorgeous Paul-melodic others that had come before were merely perfect. And it doesn't point out that the kick you get listening to "Happiness Is a Warm Gun" comes from actually being able to - can't you? - hear the band thinking: "Look! Aren't we brilliant, jamming away like this! We once did 'Yellow Submarine' in an evening, remember? Maybe this doesn't ever have to end after all!"

And they don't say that all you need to know about the end of the Beatles can be found listening to John singing "Julia" on the White Album, a song about the mother he never knew ("sea-shell eyes, windy smile"), which apparently closes the door on all his orphan longing, and the need to be in a gang, and childhood, and the Beatles, and the 1960s, and everything, because now it was all future, all Yoko.

No more chaos, no more chewing on string and Elastoplast, no more George Martin papering over the cracks, no more - oh God, enough. Just pass us a smoke and stick the record on.

Pick of the week

The Art of Conversation
3 December, 11.30am, Radio 4
A newly discovered piece by Dylan Thomas.

Afternoon Play: Prayer Mask
1 December, 2.15pm, Radio 4
Joseph Fiennes plays the 19th-century explorer Richard Burton, who disguised himself as a pilgrim and penetrated the heart of Islam.

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She presents The Film Programme on BBC Radio 4. She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, How safe is your job?