Book extract: Love and Let Die by John Higgs

Love and Let Die by John Higgs

`1965: Greater Than the Sum of Their Parts 

For all their distinct personalities, the four Beatles were effectively a gestalt entity. This was one of the reasons why they so perfectly represented Eros, or the Freudian drive to lose your limited self and become part of something larger.

In the decades after the band split, much debate occurred about why they were so special, with the assumption being that the answer must lie with one of the four. In the seventies and eighties, many rock critics took the view that John Lennon was the special ingredient which explained the extraordinary impact of the Beatles. Thinking like this was entirely in keeping with the individualism of the second half of the twentieth century. But as a framework, individualism was always too limited a perspective to understand something as interesting as the Beatles. It was the combination of those four personalities which made the Beatles greater than the sum of their parts. They were, in occult terms, a combination of the four alchemical elements. Ringo was earth, John was fire, Paul was air and George was water. Combined, they produced the fifth, transcendent element: spirit. Or alternatively, Ringo had a big nose, George had big ears, Paul had big eyes and John was always a big mouth. As individuals these attributes may be unfortunate, but when they are combined you get the face of a giant.

And then Paul McCartney wrote ‘Yesterday’.

This is, of course, one of the most covered songs in history. The melody famously came to Cartney fully formed during a dream, a gift from his subconscious that would change his life forever. It elevated him from being part of his ‘good little rock ‘n’ roll band’ to becoming the author of the front page of the twentieth century’s songbook. Even half a century after it was written, it’s impossible to grow up in the West and not know this song. It hinted at the scale of the new territory that the Beatles would now occupy. But it also hinted at the cost.

Before ‘Yesterday’, the Beatles were a unit. Lennon and McCartney had previously written songs alone, without the insights and finishing touches of their partner. But this was the first solo song that didn’t need the other three Beatles. Instead, it was recorded in two takes with Paul alone, playing acoustic guitar and singing, and George Martin added a string quartet three days later. On the same day that McCartney recorded Yesterday’, the full band also recorded two more of Paul’s songs, the larynx shredding rocker ‘I’m Down’ and the acoustic folk rock ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’ – an example not just of the phenomenal work rate that the band operated at, but the variety of styles of both singing and songwriting that McCartney was capable of.

The solo nature of the song clearly troubled the band; here was a situation that they had never had to deal with before. It is striking that, uncomfortable with such a solo effort being credited to the Beatles, they didn’t release the song as a single in the UK. It’s hard to imagine any other band writing a song as strong and commercial as ‘Yesterday’, then only using it as filler on the second side of a film soundtrack album.

What ‘Yesterday’ showed was that new horizons for the band’s music were imaginable. It was not that they had plateaued and were on the way down, it was more that they had barely started. If they were to reach those new artistic peaks it would require the four Beatles to grow and evolve as individuals. They could not remain loveable mop-tops forever. But if the four of them were to change in unexpected and unpredictable ways, then how could they be expected to fit together so neatly into the perfect unit that won the hearts of the world? The future was unparalleled creative growth, yet as the melancholic mood of ‘Yesterday’ realised, it would come at a cost.

‘Yesterday’ is a song about realising that something special has changed and wishing to go back in time to how things used to be. The Beatles were going to mature into four extraordinary individuals who would offer the world so much more than the pre-‘Yesterday’ Fab Four. For all four musicians, their greatest work was ahead of them. But there is a reason why many children fear growing up. The arrival of the future, after all, must mean the death of the past. To evolve and fulfil their potential would mean allowing fractures to grow in the best gang imaginable.

LOVE AND LET DIE by John Higgs published by W&N available in Hardback, eBook and audio £22

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