Anthony Clavane: Why The Beatles were the greatest band of all time

Sir Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the studio in 1968. (Photo: AP/Apple Corps).).
Sir Paul McCartney and John Lennon in the studio in 1968. (Photo: AP/Apple Corps).).
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It was 40 years ago today, more or less, that I bought The White Album from a second-hand music shop in Brighton. It remains my favourite Beatles record.

At that time, towards the end of the 1970s, punk ruled the airwaves. The Sex Pistols had sacked their bass player for the heinous crime of liking Lennon-McCartney songs and The Clash had adopted “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones” as a tub-thumping slogan.

The Beatles were decidedly uncool. And this was some years before Macca teamed up with The Frog Chorus to give the world the truly astonishing – but not in a good way – We All Stand Together.

The White Album was actually released 50 years ago this month. I was always a bit behind the times. The Fabs had split up in 1970 and, during the punk explosion, McCartney, Lennon, Harrison and Starr were all deemed to be well past their sell-by dates. And yet, like Elvis and The Stones, their music has never gone away.

I remember thinking, at the time, there was a distinctly punkish edge to this strange, meandering 30-track LP. It was – still is – a raw, visceral, paranoid and, on occasion, loudly aggressive album. Macca’s Helter Skelter, a dark, disturbing, screeching rollecoaster of rage, anticipated Johnny Rotten. And, as we all know, it was bizarrely embraced by the notorious cult leader Charles Manson.

Today’s re-release of my fave Fabs album as a seven-disc box set, including loads of outtakes and demos, will be greeted with predictable cynicism by those who dismiss the band as the most overrated to have ever entered a recording studio. Their experimental, innovative 1968 classic continues to polarise the critics.

Even the peerless rock music writer Ian McDonald, whose lovingly-compiled, song-by-song analysis – Revolution In The Head, is rightly considered to be a seminal tome, was withering in his denunciation of this messy, sprawling double album. “Half the tracks are poor by earlier standards,” he wrote. “Many of its lyrics are little more than the lazy navel-gazing of pampered recluses.”

True, it should probably have been released as a single rather than a double LP. And Ringo’s Don’t Pass Me By gives that frog song a run for its money as one of the worst to be associated with a Beatle.

But it contains some hauntingly-beautiful, game-changing songs. Harrison’s While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Lennon’s Happiness Is A Warm Gun, Julia and Dear Prudence and McCartney’s Blackbird and Back In The USSR to name but six. With its monochromatic cover and disorientatingly wide variety of musical genres – from Macca’s traditional ballads to John’s Yoko-inspired avant-garde pieces – it signalled the beginning of the end of a truly revolutionary, and certainly more hopeful and optimistic, decade.

And, of course, the beginning of the end of the greatest band of all time. Ringo went AWOL for a fortnight. George, who had persuaded the other three to join him on an ill-fated trip to the Maharishi’s retreat in India, tried to absolve himself of all blame by writing Not Guilty, which didn’t even make the final cut. “The break-up of The Beatles,” noted Lennon, “can be heard on that album.”

Still, what a way to break up. John and Paul might have been emotionally exhausted. There might have been tensions between the pair over Yoko’s so-called interference. They might have been pulling in opposite musical directions throughout the sessions. But they ended up, with a little help from their two friends, producing a proto-punk masterpiece.

“You say you want a revolution,” Lennon asks his new anti-capitalist, street-fighting mates in 1968, the year of the Vietnam protests, the Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinations and the Paris events. “Well, we all want to change the world.” He seems somewhat ambivalent on the matter.“Don’t you know that you can count me out…in.”

Five decades on we are in the midst of another tumultuous era. And another Beatles backlash; the legendary record producer Quincy Jones recently described them as “the worst musicians in the world.”

But The White Album changed everything. And, when it comes to the veneration of the greatest band of all time, count me in.