Last night, Badger and I went along to the Bootleg Beatles show at Colston Hall in Bristol. Badger has a fondness for tribute acts, partly due to the fact that many of the musicians he admires have been dead for a number of years. There’s a Stephen King short story called ‘You Know They Got a Hell of a Band’ where an unsuspecting couple on a road trip through the Northwest stumble into a town populated by undead music legends who still want an audience – sometimes, a night out at a tribute act with Badger can feel very much like a night in ‘Rock and Roll Heaven, Ore’.
We’ve done The Rolling Stoned at Bridport Electric Palace – the earnestness of the performance only marred by the backdrop falling on ‘Keith’s’ head – and The Counterfeit Stones at Taunton Brewhouse, where ‘Mick’ struggled manfully against too-tight jeans and a poor PA system. We’ve done The Fab Beatles at Totnes Seven Stars, and watched ‘John’ try it on with a local reporter after the show, and we very nearly did The Small Fakers at Ilminster Square Compass, only there was a programme on TV that I didn’t want to miss.
Office staff, out on the annual knees-up; men in leather blousons and acid washed jeans, women with heavy eyeliner and Cathy McGowan haircuts – they were all out on Friday night at the Bootleg Beatles show. It was, I admit, a cut above our usual tribute acts – there were wig and costume changes, projected visuals, a small orchestra, and luxury ice-cream on sale during the interval.
Not the real Beatles (image courtesy of http://www.manchesterpoptrail.co.uk)
It was ‘John’s’ introduction to ‘Let it Be’ that got me wondering, however. To me, the songs of the Beatles have been almost like nursery rhymes – ubiquitous, all-surrounding, you know the words without ever remembering how you learned them. I can remember car journeys with my mother listening to ‘Help’, singing subverted versions of ‘Yellow Submarine’ in the playground, hearing ‘When I’m 64’ play at my grandmother’s birthday party. They are songs that have always been there, are a part of our collective cultural consciousness – yet how much do I really know about them? Are they really Christmas carols for Generation X?
I asked Badger about ‘John’s’ comment. Badger has been a Beatles fan all of his adult life and what he doesn’t know about them isn’t worth knowing. He also passes the favourite Beatles test, the one that Joe Queenan recounts in ‘Imperial Caddy’, a study of U.S. vice-presidents: in it, elected members of Congress are asked who their favourite Beatle is. The correct answer is John or George; Paul immediately positions you as a bit of a lightweight, and Ringo (‘the little drummer boy’ as one congressmen puts it) marks you out as a wacko.
Badger says that John Lennon hated ‘Let it Be’, and that during the album version of the song he can be heard drawling ‘hark the herald angels come’. He considered it sanctimonious and cloying, which Badger and I agreed is a little unfair. It’s famously based on a dream McCartney had of his mother (who had died when he was fourteen) during the tense recording sessions for their ninth studio album – telling him that all would be well, just ‘let it be’. He claims that there’s no biblical inspiration behind the song, that people can interpret it as they wish, yet if you’re a Catholic, you may find comfort in its connection to Mary’s response to the angel at the annunciation, the fiat (‘let it be done to me according to thy word’).
When the time came to record the track for the Beatles’ final album, relations between the band were at an absolute nadir – eventually, the session tapes were passed to Phil Spector to remaster before release, and Spector had never met a musical excess he didn’t love. Layer upon layer of sound was added to the album version of ‘Let it Be’, including the heavy orchestration that we associate with it today. The version on Anthology 3 is much more stripped back and purer, closer to McCartney’s dream visitation and further away from a winter hymnal. If you’re looking for something Beatley for Christmas then give this version a try – we Generation Xrs have got to create our own soundtrack for the holiday season.