January 01, 2013

Was John Lennon Really a Genius?


THE Beatles released their first hit single, Love Me Do, a little more than 50 years ago, in October 1962. 
Within 12 months, John Lennon and the other three Beatles were household names throughout the world, and in the years since then Lennon's reputation has expanded with each new wave of listeners.

 He even has an airport (Liverpool John Lennon Airport: "Above us only sky"). Have we now placed him among the greatest English composers and musicians of all time - say, Dunstable, Tallis, Byrd, Purcell, Handel, Elgar and Britten? Will history's verdict be that Lennon truly deserves to rub shoulders with these geniuses, or was he an accomplished craftsman with a pretty face?

It is tempting to evade comparison by saying he was a different kind of musician, a writer of pop songs rather than a creator of grand works of art. But until relatively recently, all composers, Purcell and Handel in particular, made it their deliberate business to write pop songs.

What are they? A popular song is written to appeal to everyone, not just musicians and music connoisseurs. In its most basic form it is less than four minutes long and has lyrics arranged in an accessible form (verses, a repeated chorus, maybe a bridge or vamp); a simple, adhesive melody; unfussy instrumental accompaniment; and a regular beat or pulse. It is designed to be remembered, to pass the "old grey whistle test" and thus to be bawled out while drinking and watching games, hummed at work, whistled at home, danced to, marched, fought and died to - to be a part of daily life, "everyday beauty", as Roger Scruton calls it.

A pop song is the musical equivalent of a sketch or, as Lennon liked to say, a postcard. 

Good pop songs come quickly to their writers, unlike symphonies or novels, sometimes in an instant. Quite often they spring up from the writer's internal "song bank" of ideas, fragments of melody-lyrics stored for later use. Often they have some kind of hook, an eyebrow-raising moment or feature. 

Their popularity guarantees money, so plagiarism abounds. And while by definition they are of their time, good ones are timeless in their musical essentials, and used in whole or in part - "covered" - by other musicians for generations. It is not nonsense to compare pop songs by Purcell and Lennon.

Songs succeed for many reasons. There are ephemeral songs that caught the spirit of their times (Eve of Destruction); novelty songs with the status and transience of a good joke (Shaddap You Face); self-fulfilling fashion bubbles (Kung Fu Fighting); others succeed by sheer chance. 

Mass marketing, which revolves around brand recognition, predominates, and yet one-hit wonders are refreshingly frequent. Most pop songs are about romantic love and many succeed simply by being sexy. Content or message within lyrics is not often a factor. 

A sad fact of post-Beatles pop is that lyrics are often written by the composer, who is usually better at composing than lyric writing. In their early years, the Beatles were especially lazy lyricists (for its first few weeks, Yesterday carried the words "Scrambled eggs, oh my baby, how I love your legs").

But with really good songs, it's almost always the melody, and the chemistry between that and the rhythm of the words. "Melody," Mozart said, "is the essence of music; I compare a good melodist to a fine racer, and counterpointists [those who arrange songs for voices and instruments] to hack post-horses."

Creating everyday beauty is perhaps the highest calling for any artist, and the acknowledged greats of European music did not shrink from it until the latter part of the 19th century. This is because they were working entertainers who had to please the cloth-eared as well as the connoisseur, and sell tickets to all of them.

Purcell placed his genius at the disposal of whichever audience he served. In addition to grand works of art, he wrote pure pop (Lillibulero, which became the BBC World Service jingle, published in 1691), frisky odes (Nymphs and Shepherds), boisterous show songs (Come Away, Fellow Sailors), rousing hymns (Westminster Abbey - Christ is Made the Sure Foundation) and dramatic mood pieces (Cold Genius song). 

His lyric-melody touch is faultless: all his music is accessible, but deeply satisfying. Fairest Isle is a widely acclaimed art song; but it might also be one of the greatest pop hits ever written. It ticks all the boxes: a catchy tune that bounces off Dryden's lyrics, a simple structure over a nice three/four lilt.

Handel was less willing to adapt than Purcell, and his work, like the greatest of Lennon and McCartney in the mid-1960s, is hardly ever plain enough to meet our definition of pure pop. But Handel also had a faultless lyric-melody touch, and a real showman's ability to get his audience to soar (Zadok the Priest), to tremble (I Know that my Redeemer Liveth) and to go home humming the big tune (Alla Hornpipe from the Water Music). He was a committed cuckoo when it came to tucking away good melodies for later use, and a man who died rich because his music was popular. Beethoven conferred the ultimate pop accolade upon him: "He is the master of us all ... go to [Handel] to learn how to achieve great effects by such simple means."

Schubert's Serenade of 1826, whose luscious melody came to him while looking at poetry in a beer garden and had to be written down on the back of a menu, was, even in translation, a Top Ten sheet-music hit in the English-speaking world. Lighter songs by Mozart (Away with Melancholy) and Haydn (A Prey to Tender Anguish) were also big hits there. Chopin's Preludes were written in a hurry in 1838-39 - he needed money - and based heavily on "pickings from his portfolios", as his biographer Frederick Niecks put it. The Preludes are surely one of the greatest pop albums of all time, albeit with wordless songs. Many have been covered extensively; no 15 in D-flat (the Raindrop), which has been greatly used in films, is a melodic masterpiece and a blueprint for the pop ballad.

However, the blockbuster hit of the 19th century in the English-speaking world, Home, Sweet Home (1823-24), was composed not by Schubert or Chopin, but by a barely remembered Englishman, Henry Bishop. Home, Sweet Home, as popular in relative terms as Summertime and Yesterday put together, was performed everywhere and covered serially, in particular by Donizetti in Anna -Bolena (1830). It has a dignified, wistful melody, a simple format, a hook in the form of a suddenly chanted chorus and it's a perfect singalong, an English Stille Nacht (Silent Night). So shouldn't Bishop be up there with Handel and Purcell? What about the other creators of 18th- and 19th-century hits: Arne, Hook, Foster and Sullivan, many of whose songs were equally beautiful and not much less popular?

No. Not because they weren't prodigies and virtuosi, and not because they didn't write serious works, too (some of them were, and did). Not even because their work is hit-and-miss (Handel and Purcell seldom had off days). To achieve lasting greatness, a composers work has to raise the neck hairs of musicians and music experts over generations. And there isn't enough in the works of Bishop, Arne, Sullivan et al, popular or otherwise, for today's music community to relish.

There isn't usually enough in pure formulaic pop songs in general: Lillibulero is fine, but could have been written by any of a number of tunesmiths (it may even have been). Pop songwriters looking for a lasting legacy need to have written more substantial pieces. It is probably a sense of this that drove Gershwin, and Paul McCartney, to write orchestral music for the concert hall.

The withdrawal of great European composers from popular music came in the second half of the 19th century, coinciding with the growth of the state as a funder of art and education. With Stravinsky, Schoenberg, Ravel and Richard Strauss safely tucked away in , the song is utterly sophisticated, but at the same time completely intuitive - time signature changes, clever harmonies, triplet syncopations all sound perfectly spontaneous. Lennon's singing is full of Indian inflections, and his guitar playing has some nice passing notes. Harrison throws in seasoning on slide guitar. It's as if the whole song is a hook. It's gorgeous: up go the neck hairs.

And yet there was more, and better, to come. In final version, melody, harmony and structure are intact, but guitars and electric bass are superseded by orchestral instruments and a Mellotron (fabulous George Martin arrangements). Harrison's tasteful slide riffs are now nightmarish orchestral glissandi, courtesy of a tape vari-speed, which is also used to darken the song by downward transposition (the final version is roughly in B flat). Lennon's voice now sounds woozy. Theres a mad backwards coda. Psychoanalysis becomes psychosis.

With hindsight, the most surprising thing about the Beatles was not that an unremarkable covers band of apparently unprodigious musicians should transform itself into a powerhouse through sheer incarceration, or that competition/co-operation should produce such astonishing compositional results (Purcell, Elgar and Britten did the job on their own). It was that, having reached the heights of 1965-67, the Beatles lost their touch in subsequent years. 

This did not happen immediately, not least because they were able to dip into their song banks. 

Lennon's Come Together (on Abbey Road), for example, is an R&B masterpiece - in feel as raw and bluesy as Love Me Do, but with very intelligent harmony, drumming which is restrained but imaginative, and a bass ostinato from McCartney which is a minor miracle.

But the magic of Lennon's music faded through the 1970s, his stronger songs - Love (1970), Imagine (1971) - appearing very soon after the Beatles had split. His love ballads like Oh my Love (1970) and Woman (1980) are little more than touching testaments to his happiness. #9 Dream (1974) has some pleasing twists but would barely merit a place on the White Album.

So, how great is Lennon's music? During the 1960s, both as an image and a sound, the Beatles are shorthand for the entire decade. 


But more remarkable is the endurance, so far, of that fame. 

The album 1, released in 2000 on the 30th anniversary of the band's break-up is still this century's biggest-selling album worldwide - not bad for a collection of 30/40-year-old No. 1 hits. Yesterday is probably the world's most covered song. Although cumulative sales of Sgt Pepper and Abbey Road are surprisingly low in the world rankings - top 20 with about 30 million sold apiece, a list topped by Michael Jackson's Thriller (about 100 million), followed by Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon (about 50 million) - in a poll of pop musicians themselves, Pepper, Revolver and Rubber Soul are voted as three of the world's five greatest albums of all time. For all this the man deserves his airport.

As for standing alongside Purcell and Handel, we would like to think that his greatest songs from the mid-1960s have enough musical substance to keep raising musicians' neck hairs over the generations.

 But we fear that, as for Bishop and Gershwin, biggest does not necessarily mean best.