Monday, April 30, 2012

Think Primitive, Act Local: Hotlegs: "Neanderthal Man"

It is, by now, late summer 1970; the new decade still beckons, but the 60s still hang over the year in certain ways that in two months will (sadly) be over. The bubblegum overlords Kasenetz & Katz have struck a deal with some Mancunians earlier this year that have seen their modest studio in Stockport, Strawberry Studios, fitted with some state-of-the-art equipment, all the better so that they may record there for the production team (instead of going to NYC to do the recording there). The bubblegum contingent are especially interested in one of them, ex-Mindbender Graham Gouldman, as he has been writing catchy and successful songs for others for years, and K & K want to make themselves more credible by having him on board. This doesn’t really work out that well, but as Gouldman is away on business, the other three – Eric Stewart (also an ex-Mindbender), Lol Creme and Kevin Godley (who were in The Mockingbirds together and knew Gouldman from school days) are at Strawberry Studios, eager to mess around and see what they come up with.  The 70s, at least in Mancunian terms, is about to get started.

The song starts with the drums and goes from there, though not too far – it is a drumtastic song with guitars, recorders and voices, the voices secondary to the beat. The beat is a slow shuffle*, not really funky as such but it catches the whole ‘back to basics’ movement of the time, only with one little caveat; it is impossible (especially knowing what is going to come from these musicians) just how much of this song is plain old songwriting in the ‘give the label/people what they want’ and how much of it is some kind of oblique commentary on the HRS man’s man’s mans world hooey that definitely still existed at this time, in Stockport and elsewhere. (The women in the video all look as if they are extras from The Flintstones, had it been a live-action tv series and not a cartoon.) Look at their faces (Eric Stewart going so far as to wear sunglasses indoors, that’s how nonchalant he is) and you can just see them veer from serious to kind of amused to near blank, and the song itself gives no real hint as such as to how seriously you (can) take it.

That the studio was partly owned by Stewart and Gouldman meant that these musicians – currently known as Hotlegs, but their more famous name will be 10cc – had the chance to work and experiment and mess around; there are some bands who enjoy doing this, and this is one of them. (They don’t really get going as a group as such for a while, running the studio and being the in-house band for whoever wants to use it, Neil Sedaka being the most famous guest in the early 70s.) This freedom is vital to understanding how music evolves, from this rather primitive song to things far more complex, away from any pressures from managers or labels; this is, in a way, the first step towards the kind of autonomy musicians have today**. Owning part of the means of production may have been a headache at times (due to a bad deal they didn’t make that much from this huge hit) but they kept on going, finding out that they worked well together, a joy in and of itself.  Whether this was a send-up or just a happy result of experimentation is hard to say, but under the auspices of bubblegum, a new band is about to be born; one that is bound to its surroundings and own inspirations and ideas far more than any producer or label.  Neanderthals?  Hardly.

*Speed this up a little and hey presto, there’s “Loaded” by Primal Scream, more or less.

**The Rolling Stones had a studio but it was mobile, theirs, and not part of a community (besides other rock groups); Strawberry Studios was open for anyone, from aunties to orchestras, to come by and use for a nominal fee. Tony Wilson admired them for keeping things local when they could have gone elsewhere; Joy Division would work there in the future, under the guidance of Martin Hannett.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

The Grace of a Boy: The Kinks: "Lola"

1970 is a crossroads year, as so many first years of decades are – some things are bubbling up from under, some are signposts, others are the usual flotsam and jetsam after the wreckage of the previous ten years. This is different though; and while I sense that its writer doesn’t want me to take it too seriously, I can’t help but say that I’ve always been made a bit uneasy by this song. Why? I’m not sure myself; it could be that the song is named after a woman but no woman appears in the song, only a man who walks like one. The boy – he’d only left home a week before – somehow ends up in Soho and finds himself in a club with a transvestite. If I was a certain female prof from the US I would say that this is a song about the feminine, about femininity so strong that the ‘female’ is in all ways stronger than the male (a strength he seems to lack, as he says, so he appreciates it in another) – that even though Lola is a man he is female too, because that’s what the boy wants/needs; he is learning a lot on this night, for sure…

…and he’s glad he’s a man now, clearly weaker than the supposedly weaker sex. I guess. Half-drunk (that’s why he falls to the floor – all that champagne that tastes like “cherry cola” as the BBC-censored version goes) and on Lola’s knee, or kneeling, he is learning a lot, but I guess my problem is how will he cope with women after this? I mean actual women, not ones taller or stronger than him. (Unless, like Betjeman's young man, he goes for the sporty jolly-tennis-playing type.) He has survived a night in old Soho, but as a resident Londoner I can say with some authority that Soho is small and London is large. I think my itch here is – is this a pro-feminist song? Does the appearance of the female as a strong female count as a real one? Or is this just another step in the world of a certain kind of British male, who goes to a male-only school and knows nothing about women, and is directed (how does someone like this end up in Soho anyway?) to this place for, um, further education? Couldn’t he just go find a real woman somewhere instead? Is this a song that doesn’t really concern women at all (including listeners)?

I don’t know, but it has always left me a bit uneasy, despite the banjos and Davies’ wolfish smile, that the boys’ club of rock – that seems to be obliquely mocked here, the hero being not a passionate dude as with the previous song but something of a naïf – is still a boys’ club, that Lola is a man and the men and boys hearing this song are somehow ‘safe’ from involving themselves with someone so changeable and variable as an actual female. Things are beginning to get mixed up, notes the hero, but Lola is the exception, the odd one out that proves the rule. The shaking up of gender roles in rock continues, to be sure (remember how The Beatles’ haircuts were seen as being girly) but when will any actual women get to show their masculine side? In the meantime, Lola dances by electric candlelight and the real women are perhaps still too much for the hero, and so he repeats her name…enthralled to the feminine, if not the female.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Hard Rock Calling: Free: "All Right Now"

And now we step, dear readers, away from the dance floor and into…the arena, if not the rock festival, amongst blokes, dudes, the kind of guys who are unequivocally guys, who were there when Free rocked the Isle of Wight and have been hard rock adherents (note – not heavy metal, that’s for kids, son)ever since. Even if they were teenagers at the time (and it should be noted that Free were all teenagers when they started in ’68) they were still dudes, really. (As Dellio and Woods state: “Probably no two songs [Mountain’s “Mississippi Queen” being the other] in rock history have inspired as much ritualistic grunting among males between the ages of fourteen and twenty-five*.”)

Wherefore all this grunting? I can just imagine a kid in his bedroom playing air guitar to this (why is it that I think of air guitar as a 70s thing?), trying his best to be Paul Kossoff, laid back as hell but still razor sharp. Or perhaps he’s trying to be Paul Rodgers, a gruff Middlesborough-born singer who fled to London to participate in the blues boom, who co-wrote this song with Andy Fraser, the bassist. Youth and young manhood; grunting; an early dedication to rockin’ and boogie and then more rockin’. There can hardly be a more blokey song than this (fear not readers, I do get to others – the looming beast called pub rock is in the works), a song wherein a young woman’s fears are heard out (which by hard rock’s terms is almost gallant) and then shushed away.

Quite how a woman can smile “from her head to her feet” remains a mystery, but clearly she’s interested in him, he’s interested in her (enough to ask her name, take her home in his car – you might think he’d take her somewhere else, but hard rock’s not interested in superfluous things like dating). Once they are presumably ensconced on his sofa, he watches her like a hawk; you’d think he would have thought of doing that a bit earlier, in the car maybe, but perhaps he was too busy grunting along to the car radio. No matter. Now she starts to get suspicious (for someone who was all smiles a minute ago, oddly) and wonders if he’s “trying to put me in shame.” He reassures her he doesn’t want to move too fast (well, thank goodness for that) and asks the poignant question “Don’t you think that love can last?” Again she suspects he wants love, that he is all but Pluto, springing his trap on poor hapless Persephone. The song takes a lot of time – a whole lot of title singing – to reassure her that things aren’t like that, when to any rational observer they most certainly are. Why are they at his place when they could be anywhere else? Why is she so suspicious all of a sudden? All of this concern is batted away by the easy-going jazzy riffs, the smile in Rodgers’ voice, the sense that maybe he just wants to get high with her while listening to Wheels Of Fire. Who knows?

One obvious thing was that this was an instant hit, catapulting these young men into stardom, stardom that they weren’t quite prepared for. Kossoff had drug problems that eventually led the band to split up, reform and then split again for good in ’73; this was their big hit, their figurative moment in the sun. They effectively became a one-hit wonder and this must have been frustrating as well. But that is how music works sometimes – you work in clubs and gig all over the place, have your one satisfying moment and it gets so cemented in the public’s minds that a second hit is hard to get, the first one is so stuck there. (Yes, I know they had a second hit – “Wishing Well” – but never heard it growing up, just this.) Kossoff died in 1976, by which time Rodgers and drummer Simon Kirke had started up Bad Company, picking right up where they left off, effectively.

But now, in 1970, this stuff (which Dellio and Woods dub Hard Rockin’ Shit, for obvious reasons) was new and carried the rock flag proudly, wearing denim, rockin’ out whenever and wherever possible, and taking an easy – maybe too easy – attitude towards women, women who are smart to men’s tricks, tricks men barely see as that’s the way they roll, baby, whether you like it or not. Give in, the song seems to say, I’m not that bad, am I? No reason to hesitate if the moment is right, and in HRS the moment is always right. Young, eager men have been agreeing wholeheartedly ever since, grunting and singing along, a whole genre summed up pretty much in one song.

Next up: what if she’s not a, um, she?

*”What Winston Churchill would have looked like in Sumo wrestling garb, that’s what “All Right Now” sounded like.” Really, is there anyone better than Dellio and Woods, folks?

Monday, April 23, 2012

4/4 On The Floor: Mr Bloe: "Groovin' With Mr. Bloe"

The imperative to dance is one of the main things about music; so much of it is meant to be part of a celebration or release of one kind or another, an escape from ordinary, everyday life. There is an almost equal imperative that the music played for said times be special, different – again, not what you would hear regularly on the radio or in the charts. People like to set up these rules and be strict about them, as any space that acts as a true escape has to be patrolled for any malign outsider influence. The party, as such, cannot be spoiled.

However, music is an oceanic experience and songs have a way of showing up, being played, of persisting until those who once didn’t want to hear them now welcome them, hopefully realizing that it was folly to try to keep the song out, that it belonged to them the entire time.

The Northern Soul movement is just what it sounds like – dancers in Northern England going to discos and clubs to dance to soul music from the 60s and 70s. While their Southern middle class hippie counterparts were getting high and listening to The Moody Blues or Led Zeppelin, the working class Northerners were dressing up and doing a few uppers in order to dance for hours and hours to 4/4 stomping songs that were open, welcoming and – quite vitally – theirs. This music didn’t make the charts, though many of the artists – particularly the Motown ones – were getting to be fairly well-known, due to Dave Godin’s (and BBC 1 DJ Tony Blackburn’s) tireless efforts to get Motown into the charts. Northern Soul dancers liked obscurity, liked rarity, appreciated the DJs who would go to the US to find ever-more-obscure songs for them to sweat and spin to, over many years – at this time the main place to go was The Twisted Wheel in Manchester, though the Wigan Casino and Blackpool Mecca were two other places where the DANCE DANCE DANCE (pausing to drink and towel yourself) imperative reigned supreme.

However it may surprise you to hear that this song, so obviously meant to be appreciated and danced to by the Northern Soul contingent, was rejected because…it was too popular! The original version, done by the US studio group Wind (only in the late 60s could a band even try to get away with a name like that) was the b-side to “Make Believe.” “Groovin’ With Mr. Bloe" was written by Bo Gentry, Bernard Cochrane, Paul Naumann and Kenny Laguna (whom we will get back to in a decade or so). Any semblances to “Mony Mony” by Tommy James and the Shondells are not a coincidence; bubblegum was still in vogue and this song may well have been rejected by the purists for being a ‘bubblegum’ version of their own thing. Mr. Bloe was a studio group put together by Dick James, and Elton John famously was part of it, though it is Zack Lawrence on the piano here and not Elton (though Elton is on other songs by them and appeared, according to my husband, on TOTP to perform this song). Mr. Bloe, as such, is Harry Pitch, who plays the harmonica (though some say it's Ian Duck; studio bands are shifting, mysterious things at the best of times). A UK studio creation was always going to be trumped by some obscurity found by a crate-digging DJ somewhere in Atlanta, and thus this wasn’t a Northern Soul hit at first…

Still, someone must have bought this, and now comes the oceanic part: it was kids. Kids don’t care about purist rules and regulations, kids just want to have fun and dance and feel good, and this is one of the top songs in this whole blog for just that. Cheery, warm, welcoming, utterly unpretentious, this is what kids in Dundee and Manchester* and everywhere else wanted, and what in seven years or so the dancers in Wigan and Leeds would see the light and get on the floor for – that prime imperative of dancing for the sheer love of movement finally trumping any other need…

…and at the same time, this song wasn’t exactly ignored in the South either; one singer-songwriter used it in ’77 as the basis for this song, proving that even if you move to Berlin there is still that inspiration of dance, of clapping and spinning and twisting, keeping the faith in a music that is a joyous release, a sunshine haven on a rainy night.

*This was a favourite of Morrissey’s at the time and later covered by The Associates in 1990 and The Fall in 2003, though UK soul group Humbug did a cover version with lyrics that's almost as good as the original. I cannot help but note that in two years a certain Italian will do his own stompy harmonica song which may never be accepted by Northern Soul fans as one of their own, but really should be. Look at all the stomping and dancing going on here!

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

The Heroic Kludge: The Moody Blues: "Question"

As 1970 unfolds, the various odd strands that make up music are showing up, some more prominent than others. This song stands not just for The Moody Blues themselves but the whole progressive rock movement, which produced, to quote from I Wanna Be Sedated by Phil Dellio and Scott Woods on Yes, “true seventies classics, exhibiting a musical sophistication and intellectual prowess that left Three Dog Night and Bobby Sherman fans dumbfounded.”

Some may have questioned rock’s need to progress, but as the 60s wound down it emerged, and The Moody Blues were right there in ’67 to stupefy the world with Days of Future Passed, a far cry from their piano-pounding days when the Brumbeat sound was rumbling and rolling as loud as it could. Once Denny Laine left – he who sang on the band’s only #1 their cover of “Go Now” – Lonnie Donegan and Marty Wilde protégé Justin Hayward stepped in, to keen and croon and cry along with the symphonic folk melodies and pastoral romps on that album. (I’m not sure if there wasn’t something in the Birmingham water that made Jeff Lynne and Roy Wood want to get classical instruments into their music, but they proceeded to put them together in a different way, making cellos rock out, etc.) By this time they were the most popular prog rock group in part because they could do songs like this one and actually make them work.

Kludging – the art of sticking two things together and making them function – is accepted in prog rock and indeed almost necessary, as tempos and moods and so on shift as the songs/movements/ideas alter and build up. The Beatles kludged, and so everyone did, when needed; and “Question” is obviously two songs stuck together to become one. The song starts at a Richie Havens-strumming-acoustically intense pace, and there’s the band, and Justin, crying about injustice and why the "thousand million" questions of “hate and death and war” (lest we forget Vietnam is ongoing) are never answered. The knocked-upon door never opens, and the world burns in its greed, as quickly as the song – which sounds like a horse bounding along at top speed* - goes. And then love is mentioned, and the song slows down…

…and the “we” of the first part becomes a confessional, “I’m looking for a miracle in my life” – and clearly the narrator has suffered, but has he found someone? Who is doing “those things” (ah, vagueness) to him? Will she be the one to change his life? Because he cannot just live life like anyone else; he is ambitious – all that door-knocking and idealism is exhausting – and needs someone to change his life, to touch his very soul. That’s a big order, but prog rock is never about mundane life and regular needs. It’s BIG and extravagant and symphonic, as the sudden explosion takes us back to the beginning, the knight off again on his self-appointed mission to get an answer, mellotrons as his sidekicks. The kludging works as in the middle he is in a way asking a question as well, asking this Other of his to become that miracle (once something like that is said it’s hard to ignore), to make his life better. It is slightly absurd that the song is all about the seeking and not finding, but then most of The Moodies’ music is about seeking (or learning to see) and then becoming enlightened, or at least reaching a higher state of understanding, if only for now.

Justin Hayward’s voice is warm and terribly noble – it’s impossible to think of him ever being sly or ironic – and this goes with the folk/rock/orchestral sweep of their music, which has none of the weirdness found elsewhere in prog rock (at this point King Crimson were their main rivals, though Yes were about to take center stage and do what Dellio and Woods mentioned). The Moodies themselves wore themselves out with recording and touring (there are only so many ways you can implore others to “open your eyes, look up to the skies and see” as Queen will eventually put it) but returned chipper and idealistic as ever in 1981, and got yet another US #1 album from the faithful who needed their warmth and optimism in the cold reality of the dawning of the Reagan era. (To put it another way, there were a lot of Baby Boomers who turned to their college-days heroes in their time of need.)

As dumbfounding as prog rock – popping up here as a single, but usually sold by the (double or triple sometimes) album – could be, The Moody Blues bring an urgency and eloquence that may sound silly to some but to a lot at the time made perfect sense. A new decade is taking shape and while some are going to cast off the 60s like so many unfashionable garments, there are those who are going to keep dreaming and questioning and longing for something more; as naïve as this song can be (hate and death and war are not new things, after all) it is a protest song, a song that can barely keep still, pushing the limits of what a single can be. The Moody Blues are making rebellious music for the suburbs, and later in the 70s the suburbs will produce rebellion that is just as heartfelt, if lacking in acoustic guitars and mellotrons.

*The Moodies' popularity in the US was due to their constant touring and the Romantic aspects of their work; there's a lot of Anglophiles who like to think the UK is full of such chivalrous and heroic figures, or at least want music that sounds like what they presume the UK used to be like. That, and they can understand Justin Hayward's voice a lot better than future bands like Slade, who sounded fine on the rocking-out level but speaking as an American I still can't make heads or tails of half of what he sings.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

Who Is Who: Mary Hopkin: "Knock Knock Who's There?"

There are certain songs which are hits at the time and stay hits, and others which are typical of their time and yet somehow point towards the future; I can't say I knew this song before I heard it (it is yet another step in my understanding UK culture) and it is a song that seems to look back to the wide-eyed, expectant time before The Beatles and ahead to something quite different.

The narrator is eager, willing something to happen, even if it's just in her imagination and she knows nothing will really happen. Yet, when she closes her eyes, she gets the "strangest feeling" - a feeling that may be instinct, may be pleasant or unpleasant, though with Hopkin's voice it of course sounds as if it could only be a good thing, and she certainly sounds welcoming enough. (The song's writers, Geoff Stephens and John Carter, are the guys in tuxes in the back, as was the custom at Eurovision at the time.) John Carter's own demo of the song points up the fact that maybe the teardrop on the window and the strangest feeling are more disturbing and that to imagine someone knocking on the door is, come to think of it, kind of delusional. No one just knocks on a front door and steps in unless the person inside has invited them somehow; even if what the narrator is inviting in is an abstract - Love - well, that is equally odd, as Love rarely responds to such passiveness... what is going to come in, what is really awaited? An actual person, romance, Love? The 70s themselves could be in this room already, with Hopkin as its voice, and her tremendous eagerness for something, anything to happen is as hopeful and naive as the new decade itself. Who knows what is going to happen? That something will comes through in the music, all curlicues and confident, swooping like a bird from note to note.

This same room will occur again (I know I've mentioned it before in conjunction with Hopkin, but this time it's even more pertinent) in 1977, a room where her voice comes back as that welcoming spirit to perhaps comfort a man who cannot leave his room, who is scared of what is outside and yet is waiting; waiting for a gift that is mysterious, one which doesn't come from a knock on the door but from the inside, from a place where that strange feeling starts. Hopkin longs for Love to come and relieve her from solitude, but here solitude is required, it seems, for anything to happen at all. That Hopkin is there may also point back to the optimistic delusion of this song, and Bowie sings more to himself, when he bothers to sing at all.

"Knock Knock Who's There?" got second place at Eurovision (as it does here) and for all I know it may have been some influence on Bowie at the time; it sounds like a much simpler and happier song than it really is. This is not a new thing in pop, but it will start to happen more frequently as something that is for now nameless begins to find its roots and slowly begins to grow, with Stephens and Carter two of its friendly forebears. The 70s has more of them in store, as pop begins to grow in two distinct ways - the dull and predictable, and the strange and lovely. This song belongs to the latter, all black and sparkling, contradictory and yet united.

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Olympian Yelp: Andy Williams: "Can't Help Falling In Love"

And now we shift from the still grieving Beatles fans to a different segment of fans altogether - those who watched tv, and bought singles by those who had their own tv shows. As the 70s go on the power of television - both shows and commercials - grows stronger, and as you would expect, helps to mould what gets in the charts.

If you have your very own tv show of course you don't need commercials, you just have to perform the song and it will sell, depending on how your audience reacts to it; the whole thing is a neat circle, and since kids watch tv as much as adults do, anything that appeals to both generations - as this song surely did - will really work. Commercially, at least; but is this a good version of the Hugo & Luigi song?

Williams' best work - as noted here - is not where he has to shout to be heard, but where he can be more varied in his responses, from joyous to near-godlike. I say godlike as in absolute; Williams is not a man for holding back if it's not necessary, and his Olympian voice in this song strains the delicacy the melody and seductiveness of the lyrics. It is a hard song to sing with much emphasis or whooping joy, because it is at root a chanson, dozy and suggestive, slightly sinister and retrospectively overwhelming.

"Take my whole life too" is a big statement and Williams here is virtually throwing himself at his Other, with what sounds like the Love Affair in the background doing a variation on "Everlasting Love." He is going up and up when the whole song is about that river gently flowing into the sea, about inevitability, about fate itself. Perhaps Williams is taking his cue from the "fools rush in" part, but he doesn't sound as if his whole life is in someone else's hands, which is really the point of the song. He cannot help himself, he is vulnerable, but made strong by his love - strong enough to sing, at least. However, Williams seems to be proclaiming this helplessness as so the whole town can hear, shouting it from the rooftop - it's all at cross purposes, and feels like someone using a blowtorch to light a birthday candle.

This is what happens, though, when a song (an NME #2 by the way) is done in a style that will appeal to 'the kids' as well as the adults; the subtleties are lost in a new glossy finish that sounds 'hip' while still appealing to his main fans (Williams' show was at its peak in popularity at this time). It worked, clearly, but I can't say it's a good version of the song, just one that fits in with the general confusion of 1970, where the old and the new are beginning to get mixed up, and all kinds of strange things, as you dear readers will see, start to pop up, songs that come from all angles and places, some already laid-back, others (like this one) definitely not.

Next up: Back to Eurovision.

Monday, April 2, 2012

Rock of Ages: The Beatles: "Let It Be"

There can be no surer sign that the 60s were well and truly over than the breakup of The Beatles; if they had been able to continue for even another year, then the 60s would have ended then. But they broke up and continued to break up all through the late 60s, like so many booster rockets that fall away, energy burning up at a terrific rate to get the main thing, the music, launched. The falling apart happened after Brian Epstein’s death and simply accelerated after that, until April 1970, when Paul – who had been carrying the band on his back and yet secretly recording his own album – left, releasing McCartney soon after.

Cue the misery of a million fans, who maybe weren’t ready for such an abrupt ending, even if they could see it coming. (In Apollo 13 one of the astronaut’s daughters has a screaming fit and won’t leave her room when she hears the news; this must have happened in every town in the world.) Post-Sgt. Pepper, the group splintered and effaced themselves and tried to invent indie by simply producing themselves and ended up getting George Martin back after that didn’t really work. Perhaps had he lived they would have rebelled against Epstein too, but as he was gone they had no rudder going into starting and running the Apple corporation, including fashion and publishing, not to mention their rather pointless pouring of money into a new studio when Abbey Road was their natural home. (The Rolling Stones, being the vagabonds they were, had a mobile studio and this worked out much better for them, in that they could rent it to other bands while they were living their complex lives.)

But if the fans were led to believe – by who I’m not sure – that Yoko Ono was to blame for the breakup, this is because they couldn’t or wouldn’t perceive what was actually happening; the group was breaking itself up, and had been together only in name by this time for months. McCartney had kept the ragtag bunch going long after everyone else had lost enthusiasm, making them record “Maxwell's Silver Hammer” pretty much against their wills (McCartney was convinced it could be a big hit, Lennon hated it) and patronizing, without meaning to, Harrison and Starr. McCartney wrote this song while working on The Beatles, inspired by a consoling dream he’d had after another day of bickering in the studio. His late mother, Mary, appeared to him, telling him that things would work themselves out.

It is a simple song, gospel in that is it warm and comforting, the whole song structured towards resolution, as opposed to a call-and-response gospel of reaffirmation of the spirit. It is a song of calmness and hope (“there will be an answer”) of a specific kind as opposed to a mystical experience which leads to an epiphany. It is an optimistic song, as McCartney wants the peace he has found to spread around the world; a bit of 60s idealism that he knows is still there, even when the sun isn’t shining. The world is full of broken-hearted people, he knows; he wants to share his wisdom with them, and while this might (again) seem a little patronizing*, it is a song of a man who needs whispered wisdom himself, and is eager to spread the word, gospel-style.

This was a time when songs of solace and recognition of “times of trouble” were needed, and this song has become a kind of audio “Keep Calm And Carry On” poster of sorts, being sung and covered, without much evidence of the simple and personal nature of the song. It is meant to be sung by one person, not a choir, and yet it was the penultimate song sung at the London Live Aid concert. More bafflingly, it was recorded in 1987 for Ferry Aid, raising funds for those affected by car ferry The Herald of Free Enterprise’s capsizing due to negligence, flooding with water almost as soon as everyone was on board. Nearly 200 died, many others suffered, and yet the response was…to let it be? Let what be? UK tabloid The Sun had given away cheap tickets for the crossing and after the disaster it put together the benefit single…and tried to get McCartney’s direct involvement, but he would not relent, no doubt thinking giving them permission to sample this song was more than enough [correction: he did appear in the video]. That The Sun was all for profit-maximising, negligence-encouraging capitalism, and then sponsored a single that had everyone singing badly and then congratulating themselves at the end is so far away from the original, I wonder if McCartney would have let them cover it, had he known how (besides Kate Bush) everyone yelled the song instead of singing it as a lullaby**. Because that is what it is.

Yes, the comfort here is a direct one, one from one generation to the next, from one who has gone to one still here; the open intimacy of the song is embarrassing to some, I think, who would prefer Harrison’s spiritual insights or Lennon’s political slant. But this was the last single released while they were still (only just) together. (“The Long And Winding Road” was their last US single, a song that deserved much better than the too-sweet icing that Phil Spector used to cover up the fact that it was a demo with comically bad bass-playing by John Lennon***.)

And that, as they say, is that. The 60s were over, whether the fans liked it or not (and hopes remained high in the 70s that they would reform, especially since Lennon, Harrison and Starr regularly appeared on each other’s records). But anyone who saw Let It Be the movie knew things were too strained for there to be another single, never mind a concert or full-blown comeback. The Beatles were like the Nova Police of pop/rock – “We do our work and go” – and from that there is no return, however much it is yearned for, however much people want it or even need it****. The Fab Four went their separate ways, and fans had the music already; Harrison, Lennon, McCartney and Starr were plunging individually into the 70s now, leaving the public with songs that were about hope and consolation, as if to say, here here, it’s not that bad. Things will be all right. Let it be.

(It would be wrong to end main story of The Beatles without noting that the b-side of "Let It Be" is the divinely silly "You Know My Name (Look Up The Number)" - the kind of silly thing they would do in studio and then finish later, with shifts in mood and tempo, funny and giddy [Brian Jones and Neil Innes each drop in at times, Jones for the saxophone bit at the end], a piece of multicolored 1967 joy that happily balances out the sober and wiser a-side.)

*That Lennon didn’t much like this one either – he thought it was a Catholic song, which it wasn’t – was yet another straw on McCartney’s back.

**”Ferry Cross The Mersey,” recorded as a consolation and commemoration of the Hillsborough disaster of 1989, one where many Liverpool fans suffered and were then slandered by The Sun, gives McCartney room to vent his anger, an anger that had no doubt had been there since Ferry Aid.

***That Lennon had been so against any studio overdubs and then turned around and brought in Spector to cover his own meagre playing was the very last straw for McCartney, who promptly left the band as soon as he heard it, citing it in court as one of the reasons for the breakup.

****This was just announced today, and of course there was Beatlemania in the 70s/80s for anyone who wanted it (I wanted to see it when I was all of eleven, but no luck).