The Beatles Rarities Review
et's talk about rock-and-roll heroes. Still have any? I didn't think so. No wonder, really, when you consider what buffoons, by and large, or Sixties heroes have managed to become. Critic Simon Frith has observed that the reason English punks hate hippies so is that they are secretly afraid they'll turn out the same. They probably will, and though it does conjure up some interesting prospects, it's going to be pretty grim if our Sixties heroes are any example.
Consider, say, Grace Slick, now doing the talk-show circuit as a reformed alcoholic and carrying on like a Young Republican version of Lillian Roth. Or, better still, consider Bob Dylan, who appeared on the most recent Grammy Awards (after being introduced by Kenny Rogers as "the voice of a generation," which immediately moved those at my house to apply for membership in some other generation) wearing a tux and looking like a rather more jowly Richard Nixon. He proceeded to sing a Sunday school ditty that would not have been out of place at a Billy Graham crusade and finished by thanking the Lord and his producer (in that order). Now I ask you: in 1967, as you sat long into the night listening to Blonde on Blonde, could you have imagined, even in your wildest hemp-induced reveries, a de-greening of that magnitude?
The punks actually seem to have found ways of accelerating this depressing recidivism. By the time you read this, Debbie Harry of Blondie will be all over the tube hawking jeans bearing the name of Gloria Vanderbilt, which would have been unthinkable as recently as three years ago. And there will certainly be others in her wake: if Slick and Dylan can make shambles of our dreams, then I would counsel young idealists not to count too heavily on Bruce Springsteen or the Clash's remaining long unsullied either.
The point is that hero worship is just as dangerous as rock-and-roll as it is in any other area of life, politics included. Because, finally, all your heroes have feet of clay; every one of them will let you down if you give them the chance.
Which leads us to the Beatles and their "new" album. The Beatles were the biggest heroes rock-and-roll ever produced, and if Rarities is nothing else it is an artifact that takes their continuing hero status as a given. I don't think that's terribly healthy, though I will concede it may be justifiable. Though their individual stocks have dropped considerably in the years since the break-up (with rare exceptions: a few of Paul's singles, most of Band on the Run, and John's brilliant, angry first solo album), they have had the wit or integrity to resist being reformed. And that is why they still qualify as heroes.
But, no matter how you try to rationalize it, the Beatles-as-Heroes line is counterproductive, even though there are hordes of people out there who would like nothing better than for the Mop Tops to shake their aging booties on stage one more time. To tell the truth, I might have enjoyed the spectacle once myself. No more, and what finally wised me up were a couple of unpleasant realizations. One: it dawned on me that everything I detest on the radio today can be traced back to the Fab Four, from Barry Manilow all the way to Foreigner. (I'm sure that when the Beatles were writing "Yesterday" or "Penny Lane" it was not their intention to provide inspiration for those who in better times would have been writing jingles for chewing gum, but the mush-rock sound that defines our era is basically a bastardization of once-exciting Beatles innovations.) Two: I realized that I simply don't listen to them any more. That might be chalked up simply to overexposure (hell, if I had heard the B Minor Mass as many times as I've heard Sgt. Pepper I'd probably never listen to it again either), but I think it goes deeper. While I still believe that their talent and vision were the most all-encompassing of any rock band past or present, they no longer speak to me, and there are lots of people around who do.
It is not a question of their music's having dated; most of it hasn't and probably won't. The point is that life goes on, but the Beatles-worshipping mass audience seems not to care, preferring instead to crawl back into the womb of nostalgia. If you don't believe me, then please explain why nothing on AM radio these days, with the exception of the occasional disco record, would have sounded at all out of place back when the Beatles were at their peak? I'm not suggesting that everybody go out and buy the new Public Image album; Johnny Rotten hasn't a fraction of John Lennon's genius. But if people who won't even take the time to listen to what he (or any one of his contemporaries) has to say, preferring instead to dream of some vanished Golden Age that never existed anyway, then we are all of us -- hippies and punks alike -- in serious trouble.
What disturbs me about Rarities is that it seems aimed directly at people who still buy the Beatles myth whole, those who think of the group as a permanent standard against which the rest of rock-and-roll (and maybe everything else) must be judged forever. But even at a discount price, it's such a slight package that had a similar reconstruction job been undertaken for a lesser group, Ralph Nader would be bringing class-action suits for consumer fraud. These aren't "rarities"; they're footnotes, and from the lunatic fringe of Beatlemania at that. What you get are occasional lengthened intros ("I Am the Walrus") and endings ("And I Love Her"), "B" sides you already own, and bad mono mixes of a lot of ephemera. Who, other than the kind of people who can't throw out back issues of National Geographic, even cares anymore?
Yes, I'm being unfair. It is sort of nice, finally, to have the un-Spectored version of "Across the Universe," one of Lennon's loveliest studio essays. And there's nothing intrinsically evil about an album for collectors; if this had been released in, say, 1970 it would have been an appropriately thoughtful coda to a distinguished career. And yes, the Beatles were great; there's evidence of that all over this record. But this is 1980, dammit, and we live in a world where things change. Rarities, it seems to me, attempts to deny that, and ostrichism is the very last thing we need right now. I can find only one redeeming feature in all this: in an age when rock stars fall all over themselves to hustle for establishment status symbols, it is a consolation to know that the Beatles themselves had absolutely nothing to do with the decision to market this dispiriting package.
- Steve Simels, Stereo Review, July 1980.