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New Light on the Beatles Equation

Rolling Stone magazine has a list of the Top Ten Beatles Books. You may not be surprised to learn that there isn’t a single book written by a woman in the list.

Still, boys love lists, don’t they? And the alphabetising, train-spotting tendency is dominant in rock criticism. Mark Lewisohn has taken it to such an extreme that he seems to be accepted now as the World Authority on The Beatles, spoken about in breathless tones as The Great Source Who Has All The Clippings.

There are books about (or featuring) The Beatles written by women (Cyn, Patti, Marianne), but they tend to be by women-who-were-there rather than rock critics per se. I’m not saying these books are lesser. I’m not anti-wife/girlfriend or anti-groupie or anti-Fan Club secretary. I’m not saying rock critics are better or greater, or comparing them with Patti Boyd as a person, or Cynthia Lennon as a thing or whatever she is. I just said what I said and was wrong, or was taken wrong, and now it’s all this.

I started listening to podcasts largely because I realised I could listen to people sitting around talking about The Beatles for hours and never get bored with it. And of course, most of the time, almost all of the time, the people sitting around talking about The Beatles have been men. Oh how I wish Garvey and Glover would spend an extended Fortunately episode talking about The Beats. But that will never happen, or at least I don’t think it will.

The I Am the Eggpod podcast has had a lot of women on as guests, which is great, and on the latest episode I heard a voice that intrigued me and an episode which I thought a cut above many of the others, which sometimes lack an edge. Diana Erickson is one of (I think) three women who produce a podcast called Another Kind Of Mind. I have a few frustrations with the podcast (which are nothing to do with the content), but it is so great to hear women talking about The Beatles. Furthermore, they have ideas about the band, and the Lennon-McCartney partnership, that are different, fresh, and fascinating. And who would have thought, after 50 years of chin stroking male rock criticism there would be anything new to say?

As one of the contributors said in their introductory episode, it just seems wrong that the job of cataloguing and recording the history of this band for posterity should be in the hands of a single man. With all due respect to Mr Lewisohn, this seems like a no-brainer.

First of all, as with so many I Am the Eggpod episodes, I was grateful to be referred to an overlooked, misunderstood and critically castigated work by Paul McCartney (the first Wings album, Wild Life), which was destroyed by the likes of Rolling Stone but is actually (of course it fucking is) very good. And so is Ram, Paul’s second solo album. And I blame myself entirely for ignoring this stuff, because as a Beatles fan I totally swallowed the Paul-is-shit narrative when I was younger and I never even tried to form my own opinion.

If nothing else, that’s the only reason anyone needs to pay more attention to other voices, to understand that diversity matters, and that even wallowing in the warm bath of The Beatles, you are soaking up institutional sexism and racism.

Paul McCartney doesn’t need me to tell him he’s good, but I feel genuinely upset that I allowed the white male, Lennon-worshipping rock critics of the 70s and 80s so much influence over me. Furthermore, it really must have been incredibly tough for Macca to be told, over and over, that his records were shit, to watch people gleefully poring over the details of “How Do You Sleep” and parroting the received wisdom of the day. How, in fact, do any of us sleep?

That said, I have never been guilty of dismissing Paul’s contributions to The Beatles, especially in the later period, when he produced some of the group’s greatest work.

Before I go further, some quibbles with Another Kind Of Mind. The sound quality is patchy. It’s not inaudibly bad, but one of the contributors is basically talking down a phone line. I’m not saying book a studio, I’m not asking for NPR quality sound editing, but I am saying: buy a half-decent USB microphone and hang up a quilt behind you. Sure, your first two episodes might be shonky, but you can get a USB mic for under 50 notes and things will start to sound much, much better.

Second quibble: I only know Diana Erickson’s name because she’s on another podcast. Even on their own web site, the contributors don’t name themselves, and in their show notes they only use first names. I’d like to be able to confidently quote these critics like I would any other, but they don’t even introduce themselves at the start of an episode. I’m uncomfortable calling them “these women” and “the contributors”. First names only: Diana, Thalia, Phoebe. And I think Phoebe is the one who sounds like she’s talking down a phone line, like David Coleman at the 1970 World Cup.

So to the episodes. I went back to the beginning and I’m about halfway through the run thus far. So good, so provocative, so interesting.

I confess that – as with Craig Brown’s book – they played into my hands a little with their take on Yoko. There is a tendency at the moment among the chin strokers to opine that Yoko’s music is better and more cutting edge than John’s, for example. I remain unconvinced by these arguments.

(By the way, the women have a name for the male rock critics and male fans de nos jours. They call them The Jean Jackets. Men of a certain age who wear of the denim.)

While they set Yoko’s status as an artist to one side, they show a healthy scepticism towards her. Personally, I always found her art twee and her music unlistenable. I would probably find all so-called avant-garde music unlistenable. She can’t sing and she can’t play, as far as I’m concerned.

I do think that behind all the Jean Jacket criticism of the last 40 years or so is a kind of watchful caution. If you want access, you have to go through Yoko, who is one of the Apple gatekeepers. You could almost believe that some critics are just waiting for Yoko to die. One of the refreshing things about Another Kind Of Mind is that Phoebe, Diana and Thalia seem to have no concerns about access. They’ve trawled through the available material – the tapes and films of the Beatles that are out there – and they’ve built their thesis from what is in the public domain (even if it isn’t, strictly speaking, legally in the public domain).

I don’t want to post too much, because the whole point is that this is a podcast worth listening to, in which you’ll hear things about The Beatles that you haven’t considered before. Suffice it to say: they’re not terribly interested in George and Ringo. They want to dig in to the John-Paul relationship and try to come up with an alternative take on the break up, cutting through the received wisdom and mythology, and taking the radical approach of paying attention to what they said and what they did.

(Mind you, the one episode I’ve heard where they do talk about George – considering his contribution to “How Do You Sleep” in particular – is a fucking eye-opener.)

The (Indian) elephant in the room is that Something Happened in Rishikesh that changed everything. After they returned from India, the relationships in the band were tense, their work in the studio was different, and the long story of the break-up begins. The Let it Be sessions are particularly fascinating. It’s tense. Yoko is there. George and Ringo and everyone else want Paul to say something. They want Paul to tell John not to bring Yoko in. Why doesn’t Paul do something about it? Paul is the only one who can tell John what to do. But Paul says nothing.

The Jean Jackets have always paid lip service to the love between John and Paul, but have downplayed it in ways which make it impossible to see the full picture. For example, John’s love for Stu Sutcliffe is played up (he’s safely dead), but the idea that he had similarly intense feelings for Paul (and vice versa) is played down. Even on Rolling Stone’s Top Ten, Pete Shotton’s book is singled out and the relationship between John and Pete given more weight than that between John and Paul. This eyeball-to-eyeball songwriting partnership of two geniuses has never been given real consideration. Just writing that sentence feels wrong! That can’t be right, can it? But I’ve been obsessed with The Beatles for over 40 years and, you know, I don’t think I’ve ever read anything that gave serious attention to the love, the love, between these two men, who “talked in code” when outsiders were around, and spoke to each other through songs.

I really love the way the women delve into the tapes, the lyrics, the interviews, how they piece together the jigsaw; and I love the way they consider events, and the order in which they happened, and make you see things with fresh eyes. So, sound quality issues aside, this is a must-listen. Prepare for the shock of your Jean Jacketed life.