Free as a Bird. It was 20 years ago today…

That’s the kind of heading obligatory for a Beatles anniversary that you can’t ignore. It’s a big week in Beatles-lore – Rubber Soul turned 50 yesterday, and today marks 20 years since the Beatles brief ’90s reunion. In a way…

Yes, it must be a big day when the Liverpool Echo confirms that Walton Hospital, where Paul McCartney was born, will soon be turned into apartments and a branch of Aldi. But enough about the bargain Beatle…

Rubber Soul

Rubber Soul albumRubber Soul turned 50 yesterday. Not the start of the Beatles, just the start of a different Beatles, perhaps the entirety of a Beatles era. There’s no doubt Rubber Soul was a turning point. As Beatlemania had become as passe as it was expected, the band were a mere year from turning their backs on touring and live performance. Rubber Soul sparked the Trans-Atlantic rivalry to a peak, as Brian Wilson wrote Pet Sounds in reply. Poor Brian, when that album launched in May ’66 it enjoyed a good two months before the Beatles brought out Revolver. While the intervening years have seen Sgt Pepper’s fall slightly to RevolverRubber Soul has stayed rather unfortunately at the same level of critical and popular respect, but it was that earlier album that first showed what was to come.

Darker, less compromising, with deeper more sophisticated scope that left no room for the nods to covers on its B-side. Here was a band far more capable in pulling the wool over everybody’s eyes. And as a more personal piece, it’s possibly the strongest and most discernably enjoyable split between Lennon and McCartney in the canon (while Harrison also gets to make his mark). The A-side is topped and tailed by McCartney’s growing whimsy, while his humour still had a bite, and the B-side bookmarked by riveting Lennon darkness. Run for your Life is a hell of an album closer. Both the lead writers show their dexterity, but Lennon owns the middle ground of each side with the deceptive Nowhere Man and perhaps his most important song up to that date, the peerless In My Life. It’s not so much future proof as it’s a rattling album that’s superbly well fitted to the 1960s and deserves to stay in that context. It does so with far more ease than Revolver or the albums that would follow. Perhaps it’s just more future resistant.

Of course, the Beatles were averaging around 23 at the time. Bloody hell.

Free as a Bird

Free as a BirdIt took some digging but I tracked it down – on 20th November 1995 the UK ITV network ran an early evening half hour show called All Together Now. When Rubber Soul was a nimble 30 year old. Talking heads, including Noel Gallagher, paid plaudits to the Beatles as they returned with their three part album and long form docu series Anthology and of course…  Some new material. The show closed with the video premiere of new single Free as a Bird, released on 4th December that year. You know, in the old, rarified physical single format, though a long stretch from their last US number one single The Long and Winding Road / For You Blue in May 1970…

Free as a Bird reached number 2 in the UK charts, the slot where all the really good songs used to end up. I’ve still got that All Together Now show on VHS. Any illegality surely balanced by the punishment of needing to retain a VCR to play it.

Taking and expanding a 1977 demo of Lennon’s, it was the only feasible way to bring the four back together. It’s not entirely successful, as Yoko-baitingly simple as it is (she immediately dismissed the far more raw and bluesy Hey Bulldog as childish, not necessarily from the in-studio bed she’d taken to during 1968 recording sessions) it’s an overly earnest and slightly over-produced track. More successful would be the follow-up Real Love. A far better known Lennon song now than then, in part thanks to John Lewis, that recording session convinced Harrison not to continue with a third.

Both videos for both was dripping in nostalgia, but Free as a Bird was the opulent celebration. 20 years on it remains mildly nausea inducing but still goof for reference spotting on VHS or YouTube. It’s a cold heart that isn’t swept up in rush of McCartney’s voice meeting Harrison’s sweeping guitar – as the camera passes a nonchalant John in an armchair and the picture of Chairman Mao (he gets everywhere) to jump from the window of the Paperback Writer’s room and sail past the Blue Meanie, Bulldog and newspaper taxi into the Indian infused hotel lobby of the band’s late era.

I’d only really discovered the Beatles a couple of years previously, given a cassette tape recorded from vinyl that skipped and jumped in ways my brain still anticipates as it crammed on all of Sgt Pepper’s and a fair wad of The White Album. Ah, there’s a story for another time.

Recapturing the Bird

Sadly 1995’s retrospective didn’t help in one of the pop’s wonderfully long running feuds. The Beatles and Elvis locked like Liverpool and Manchester United in a scrap for the most titles. But Free as a Bird didn’t claim a number one, while Elvis remix A Little Less Conversation nominally stole the record of 18 number one singles from under Liverpudlian noses in 2002. Not that I’d ever assume Elvis is Man U – and that’s not to mention the controversy around the seven number ones the Beatles had inadvertently captured since 1970 or the great scandal of the Please Please Me placing. Or albums, with this Chrismas’ run-in of new entries: Elvis’s re-backed (with a little British help) If I Can Dream and the Beatles One reissues, featuring Free as a Bird and Real Love

But the legacy remains two decades on. Producing alongside the Beatles on Free as a Bird was Jeff Lynne, ELO stalwart and previous producer and fellow band mate of Harrison’s in the Travelling Wilburys. And who’d have thought that 2015 would see a successful return for Jeff Lynne’s ELO with a new album… One that clearly wears some of the Beatles and the legacy of those later session on it’s electric light sleeves.

This Christmas has The Beatles Anthology all over it…

You just know that the Beatles will return on these pages…





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