Do we have the strength for one more Beatles album in us? No? Well, me neither. But The Beatles 1967-1970 is the very last one we’ve got–promise–and we might as well slug our way through it, in the name of completion and discipline if nothing else.
Unlike companion piece 1962-1966, 1967-1970 is mostly a collection of album tracks. There are a few exceptions–“Hey Jude,” “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane”–but the majority of this material is culled from Sgt. Pepper’s, The Beatles, Abbey Road, and Let It Be. As such, it’s material we’ve mostly covered, and listening to it again so soon after the first go-round hasn’t exactly proven to be revelatory. In fact, I spent most of my time checking my email, cleaning the living room, checking up on an eBay auction, and reading the Wikipedia article on “I Am the Walrus.”
If nothing else, I’m grateful to 1967-1970 for reminding me that “I Am the Walrus” is one of the most underrated songs Lennon ever wrote. Which isn’t to say that it’s not appreciated (its inclusion in this greatest-hits package says otherwise) but that it’s often lumped in with their second-tier work. I can understand why. “Walrus” is a transitional song for the group. It’s built on the hard-rocking foundation to which the group would rededicate themselves a year or so later, but retains the better elements of the psychedelic period–swirling tape loops, nonsensical backing vocals, and a deep dedication to surreality. Allegedly, Lennon wrote the song’s most opaque lyrics after hearing that a class at his former high school was studying his songs, scoffing, “Let the fuckers work that one out.” Whether true or not, the story would be believable even if we didn’t have the vast historical record of Lennon’s flippancy. Listen to the way he snarls the words out in “Walrus” from below loads of distortion and dissonant strings. The Lewis Carroll references, along with the “goo-goo-gajoob” chorus and the lurking visual of the group in animal costumes, try to sell “Walrus” on its whimsy, as another playful drug lark in the mode of “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds.” But that whimsy is a thin layer of fake fur that the Beatles don’t even bother to pull over their druggy menace. That sense of defiance, of a kind of contempt or deep boredom trolling just below the song’s trippy surface, has always been its appeal to me, despite it being a personification of Lennon’s worst human qualities. Even the way Ringo raises his eyebrows in the video at the “let your knickers down” line, as if he knows you’re shocked, and he’s unimpressed by your shock, is thrilling to me. Billy Corgan stole this entire emotional complex years later when he wrote “Zero,” and while it’s never really been the kind of place you’d want to live, it’s hard not to be entranced by Lennon’s re-imagining of Carroll’s world.
I’ve always dismissed Ringo along with everyone else, but cycling back through these records over the past few weeks has changed my opinion. There’s a postcard somewhere that McCartney sent to Ringo several years after the band’s breakup, a sweet and semi-reconciliatory note saying that Ringo is the greatest drummer in the world. It’s the kind of pep-up note you send to a close friend when you realize you’ve reached the end of something together. It’s also–well, if not true, then at least worth considering. As I mentioned in my review of Rubber Soul, Ringo’s drumming carries “In My Life,” and here, on “A Day in the Life,” it lends the song a deeper layer of complexity. His start-stop rhythms jerk Lennon’s strumming back and forth, making the song somehow more poignant in its inability to move steadily forward. On the noisy coda to “Strawberry Fields Forever” he sounds like Levon Helm minus the swinging accent, politely refusing his cymbals as he bashes out a martial rhythm. He wasn’t the most technically gifted player, or the most innovative, but he was the perfect drummer for the Beatles.
So that’s it for the Fab Four. I don’t want to hear anything about or by a Beatle for the next six months (which is probably how long it’ll take to get to Lennon’s solo stuff anyway), but I’m still pleased that I made it through it. I take the Beatles–and their genius–for granted, and it’s always nice to re-encounter a familiar excellence. I’ll hold off spilling who’s getting spun tomorrow, but rest assured, it won’t be a Beatle.