Wednesday, August 22, 2012

And in the end...

A tweet caught my eye in the aftermath of the London Olympics closing ceremony. It raised the point: "What will organisers of events like this do a few years from now when they can't wheel out acts like The Who?".

It was an interesting question. We're all very proud of our musical heritage in Britain, but the surviving members of the 60s beat and blues movements - half of the Beatles, half of The Who, four of the original Rolling Stones, as well as the likes of The Kinks, Eric Clapton, The Animals and others - can't go on forever. Not even Keith Richards.

Still, they are around and, if The Who's performance at the Olympic Stadium was anything to go by, still a force. And Sir Paul McCartney's finale appearance at the opening ceremony may have suffered sound problems, but those who saw him on tour this summer have said that the 70-year-old gave some of his best performances as a solo act.

50 years after the Rolling Stones made their debut at London's Marquee, there is still speculation that they have one more tour in them. Not bad considering their marathon, two-year Bigger Bang Tour - the last time they were all out on the road together - ended just five years ago.

Having seen them twice at various times of that run, I can vouch that they were as impressive an actas at any time over the 30-odd years I've seen them live. Despite a dubious story in the Daily Mail a few weeks back claiming that Richards struggles to remember chords, I could imagine the Stones would still cause most other touring bands to swallow something hard and jagged with a show if they were to go out on the road again now.

But at serious risk of writing the most middle-aged words I'm ever going to come out with, it's unlikely that any of today's X Factor-generation acts will be still in the public eye, let alone performing, 50 years from now. Jessie J may have been more ubiquitous at the Olympic closing ceremony than the stadium seating, but it says something that more was written about her performance of We Will Rock You with Queen than the three songs of her own she sang.

Try as some might, there is no escaping the longevity of that brotherhood of artists who, inspired by Elvis and liberated by the ending of post-war gloom, finally, made American rock and roll, blues, soul and R&B their own and, in the process, made Britain center of the musical world for much of the 1960s.

1962, in particular, was a significant year: little more than a month after that Stones gig at the Marquee, Ringo Starr took over from Pete Best as the drummer in The Beatles. Four days later - 50 years ago tonight - they made their own debut at Liverpool's Cavern Club.

The irony is that today, August 22, represents something of a bookend for The Beatles. Because it was on this day in 1969 that the band held their very last photo session, at Tittenhurst Park, the Berkshire mansion that John Lennon and Yoko Ono had moved into just 11 days before. It's the same house in which Lennon would later record his Imagine film, which made a tearful appearance in the Olympic closing ceremony.

Roger Waters has said that Dark Side Of The Moon was the beginning of the end for Pink Floyd. Its success and critical acclaim led to the demons that increasingly beset the band as they recorded Wish You Were Here, more intensively on Animals and then their denouement with The Wall. For The Beatles, the success and acclaim of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club band seemed to have the same effect.

Cracks were appearing during the 1968 sessions for the ambitious double 'White Album' (The Beatles). By the start of 1969 the cracks were becoming even more pronounced. The cheeky, yet innocent fun the Fab Four had exuded when they first broke through with Please Please Me in 1963, and then took to America at the spearhead of the British Invasion, had ebbed away.

In the January they started rehearsals for what would eventually be the Let It Be album. For a band that had given up touring in 1965, their public visibility had become limited. An idea was hatched for Michael Lindsay-Hogg - who had made early promotional films for both The Beatles and the Rolling Stones - to film the rehearsal process on a soundstage at Twickenham Film Studios.

The cavernous studio in south-west London was cold in January, and the scrutiny of a staged environment for what was supposed to be a creative process became a miserable experience for the band. "The lowest of all lows", is Harrison's later description.

So, recording of Let It Be - then to be called Get Back - moved to The Beatles' new studio at 3 Savile Row in London's West End, the headquarters of their Apple record label and entertainment empire. Unhappy with the album's recording, it and its summer release, was put on hold. At the end of the month the band took to the roof of the Apple building to stage their famous concert - the last time they'd all perform together. Even taking the time of year into account, there was little more warmth on show than had been seen at Twickenham, and certainly none of the bonhomie that had characterised the lovable mop tops' early career - which was still only a handful of years earlier.

George Martin is said to have been surprised that The Beatles wanted to record another album after  the Let It Be/Get Back disaster, but at the beginning of July 1969 they started work on what would be Abbey Road. Sessions for the album ran through to August 20 - two days before they assembled at Lennon's country pile for their final photoshoot.

The Tittenhurst gathering was the last time the four Beatles would be 'on show' together, and came just 15 years after the teenage Lennon invited McCartney to join The Quarrymen. By September, Lennon had announced he was leaving, only to be persuaded to hang on until a reworked version of Let It Be by Phil Spector could be released.

Incredibly, just seven years separate Starr's August defection, from Rory Storm & The Hurricanes to The Beatles, and this somewhat morose-looking group of hippies reluctantly posing for pictures. The sharp suits Brian Epstein had dressed them in had gone, and instead weird beards and weirder hats had taken over. But the body of work they were to leave behind could not - and is still not - to be touched.

With so many artists from that era continuing to be in business, it's easy to think what might have been, even if The Beatles had continued into the 1970s, even if John Lennon had still been shot in 1980. Lennon went on to enjoy hits, but rarely the same acclaim; McCartney has endured as a national treasure; Harrison recorded brilliant albums like All Things Must Pass, demonstrating that Something and While My Guitar Gently Weeps weren't random examples of genius; and Ringo, bless him, has continued to live the dream, underpinned by a reputation as a truly talented drummer - which is how he came to be poached from Rory Storm in the first place.

The memories, however, are of a long time ago. The Rolling Stones have kept their legacy burning bright by staying, mostly, together. Their creativity has never matched the peak of the period between Beggars Banquet and Exile On Main Street, but that's not to say Steel Wheels or Voodoo Lounge didn't have their moments. And as a touring entity, they can still justify being the greatest rock'n'roll band in the world.

The Who have maintained themselves as a creditable heritage act - with Roger Daltrey's 68-year-old lungs showing little evidence of age at the Olympic Park, as he ironically belted out the immortal words "I hope I die before I get old", while Pete Townshend windmilled furiously next to him, as if Woodstock and Live At Leeds had only taken place days previously.

McCartney's appearance on the opening night of the Olympics drew plenty of snarkiness. For some, I'm sure, the realisation that the boyish Beatle was now a 70-year-old with a questionable dye-job makes it hard to countenance that all of our rockers from the 60s and early 70s are now dealing with old age.

Why they still do it, however, shouldn't be in question. Sir Paul McCartney is one of the world's wealthiest individuals. He could have stopped making albums - stopped doing anything, for that matter - a long time ago. So why does he?

Let his onetime rival Keith Richards answer that: "People say 'why don't you give it up?', opined Richards in his acclaimed autobiography, Life. "I don't think they understand. I'm not doing it just for the money, or for you. I'm doing it for me."

And in the end, that's why they'll keep going - until they "can't no more".

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