Sexy Sadie

A lot of people died because of this song. Literally. The Beatles’ White Album has a unique status among rock albums: it has the Bible-like legacy of having been used as a justification for bloodshed. The record has a complicated legacy even without that baggage. Musically there is plenty to unpack. There was the rivalry and infighting that took place during the writing and recording, the personal struggles that the band dealt with outside of the studio, the growing differences between them that are starkly evident in the music. However, it will always be linked, at least in some people’s minds, to a string of grisly murders. Through no fault of anyone involved, the record came to be tainted by association with the chaos and instability of the wider world, becoming a symbol of a wider cultural fracture that was taking place. That’s thanks to the escapades of Charles Manson, who came to fame the following year for masterminding a series of horrific murders that captivated the world and still do so. The Manson killings, and the subsequent trial and media frenzy, were, besides their sheer brutality, perfectly planned and engineered for maximum imaginative impact. They combined so many elements designed to fascinate the public, and not by coincidence. They confirmed what people had already suspected about the hippie counter-culture: that it was cultish, seedy, sex- and drug- crazed, bent on overthrowing polite society, brainwashing impressionable young people with half-baked spirituality, fully capable of turning perfectly normal kids into homicidal maniacs. There was the class and race baiting, the messianic posturing, the vague political agenda. There was the irresistible celebrity factor: one of the victims was a well-connected movie star. It was the pop-cultural aspect that really made Manson and his Family into pop culture icons in their own right. Manson thought he was a messiah, but he didn’t bother too much with the biblical. He knew that stuff was boring and passe. His acolytes were with him because they’d already rejected Christian dogma. Instead, he used pop culture as his gospel, and he was particularly taken with the Beatles. They were, after all, bigger than Jesus. The inferences Charles Manson made about the White Album were, of course, dead wrong, but they were canny. The Beatles weren’t sending messages about inciting a race war or exterminating the upper classes – not even hypothetically were they thinking about those things. But the messages that Manson thought they were sending him about those things were convincing enough to get people to actually go out and try to do those things. When Manson told a girl he’d nicknamed Sadie Mae that the Beatles had personally earmarked her via song, that it meant she was to carry out Manson’s apocalyptic vision, she obediently went out and killed. (And spent the rest of her life in prison for her trouble.) It was the darkest possible example of rock music’s growing ability to influence real life, and of the potential way that art can escape the artist’s control. It was John Lennon’s innocent ‘bigger than Jesus’ comment come back to show just how dangerous and volatile that amount of fame can turn out to be. There wasn’t any bad intention behind the music. There didn’t have to be. All it needed was bad intention on the part of the listener to turn it into a manifesto of mayhem.

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Savoy Truffle

I’ve always misheard it as ‘savory truffle’ and that makes more sense to me. These chocolate flavors that are being described are alien to me. Must be an English thing. This is far from being one of George Harrison’s most towering achievements, but it does show his cheeky humor. Apparently Harrison wrote it to poke fun at Eric Clapton’s sweet tooth, and subsequent cavities. Which shows once again that one of the Beatles’ great strengths, collectively, was their ability to mine inspiration out of literally anything. A child’s doodle? Hit song. A poster on the wall? Hit song. Box of chocolates? Not exactly a huge hit, but definitely a song. It takes a childlike level of joie de vivre to see so much inspiration in the world. The world is a box of wonders and everything in it is there for your artistic fueling.

Rock and Roll Music

The Beatles recorded quite a few covers early in their career, and it always felt like it was a bit beneath them. Those guys could write mega-hits in their sleep, sometimes literally. The Beatles doing other people’s material is like Rene Redzepi busting open a box of Easy Mac. Even when the original writer is a luminary such as Chuck Berry. I’m in no way comparing the quality of Chuck Berry’s songwriting to a boxed macaroni product. If Chuck Berry’ music was a food item, it would be something deceptively simple and invigorating, like a perfectly grilled steak. However, master songwriters don’t need to lean on material that’s not exactly up to their own level of sophistication. The Beatles in 1966 were way past writing three chord rock songs about the joys of rocking, as was Chuck Berry himself. None of which really detracts much from the basic fun of a basic song about dancing, just as most us never stop enjoying Easy Mac.

 

Revolution 1

Did you know that The Beatles were a rock band? They invented feedback! Actually, no. In fact, The Beatles weren’t really a rock band in the sense that The Rolling Stones were a rock band, which is to say that they weren’t a blues band. They took musical cues from a wide array of sources, but the blues wasn’t really one of them. So there aren’t actually all that many Beatles songs that, you know, rock, in the sense of rock being rhythm-driven blues-based music. This is one of those few, and it makes you wish there were more. If they had managed to tolerate one another for a few years longer than they did, maybe they would have leaned into it more heavily. That would have been a really interesting direction to go in, but alas.

Please Please Me

I can’t say another word about the historical significance of Beatlemania. I don’t want to read any more words about it either. The Beatles have evolved, as historical figures, from a head-scratching phenomenon in their own time, to being subject to hindsight analysis from every conceivable angle, and at this point with absolutely no stone left unrolled, have entered the realm of pure academia, where overly-researched subjects go to die. Which is to say that the entertainment value of ever more arcane reiterations of the same well known story has become very low. But over-familiarity shouldn’t in any way take away from the still-unparalleled fun of The Beatles’ music. It’s all about the music, ya know. And the music doesn’t really need an annotated companion volume. It doesn’t need all that historical context. It doesn’t need analysis. It just exists. Just enjoy it and don’t think so hard.

Penny Lane

Out of all the things to love here – of which there are many – the thing I love most right now is the image The Beatles present of themselves in the video. Although they were, at that point in their career, treated as artistic demigods and were (as they remain) the most seriously respected rock artists in the world, they apparently still wanted to be seen as an adorable band of brothers who exist in a whimsical alternate universe full of mad tea parties. Perhaps that can be pinned on the simple reality that their degree of fame made them isolated even from their rock star peers, let alone civilian life. But it seems that even The Beatles themselves liked the idea that The Beatles were more than four guys tied together by a shared occupation, more even than a family; they were a singular unit of a sort that generally exists only in works of fiction. They were like characters in a children’s story, a set of toys brought to life by the imagination of some cosmic Christopher Robin, or a team of wacky-adventure-having boy detectives. The Beatles managed to mythologize themselves to such a degree, and so swiftly and effectively, that they became, in essence, living cartoons. While at the same time occupying the very highest creative pedestal. It was a stranger-than-fiction effect that even Paul McCartney looks back on in bewilderment.

Paperback Writer

This is the song people point to as the exact moment when The Beatles stopped being a pop group and started being something more. That may be overly simplistic, but it’s definitely a game-changing song. It was the first Beatles single with a harmony too complex to easily play live or mime to on TV. It’s not that it couldn’t be recreated live – Paul McCartney regularly plays it today – but that with the screaming and chaos, it just wasn’t worth it. It was also an adventures new step forward lyrically, McCartney’s response to critics who accused him of only writing about love. McCartney does have an affinity for only writing about love, to this day, but at the time, so did everyone else. The Beatles quickly proved that they could whip up a brilliant pop song about literally any random thing, and other songwriters followed suit, thus making the pop charts one hell of a lot less thematically monotonous.