Wednesday, November 28, 2012

More pretentious fun...

Get Back

If I get my brain on enough I’ll jam together some trite observations about the Get Back/Let It Be disaster, musical composition, roots music and suchlike, but for now I want make trite observations about The Beatles and Race. 

The Beatles were very, very lucky people. They found a manager, possibly the only in Britain, who did not want to ruthlessly exploit them for short term gain. They also found the only producer who could cultivate and discipline their talent with tact and grace (practically everything they in terms of song writing and recording was unselfconsciously original – example, they insisted on calling the middle sections of their songs “middle eights” regardless of whether they had eight bars in them or not, George Martin went with it).

They were a curious and open minded group. When they moved to London at the beginning of their fame they were by chance they found themselves slap bang in most culturally rarefied part of Britain. Everything (and everyone) they encountered was soon radiated out to Western Youth through their records, and be it African-American rock and rollers, Indian sitar players or Nigerian percussionists, it was hail-fellow-well-met.

I think the American Dream had a concurrent meaning for African-Americans and British youth. Chuck Berry was a witty and perceptive lyricist who appealed to the thoughts and feelings of young, white Americans as a way to sell records. It was a life he could only write about from the outside. Though the circumstances were vastly different, the same was true of young Britons like Lennon and McCartney. All four of The Beatles had no truck with racism; they had heroes who were black, they played with black musicians, they refused to play to segregated audiences in America.

There is also another dimension. Whether it was the case or not, the cultural change perceived in the middle of the Twentieth Century was away from rigid and plotted forms to liberated, sprawling forms, e.g. in dance it meant the waltz was superseded by the twist. Rightly or wrongly this was attributed to increasing ethnic minority participation in cultural life. Black culture was seen as young, vital and alive, traditional white culture old, ossified and stale.

Enoch Powell’s (rightly) infamous Rivers of Blood speech was a watershed in racism. Before it racism was understood as white supremacy. What Powell sniffed out was a change, thanks to post-colonialism, racist ideology was changing into a defensive white nationalism. If we’re talking culture we must acknowledge that love of black music does not preclude racism toward black people, just ask Eric Clapton.

Get Back, one of The Beatles most successful late-era singles, began as a satire on Enoch Powell. This is what we’re given to believe about the Commonwealth Song. The ironic intent in lyrics about not digging Pakistanis taking jobs was not sufficiently clear, and the lyric was wisely dropped. There were two other occasions where The Beatles possibly let themselves down over this issue.

The first lay buried in archives and bootlegs for thirty years. What’s the New Mary Jane, John Lennon’s anarchic masterpiece that wasn’t, is sung in a ‘comic’ broken English and a mild Indian accent. There is no great malicious intent behind it, though the lyric is a veiled attack on someone in The Beatles immediate circles. It goes to show that prejudice can manifest itself in unexpected ways, even amongst the best of us.

The other, far more blatant, example is the film Help. Their second film was a pleasant enough comic adventure. We get to see the boys in colour this time too. Help is marred by an outstandingly racist parody of an eastern sacrificial cult (portrayed by British actors using unrealistic Indian accents) that drives the main plot. Of course it’s not desperately malicious (though that isn’t a reason not to object) and The Beatles did not write the film, and yes it can probably be put down to ‘the times’, but surely someone the band knew in 1965 could have flagged it up. Who knows?

Anyway, this, I think, is the last version of Get Back they performed at their rooftop concert, i.e. the last thing The Beatles ever performed live:

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