by Clive James

GREATEST songwriters since Schubert? It was the joke of the decade, in a quiet way. People who had never listened to the Beatles quaked with silent laughter. People who had never listened to Schubert quaked along with them. Yet for those of us in the vast media audience who actually suffered the handicap of caring about what was involved, mirth at this cosmic absurdity didn’t come so easily.

You could put up a list of superior twentieth century songwriters: Porter, the Gershwins, Mercer/Arlen, Kern, Berlin, Coward, Rodgers/Hart, and other men of that calibre. But the superiority wasn’t unarguable, and when you took relative age into account, it was clear that the Beatles were off to a flying start.

Couldn’t it be said that the Beatles not only belonged to this modern tradition but were well equipped to inspire it with a huge new breath of life? After all, the Beatles had the benefit of a whole new range in the subject matter of songwriting, extending a long way beyond the Moon/June framework in which the Broadway and Tin Pan Alley sophisticates had worked their subtle but diffident variations. The field was free, and Lennon and McCartney had enough raw talent to occupy any part of it.

No, the Beatles’ inferiority to their established popular antecedents wasn’t obvious at all. If it was ridiculous to call the Beatles the greatest songwriters since Schubert, it must be because of the lurking existence of other songwriters, somewhere out there in terra incognita — the field of classic art. Finally, at the end of the decade, the poet Roy Fuller told us who these were.

In his temporary capacity as Oxford Professor of Poetry, Fuller launched a pitiless attack on the trendy decade: traditional artistic values, he asserted, had never been in greater danger, since they were being betrayed from within by treasonable clerks who found it more rewarding to go over to the unthinking majority than to man the defences of a necessarily minority culture. (His arguments will be found summed up in the first chapter of Owls and Artificers, the published version of the Oxford lectures: it’s a concisely written polemic, occasionally rising from the unfair to achieve the irrelevant.)

Fuller, needless to say, was prepared to supply a whole list of songwriters since Schubert who were better than the fabulous four, those unspeakable representatives of his latterday demonology. Suavely he trotted them out: Brahms, Duparc, Debussy, Strauss, Rachmaninov, Poulenc. Having announced his team, he didn’t stay to see the match. Why should a merciful scholar lend witness to a massacre?

Fuller is a poet of quality and a very learned man, but as a thinker on the arts he has some large drawbacks, not the least of which is a complete inability to see that the publicity attaching itself to an artistic innovation has got nothing to do with the quality of it. By and large the rock revolution presented itself as an innovation which cancelled out the past. Fuller was wise enough to know that there is no such thing as an artistic innovation which cancels out the past, but he wasn’t receptive enough to admit that something substantial might be going on within the smokescreen of revolutionary rhetoric. He stood on his dignity — a sterile position eventually, although always impressive at the time.

The first question Fuller should have asked himself about his list of heavies was — why does it stop so soon? Like most believers in a declining present, Fuller never faces the problem of how his admired traditions are to be continued. If they do continue, they apparently continue within the borders of an enclave: borders continually retreating before the depredations of the trendy, ravening popular arts. There is an historical fallacy here which I won’t go into, except to say that the classical past itself was never quite so smugly capable of hiving itself off from its popular context.

The important fallacy, though — the one we need to refute and go on refuting — is the idea that a tradition must stay locked in its particular productive system. If Fuller contends that the songwriting tradition can maintain itself only within the procedures of what we recognize as classical music, then there are only two possible conclusions he can draw. The first is that the songwriting tradition is as dead as a doornail. The second is that it lives on in the works of men like Stockhausen — which ought to be a manifest absurdity.

Since it should be as obvious to Fuller as to any other thinking mortal that classical music has for some time been little more than the fag-end of the avant garde, it’s unlikely that Fuller would waste time trying to defend such a conclusion. If forced to the point, he’d probably say that songwriting was dead. Believers in a declining civilization are characteristically more ready to pronounce an art-form dead than to let the barabarians take it over. The doomwatch school of cultural analysis deals with turmoil in the present by declaring the turmoil to be unproductive — conveniently neglecting to notice that all the past was turmoil too.

It needs to be forcibly pointed out that Fuller’s arguments gain no weight by being transferred from the present to the past, whether the near past or the far past. They are permanently wrong-headed contentions, deriving their aplomb from lack of involvement in reality.

The popular tradition in song-writing has been running a strong alternative to the classical tradition for fifty years: so strong an alternative indeed, that the only sensible thing to do is to admit that for all practical purposes the popular tradition is the classical tradition. And if, by means of Fuller’s list of unimpeachable greats, we go back along the classical tradition, we don’t find the clear-cut distinctions he would like us to.

Take Richard Strauss, for example. I heard Strauss’s ‘Four Last Songs’ sung by Elizabeth Schwarzkopf, at the height of her powers, in the Festival Hall in the early Sixties, and at one time or another I’ve spent whole afternoons listening to them. But even as a profound admirer of Strauss’s ability to set a lyric line on a long legato flow of melody, I doubt the vitality of those songs — and I’m not alone in doubting it, since it’s a commonplace of Strauss criticism that the last songs, like the last long aria in ‘Capriccio’, are fragile to the point of collapse.

In modern times (especially in America) the ‘art-song’ tradition has always been the spare-time occupation of serious composers, and has nearly always proceeded through the setting of finished poems. It is a tradition which has by now become totally eroded. But my point is that the classical art-song has never been as vigorous and robust as its admirers would like — or perhaps its enervated, drooping elegance is what they do like.

In the classical field, most of the available energy for setting words to music went, not into the song as such, but into the grand opera, and if the modern song-writer is going to study the apex of the craft, the grand opera is what he will have to study. In the case of Debussy, for example, he will need to listen to ‘Pelléas et Mélisande’. And all the way back through the nineteenth century and beyond — with the exception of the massive prototype, Schubert - his field of interest will be in opera rather than in lieder.

The way Mozart and Verdi combined with da Ponte and Boito is far more informative than what the chamber composers did to musicalise a finished poem: in the opera the word/music relationship was functionally explored, whereas in the art-song of all eras it has tended to go by default. To find the classical song receiving an equivalent degree of collaborative attention, we must go back beyond Monteverdi — which means going back beyond the man who made opera possible in the first place.

From this emphasis I’ve been trying to make, it can already be seen that I’m by no means comfortably off in my opinions about Schubert, who seems to me to pose as many problems about the aesthetics of songwriting as he solves. If Desert Island Discs packed me off to Tristan da Cunha in the morning, the complete Schubert piano sonatas would be at the top of the trunk. But the serenity of the sonatas — as great an achievement, surely, as young genius has ever reached — is not quite so easy to find in the lieder. Overwhelmingly, the lieder are set poems: and a set poem is the same thing as a song only by accident. As their greatest recent interpreter, Dietrich Fischer-Dieskau, has pointed out, there is a sense in which the lieder are an anthology of German lyrical poetry over the course of a century, from the Anacreontic through the classical to the romantic.

The list of Schubert’s poets yields many names, some of them mighty: Schiller, Goethe, Matthison, Hölty, Kosegarten, Klopstock, Schober — the roll would take half an hour to call, and of course there’s no doubt that Schubert’s enormous musical verse anthology was of decisive artistic importance.

But music can penetrate a finished poem only up to a point, and with Schubert that point is established forever. The large claims for the organic unity of words and music in Schubert just don’t seem to me to be true. Split the lines and insert repetitions as he might, Schubert was usually obliged to provide a point-for-point musical overlay for a text whose organisation was already fixed.

The problem of the word/music relationship defeated even the century’s most distinguished musicologist, Alfred Einstein, who was working on it when he died; so I don’t feel too guilty about leaving it temporarily out of account. All I’ve been trying to establish is a mental climate in which it’s possible to say that the issues are just not as clear-cut as the defensive culturati would have them. The title of ‘greatest songwriter since Schubert’ can go to anybody who establishes the unity of words and music at a sufficient intensity, over a sufficient range of experience, and at a sufficient frequency — which mightn’t seem to mean much, but is at least a better interpretation than supposing that the mere invocation of Schubert’s name automatically demolishes anybody with the temerity to write songs now.

Finally one isn’t interested in the ‘greatest’ anything, but if one were obliged to play these games, a good case could be made for saying that Lennon and McCartney were the greatest songwriters since the mediaeval realists, or the troubadors in general, or the Florentine camerata, or indeed any musico-lyrical movement that preceded the crucial development of the song into the opera. Because since that time the world has been faced with a split tradition, in which the art-song has been a side issue for the serious composers and the folk-song has been cut off from intellectual prestige.

By and large this same situation has obtained even in our present century, when the work of the major Broadway and Tin Pan Alley sophisticates (the closest and truest ancestors of everything we are now trying to do) could aspire to the status of art only through the intervention of eclectic intermediaries like Leonard Bernstein. With the high tradition drained of all vitality, the low tradition was continually tempted to move up leaving its vitality behind. Into this continuing status-crisis the Beatles bounced like a cluster of grenades.

The arts allow us only two states of grace: either we must know everything essential about what’s involved, or nothing. Any intermediate condition leads quickly to a fatality, usually through pretension. The emergent Beatles knew nothing, and for the brief period in which they continued to know nothing were well protected against being side-tracked. They were a great instinctive group housing within themselves a great instinctive songwriting personality — the personality formed out of the paired psyches of Lennon and McCartney.

It needs to be understood that by instinctive I don’t mean mindless: I only mean that their creativity was unstudied, paying no attention to any ways and means that weren’t involved with the immediate object. The Beatles were entirely outside any recognizable art milieu and didn’t seem to care about getting into one.

Much of the fury of contempt which was unleashed on them was engendered not by the fear that they. were artless, but by the contrary fear that they might indeed be art. An unconscious art was held to be impossible. It had to be held impossible, since the mere possibility would grant barbarism everything. Behind the scorn evinced by every mandarin intellectual from Professor Fuller to Paul Johnson is not a blindness to the Beatles’ merits but a perception of them — a perception which the perceiver’s convictions can’t deal with.

It’s the mark of the mandarin to believe that art can’t come into being without benefit of clergy. If the source and the outward form don’t fit the acceptable pattern, then the creative impulse can’t be there — and the more it seems to be there, the louder are the cries of treason, betrayal and cultural collapse. And these were the accusations which dogged the Beatles right through their first (and only) state of grace, when they were artists who knew nothing about art.

If they’d started off in the second state of grace — as artists who knew everything about art — they’d have been better able to defend themselves. Although they never would have got started.

All the early qualities of Lennon and McCartney are qualities of spontaneity, as has often been remarked. But spontaneity is no virtue unless it springs from talent, and the first duty of the admiring critic is to insist that theirs was an immense talent, specifically attuned to effecting the word/music amalgam at its most convincing.

Einstein finally decided, after years of wrestling with the problem, that the main thing music contributed to language was emphasis, but when we look at the Beatles we can see that the action — and the interaction — goes beyond that, into a territory where the whole of language is brought alive. Emphasis is certainly the main thing, but when the transformation has been fully worked there is no main thing left to see — there is only a language no longer speakable, since everything about it has turned to singing. There is something terrible about talent: it takes what we have dismissed as obvious and makes it magic.

Any time at all ...

The phrase came right out of the spoken language, but once it had been set to music it wouldn’t go back in again — not as mere speech, at any rate. In fact, when the transformation has been worked to this extent, the word ‘set’ begins to lose its usefulness, since it implies confinement rather than liberation. The Beatles had at the beginning what other songwriters must break their backs to learn — an ear for the music that already exists in phrases of the common speech.

... in the falling rain ...

Once they had put that lilt into the first syllable of ‘falling’ the phrase became more than language. All the work that might have been done by metaphor and simile (‘the rain is like x’ or ‘the rain is x’) was done without any recourse to poetic procedures at all. The strength of the Beatles was that they didn’t have to reach for poetry, since they found it lying all about them. And the finding could be done just by feel. It was later on, when they had to reach — and no one can reach for poetry just by feel, unless he wants to knock it over that they started producing artificial effects.

Their early power depended on resuscitating cliché: plain language in common use, or else decorative language so worn by time that its poetic content had evaporated in the folk memory. The resuscitation was effected by breathing into the victim at the right spot.

If I could see you now
I’d try to make you sad somehow

In the second line, the word receiving the musical stress (the ‘emphasis’, as Einstein defined it) is ‘sad’, releasing the entire line into lyrical flight. They always seemed to know where the pressure point was the syllable that locked a phrase up and was begging to be prodded.

I want you, I want you, I want you
I think you KNOW by now...

This feeling for picking out with simple notes the syllables which revealed the internal balance of a written phrase was what used to be called syllabic utterance, as opposed to melisma, in which a single syllable could be bent through many notes with no real regard for functionality. And although the Beatles were capable of wonderfully decorative melisma (‘I’ll get to you somehow-ow’), it was their syllabic utterance that marked them out. They kept faith with the conversational stress patterns of their chosen phrases (‘I’m gonna break ’em in two’) while infallibly adding the extra musical stress that celebrated the phrase’s balance (‘And show you what your lovin’ MAN can do’).

Everything flowed with the ease of conversation, except that words woke up instead of going to sleep. The sudden shift of weight to an unexpected place continually brought the listener’s attention on to the language itself, engendering a startled awareness of the essentially poetic nature of flat phrases he’d been living with for years.

Lying there and staring at the ceiling
Waiting for
The sleepy FEELing ...

The long, casual lull in that first line depends on the even distribution of the three stresses. ‘Waiting for/The sleepy feeling’ makes a show of matching these three stresses, but in effect they are all concentrated and made to explode on the one syllable simply by the caesura after ‘for’ and the pitching-up on ‘feeling’. And this kind of assurance is thick on the ground throughout their work, even on the White Album when fragmentation has set in fiercely. That the infusion of melody can revivify the common speech is one of the ill-kept secrets which draws young poets to music in the first place, eager to avail themselves of the elemental. What they fail to realise, however, is that music, while merciful to the phrase which millions of mouths have worn smooth, is merciless to a pretentious coinage.

Along with their natural grasp of syllabic utterance, Lennon and McCartney had a brilliantly adventurous sense of structure, revealed most obviously in their elliptical switches from stanza to bridge — of the written equivalent of cinematic jump-cuts. ‘Love is here to stay and that’s enough’ a bridge might end, and the ensuing stanza begin ‘To make you mine, girl’. The result was a blistering progress, like a Duke Ellington masterpiece of the early Forties in which one solo was startled into existence by another.

Another contributor to their accelerated pace (all Lennon/McCartney compositions sound shorter than the time they occupy) was a plasticity of line-length and syntax which allowed all kinds of time-defeating compressions and stretchings.

’Cos I
Told you once before “goodbye”
But I came back again ...

There is a law of scholarship called the lectio difficilior, which declares that of several variant readings it is the most difficult, and not the most simple, which is likely to be what the author wrote. Similarly we can know a Beatles song by heart and still find, when we play the record again, that our memory has been simplifying it — especially in its units of chronological time, which are arranged so as to maintain the song’s vividness throughout. Our memories tend to homogenise what is really an unwearying variety of sprints and pauses. The only part of the track taking the shortest distance from beginning to end is Ringo Starr: above the rhythmic base, the song itself is in a continual process of turning away from predictability.

It’s for this reason that the best critical appreciation of a Beatles song has always been provided by dancers, and even for a very good dancer there are scarcely enough components in the human body to reflect every rhythmic effect going on in the song.

The Beatles’ feeling for common speech allowed all kinds of syntactical tricks, but it couldn’t allow for outright violations of diction — an abuse that showed up, in embryo form, with a song like ‘Nowhere Man’.

Doesn’t have a point of view
Knows not where he’s going to ...

‘Knows not’ sounded lazy, a clumsily imported archaism. For my money, the clean machine of their talent started to break down in good earnest on Revolver, in the key song ‘Eleanor Rigby’ — the song which for many is the cornerstone of the whole latterday Beatles aesthetic, but which for me marks the beginning of their agonized expulsion from the Garden of Eden.

The face kept in the jar by the door just wasn’t startling enough to justify the sense of strain. It was instructive that people who had never recognized their faultlessly poetic handling of non-poetic language should at this stage begin to welcome them as poetically inventive writers. In cold fact, though, neither Lennon nor McCartney has a very special command of imagery. Imagery is preeminently an intellectual property, and they had not become intellectuals — although they had certainly ceased by now to be true primitives.

There was no sudden catastrophe — there is a great deal of interest on every album up to the last one issued under their names — but there was a gradual infection of pretension, the inescapable result of being caught between the two states of grace. As I’ve argued in previous articles (both explicitly and by implication) pretension and a short artistic life are the necessary results of the rock culture’s commitment to unexamined creativity, and all that the most extraordinary talent can do is delay the collapse. The Beatles’ collapse is already happening in Sergeant Pepper, at the very height of their abilities. The fatal resonance of the portentious phrase runs right through the record.

On Sergeant Pepper the Beatles are summing up — brilliantly — the experience they have lived through, and are beginning to acquire consciously, patchily and unsatisfactorily — the subject matter they feel driven to deal with next. It should have been no surprise that this new thematic range included little beside the usual diaphanous profundities of the rock culture’s mental kitty. Psychedelia, the Wisdom of the East, candy-arse revolution: bit by bit they took it all over.

Their grasp on language slackened automatically, since there is no way of keeping a tight grip on a blob of mercury. In the last stages of the group, and in the separate careers of the individual artists since, it’s possible to see a growing complexity of mind, and it would be a churl who didn’t find their struggle for seriousness admirable. But their new seriousness hasn’t registered in their art in any way except the purely declaritive: they claim concern, but they don’t represent it, and they tell you what to feel without, making you feel it. None of them has written a song which embodies their later state of mind in the same way as ‘Penny Lane’ embodied the earlier one.

As things now stand, George Harrison is the most reliably productive of the four, and the others are at their best when they equal his straightforward simplicity. Harrison is now a lot surer of his own melodic gift than he once was, but his lyrics remain what they always were — sheer plasma, impeccable in their attitudes but conveying no special sense of the aliveness of language. We can admire Harrison’s sanity and balance, but it would be foolish to contend that he continues (or even maintains) the exploration of the word/music amalgam which the Beatles opened up.

To say that Lennon is now working at Harrison’s level (and after Imagine I think we’re bound to say that) is to say that he has reduced his massive talent to the task of providing musical overlays for messages. The purport of these messages, whether from Lennon or Harrison, doesn’t concern me here: they seem to me to oscillate between the foolish and the self-evident, achieving at best a certain idealistic charm, but nobody can be dogmatic about the awakening consciousness of children, and I suppose there must be adolescents in the world over to whom Lennon and Harrison look like Marx and Gandhi, just as Ringo Starr looks like Father Christmas. My point isn’t about what they are trying to say, but about what they are getting said as art. And concerning this I don’t think there can be much doubt: the real artistic unities operating in the Beatles’ work now are all provided by Phil Spector. Obviously Paul McCartney doesn’t fit into such a limiting interpretation, but then it’s hard to see what he’s trying to do, apart from attempting to restore simplicity to a creative life ravaged by the business hassles and manic publicity of a decade. There is a great pathos behind the diffidence and relative anonymity of Wings. Given time, McCartney’s sensitivity might well produce a whole new kind of delicate strength. His present uncertainty of his role looks to me like dawning maturity — just as the certainty of Lennon and Harrison looks like immaturity.

The Beatles had an unequalled ability to select and invigorate language, but there were definite limits on their ability to invent it. The leading inventor of language for rock music was Bob Dylan. But Dylan was merely providing an intense example of something else rock could do — there is no sense in which he replaced or superseded what the Beatles did. What the Beatles did can never be replaced or superseded. They gave art back to the people at a time when every thinking man had long ago decided that the people could never have art again.

Cream, October 1972
© Clive James

Pete Atkin icon

back to Pete Atkin Home Page