Dead Beatles for Christmas

Why were their solo albums so awful?

The mystery of why the Beatles were so great together and so spectacularly mediocre apart remains one of the deepest questions in rock ’n’ roll. My own theory dates back to a childhood tennis camp counselor named Casey, who told us that a person needs a one-quarter share of each Beatle’s personality to lead a truly healthy, balanced life. A healthy, well-balanced person, he explained, would possess equal portions of John’s intelligence, Paul’s work ethic, George’s spiritual yearnings, and Ringo’s Falstaffian vigor. While Casey failed to teach us much about winning tennis that summer, what he had to say about the Beatles seemed like a privileged glimpse into adult life. It was interesting to think that the Beatles were each at their best as members of a group; when the group splintered, each Beatle was severed from a full three-quarters of their optimal personality.

I bring this up because Casey’s theory has gained some support in recent weeks from the three latest ex-Beatles releases—George Harrison’s Brainwashed, Paul McCartney’s Back in the U.S.: Live 2002, and John Lennon’s 1973 Mind Games (re-released by Capitol)—as well as from Paul McCartney’s sneaky attempt to re-label 19 Beatles tunes as having been written by “Paul McCartney and John Lennon,” as opposed to the familiar “Lennon/McCartney.” The desire to see the Beatles back together, so much in evidence at McCartney’s live shows to this day, is not simply the desire to restore the shattered harmony of the Fab Four. It’s also a way of expressing discomfort with what unremarkable artists the Beatles turned out to be when set free from the corporate collective. Without McCartney and producer George Martin to rebel against, Lennon turned out to be another lazy entertainment world hippie, doing lots of drugs and making up pointlessly Dadaist fictional personas with names like “Dr. Winston O’Boogie.” McCartney couldn’t help writing hits—superficial fluff that never came close to equaling his music with the Beatles. George Harrison was sued for ripping off other people’s songs.

On the title track of Mind Games—the one listenable track on the album—the reasons for the slow-motion train wreck of the “smart Beatle” ‘s solo career are all too visible. The merits of “Yes is surrender” as an approach to life are perhaps debatable (they lead Lennon to evoke “soul power” and “the karmic wheel”). But the bigger problem here is that Lennon is a rock star in search of an Answer—and that he blissfully finds his answer (“Yes is surrender”) before the end of the first song on his album, leaving the listener with 10 more tracks to go. He fills the space as best he can, with songs like “Aisumasen (I’m Sorry),” a tuneless, rambling address to the distant mother-figure of Yoko, and “Bring on the Lucie (Freda Peeple)”—Free da people, get it?—which sounds like a Monty Python sketch making fun of stupid hippies. “Free the people now/ Do it, do it, do it, do it, do it, do it—now,” the ex-Beatle chants.

John Lennon’s personal recorded output after leading the Beatles may be the most complete history of intellectual and emotional regression put together by a performer—an honor for which there is no shortage of worthy competition among rock stars. “A million kids are better than one/ so come on,” Lennon sings, like the host of some insipid Electric Company spinoff. No matter how controlling and awful Yoko Ono might have been, there is no way that she can be held responsible for the awfulness of Lennon’s solo career. You need only listen to one or two of the songs on Mind Games to realize that the post-Beatles Lennon was, except for one or two brief spasms, virtually bereft of musical ideas. He cared more about the myth of John Lennon than he did about making music, a craft that he spent little time attempting to master, and which therefore deserted him when he needed it the most.

A more balanced, less ambitious person than John Lennon, George Harrison was still making serviceable, vaguely spiritual music even on his deathbed. Brainwashed, the album on which Harrison worked until the end (though most of the songs were written before he got sick) is the kind of stuff you might expect to hear at a ritzy Buddhist retreat. There are pretty guitar lines and lyrics like “Sometimes you’re cool/ Sometimes you’re lame” mixed in with the expected assortment of Southern California rock star paradoxes: “If you don’t know where you’re going/ any road will take you there.” The result is a record that you might want if you own a Banana Republic or a Body Shop—upbeat, pleasant music that should put consumers in the ideal mood for picking out Turkish bath towels and tea-tree oil shampoos.

But the real problem here is Harrison’s producer, Jeff Lynne, the one-time boy wizard of the soft rock band Electric Light Orchestra, who plays a variety of instruments here, including the piano, bass, organ, and drums. Lynne’s reign as one of the top “classic rock” producers in the business is one of the most regular and painful features of the format. (An aging former record company mogul of the ‘70s told me that Paul McCartney once said in print that ELO was what the Beatles would have sounded like if they stayed together—praise that went to Lynne’s head but that in retrospect seems like a fair explanation of why the Beatles had to break up.) If John Lennon strangled his own muse through laziness, inattention, or the heavy use of drugs, George Harrison—trusting to the end—has suffered the crueler fate of musical euthanasia at the hands of his producer.

To be fair, there are tracks on which Beatle George’s modest, decently crafted ideas hold out against the undertow of his producer’s vast and overwhelming mediocrity. “Rowers gliding on the river/ Canadian geese crap along the lake” is a promising, Philip Larkin-esque beginning to a George Harrison song—until Jeff Lynne ruins it by slapping on coats of heavy production grease and then ginning up the same empty, metronomic shopping mall beat that made the Traveling Wilburys records so awful. Lynne’s pressing need to make his fellow aging rockers sound as bad as possible may speak to unresolved issues in the producer’s own psyche—his disappointment, perhaps, that ELO never actually became the Beatles. It’s time for McCartney to admit that he was joking—ELO was never that good.

Instead of listening to these ultimately depressing songs, those seeking to say goodbye to Harrison might focus instead on the album’s lovely version of “Devil & the Deep Blue Sea.” Harrison plays ukulele with a pick-up group of friends including Jools Holland on the piano, Mark Flanagan on lead acoustic guitar, and Ray Cooper on drums—a bunch of pros having a wonderful time together on a classic old tune, on which Jeff Lynne is mercifully absent.

Harrison’s need for Lynne, like Lennon’s need for Yoko Ono, in part reflects the musical dependence of both men on Paul McCartney—the one truly gifted musician in the Beatles, and the creator (along with his studio partner George Martin) of nearly all of the important advances in the Beatles sound. That said, McCartney’s decision to change the credits on 19 classic Beatles songs to read “Composed by Paul McCartney & John Lennon” still seems shabby—especially in light of the fact that Lennon is dead. (Imagine Sullivan doing this to Gilbert.) Presumably, McCartney can no longer tolerate the idea that John Lennon should be given the lead credit for McCartney’s favorite Beatles songs—which turn out to include “Blackbird,” “Mother Nature’s Son,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” “Eleanor Rigby,” “Lady Madonna,” “Yesterday,” and “The Long and Winding Road.” Frankly, it’s hard to imagine Lennon wanting to hog the credit for these particular songs.

Is McCartney insecure? Is he jealous of Lennon? Is there money involved? All of these questions are more interesting than Back in the U.S., an album that provides listeners with a rough idea of what it would be like to have Paul McCartney play your wedding. On “All My Loving,” the ex-Beatle is audibly short of breath. On “Blackbird,” the schmaltziest Beatle follows lines like “take these sunken eyes and learn to see” with a creamy lounge-singer “mmmmmm.” “Carry That Weight” features Paul forgetting the words and repeating the phrase “Oh, that magic feeling,” like the Sunday afternoon entertainment at the Daughters of Israel nursing home lounge.

What McCartney is selling here is the idea that baby boomers don’t have to be afraid of death. Paul is still up there smiling, happy to strip his songs of any hint of mortality, loss, love, anger, passion, or other emotions that might make the aging members of his audience the least bit uncomfortable. What they want is the straight nostalgia trip, slathered in butter and corn syrup—and Paul McCartney, with more than $1 billion in the bank already, wants nothing more than to give his audience want they want. In this sense, at least, McCartney is the same as he always was—the consummate pro. By the time one reaches the sing-along version of “Hey Jude” in which McCartney compliments the audience by half-growling, half-squealing “you sound so sweet tonight,” it is also clear that he has left rock ’n’ roll behind for the emotionally shuttered world of a Lawrence Welk or Liberace—a song-and-dance man who plays all the instruments and does his own arrangements while smiling his way through songs about heartbreak and loneliness for a loving audience. What is finally touching about this album is that it shows how much the consummate craftsman and performer needed his rivalry with the lazy, undisciplined, but fiercely talented Lennon in order to make contact with his own darker and scarier emotions. Now McCartney is alone on stage, left to carry the weight of his baby boomer fan base until the day that he dies.

Which all goes to prove that Ringo was the smart one.