Free as a Bird (released 20 November 1995) and Real Love (released 4 March 1996)
Dear Anthology tracks,
I’ve exhausted all the albums, gone through a few compilations, and even tackled the sort-of travesty that is Yellow Submarine. I’ve covered 212 songs (though one might want to loosen up that definition a bit) over four weeks, which frankly has been a very draining experience — God knows how many words I’ve written over the past month and a half. Yet I cannot end the series with just fourteen articles and an introduction. Not when you, my two favourite Beatle songs remain uncovered.
So a little background information: in 1992 some bright spark decided that it would be nice to do a documentary series on the Beatles, interviewing the surviving members and a few other personnel to write down the history of the group. Originally slated to just write incidental music for the documentary, George, Paul and Ringo decided it’d be much more fun to actually record new songs, upon which Yoko gave them demos four songs which John wrote “for Paul”. (I think this, more than anything, clears Yoko of any blame she might receive of breaking up the Beatles — she did her bit to bring them together when it mattered, too.) The surviving Beatles wrote some lyrics, dubbed some instruments and drums on, and voila, two new tracks available for the winter of 1995-1996. (Incidentally, the documentary series was originally going to be titled The Long and Winding Road until George decided that this would give Paul too much attention — and which is why I’ve decided to use it myself, because sod that bit of pettiness.)
And I absolutely adore you two. With all my heart. Knowing that this is most probably the swan song for the Beatles, these tracks take on a poignancy that one could never thought these four capable of in 1962. Why? Because it has the ring of four (and it really is four) accomplished musicians, looking back on their years as a group together, and giving it a final epilogue. And by God, you two tracks really make the perfect epilogue for a career that was so regrettably short, and yet so wonderfully amazing — and we are talking about a group which only did music for ten years (two of which with a different drummer), and released albums for eight.
It’s not just a repertoire of some 200 songs which show musical progress, starting from their rock-and-roll/Merseybeat roots, through their more commercially acceptable pop years and into psychedelia and beyond. These songs also give us really important insight into what the psychological states of each individual in the group was like at different times of their career: the carefree happiness of “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, for example, is such a stark contrast to the raw fury of “Helter Skelter”.
But surely, after 25 years of separation, these people will have moved on? After all, 1969 is so different from 1994: when you’re 25 years older, you get a lot more perspective, a lot more insight into what life and humanity is like. Gone are the fresh-faced twenty-somethings, in their place are middle-aged men who’ve all passed 50, who are undeniably getting old and jaded, losing the coolness and edginess that marked their heyday. There has to be a sense of loss, of how all things must pass (wink) when you reach that age. The short answer is “yes” — and these are all sentiments which punctuate their first single, “Free as a Bird”.
The song begins with two heavy drumbeats — as if to say “here we go!” — and is then followed by a guitar solo which, straight away, reminds us all of what us people have missed in the past 25 years. George’s guitar is hopeful, expansive, but then it dips down into a minor and you are reminded that this is a song about breakup, about sadder emotions. It’s a delicate contrast that sets up the tone of the song so nicely: we’re only 20 seconds in, and this song already has control over your heart. Then, as the guitar solo fades away, John’s vocals come floating into your brain:
“Free… as a bird…”
It’s an eerie experience to hear a man’s voice anew, particularly when you remember that he’s been dead 15 years. And it does sound so much as if he’s singing from beyond the grave: his voice is so distant, and so distorted by feedback that it sounds like a spirit and sends shivers up your spine. But I just love how John’s voice tells us exactly how he feels right away: he’s resigned, he’s wistful, and he’s nostalgic. It’s a perfect representation of what both listeners and the Beatles would think: this voice takes them back to a time where everything was simpler, where the Beatles ruled the (Western) world’s music — where John was alive. All now gone, and that wistful voice seems to mourn, like us, an era which will never will be replicated again.
Then we shift to the parallel minor again, and Paul, jumping in with newly-written vocals, poses the question:
“Can we really live without each other?”
It’s an honest question that sobers you up once again. It’s not just lost love they seem to mourn here: like in “Carry That Weight” in Abbey Road all those years ago, they know that most of the best things they did — that they will ever do — was as one entity, when the sum of George, John, Paul and Ringo meant so much more than its parts. What Paul asks here isn’t the question of whether they can accomplish anything more as a group — they’ve already gone too far, and lost one too many members for that. It’s a rueful reflection on their lives themselves: what they would be if they hadn’t come together (more winking) as the Beatles (against ASTRONOMICAL ODDS) and rocked the world with their songs. Without each other, they would only have been four musicians — perhaps great bandleaders (as each of them have proved in their own time), but nothing special. To put it bluntly, they made each other work.
But all this is behind them — they are all free as a bird, and have sought pastures new. And as the song continues to walk its long and winding road, one continues to feel that sense of loss. You feel hollow, as if something important is missing: a sense of buoyancy, perhaps? Lost innocence? Then the remaining member chips in.
“Whatever happened to the love that we once knew…”
You’re still reeling from the impact of this line — it’s not just a band that was lost when they broke up, it was the love between four fellow humans who had worked and laughed and shared their tears and their fears for such a long time — when you realize that the verse getting ready to end. George chokes out a couple of sobs… it builds and it builds… and then the final ecstasy is all at once upon you. And dear God.
I can’t even begin to explain just how liberating this effect is. But here’s my effort. It’s like trudging up a forest path, all dark and gloomy. The treetops meet high above you, and your pants — the exhalation type, not the type you wear — are echoing through the silent forest as you struggle upwards, the end so distant and so out of sight. And then you turn the corner, and suddenly BOOM the forest ends: you have come out into the sunlight, on the top of a hill, with an entire valley before you, and it’s breathtaking. I’ve written about 213 Beatle songs, and I’ve talked about how they evoke all sorts of different situations — blissful. And yes, I’ve talked about flying through the air before when I did Abbey Road. But this is the only time where you feel like you’re lifting off and taking flight. You’re flying up into the clear skies, accompanied by Paul and George’s backing vocals, basking in the warm glow of the sun (here it comes), enjoying the freedom that you’ve suddenly discovered.
And this is why ultimately this song works for me: it’s sad, you know, but there’s still hope. The Beatles may have split apart, but their spirit still lived on: in Electric Light Orchestra, in Oasis, and in more imitation bands than one can count. (And in those moptop hairstyles which George so cheekily called “Arthur”.) This song is a recognition of that: an understanding that even as they left the stage for newer acts, they and the world would still have the memories to cherish. And that’s all we can ask for as with a few last “ooh”s from Paul and George, you slowly come down to Earth again. Are you a little sad as you finish the song? Definitely. But you can feel it inside you: you’re ready to move on.
And that is what we shall also do: we now move on to the final track the Beatles have ever produced, John Lennon’s very own “Real Love”. (It has to be in this order: there’s so much that’s sweet about “Real Love” that makes it the perfect ender in a way that “Free as a Bird”’s downer nostalgia can never achieve.) For all those who feel let down by the sense of failure that the earlier song brings, here is an antidote full of hope and love — more akin to classic Beatles.
It’s got good verses, for one thing. Unlike “Free as a Bird”, which everyone had a hand in writing, “Real Love”’s lyrics were all written by John, and the poet in him really shines. I mean, lines like “just like little girls and boys/ playing with their little toys” seem so simple on the surface, but it’s a simplicity that calls back to “All You Need is Love” and the innocence of the era. Love was a lot less complicated for these 1967ers, and John attempts to recapture that in his simple lyrics: people come together and stop being lonely, simply because they love each other. But there’s more to it than that: these lyrics are a time capsule of the era the Beatles were in, yes, yet they’re also a representation of the spirit which they operated. No fuss, no pretensions, always being true –– just as things used to be for them.
And that innocence comes through in the crisp vocals too: when John affirms that “yes, it’s real love”, you just can’t help but agree. Because there’s a pull behind that childlike happiness that you can’t deny: he’s singing it as if he has nary a care in the world, as if he’s found the solution to all his problems. It brings back to mind the dream sequence of “A Day in the Life”, if you will, the bit where John “aah”s against a swelling orchestra, his disembodied and distracted voice floating across to us through a sea of drugs and hazy orchestration. But that was just mindless drifting and shirking of responsibilities: this time, the floating has a sense of purpose and determination to it, as if John has found a course and is bent on sticking to it (“from this moment on I know/ Exactly where my life will go”), making it work, this time round.
And it’s also a more complete and polished song: as mentioned before, John’s vocals are mostly clean and crisp, unlike the warbling of “Free as a Bird”, and Paul, George and Ringo all get to shine in their own individual sectors as well: George with his guitar solos in the chorus, Ringo was his drum fills in between lines, and Paul with his ever-so-delightful harmonies. It’s the type of Beatles dynamic where everyone gets their own part, and are content with playing it. And the song is so much nicer to listen to because of that, as everybody is not focused on stealing the attention away from one another. They’re just trying to have a good time and do the best song — “for John”, as one of them (I think Ringo?) said in the accompanying interview.
And finally: it’s a very, very catchy song. Seriously, this is a song which creeps into your head and stays, demanding replay. It moves along at a brisk pace, and yet it’s not a speed in which everything feels frantic or urgent (like in, say, “I Saw Her Standing There”). So there’s no rush to hop into bed together, or any kind of carpe diem mentality behind it all. And yet it isn’t a totally meaningless, lazy song (like “I’m Only Sleeping”) either — there is a definite purpose behind the steady beats and the dreamy vocals, as if the song is striding towards asserting an ultimate goal (let’s call it love) in the end. And in striking the right balance between those two extremes, it gets the tune — and the extent to which you love it — just right, so that you remember it even after the last chord fades away.
I really, genuinely love this song: it’s not just my favourite Beatles song, it’s got a strong claim to being my favourite song of all time. Why? Because it’s so cheery and full of hope. I’ve been reading up a lot about chaos recently, and here’s the thing: even as you grow up and gain experience, the world doesn’t stop being scary. There’s still a lot of sturm und drang in it — and yet what this song tell us is that there is still a place for innocent love between peoples. There is still room a simple kind of bliss that brings you contentment, perhaps, or a feeling that everything can be all right. And this optimism — this assertion, even, that love between peoples can get us through the hard times (“don’t need to be alone/ No need to be alone”) is why this song really rocks. It has faith in people. And that’s always worth having.
This faith in love is something that’s satisfying to see: it’s been part of the Beatles since they began as a group. If you wrote the complete list of Beatle songs in a row (like I’d ever do such a thing), you’d discover that both the first and last words (“Love Me Do” and “Real Love”) are the same word: love. It’s like a thread running through the entire repertoire: no matter which song you’re on, you can (usually) be sure that love is hidden in there somewhere, not far from their minds. It’s a happy thought on which to end our examination of the Beatles’ repertoire, and something that leaves us with a smile on our faces, even long after we take off our headphones.
In closing: I don’t need to blow the Fab Four’s trumpet any more than I already have in the past 37,000 words, but here’s something to finish up. The Grant Study was a 70-year project that surveyed 268 Harvard students to discover, quite simply, what human happiness is made out of. The results, published in 2009, were summed up by the chief researcher in a single sentence: “happiness is love, fullstop”. Or as a Canadian television (and the chief researcher himself) later put it: ““The Beatles were right: All You Need is Love”.
Need I say more? It’s been a pleasure.
Favourite track: Well, I’ve made that pretty clear here, no?
(Featured image from The Beatles Anthology, copyright Apple Records.)