It Won’t Be Long: The Beatles and MP3

I’m a big Beatles fan, and had a post cooked up all about those reports that, thanks to Norweigan Broadcasting (NRK), you could download Beatles MP3s for free, legally. NRK’s site said:

“Some weeks ago, NRK – Norwegian Braodcasting – signed a deal with music rights holder organisation TONO in Norway. The new deal gives NRK right to publish podcasts of all previously broadcasted radio- and tv-programs that contains less then 70% music.

One result of this deal, is that we now can publish “Vår daglige Beatles” – “Our Daily Beatles” in English – as a podcast.

In this series from 2001, journalists Finn Tokvam og Bård Ose tells the story of every single Beatles tracks ever made, chronologically. Each episode contains a 3 minute story about each track (sadly for our international visitors – in Norwegian) and the actual Beatles tune.”

The agreement only covered recent shows, and the Beatles ones were from 2007. So, the feed was pulled pretty quickly.

Part 1: The songs

with-the-beatlesNRK had put up 28 songs by this afternoon before the feed was taken down, sort of sorted in the order they appeared on the LP. They’d got through all of the Beatles’ first two albums, Please Please Me (1963) and With the Beatles (later in 1963). While skipping past some earnest Norwegian chat, humming and excited mutterings of “Ringo Starr!” to get to the songs was a little inconvenient, it was great to listen to the early songs again – I only have from Rubber Soul onwards on CD.

‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘Twist n’ Shout’ (complete with great scouse accents, and a throat shredding vocal that meant George Martin got them to save recording it until the end of the session in case it wrecked Lennon’s voice) were obvious highlights, but I’d forgotten how much I enjoyed their covers of ‘Rollover Beethoven’ (Chuck Berry) and ‘Baby It’s You’ (Burt Bacharach).

You also get a sense of how eager they were to try things, so while ‘Please Please Me’ is relatively basic, just months later they opened With the Beatles with the terrific It Won’t Be Long, which is just as immediate, but adds the yeah-yeah-yeah harmonies, a desceding guitar bit that sounds like early R.E.M. and lyrices that conflate “be long” and “belong”, much like Smells Like Teen Spirit did1 years later with “Hello, Hello” and “How Low.” Even on the now largely forgotten Don’t Bother Me, George Harrison’s first Beatles song (one he later called crap), it’s amazing how many ideas they cram in; with 13, 14 seconds to go, the song finds the energy to drop its guitars and vocals and shake down into a shuffling, rhythm driven outro.2

Part 2: In which we get to the point

It all reminded me just how odd it is what they’ve done to The Beatles’ music in the last few years. In the mid-to-late nineties, the emergence of the Anthology project, the frequent praise of The Beatles in interviews by popular bands of the day combined with the launch of retro music magazines (Mojo etc) and Paul McCartney’s own increasing willingness to be a pop legend rather than going concern meant that the Beatles went from old to classic. They’d always been above the cheap compilations which recycled 60s hits (Best 60s Album in the World… Ever etc) but they became deified. Problem is, when Napster, iTunes, Guitar Hero etc opened up all the locks and the music started to go free – onto MP3, into remixes, inside videogames, onto podcasts and blogs – the Beatles stayed home, pipe and slippers.

And so now they’re missing. Everyone learns the truth that the Beatles are Important with a capital I. The Best. The Greatest. Whatever is left of the other Apple has done well to build them up. But the music just isn’t there. It’s absent from the places where the kids – the people who live and breathe music – are, and where everyone is increasingly going to be. iTunes is the biggest music retailer now, Guitar Hero is mainstream entertainment. The Beatles are abstract, venerated, protected. Their name is known, but I suspect knowledge – and love – of their songs is dipping lower and lower.  Sure, you can buy them on CD, but those releses are over 20 years old now and when it comes to packaging, presentation, convenience and most importantly sound, they’re just not good enough.3

The Beatles are admired, not loved, and that’s not right; one thing you get from their music – and that the fabulous Revolution in the Head gets absolutely dead right – is what made them great was that they were part of so many things. They weren’t about crystalline artistic genius, they were about connections between things – Delta blues and Blackpool music hall, LSD madness and genuine lovestruck giddyness, smutty jokes and conceptual high-art.

I’ve recently enjoyed watching the early 60s-set Mad Men; series 1 ended beautifully, with anti-hero Don Draper sitting lonely on the stairs as the caustic strains of Bob Dylan. Series 2 hurtled forward and all the time I keep wondering when we’ll hear the Beatles, despite knowing the restrictive licensing means we probably won’t. Kudos to the Norweigans; two guys talking about the Beatles on a podcast is just what we need. It’s off air now, but here’s hoping 2009 is the year they get the Beatles stuff online, in a decent way. There’s always the game, too.

1 Kurt was a huge Beatles fan – in particular John Lennon. Whenever Burch Vig talks about recording Nevermind he mentions how he’d convince Kurt to double-track his vocals because that’s what George Martin did with John Lennon’s. There’s also a good anecdote in Michael Azzerard’s ‘Come As You Are’ Nirvana bio that mentions Kurt wrote ‘About A Girl’ after spending a whole day repeatedly listening to Meet The Beatles, the US album featuring many of the songs from With The Beatles.

2 That said, modern pop songs are no less inventive – Rihanna’s Umbrella easily has enough detail to withstand nine spot-on points of Guardian music critique, for instance:

“[8th reason it's great is because of] the way she pronounces Umbrella with four syllables, which makes it seem implausibly exotic. One of pop’s gifts is the ability to make humdrum words sound deliciously strange. Also, when she riffs on “ella” she sounds half like a playful kid and half like a malfunctioning robot.”

3 As Pitchfork noted, it’s almost worth buying the remixy Love for the fact the material on it is all remastered, and particularly through headphones, it sounds frighteningly fantastic. The opening harmonies of Because are worth the price of admission alone.

Previously on the Wired Jester:

* Barry Miles on counter-cultural London in the 60s
* Links to old soul covers of the Beatles
* Links to a 70s Lennon/McCartney/Stevie Wonder bootleg
* Beatles x Pac Man T-shirt

4 thoughts on “It Won’t Be Long: The Beatles and MP3

  1. Interestingly the most extreme example of this is Elvis, whose estate is notoriously proprietary, and whose music almost impossible to find :P

  2. Pingback: What’s next for The Beatles catalogue « The Wired Jester

  3. Pingback: Best of, 2009 edition « Alex Watson

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