Archive for November, 2000

Saturday, November 11th, 2000

What If . . . John Lennon Had Never Said The Beatles Were Bigger Than Jesus?

(Part of a short series which ran in the NME speculating about the divergent course history might have taken had certain pivotal events not taken place)

MARCH 1966. A cocky John Lennon, is interviewed by a young female reporter for the Evening Standard. “So just how big are you?” she asks, false eyelashes fluttering innocently. “Oh, I’m big, love,” he retorts, roguishly. “I was thinking of The Beatles generally,” she says. “Oh, aye. We’re all big. Even Ringo,” he comes back with the Scouse wit that has made him the toast of the discotheque “scene”.

“But . . . commercially, as a pop music phenomenon, just how big are the Beatles?” “Oh. See what you mean, love. Yeah. The Beatles are big. Dead big. In fact, I’d say The Beatles are bigger than Jes -” Here, Lennon checks himself. He remembers the words of manager/counsellor Brian Epstein. (“We’ve got a good thing going here. Don’t go putting your big blundering Scouse foot in it!”)

“Sorry, what did you say?” asks the reporter.

“Bigger than cheese. We’re a bigger phenomenon than cheese. Yes. That’s right.”

“That’s good because I thought you were about to say The Beatles were bigger than Jesus.”

“Good Heavens, no,” replies John piously. Somewhere, Brian Epstein is nodding with approval. “The Beatles are big, by Gosh but of course, we’re not bigger than Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Remember kids, Jesus is gear!”

The interview goes down well, despite a minor outbreak of Beatles LP-burning by US cheese manufacturers. However, a Japanese performance artist named Yoko Ono reads the piece and, disappointed at her hero’s non-revolutionary tendencies, returns to Japan where she eventually makes a fortune marketing her brand of vegetarian Sushi.

As for Lennon, having made his pro-Jesus remarks, his Scouse working class stubbornness won’t permit him to back down. At his instigation and despite McCartney’s misgivings (“What did you have to go and say that for?”), The Beatles spearhead a new Christian tendency in rock. They visit America and come under the influence of evangelical guru Billy Graham. His message, “Turn on, tune into to the Christian Channel, WBNC-Jesus” sweeps the States. George Harrison leaves the group in 1966, his interest in Eastern cultures incompatible with the band’s new direction but nobody notices.

Lennon’s new songs immediately reflect his Christianity. A song originally called ‘I’m Only Sleeping’ is rewritten as ‘I’m Only Praying’ (“When I wake up early in the morning/Go to church/I’m not yawning”). ‘All You Need Is Church’ is broadcast worldwide and provokes a mass return to Sunday worship, with chapels bursting with young people getting off on the joys of hymn-singing and frequent genuflection.

Even The Rolling Stones are spotted at mass, though the impression is marred when Keith Richards urinates into the collection plate. The Stones’ career is over, though in the Nineties they make a comeback, playing Wembley – the Wembley Arms, just off Neasden High Street.

A newfound mood of piety and no sex sweeps the youth of Britain and America, to the dismay of their parents who find themselves in the position of being the first generation to be more interesting than their juniors. Crazed kids deliver soup to elderly people, sit in fields reading each other passages from the New Testament and swigging orange squash. The zeitgeist is captured on the Beatles’ album, Sergeant Pepper’s Lovely Salvation Army Band, featuring Lennon’s ‘A Day In The Life’ (“I went to church today, oh boy/The sermon preached there was most interesting . . .”). In the late Sixties, Lennon even releases a somewhat unconvincing solo album, One Virgin (Me).

However, while Lennon’s songs on LPs such as The Trite Album reflect his unwavering pro-Jesus stance (“You say you want a Revolution, well, you know . . .I don’t think you should, Our Lord would be cross”), doubts arise about McCartney’s contributions. Fans play his seemingly unassuming ditty ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’ backwards and hear the message, “My arse is sore from this friggin’ pew”. A rift ensues after Paul McCartney speaks out on the war in Vietnam. With young people too distracted by churchgoing and hymn-singing to protest, America has won the conflict, nuking the entire area till every last “gook” is fried and, unaffected by domestic opposition to war, decided while it’s out there to nuke Russia too.

With the Red Menace obliterated but a third of the world’s surface irradiated by atomic bombs, McCartney remarks, “I can’t help thinking, like, if we pop stars had launched some sort of free-thinking peace and love movement, this might not have happened.” The Beatles split, with Lennon going on to record solo singles such as ‘Warm Turkey’ (about a Christian Christmas) and ‘Imagine’ (“Imagine there’s no Heaven – fortunately there is and we’re all going there, except Paul”)

Meanwhile, the prog-rock movement has blossomed, taking the Beatles’ experimentalism to extremes, with bands writing 587 verse-long “concept hymns”, developing elaborate genuflecting techniques and, in the case of Genesis, setting the entire bible to music across a 30LP multi-gatefold sleeve collection. Only when punk arrives with its “back to basics” message is sanity restored. Punk icons like Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer outrage Britain by only going to church once a week, with Rotten declaring in a shock TV interview to Bill Grundy, “vicars can be boring occasionally”.

However, with the rise of Oasis, led by two Manchester monks, Brother Noel and Brother Liam, comes a new mood of Beatles revivalism. They surprise journalists by holding hands in interviews. “Not that we’re a pair of fookin’ cissies – that is to say, we wish to transmit our Christian fraternity to young people everywhere”, says Brother Liam. Following the Beatles’ template closely, they release a series of albums, Definitely Definitely (God Exists), For Thine Is The Kingdom (The Power And The Glory) and Pray Here, Thou.

As for Lennon, in 1980 he was standing outside his New York apartment block when a young fan, Mark Chapman, rushed up to congratulate him on his pro-Jesus stance. Unfortunately, as he stepped forward to greet him, Lennon was caught in the crossfire from an armed New York Spiritual Control Officer, firing at a man suspected of having left Evensong early. Lennon took the bullet, died and ascended to Heaven which, he discovered, is like sitting in church 24 hours a day – true happiness.

Saturday, November 11th, 2000

I’m Alan Partridge

Alan Partridge has come a long way since his earliest incarnation as sports reporter on The Day Today. Unfortunately for him, it’s a long way down as his creators have taken pleasure in peeling away that glued-on, thin formica layer of smarm that coats his persona to see what terrible things lie underneath.

On Knowing Me, Knowing You, it didn’t take much teasing to bring out his small-minded prejudices and neuroses fuming to the surface, nor his shameless, ultimately disastrous desperation to be on TV. I’m Alan Partridge sees him humiliatingly reduced to the pre-Breakfast shift on Radio Norwich, playing T’Pau records and offending local farmers, with all too much time on his hands between dreaming up new programme ideas to get back into TV (“Yachting mishaps – some funny, some tragic . . . . inner city Sumo? . . . . monkey tennis?”).

I’m Alan Partridge is darker than Knowing Me, Knowing You, in that it deprives Alan of the oxygen of the “Chatosphere”, the medium of TV glibness which he needs like a fish needs water. He’s a permanent guest at the hellish (or is it heavenly for Alan?) 2-star Linton Traveltavern, whose Olde Worlde buffet, orange pine decor and perma-smiling manageress epitomises what vast tracts of England have become since the Seventies. Alan, a Wings fan (“the group the Beatles could have been”) approves of this synthetic new world. He can lose himself for – ooh, seconds, in contemplation of the astroturf at an owl sanctuary, a mini-Kiev or an inertia-reel seat belt but deep down, none of this really satisfies him.

He’s profoundly bored and embittered, not just because he isn’t on TV but because he’s Modern Middle English Man, trapped in the air-conditioned misery of the car he’s chosen for himself. Just the way he bares his front teeth sums up an entire cultural malaise. Though standout moments include his encounter with his one fan, unfortunately a King Of Comedy-style obsessive (“Mentalist!”), his promo video for a boating agency and his woeful attempts to fake sorrow to the widow at the funeral of the deceased BBC Commissioner (“Do you mind if I – go and talk to somebody else?”), I’m Alan Partridge is best and truest in Alan’s lowest, idlest moments, buying screws from a DIY store for no reason or just . . . “talking, talking, talking”, as he puts it, a la Beckett. Embarrassing yet strangely unembarrassable, Alan Partridge is a monster of English smallness, the finest British comic creation of this generation.

Friday, November 10th, 2000

The Beat Poets

Imagine. Your nation has just emerged triumphant from the most devastating global conflict known to mankind. Might has been matched by right as you’ve vanquished the Nazis, liberating the concentration camps and subdued the Japanese threat in the East. While most of the planet lies in ruins, your nation’s economy is booming. You’re young, American and facing a tremendous upsurge in your cultural and material fortunes that will be envy of the rest of the mankind. You’d be basically pretty happy, right?

Not if you’re a bunch of spoiled, druggy dropouts hanging around campus at Columbia in 1945. The beat poets, led by Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg and William Burroughs were not “beat” in the sense of upbeat but “beat”, as in “beat-up”, done for. In The Town And The City (1950) Jack Kerouac looks upon his fellow American citizens and surmises that “everyone is dead, locked up inside the sad psychoses of themselves”. Sorry, Jack, you mean actually dead? Well, er, no, but existentially dead, y’know, man? Listen, moron, it was 1945, if unlike 30 million Russians you weren’t actually dead that was worth at least a couple of cheers, don’t you think?

Though zillions of miles from any danger zone, the beat poets felt traumatised by the impact of war, especially its atomic dimension. Allen Ginsberg lamely explained that the reason he and his little “generation of furtives” took to drugs, ranging from Benzedrine to heroin (for which they all turned to lives of crime, either robbing drugs or harbouring stolen goods for scum like beat poet affiliate Herbert Huncke) was because they were “gripped by a fear of radiation sickness”. Needless to say, the courts of the day weren’t sympathetic to that line. It might be laudable if these poets recognised and empathised with the anguish of victims of global oppression but they seemed oblivious to everything except their own autobiographies. The whining arrogance of Ginsberg’s Howl still rankles. “I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked/Dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix” (I hope the “negroes” beat the shit out of them). Self-indulgent, undisciplined, slaves to their own cravings, vague about the source of their perceived woes they forged a “new vision” of art in which they were “free” of any obligation to curb their worst habits or excesses. Grab a toilet roll, upturn a bucket to tap out a rhythm on and you were a beat poet.

This being America, and these guys being so pathetic they couldn’t even hack it in this most privileged of places, they hit the road. C’mon, guys, let’s go to Mexico. Hey, why confront and come to terms with society when you can run away from it? Justified by the woolliest talk of “breaking through” to “something spiritual” on the “other side”, they set out with dreams of meeting their own, distorted version of “real” people, finding a place “where the Indians are seven feet tall and eat cocaine on the mountainside”.

Of course, no such place exists and On The Road is in fact about as exciting a read as “Memoirs Of An RAC Officer”, which would benefit from mucho editing. Except, first rule of beat, man, no blue pen. It’s argued that the beat poets were 20th century originals, delineating out on left field the margins of disaffection that would guide the permissive culture of the Sixties. But they were not original. All of their methods – Burroughs’s cut-up technique, spontaneous writing – had been conceived and executed with more dazzling panache by the Dadaists back in 1916-20.

So what are we left with? Cod-Romantic guff about being “real”, about people who “never yawn or say a commonplace thing but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous Roman yellow candles exploding like spiders across the stars” (On The Road). PG Wodehouse brilliantly parodied this “new” school of literature 40 years earlier in “Carry On Jeeves”. Bertie Wooster’s American friend “Rocky” Todd produces the following:

Be! Be!

The past is dead, Tomorrow is not born.

Be today! Today!

Be with every nerve, With every fibre, With every drop of your red blood!

Be! Be!

For this, Rocky gets paid $100 and stays in bed till four in the afternoon for over a month. That’s the beat poets in a nutshell.

Their own lives were less than unimpeachable. Subconsciously enacting the misogyny among the “best minds” of his generation , Burroughs accidentally shot his wife to death and ended his years as an extra in U2 videos. Kerouac became a drunk and, in the Sixties, a right wing bigot. Ginsberg, the subtext of whose entire output was “Where is my man” lived on to spout drivel such as “It’s Nation Time”. He was better behaved but is justly ignored by all but a few thousand old hippies who, incapable either of humour or of keeping pace with the 20th century infest Ginsberg websites with their own priceless, “free-form” bilge. These poncho-clad, saucer-eyed fuckheads are Beat’s true legacy.