The Beatles: Life After Death— Resurrection or Resuscitation?

Naphtali Wagner

Click to enlarge
Beatles: Life after Death

The Beatles: Life After Death—
Resurrection or Resuscitation?


The idea of rock music as a secular religion is a familiar topic that has been beaten to death by now. The present discussion attempts to revive it in the metaphorical context of death and resurrection in the story of the Beatles. The well-known facts are presented here anew as indications of the self-mythologisation that was meant to ‘ignite’ the Beatles legend and keep it alive in people’s minds. A ‘sacred’, sealed corpus may be a candidate for immortality, but it loses the vibrancy of living, changing rock music. If life after death is to resemble life before death, the corpus must be opened and stirred up. The Beatles have documented themselves incessantly through their anthologies, but they have also recorded ‘new’ songs in the vocal company of the late John Lennon, remixed one of their albums (resulting in Let It Be … Naked), and recently gave their blessing to a soundtrack produced for a Cirque du Soleil show, with mashups of their recorded materials. The soundtrack offers new possibilities for intertextuality, a phenomenon common in the Beatles’ later repertoire. The Beatles present an interesting, complex intertextual web of allusions and allusions to allusions, including self-quotes meant to reinforce the corpus from the inside and support its canonisation, as well as external allusions that link the corpus to cultural traditions and boost its status. Does the Beatles’ self-canonisation, which continues to this day, in fact undermine the canonical status of the corpus that was ostensibly closed and sealed in the late sixties?


Since I am not a big believer in life after death, I use the expression here in its metaphorical sense only. At first glance, it seems like a cliché: Obviously, creative geniuses continue living after their deaths through their immortal works. But with the Beatles the metaphor is so complicated that it stops being a cliché. We have metaphorical life after real death, real life after metaphorical death, and metaphorical life after metaphorical death, as we can see from the following chronicle.

1966–7: From stage to studio

If a performance in front of an audience is ‘live’, then the Beatles first died when they stopped performing onstage in late 1966. Their life after death thus started when they became recording artists. That was also their first virtual resurrection: Their first studio (as opposed to live) album, from 1967, depicts a fictional live performance of a fictional band: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The name is not the only odd thing about the band; its very nature—half rock band, half firemen’s or military band playing light classical music in a park for the enjoyment of passers-by—is strange as well. The mixture of genres is evident right from the start of the album in the wailing of electric guitars accompanying the announcer’s scratchy voice, the classical tone conferred by four French horns, and the uniforms and wind instruments on the cover. Today we would view all this as an expression of post-modern eclecticism, but in 1967 listeners perceived a fairly surrealistic picture, so the simulation of a live performance accentuated the lack of realism. The message that emerges from the album is one of a mixed-up world: we’ve stopped doing live shows and made up a live performance of ourselves in a new incarnation, but this new incarnation is so fantastic that it can’t even be considered an imitation of reality.

The Beatles’ move into the studio and the end of their live performances gave Brian Epstein, their legendary manager, the sense that he was irrelevant. This may have been one of the causes of his deterioration, which resulted in his death from an overdose of barbiturates and alcohol. Thus metaphorical death and virtual resurrection led to a real death—and perhaps not the last. In an interview around the same time, Lennon made his comment about the decline of Christianity and said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus.[1] This unfortunate remark may have been the first crack in Mark David Chapman’s veneration of Lennon; the mentally disturbed fan seems to have been first bothered by it about five years later, after he was ‘born again’. Fourteen years after the remark was made, Chapman killed John Lennon.[2]

1969: ‘Paul is dead now’

The first death of a Beatle was a virtual one: in 1969 rumours (whose origin is unknown to this day) started circulating that Paul had been killed in a car accident in November 1966 and had been replaced by a double who was not only his look-alike but was also blessed with his talents and abilities. The untimely death of rock idols feeds their cult. Because gods are immortal, many fans think the dead are still alive, as in the well-known case of Elvis Presley. But here we have the opposite: Paul McCartney experienced a fictional death while still alive and active in the band. The rumour was consistent with the strange mixture of real and metaphorical death mentioned above: the band’s disappearance from the concert stage and the possible suicide of Brian Epstein, as well as the Beatles’ new interest in Indian mysticism and so on and so forth. Were the Beatles involved in spreading the rumour? Did they feed it by concealing hints in their songs and on their album covers? One example is John’s famous mumbling at the end of ‘I’m So Tired’; to decipher the confirmation of Paul’s death you have to listen to the song backwards and use your imagination. Assuming the Beatles were not involved in starting the rumour, Paul lived from November 1966 to October 1969 without knowing that he was dead. Paul McCartney’s real life after his fictional death thus started just before the band disappeared into the studio; he has lived a long time since then and is part of the half of the group still alive. The rumour spread when the Beatles were no longer an active band (although the official announcement of their break-up was made by McCartney only in April 1970). Had it spread earlier, the Beatles could have simultaneously enjoyed McCartney’s creative power and the mythical halo of the story of his death. But as things happened, the story fed the Beatles myth only after the band’s death. In other words, Paul’s fictional death contributed another mythical dimension to the Beatles’ life after death.

1970: The album after the last

The Beatles ceased to exist as a band even before they officially announced their break-up. Their last song, ‘Because’, which is included in their last album, Abbey Road, was recorded in April 1969 and was the group’s real swan song. The final song, ‘And in the End’, concludes not only Abbey Road but the entire Beatles corpus. Thus Let It Be, which reached the market in 1970, was the first posthumous album, even though it contains earlier songs. Its status as the ‘farewell album’ is a bit odd, since it was a cinematically documented back-to-the-roots project—as expressed in the original title, Get Back. The Beatles wanted to inject themselves with metaphorical adrenaline (in addition to all the real things they injected or smoked) in order to revive the original rock ’n’ roll spirit of their youth, but in the attempt they went beyond their ability to tolerate one another. Anyone watching the movie documenting the project senses that the group’s days are numbered. Another paradox is that Phil Spector’s arrangements had the opposite effect. Instead of returning to basic rock ’n’ roll, fresh and free of arrangements, the songs on the album (or at least some of them) were swallowed up in a sea of orchestral sounds. But nothing about the Beatles is irreversible, as we shall see below.

1994–5: A tale of three and four

John Lennon was murdered in 1980, but in the 1990s he took part in recordings by the band that had given up the ghost in 1970. How did he manage this? The other Beatles added their voices to his recorded voice and recorded two ‘new’ songs (a year apart): ‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’. In other words, these songs were performed by the Beatles in full! But it was not just Lennon’s spirit that reached us from the afterworld: the Beatles as a whole conjured themselves up from the dead. The process of producing each of these new songs was not very different from what they had done in their glory days: one of them would present to the others a raw version of a song he had thought up, with a preliminary recording played on the piano; the others would then add various elements until it took on its final form after numerous rehearsals and recordings. Ostensibly, the same thing was done this time, too: John ‘presented’ to the others songs he had composed in 1977 and 1979, and the others added instrumental and vocal elements of their own. But there was one difference: the preliminary demo recordings were included in the final product so that John could be present as if he were still alive.[3]

These songs give Beatles fans a new listening experience—a cross between the present of the 1990s, the past of the 1970s, and the more distant past of the 1960s. ‘Free as a Bird’ (Anthology 1, disk 1, first song) sounds like a lexicon of allusions to Beatles gestures, although it does not actually quote any other songs.[4] In his book, Walter Everett lists several such allusions (Everett 1999, pp. 287–8). But the chord combinations, especially in the first part of the song, verge on banality and are slightly reminiscent of the Beatles when they were just starting out. Although at first it seems like an exercise in writing a Beatles-style song, after one gets accustomed and adjusts, the question arises of whether we have here a real addition to the Beatles corpus or a nostalgic song meant to remind us of the Beatles’ glory days but from the outside, without adding itself to the traditional repertoire.

The latter view is held by Joe Pytka, who directed the video clip of the song (included on the Anthology video). Pytka adopts a retrospective, documentary interpretation and surveys the history of the Beatles from a bird’s-eye view. The video is nothing but a dense sequence of allusions, most of them elusive, designed deliberately to provide obsessive fans with a riddle that they can solve only by watching it over and over again. Among other things, we see the pretty nurse from ‘Penny Lane’ selling paper poppies to passers-by; the car accident that inspired ‘A Day in the Life’; the ‘paperback writer’; Bungalow Bill and the elephant; human pigs, or more precisely piggish people, from ‘Piggies’; the policemen in a row from ‘I Am the Walrus’; and the fool on the hill who is ‘living there still’. We are even invited to visit Strawberry Fields and the grave of Eleanor Rigby. These and many others are clear allusions with no doubt about the intent behind them, but people have been enticed into finding all sorts of other speculative allusions to songs and events that Joe Pytka most probably did not put there on purpose.[5] The fictional characters and events, too, are presented through adaptations of clips from archive films. Thus the fictional world of the lyrics takes on a documentary character no less than the real biographical photographs.

The later song, ‘Real Love’ (Anthology 2, disk 1, first song), like the previous one, combines typical Beatles gestures with routine chord combinations.[6] However, the song includes several unusual elements; for instance, the minor intro (on Ebm) is reminiscent of the unforgettable vocal intro in ‘If I Fell’ from A Hard Day’s Night, and the last verse quotes a line of text from ‘If I Fell’ almost exactly; the solo starts surprisingly on an unexpected chord; and melodic units end on notes that are foreign to their accompanying chord.

These two songs may confront listeners with disturbing questions. For instance, could they have been produced similarly back when the group was still together, and if so, when? This is a distressing question because there is a strange stylistic mixture here of early and late, as if different components of the same song (harmony, sound, text, etc.) were taken from various phases in the group’s life and from the post-Beatles style of John Lennon. It is also odd to think that Lennon was at least a dozen years younger than his colleagues who were singing and playing alongside him (as in the ‘twin paradox’, as if Lennon had come back from a quick trip to outer space). Does Lennon’s presence rejuvenate them? Do the forty-year-old Lennon and his fifty-something fellows once again become the Beatles in their twenties? We are left a bit confused: Are the Beatles placing themselves in the 1990s as if to say, ‘We’re still alive and kicking,’ or are they still communicating to us from the 1960s, as suggested by the old-fashioned nature of the recorded sound?[7]

1995–7: In the land of possible worlds

It turns out that the same life can be lived more than once. We already knew this from James Bond and from the metaphysics of possible worlds, and now we learn it again from the Anthology CDs, which reveal other possible versions of the same familiar songs and give us a glimpse into a parallel Beatles world, different from the one we were in until now. We are not talking about several renditions of a song by different artists or by the same artist at different times in his career. These are different ‘takes’ of the same rendition; in a sense, they are documentation of recorded drafts. In most cases they confirm the superiority of the final version with which we have long been familiar, but sometimes they make us wonder whether the final version that we knew was not the best choice. This may occur when we are presented with several variants of a song that suggest that the song could have gone in a different direction.[8] Suddenly the canonical version loses some of its exclusivity and becomes optional.[9] The Anthology also lets us hear songs that did not make it into the canonical corpus and may make us wonder whether they deserved to get in after all (in a more polished form, of course). But even if we look at the recorded anthology as a mere documentary project that sheds retrospective light on the standard repertoire and reinforces it, we cannot ignore the two new songs on it—‘Free as a Bird’ and ‘Real Love’—that bring Lennon into the recording studio of the mid-1990s. Moreover, these songs are emphasised by their placement at the beginning of the first two volumes of the recorded anthology. These are not new versions of old songs or songs that were originally rejected and left out. Again the question arises: Do these songs threaten to recanonise the corpus? Can they possibly be left out of the Beatles canon?

2001: George is dead now

George Harrison did not have a long life either; he died as the new millennium began. But don’t worry. He, too, will be back—if not to the recording studio then at least to the editing desk. After his death, it looked as though all the wonders of the studio could no longer produce new songs with the full band. Logic trumps technology: Paul and Ringo could add themselves to the recorded George or the recorded John, but not to both simultaneously. Nevertheless, as we shall see, the options for bringing all the Beatles together under one roof were not yet exhausted.

2003: Secondary documentation

The DVD version of the Anthology, previously available on video, came out in 2003. This version came with a ‘special features’ disk about the Anthology itself. Hence this is secondary documentation: the group (even older and more ‘retrospective’) documents its self-documentation of a few years before. This secondary documentation gives canonical status, as it were, to the primary documentation—or if not to the documentation itself, then at least to the two new songs on it (Anthology DVD, track 4). In the section on the production of the Anthology, the producer, Neil Aspinall, says it was decided that the Beatles themselves would tell their story without any background narration or outside narrator. The problem was that only three of them were still alive. To overcome this obstacle, they inserted John’s voice from interviews recorded many years earlier as if he were joining in the present discussion. This was another way of giving John life after death and presenting the retired band in full.

2003: Removing the shrouds

As stated, the recorded Anthology offers alternatives to the familiar musical reality. Would it be possible to go one step further, enter a time machine, and correct the mistakes of the past? The album Let It Be … Naked shows that one can at least try. Let It Be was always a semi-stepchild among the Beatles albums. We already mentioned that it was released after the Beatles had ceased to exist and that Phil Spector was the one who completed it, embalming the songs with abundant orchestral sounds. The former Beatles, especially McCartney, hated the album as released, but what was done could not be undone. Or could it? In 2003 (33 years later!), a remix stripped the songs of Phil Spector’s orchestral casing. Apparently, it’s never too late. Can the revision be seen as a ratification of the canonisation of the album? In any event, Let It Be … Naked brought in its wake a new means of resurrection—the resurrection of the true spirit of songs that were ‘killed’ by the arrangement process. If indeed Phil Spector’s orchestration killed some of the songs, stripping them of their orchestral accompaniment should have brought them back to life. But reality is not so unequivocal, if we are to judge by McCartney’s ‘The Long and Winding Road’. It is doubtful whether deleting the orchestra improved the song, which in its old-new form sounds not only too exposed but somewhat limping (perhaps due to the hardships of the long and winding road that it travelled to reach this point).[10]

2006: Resurrection as acrobatics

Can the dead be expected to compose new music for a new choreographed performance? Apparently so. The Canadian circus Cirque du Soleil asked the Beatles’ producer, George Martin, for an hour and a half of soundscape based on Beatles recordings (in the wake of an initiative by the late George Harrison and Guy Laliberté, founder of the Cirque, and in consultation with Paul, Ringo, and Yoko Ono). This was not just a borrowing of songs or even a conventional remix, but a new work using the mashup technique. This technique is essentially a hybridisation of various sound materials from existing recordings to create a new soundtrack. George Martin and his son Giles were brought in to work on the project, and in late 2006, after two years of work, they produced the CD Love—the soundtrack from the Cirque du Soleil’s extravaganza in Las Vegas. The hybridisation is at times explicit, but most of the time you are immersed in a strange listening experience, as if you have to solve a riddle. You try to identify shreds of quotations interspersed in the track that you are hearing. Everything sounds familiar but elusive. Often you aren’t sure if certain parts of a song are being presented as originally released or if these are alternative takes that were rejected and are familiar to you from the recorded Anthology. If they are the original versions, maybe they are accompanied by elements taken from somewhere else, or maybe they simply underwent a change of balance in the mixing process. It is a frustrating experience, because it calls into question what you thought was your expert knowledge of the Beatles heritage. It’s as if you knew all of Shakespeare’s writings almost by heart (with the emphasis on the almost) and watched a play in which tiny changes had been made—slight textual deletions replaced by excerpts from other plays. Everything sounds familiar but a little different. This is a big step up with respect to self-recycling. It is not just a release of old goods in new packaging (like the CD Number One, which contains all the Beatles’ hits that were number one on the British hit parade). Teaming up with the Cirque du Soleil added a new dimension to the Beatles’ virtual creative life, four decades after their break-up. The Cirque du Soleil reinvented the circus as an art form that combines acrobatics with ballet and theatre; this is manifested in the sets, costumes, and lighting as well. Las Vegas—that illusory oasis, realisation of a fata morgana—is indeed the appropriate setting for such a performance, especially as it took place in the Mirage Hotel.

Is this really life after death? McCartney felt as if he were once again with his two dead colleagues who had come back to life: ‘This album puts the Beatles back together again, because suddenly there’s John and George with me and Ringo. It’s kind of magical.’

Apparently, Paul accepted Love as a new Beatles project, one that brought them into the present. It was as though the entire band had just recently been called into the recording studio and had worked side by side under the Martins’ direction (the year, it will be recalled, is 2006). According to Giles Martin (George’s son), this was an instant of life after death: ‘What people will be hearing on the album is a new experience, a way of re-living the whole Beatles musical life span in a very condensed period.’

In the same interview with the two Martins, printed in Entertainment Weekly, Martin senior explains how the remix rejuvenated the song ‘Something’: ‘Sometimes if you change just one thing, people really start listening in a new way. The guitars are taken off the front, and it really makes you hear the whole thing differently.’

In the new version, the string instruments come across more strongly, and this indeed gives the song a different character. Martin sees the project as having an almost didactic significance: it makes us listen again with bated breath to music that we had grown tired of. It is a resuscitation of worn-out sounds from the past by means of reorganisation. Martin quickly adds: ‘These are not definitive versions, of course. But if we were taking anything off, we were careful to not remove any of the soul of what’s there.’

The implication is that they were not trying to canonise new versions of the songs in place of the familiar versions; the new mix looks toward the canonical version and strives to retain its spirit. But is this true? Perhaps in this case it is, but we have already seen, in the context of Let It Be … Naked, that a new mix can threaten the authenticity of the old (the one that was previously considered original).

The most successful use of the mashup technique is in the ‘Drive My Car’ track (see figure 1). Here we have a genuine counterpoint of different songs, and the music flows without losing momentum. All the songs were originally recorded in the same key (D major), so there was no need for digital acrobatics to put them on the same foundation. The blending of these songs reveals a harmonic common denominator, which includes interesting deviations from standard blues formulas. Figure 1 shows, in side-by-side columns, the parts of songs played simultaneously (the abbreviations are explained in the legend in the upper right-hand corner).


Figure 1


 ‘Drive My Car’ starts as usual (with the DMC intro, verse 1, and chorus, as shown in the figure), but then just its riff remains, serving as a vehicle for the concluding solo of ‘Taxman’. The solo, which burst out in front without warning, ends surprisingly with the ending of the original solo of the main song. After that, when we expect the song to resume, a different song—‘What You’re Doing’ (WYD in the figure)—starts in the same key. This song is also carried by the same riff, even though its original version had its own riff. Suddenly, following a break, we are left with the drumming of the persistent rhythmic formula of ‘What You’re Doing’ (‘WYD, drums’ in the figure), and then another song, ‘The Word’, immediately climbs on top of it. This is comparable to a Buñuel-style cinematic effect in which you follow a certain character, confident that it is the main character in the plot, but then this character is totally abandoned as soon as he/she encounters a new character; the new character becomes the leader until he/she, too, disappears following a new encounter, and so on and so forth. In our case, the circle is closed by the outro of ‘Drive My Car’.

The ‘Get Back’ track is especially rich in its use of mashup. The song now becomes worthy of its name. It brings us back to the happy Beatles days, while exemplifying the earlier and later periods in the group’s life. It starts with the unconventional opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ (D–G–C–G) heard both forwards fading out naturally and backwards with a strange intensification. As it leaves us, it is replaced by Ringo’s famous drum solo from just before ‘The End’, the last song on Abbey Road. Only now do we hear the intro notes of ‘Get Back’ in a crescendo, while a fragment of a guitar solo from ‘The End’ passes over them like a cloud. Meanwhile, there is a murmured ‘quiz’ on quotations. The incursion of ‘The End’ into ‘Get Back’ recounts the sad story of the band’s demise: How did an attempt to ‘get back’ as a means of renewal ultimately lead the Beatles to the end of the road?

An intertextual circus

Despite its novelty, the mashup technique is closely related to intertextuality, i.e. a reference to or paraphrase of one work within another. The Beatles rarely referred to themselves in their songs in a direct biographical manner.[11] Allusions and indirect references can be found here and there, but they are not obvious and they require interpretation. Nevertheless, their later recordings do contain references to their earlier songs. Several interesting examples may indicate that the Beatles regarded their songs as a canonical corpus even before they broke up. The allusions even go beyond their own repertoire, extending to Western and non-Western cultural elements.

References may be textual, musical, or both; they may be implicit or explicit; they may be based on an exact quote or on a distortion of the text or music. Sometimes the title of the song is quoted and sometimes it is something from the middle; the location of the reference in the later song may or may not be the same as the location in the earlier song. The mashup technique is essentially an act of creating a mosaic of references based chiefly on sampling. Sampling is ostensibly the purest form of quotation, except that it may undergo far-reaching electro-acoustic processing. Therefore the sampling, too, may be faithful to the original or distorted; it may be in the forefront or in the background; and so on. The references that we will discuss utilise many of these possibilities.

Love includes two songs whose original versions were already full of allusions, thereby complicating the intertextual picture: The first is based on ‘Glass Onion’ from the White Album (1968). The original song was apparently meant to make fun of fans who would delve into the group’s lyrics searching for hidden, even mystical messages. This was done through allusions to earlier Beatles songs that were distorted, so to speak, by an onion-shaped lens. The song refers to ‘Strawberry Fields’, ‘I Am the Walrus’, ‘The Fool on the Hill’, ‘Fixing a Hole’, ‘Lady Madonna’, and ‘I’ll Get You’. Some of the references are only textual, but there is no shortage of musical allusions. The most salient is the musical distortion on the words ‘Strawberry Fields’. In the context of ‘I Am the Walrus’, the intertextuality bursts its banks, because the song alluded to allude in turn to ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’. This reference also gives us a sense of looking through a distorted prism, since the innocent, pleasurable, dream fantasy in ‘Lucy’ turns into a crazy surrealistic nightmare in ‘Walrus’. Both songs, ‘Walrus’ and ‘Lucy’, are related to Alice in Wonderland. The nightmarish wonderland of ‘Walrus’ contains within it the dream wonderland of ‘Lucy’. Both songs reflect Lewis Carroll’s wonderland and Alice herself as if in a fun-house mirror. The Beatles turn Carroll’s Alice—a strong character who can stand up for herself—into the drifting Lucy with the sun in her kaleidoscope eyes. Although in ‘Walrus’ she is still a symbol of flying (‘See how they fly like Lucy in the sky, see how they run’), this flight parallels the running of the pigs in the previous verse: ‘See how they run like pigs from the gun, see how they fly.’ And let us not forget that Lewis Carroll was himself a master of distorted allusions, as many of his poems are merely parodies of children’s poems. But this is not the end of the chain of allusions:[12] The ending of the phrase—‘See how they run’—appears in accentuated form in the song ‘Lady Madonna’, but with a totally different meaning. Thus we have intertwined intertextual tracks: ‘Glass Onion’ alludes to ‘I Am the Walrus’, which alludes to ‘Lucy in the Sky’, and both (Walrus and Lucy) allude to ‘The Walrus and the Carpenter’ from Through the Looking-glass, a book that relies heavily on misquotes of Mother Goose. Thus we can talk of secondary, tertiary, and quaternary allusions.

Let us now return to the version of ‘Glass Onion’ in Love. The Martins sample just a little of it (about a minute and a quarter), skip most of the original allusions, and add others in their place: ‘Hello, hello’ from the song ‘Hello Goodbye’ and the trumpet solo from ‘Penny Lane’, which sneaks in, ghostlike, and stays in the background, perhaps to balance out the allusion to ‘Strawberry Fields’, since these two songs came into the world as fraternal twins. The track starts here with ‘Oh yeah’, which comes later in the original ‘Glass Onion’ but starts off the song ‘I’ll Get You’ (1963)[13]—so by a roundabout route the phrase returns to its source.

Figure 2 shows a group of allusions starting with ‘Glass Onion’. The arrows extend from the song containing the allusion to the song to which it alludes; thus the latter always predates the former. The text next to an arrow is the verbal allusion itself. Musical notes (♫) indicate that the allusion is musical (a sampling, quotation, or distortion). The figure is somewhat but not entirely tree-like; sometimes two songs allude to the same song, which is not in keeping with the tree pattern. The impossibility of cyclic allusions (e.g. two items alluding to each other) is what gives it a tree-like appearance. The figure is arranged in four layers from top to bottom:

·           The top layer (the Martins) includes some of the components of the Love version of ‘Glass Onion’, as arranged by George and Giles Martin. As we see, aside from the reference to the original version of the song on the White Album, there are only three allusions (in the frame) taken from the original version. The other allusions (including those not shown in the figure) are unique to the Love version.

·           The second layer contains allusions to other Beatles songs in ‘Glass Onion’.

·           The third layer (Lewis Carroll) shows the connections between several of the songs in the previous layer and Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-glass.

·           The bottom layer (Mother Goose) links Lewis Carroll to English nursery rhymes. In our case Carroll quotes the poem about Humpty Dumpty (the eggman) correctly and undistorted. In one case—‘Lady Madonna’—the reference to Mother Goose is not mediated by Lewis Carroll.

figure 2

The next example of secondary intertextuality is based on ‘All You Need Is Love’, the last song on the LP The Magical Mystery Tour. It was selected to conclude the soundtrack of Love as well (and may be responsible for the album title), but in fact it should be considered the starting point of Love: It came into the world in the first place as a distinctly intertextual song that foreshadowed the mashup technique forty years in advance. The song was chosen to represent England in the first satellite television broadcast that could be received around the world (on 25 June 1967). It is full of quotations: the initial passage from ‘La Marseillaise’ adds a revolutionary, anthem-like flavour, but presumably it was also meant to anger British patriots by having their country’s representative broadcast time begin with the French anthem and a declaration that love and France go hand in hand.

Toward the end of the song, fragments of musical quotations pile up in a seemingly random collage of classics from various genres: an instrumental passage from Bach’s Invention in F Major (which is also reminiscent of Mozart’s Jupiter Symphony), a jazz element taken from Glenn Miller, and finally, very faintly, the classic folk song ‘Greensleeves’. In the context of ushering in universal love, this assemblage can be seen as an appeal for musical pluralism that today might be considered post-modern. But the Beatles added themselves to the mosaic with the line ‘She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah.’ Thus they grouped themselves together with the other classics quoted, as if to say, ‘We are also classics.’ This is the acoustic equivalent of putting the Beatles together with the illustrious figures on the jacket of Sgt. Pepper. The patchwork here can be seen as a precedent for the future mashup technique, even though these are quotations rather than sampling. In the Martins’ 2006 version, the collage ends with several additional embellishments: a quotation from ‘Good Night’, which concluded the White Album, and John’s farewell words, apparently taken from one of the Christmas singles that the Beatles produced for a fan club.

Another facet of intertextuality is plagiarism, since there are allusions to and quotations (albeit illegitimate ones) of other works. Of course, the entire soundtrack can be considered self-plagiarism, but let’s be more specific and discuss the inclusion of two songs that were plagiaristic from the start: ‘Come Together’, which violated Chuck Berry’s copyright by means of a salient textual phrase, ends here with a few ‘thefts’ from various songs by Lennon, including ‘Dear Prudence’ and the pentatonic coda of ‘Cry Baby Cry’. Another track contains ‘Hey Jude’ without any far-reaching changes. But this song in its original form is guilty of blatant plagiarism: as Walter Everett points out in his book, the song is suspiciously similar to John Ireland’s ‘Te Deum’, composed in 1907 (Everett 1999, pp. 192–4).

An allusion may be not only to the song itself but to its position. The reprise of ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ originally appears toward the end of the album of the same name. Because the song functions as a frame song (it also starts off the album), its recurrence is a conclusion—but surprisingly, it is followed by another song. The Martins reconstruct this here by inserting ‘Sgt. Pepper’ before the last track of Love. As stated, the final song—‘All You Need Is Love’—also originally concluded an LP (though a different one), so its placement in Love also alludes to its original position. ‘Glass Onion’ comes third on Love, as it does on the White Album. An allusion in reverse can be seen in ‘Because’, which is placed here at the beginning of the album even though it was the last song ever recorded by all the Beatles together. And we can come up with many more interpretations of the placement decisions.

Several songs on Love indicate that a mashup is not just a matter of assembling the pieces but also of breaking things down and deleting: ‘Eleanor Rigby’ starts out as a pure playback of string instruments. Listeners have to add the vocals in their imagination (as in karaoke), but this does not work because the playback does not proceed in order. After the intro, the accompaniment skips to the middle of the third verse, and even if the vigilant, knowledgeable listener manages to get a handle on it, it immediately slips out of his grasp when the song starts over, this time with the tune included.[14] After the burial of Eleanor and the dirge about all the lonely people, we hear the intro from ‘Julia’, also as a playback. Lennon’s omitted vocal line—‘Half of what I say is meaningless’—thus takes on a strange meaning, as half of the musical information (the meaningless part?) is missing. Here too, karaoke fans have no chance of satisfaction because ‘Julia’ quickly fades away and is swallowed up by a loud mass of notes.

In ‘Because’ the exact opposite occurs: the playback is left out of the recording. The album begins with phrases of the song sung a cappella, stripped of the electronic harpsichord notes that accompanied them in the original. If the original song contained a bit of Baroque choral prelude, what remains of it is only the choral aspect. The phrases are separated by rests that take the place of the traditional fermatas (prolongations of the ends of phrases). Instead of Lutheran religious verses we have Lennon’s nonsense phrases, but this lyric nonsense conveys a cosmic feeling: ‘the world is round… the wind is high… the sky is blue’. The ‘intro’ here consists of chirping birds from ‘Across the Universe’—specifically, the version donated to the charity album No One’s Gonna Change Our World to raise money for the World Wildlife Fund. The Martins added the cooing of a dove in order to ‘make it more British’, as George Martin explained. The combination of cosmic choral phrases and chirping birds conveys a message that links the Beatles with religion and nature, cosmology and ecology, and gives the soundtrack a mystical dimension right from the start.

Quasi-liturgical nonsense also emanates from ‘Gnik Nus’, a track addressed, so to speak, to those mystically minded fans who would listen to Beatles records backwards in search of hidden clues. Here the Martins help them by playing phrases from ‘Sun King’ in reverse. With its original content, the song is a simulation of pagan sun worship. Now, after these manipulations, it sounds like liturgy in a remote, incomprehensible language. Even in the original version, the song included sequences of nonsense syllables that gave the impression of being a church cantillation in a Romance language. Those recitations were deleted from this soundtrack in favour of the ‘secret’ language, which is really just backwards English. All this brings us back to Through the Looking-glass: near the beginning of the story Alice discovers a poem written backwards. To decipher it, she places the piece of paper in front of a mirror. Although the mirror writing turns into ordinary writing, the content is still enigmatic.

Another facet of religious mystery is found in the connection between ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’, whose lyrics were inspired indirectly by the Tibetan Book of the Dead, and the Indian-inspired ‘Within You Without You’. At a certain point, the former gives the latter a layer of percussion. Both songs are in the same broad C major chord and have a similar modal structure, so they could be combined without difficulty. Here the Martins took advantage of musical properties linking Western rock with Indian music—properties that are inherent in the Beatles’ repertoire. Songs with one static chord neutralise the time dimension and seem to freeze it in an attempt to connect to eternity. Both the Hindu nirvana and Timothy Leary’s interpretation of the Tibetan Book of the Dead lead to the death of the ego—the private self—and cosmic immanence. And here we have another case of death and resurrection. At the end of the track, the riff from ‘Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’ tiptoes in, forming a bridge between the primeval psychedelia of Revolver and the variegated psychedelia of Sgt. Pepper.

Putting Love together was an experimental, exploratory project. Almost every track contains a hidden idea that gives it its own place in the overall soundtrack: a change in styles, a combination of live performance and studio recording, a switch between different creative phases of the same composer, the process leading from the first draft to the finished product, and so on. A unique stylistic switch takes place in ‘Lady Madonna’, when a boogie-woogie riff is converted into a late-sixties–style riff from ‘Hey Bulldog’.[15] In ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, a live recording—from a Beatles concert in the Hollywood Bowl—is synchronised with the familiar studio version. The Beatles are present, as it were, on both sides of the watershed—before leaving the stage and after moving into the studio. Although the song is one of their earliest, their decision to leave the stage in 1966 gives the combination new meaning.

The fascinating process of taking a song from a recorded draft to a canonical recording can be heard in the ‘Strawberry Fields’ track. We already know about Lennon’s first tentative steps in composing the song from the 1992 television program The Making of Sgt. Pepper. There George Martin described various stages in the production of this song, which for some reason he called ‘our first psychedelic track’ (Martin 1992, 16’25’). Here the Martins go one step further and turn the first draft into an integral part of the arranged piece. The track proceeds from Lennon’s acoustic demo to the final version of the song, accumulating elements until the familiar mass of sound takes shape. But there are still surprises awaiting us in the coda. Even in its original version, the fadeout of the song just refuses to die—as if it moved away and almost melted, and then changed its mind and moved in closer again. Here the coda ultimately connects to the coda of ‘Hello Goodbye’ through the mediation of numerous transitional segments—a myriad of interludes between two postludes. We can discern the French horn interlude from ‘Sgt. Pepper’, the Baroque interlude from ‘In My Life’, the piccolo trumpet solo from ‘Penny Lane’, and the harpsichord from ‘Piggies’. What all these interludes have in common is their classical style. With the Martins’ help, the Beatles connect to the immortal—Western art music with its myriad styles. Another common denominator is the salient creative involvement of George Martin. By combining these transitional segments, the Martins created a portrait of George Martin as an active partner in the Beatles’ creative life.

The Martins also constructed several living monuments to the ‘neglected’ members of the group—Ringo and George. A special track is devoted to Ringo as a composer and singer: The first few lines of ‘Octopus’s Garden’ appear against an orchestral background from ‘Good Night’ (transposed up by a second). The accompaniment forces a different harmony on the melody—one that grates on the ear. Meanwhile, we hear effects from ‘Yellow Submarine’. Only toward the end of the track does the soundtrack leave Ringo for ‘Sun King’ (a song that is not closely associated with his musical image). Harrison certainly has nothing to complain about in the representation of his work on Love. Several tracks are devoted to him and his songs almost exclusively: ‘Blue Jay Way’ is a sequel to ‘Something’; this fact underscores Harrison’s use of the Cmaj7 chord in both songs. The ‘Here Comes the Sun’ track begins with drumming from ‘Within You Without You’ and ends with instrumental notes from ‘The Inner Light’, forming a biographical link between Harrison’s post-Indian phase (the Abbey Road period) and his Indian phase.

The only song where the Martins added brand-new material: ‘While My Guitar Gently Weeps’. Here they used an early version by Harrison, accompanying himself on the acoustic guitar, and added a chamber string orchestra. Eric Clapton’s wailing electric guitar is gone, and as a result the music loses its connection to the title, since a acoustic guitar may sound gloomy but would have a hard time weeping. To compensate, the strings add a few alternative moans with tiny glissandi, but they cannot make up for all of Clapton’s omitted wails. The sounds of Clapton’s electric guitar were moved to the previous track, where they lament the tough but admirable life of Lady Madonna.

The Martins drew various portraits of Lennon and McCartney, too. Here I will only mention the ‘acoustic' Paul that results from simply merging the intro from ‘Blackbird’ with ‘Yesterday’, and the ‘wildly imaginative' Lennon, manifested by the pairing of ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’ and ‘She’s So Heavy’ (despite background sounds from Paul’s ‘Helter-Skelter’).

The acrobatics of Mr. Kite and the Hendersons, described in the circus song from Sgt. Pepper, remind us that we are listening to the soundtrack for a circus performance.[16] When asked whether Love should be considered first and foremost the soundtrack to the Cirque du Soleil show or an independent work in its own right, George Martin replied somewhat diplomatically: ‘The Beatles themselves wanted it to represent the show, and to think of it as a soundtrack. But while a lot of people have seen the show, a hell of a lot more will have the record.’

His answer makes it clear that he feels obligated to defend the album’s connection to the show, but he points out that the album lives happily even among a large audience that does not necessarily associate it with the Cirque du Soleil. We get the sense that the main heroes of the story are the Beatles and, of course, the person who gave them new life through three gruelling years of creative editing.

Self-mythologisation and self-canonisation

Life after death thus requires a constant refuelling of the myth. We are all supposed to be enveloped in a living Beatles myth. The Beatles and friends make sure to feed the eternal flame of the myth frequently to keep it from dying out. Although this would have been impossible without the survival traits inherent in their marvellous repertoire, which fires the imagination of young people born a generation or two after the Beatles broke up, it doesn’t hurt to fan the embers from time to time. The commercial considerations do not concern us here. The religious dimension of the veneration of rock idols, alive and dead, accompanied by signs of saint worship (e.g. the trade in ‘relics’), is also too broad for us to address. Nor will we concern ourselves with the constant gossip that keeps these people in the public consciousness and, in the case of gossip about former members of legendary bands that broke up, extends their lives after death. All this requires further study and belongs to other people’s areas of expertise. Here we will limit ourselves to a narrower aspect—the canonisation of the Beatles and their involvement in canonising themselves.

The canonisation of a corpus occurs after many generations of natural selection, which may be terminated by a decisive, authoritative act that results in its being sealed. In the pop-rock world this process is much quicker. Ten years in this world is equivalent to a century in classical music and a millennium for religious scriptures. An odd situation develops in which the artists take part in their own canonisation. The Beatles did this while they were still an active band in the eye of the Beatlemania storm, and they are still involved in it today, decades after their break-up. The constant, living presence of the Beatles and their associates in the landscape of contemporary popular music and their intervention in their own repertoire support and strengthen the canon, but paradoxically they also undermine it. George Martin’s remarks—‘The Beatles catalogue is not a set of sacred texts’—were meant as an eternal answer to purists who might view his latest work as a desecration. But combined with his other comments about ‘rejuvenation’, they reveal his duplicity: he is fanning the myth and demythologising at one and the same time!

We must distinguish between the canonisation of a repertoire and the canonisation of individual pieces. A canonical repertoire may include second-rate (and even poor-quality) pieces in addition to those that have been accepted as sacrosanct. When a classical composer is considered ‘canonical’, all of his works are included in the canon, even if some of them are played rarely, if ever. (When did you last listen to Mozart’s Tenth Symphony?) The great works impart a canonical halo to the lesser ones. The inclusion of ostensibly marginal works in the canon (and consequently in published collections) provides access to these works and the opportunity to reassess them later, or at least to evaluate their importance in the composer’s development. Similarly, even if a particular Beatles song was never a hit and was hardly ever played, its very inclusion in a Beatles album makes it a cultural asset. (When did you last pay attention to the Beatles cover version of Arthur Alexander’s song ‘Anna’?)[17] The very nature of the recorded medium means that the Beatles canon was determined when each record was being prepared in its British format. The decisions on the contents of these albums were a decisive stage in determining what went into the canon and what was left out, since each album is ultimately a collection of individual songs representing a particular creative phase in the group’s life. Even a concept album like Sgt. Pepper is not a unified work, but rather a collection of songs presented in an artificial framework. If every album consists of a selective assortment of the group’s creative performance activity in a given period of time, then the sealing of such an album is comparable, at least in retrospect, to the sealing of a book with canonical status. Since the Beatles were deeply involved in the decision-making regarding the content of their albums, they took an active part in their own canonisation.

The canon of Beatles songs was sealed in 1970. It includes fourteen official albums and singles that could have filled up another two albums, recorded in just seven years. The Hebrew University music library has a collection of canonical recordings of the Beatles packed in a ‘holy ark’—a black box with a pleated lid, like a breadbox (a pyx?). This means of embalming the Beatles’ recordings prevents them from being stored with the rest of the library’s CDs. Indeed, this ‘sarcophagus’ in the music and media section of our library is kept apart from the rest of the library’s recorded treasures, a privileged status that even Beethoven and Bach (the other two great B’s) do not have.

A sealed corpus may be a candidate for eternal life but it is cut off from the vibrancy and change of real life. The sealing is meant to stop the creativity that makes the corpus unstable and hard to control. A liturgical corpus, for instance, is sealed to enhance control by the religious establishment, which wants a uniform, stable canon. The corpus of Gregorian chant was sealed partly to prevent the proliferation of musico-textual additions known as tropes and sequences. The recorded canon of the Beatles is different from a canon stored in the form of written notes. Whereas the latter allows for new performances and differences in interpretation, the recorded corpus is also a single performance of itself. (I am not going into the significant difference between the cover versions of Beatles songs that pop up every so often and a new performance of a sonata by Beethoven.) In order for life after death to resemble life before death, we have to open the corpus and shake it up. In the case of canonised scripture, such rejuvenating activity consists mainly of commentary. But imagine if the first item on the morning news were that the author of the book of Job had just come out with a new volume—Job and Friends Thirty Years Later.

The Beatles are trying to have their cake and eat it, too—to immortalise the closed canon and to open it up. In order to immortalise it, they produced an anthology in at least three different storage media—CDs, a book, and documentary videos that (with a few additions) became DVDs. But as I said before, the Anthology recordings do not just reinforce the corpus; they also undermine it—like an archaeological discovery of scrolls that offer authentic alternatives to a sacred text that had previously been regarded as the sole, exclusive version. But here, paradoxically, the archaeologists are the authors of the canon: instead of researchers painstakingly collecting all the scraps of parchments, the creators of the corpus are themselves providing the yellowing parchments through an act of ‘self-archaeology’. As stated, the Beatles canon was not just opened archaeologically; it was also opened by producing recordings that incorporate the voice of the late John Lennon, by re-editing an album and reviving its authenticity in the case of Let It Be … Naked, and by breaking the corpus down into its components and reassembling them using the mashup technique.

Thus it turns out that the anthologies and collages fulfil opposite functions: on the one hand, they detract from the canonical sealing of the Beatles heritage and call it into question; on the other hand, they reinforce the Beatles heritage through constant attention. The total corpus of recordings, which includes all the musical experiments in addition to the finished products, provides raw material not only for research and documentation, but also for creative activity, in an obsessive effort to make the finite legacy infinite. As in many other contexts today, we have here a strange mixture of the real and the virtual, so much so that we can’t tell what is real and what is fictional, what is dead and what is alive. It is as if the Beatles were building a monument to themselves but also having a celebration in it—dancing on their own grave, if you will. But what cause do we have to complain? The assimilation of virtuality in reality is the material of which the world in which we all live is made. Apparently, though, the Beatles noticed this long before the rest of us (for a summary, see figure 3).[18]

Figure 3




Everett, W. 1999. The Beatles as Musicians: Revolver through the Anthology (Oxford).

Everett, W. 2001. The Beatles as Musicians: The Quarrymen through Rubber Soul (Oxford).

Macdonald, I. 1995. Revolution in the Head: The Beatles Records and the Sixties (London).

Martin, G. 1992. The Making of Sgt. Pepper. Television program aired on ITV in the United Kingdom (June 14) and on the Disney Channel in the United States (September 27).

Wagner, N. 1999. Beatles: The Seven Good Years (Jerusalem) (in Hebrew).

Willman, C. 2007 (March 26). ‘Labor of LOVE’, Entertainment Weekly,,,1562172,00.html.

Selected Discography

Beatles. The Beatles Anthology 1 (CD). George Martin, Apple. 1995

Beatles. The Beatles Anthology 2 (CD). George Martin, EMI, Apple, Capitol. 1995

Beatles. The Beatles Anthology (DVD). Special Features. Neil Aspinall, Parlophone/Apple. 2003

Beatles. The Beatles: Let It Be … Naked (CD). Parlophone/Apple. 2003

Beatles. The Beatles: Love (CD). Parlophone/Apple. 2006


[1] ‘Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and I will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first—rock ’n’ roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It’s them twisting it that ruins it for me’ (interview with Maureen Cleave for the London Evening Standard on 4 March 1966).

[2] Moreover, we cannot discount the possibility that Chapman’s use of LSD, which may have been a catalyst for the development of his mental illness, was influenced by Lennon and the Beatles.

[3] According to McCartney, the work on ‘Free as a Bird’ was more like a real Beatles session because the demo was rawer and needed more joint creative work to complete it, whereas ‘Real Love’ was presented to them as a complete song that only had to be filled out (Anthology DVD, ‘Compiling the Anthology Album’, 00:08:10).

[4] John recorded the demo of the song at the piano in 1977. Additions made during the recordings: acoustic guitar, Paul and George; bass guitar, Paul; lead guitar and solo with ‘slide’, George; doubling of the original piano, Paul; additional vocals, George, Paul, and Ringo; vocal acrobatics (flapping of wings). (See the booklet that comes with Anthology 1.)

[5] The multifaceted treatment of the Beatles’ songs as a riddle to be solved is an integral part of the mythologisation of the group.

[6] The song is based on a tape that John Lennon left behind with a double track, piano, and drum machine. Additions made during the recording: acoustic guitar, George and Paul; bass guitar, Paul; double bass, Paul; drum kit, Ringo; various percussion instruments, George, Paul, and Ringo; vocal harmony, George and Paul; vocal support for John’s voice without creating a duet effect, Paul (this was necessary due to the weakness of the original recording). According to the Anthology, Paul played the double bass that had been used to accompany Elvis Presley (see the booklet that comes with Anthology 2). Walter Everett says that they used the electronic harpsichord that had been used to record ‘Because’ and the harmonium that Lennon had played in ‘We Can Work It Out’, so there is an allusion here to sounds from the past. Lennon’s demo of the song had been made public back in 1988.

[7] Whereas Ringo and Paul declared that the recording of ‘Free as a Bird’ ‘sounds just like the Beatles’, George’s reaction was more reserved: ‘It’s going to sound like them if it is them. It sounds like them now’ (Anthology DVD, ‘Compiling the Anthology Album’, 00:06:13).

[8] For example, the arrangement of ‘Got to Get You into My Life’ from The Beatles: Anthology 2 goes in a completely different musical direction from the one on Revolver.

[9] In preparing the Anthology, the former Beatles were confronted with the recorded documentation of the stages of their work prior to the finished product. Whereas McCartney and especially Starkey talk about how far it was from the raw song to the finished product and Martin and McCartney cling nostalgically to the first, ‘natural’ takes, Harrison notes the differences between versions of the same song, without preferring the final version over alternative ones: ‘As it gets to all the other stuff, we found different out-takes or maybe a version of something with different vocals to the master, so what we’ve done is to present alternate version’ (Anthology DVD, ‘Compiling the Anthology Album’, 00:9:44).

[10] According to Ian Macdonald, Spector’s orchestra covered up the original poor playing.

[11] The ‘Ballad of John and Yoko’ is the exception that proves the rule.

[12] Ian Macdonald disparages this series of allusions and relates it to the Beatles’ self-mythologisation (Macdonald 1995, p. 220).

[13] According to Macdonald, the stinging ‘Oh yeah’ echoes the ‘Yeah, yeah, yeah’’ in ‘She Loves You’—the refrain on the A side of the same single (Macdonald 1995, p. 65). Thus we have another stage in the self-referentialism.

[14] Listeners who want to sing ‘Eleanor Rigby’ for their own enjoyment accompanied by a string octet can turn to Anthology 2, disk 1, track 21.

[15] The pairing of these two songs is no coincidence. The circumstances of the recording of ‘Hey Bulldog’ link it to ‘Lady Madonna’ (Everett 1999, p. 155).

[16] In the show, this segment is presented as a classical circus; this is unusual in the acrobatic repertoire of the Cirque du Soleil, a group that turned the circus into a dramatic choreographed event in the spirit of Gesamtkunstwerke (total work of art). It seems that what we have here is a ‘secondary circus’—an innovative circus pretending to be a traditional circus.

[17] The Beatles’ first five albums contain all the songs not written by any of them—a limited selection of the cover versions that the Beatles performed onstage. These songs, too, are part of the group’s canonical repertoire, just as arrangements by a classical composer may appear in collections of his complete works.

[18] This article could be a sequel to my book on the Beatles (Wagner 1998/99), which characterises and analyses their music in the fervent years from 1962 to 1969. Thus, from my standpoint, the present article deals with life after the book. 

Naphtali Wagner is an associate professor in the musicology department of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His major research projects are analysis of Western tonal music, based primarily on the theory of Heinrich Schenker; Richard Wagner’s leading motifs and their communicative power; rock music (characterization of the Beatle’s repertoire); music education (developing courseware for teaching harmony, rhythm, ear-training and more); and developing a methodology for analyzing the relations between prosody and music.

The Left, the Right and the Holy Spirit, October 2008