50 years ago this year, a little album that many people consider to be the greatest ever made was released.
While that is a debate for another day, and not a statement I agree with, Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is a completely wonderful record and a perfect microcosm of everything that was great about The Beatles in their mid-60s height. Four tracks into the record comes an overlooked song that I would argue, in fact, gives you everything you need to know about The Beatles within three minutes. That song is ‘Getting Better’.
Much has been written on the Lennon/McCartney songwriting partnership, with it arguably being the most successful of all time. All of these words however are (ironically) rendered meaningless by the fact that ‘Getting Better’ explains everything that works about the duo in much, much less time. On the surface, the track is a more mature interpretation of the early Beatles sound, speaking about love through a positive lens and reminiscing about one’s youth. It is the song’s lyrics which open this journey into the Lennon/McCartney relationship however. Where McCartney brings optimism and positivity into his lyrics (‘I have to admit it’s getting better, a little better, all the time’), Lennon undercuts this with tongue-in-cheek negativity (‘it can’t get no worse’). Something which initially seems to be a saccharine hope for the future becomes a less naïve outlook on life, a sarcastic view of the undesired position the narrator finds themselves in with less hope offered than was previously thought.
From a sonic perspective, the track packs in chugging guitar chords, background-hugging guitar licks and falsetto vocals, something which is a neat summing up of the mid-60s Beatle sound and highlights the personality of each band member. Paul McCartney’s lead vocals are melodically sweet but rough around the edges when pushed to their limits. John Lennon’s staccato rhythm guitar coughs along at a jagged pace. George Harrison fills in the limited gaps in the melody with blink-and-you’ll-miss-it guitar riffs. And, finally, Ringo Starr holds the track together with a simple but effective drumming pattern that never attempts to snatch centre stage away from the stars of the outfit.
While ‘Getting Better’ highlights everything that is ground-breaking about The Beatles, it also highlights the worrying aspects of the group, as the middle eight features some of the most troubling lyrics of the band’s career. The lines in question read ‘I used to be cruel to my woman | I beat her and kept her apart from the things that she loved’. Suddenly the whimsical nature of the song is thrown into disrepute as domestic abuse is pushed to the fore of the lyrics. By all accounts these words were Lennon’s admittance of past misogyny. The problematic nature of Lennon’s relationship with women and the way he writes about them is completely an issue that needs discussing, but here stands as a stark reminder of the dark undercurrent of even The Beatles’ most sugary moments. While I am not advocating for these lyrics, I simply argue that they open a window into the problematic side of the Fab Four that is often overlooked.
‘Getting Better’ underlines that elements of Lennon and McCartney that set The Beatles apart from their Merseybeat contemporaries and continues to hold the band in high regard 60 years on. Without Lennon, The Beatles would have been Herman’s Hermits or Gerry & The Pacemakers; perfectly fine and jolly, but slightly too kitsch to be truly memorable. Without McCartney, you end up with a record such as Lennon’s solo debut, John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band, a fantastic album nonetheless but not one to achieve the widespread success of The Beatles. The artists are yin and yang, they are sweet and sour. The balance of sarcasm with hope, of naïve exclamations with knowing confessions, prevents the song from being a novelty record while simultaneously dragging it out of the often self-pitying realm of the blues.
It is this perfect synthesis of emotions which causes the music of The Beatles to be so timeless. ‘Getting Better’ may not be the greatest piece of music ever written by the Lennon/McCartney duo, but it is a wonderful summary of all that is great about the partnership. From a historical point of view, it reminds us of why the band receive such plaudits from critics, while pointing us towards moments which deserve no praise at all and need to be re-evaluated. ‘Getting Better’ will never be the nation’s favourite Beatles song, but it just may be the most important.