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Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Beatles: Legendary Or Not?

This topic occurred to me when reading an article written by Paul Shirley on ESPN.com. In his blog post, he complains about people liking the Beatles, saying they really were primitive and other bands are better. Every once in a while, a contrarian viewpoint like this one will pop up, and as Shirley did, they usually don't have anything to back it up except statements like this one:

I'd much rather listen to Oasis than The Beatles. Oasis, or any band that came after The Beatles, learned from The Beatles, improving on their work by listening to, building on and perfecting the styles pioneered by The Beatles.

*Cough*

There's almost no way that someone from my generation can listen to the primitive hackings of "Eleanor Rigby" finish, and then listen to "November Rain" and say, "Yeah, 'Eleanor Rigby' is the better piece of music."

*Hack*

But I do know that the Dean Koontz books that entertained my 14-year-old mind are infinitely more complex and frightening than "Dracula."

*Sputter*

These are usually the kind of statements you see in this type of article. It's never anything concrete, such as, "Listen to the last third of 'I Want You (She's So Heavy)' where they just repeat the same thing over and over again and tell me that the Beatles are a good band." That sort of argument I can understand, but the only songs this guy mentions are "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and "Eleanor Rigby." Those are both fine songs, but he doesn't even talk about what he doesn't like about them. He says that he doesn't like the chorus of "I Want To Hold Your Hand," but his trashing of "Eleanor Rigby" has no hard statements as to what's wrong with it. He also brings up "Abbey Road," which he trashes once again without saying why he doesn't like it.

When people trash the Beatles, they usually don't mention things like "I listened to 'Revolver' and I didn't like it." Their point almost always boils down to "They're not as good as everyone says they are." That's essentially what Shirley is saying, along with a healthy dollop of "I wasn't around then so maybe I don't understand the attraction." Paul McCartney will even admit as such. His exact words on the subject as quoted from The Beatles Anthology?

We were just a band that made it very, very big. That's all.

However, the cascades of adulation heaped upon the Beatles do have some merit. I myself was skeptical of them for a while. The first albums I ever bought (after The Wallflowers' "Bringing Down The Horse") (don't laugh) were "Abbey Road" and "Let It Be." I was very disappointed in both of them, but I kept trying to break through and figure out what I was missing. After a while I bought "Sgt. Pepper" and I liked that even less. It wasn't until I listened to "Revolver" that I got it for good, and I consider "Revolver" to be their finest album and one of the best albums I've ever heard.

To be fair, the Beatles are, first and foremost, just a guitar band that got opportunities for musical expansion that other bands of the time didn't get. You could make the argument that a band like Radiohead is far more experimental than the Beatles ever were. However, the Beatles didn't have the tools to be that wildly experimental. They were using 8-track recorders. Electronica was in its infancy. Plus, Radiohead, while popular, is nowhere near as popular as the Beatles, and that's because the Beatles understood when to be experimental and when to dial it back.

The strange thing is that Radiohead's career arc and the Beatles career arc follow each other pretty well. Both started out as simple guitar bands. Early Beatles songs like "Please Please Me" and "All My Loving," while good, aren't earth-shattering. Likewise with Radiohead's "Creep." I would actually say that "Creep" is an awful, overplayed song. Neither gave any indication about the eventual endpoint for their respective bands. As they grew and changed, they experimented with more sounds until they created their breakthrough "sound of a generation" albums. The Beatles made "Sgt. Pepper" and Radiohead made "Kid A."

We're digressing, but the point is this: Every band starts with humble beginnings and eventually becomes something bigger. Every band is "just a band." However, there are specific reasons why The Beatles became as big as they did and continue to be. Sure, their mythology helps, but there's a lot more in play. Here's a couple of points:

1) The quality of their music.

This is the first and most obvious reasoning. In the space of 8 years they released 13 albums (14 if you count The White Album as two albums) and almost every song is good. There are a few clunkers, like the second half of "Yellow Submarine" and some of their cover songs at the beginning of their career. However, just about every song has something worth hearing. Even a song like like "I Want To Hold Your Hand" has that three-chord introduction that gets repeated throughout the song. It's endlessly sing-along-able (is that a word?) to boot.

On top of that, the depth of their library is fantastic. You can randomize their library, pick out 14 songs and get a pretty good album out of it. It's a rare group that has almost no worthless songs, especially with the volume of songs that they have.

2) Their initial popularity.

There's no denying that Beatlemania plays a large part in their ongoing popularity. That's actually okay. There are galvanizing moments in culture that everyone who was around still remembers: Pearl Harbor, the Kennedy assassination, the moon landing, 9/11. "Beatles on Ed Sullivan" is another one of those moments, and we really don't see mass cultural events like "Who Shot J.R." anymore. It's a bit of a relic of the old mass media, and just the same as we still talk about other cultural seismic shifts, the Beatles influence deserves the same recognition.

3) Their experimentalism.

The Beatles were just experimental enough to be dangerous. There was always a little bit of danger underneath the moptop haircuts and suits, even at the beginning. They may have looked clean-cut, but their music was raucous party music in a style that really hadn't been around. Elvis' music was sharp at the beginning, but by the time the Beatles rolled around, he was willing to just make movies and take drugs without taking any real risks.

The Beatles made fun, rollicking guitar songs for quite a while, but they had the clout to do more and they did. "Helter Skelter" is still a harrowing work and wholly shocking from a band that once sang "She Loves You." "Tomorrow Never Knows" is more experimental than a lot of modern bands are. And unlike a lot of bands that have tried to be experimental and failed, The Beatles experimentalism actually works and sounds great without being too far out there ("Revolution 9" aside).

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Now, the question is, are the Beatles substantially better than any other band in existence ever? Not really. They're really good, and I would classify them as the best band so far, but there are a lot of other bands who have very solid catalogs as well. However, none have had the reach culturally, have grabbed as many people, and are as universally loved as the Beatles. I guarantee you that long after we're gone, a big chunk of their music will continue to live on.