Skip navigation

I came across this article which states that it’s time to get over the Beatles already. Poor guy, he doesn’t really understand how the system works.

One of my earliest exposures to alternative music was “Goodbye Jumbo”. It was a good album, and still is. But it was overwhelmingly dominated by the 60s. It was a homage to the 60s, a special period in time, where it seemed that anything was possible, where everybody had fantastic thoughts about the future, before reality intervened. I loved that album for a month or two, and still have fond memories of it, but later on I realised that parts of it borrowed liberally from “Sympathy for the Devil” and “Baby Please Don’t Go” by Van Morrison.

I came of age musically in the 90s, and it was a period that somehow lived in the shadow of the 60s, in a way. A big 60s revival was underway, and so much of the 90s alternative rock was a homage to the music of the 60s and the 70s. There was a lineage – there always was a lineage. Nirvana paid their respects to the Pixies. The Pixies paid their respects to Husker Du. Husker Du paid their respects to the Buzzcocks and the Buzzcocks paid their respects to the Who. Indie didn’t always try to be unique and unprecedented. They had heroes, and some of the biggest heroes of indie rock were people who were obscure and undervalued during their time, like Big Star, Velvet Underground and Nick Drake.

But at the same time, a lot of them paid their dues to the Beatles. The Beatles were one of the biggest influences on indie bands in the 90s. Nirvana was the most Beatle-esque of the grunge bands. Matthew Sweet and the Stone Roses were putting up albums that harked back to the 60s. Screamadelica was that special beast which, even as it paid homage to the greats of the past, assimilated all their influences into something that was completely their own, and showed the way to an even brighter future.

And it was around the 90s when a lot of “greatest rock albums” and “greatest rock bands” came up. They would almost invariably be dominated by rock stars from the 60s. So the question of the Beatles is invariably wrapped up in the supposed domination of pop culture by the 60s bands.

We don’t talk about movies being “dominated by the 60s”, and we don’t talk about novels being “dominated by the 60s”. Why pop music? First – and this was true of the rock era until 2000 – you could more or less hear immediately which era a certain piece of pop music came from. You couldn’t escape whether this was something from your father’s generation or your own. Second, even though a lot of pop music is destined to be disposable fluff, great music more or less lives forever. Even the Mona Lisa would sound dated and you’d have qualms about having it hung in your bedroom. In contrast, you wouldn’t think twice about playing your favourite Bach over and over again.

And for me, the third and most important reason to “why the 60s” is this – In many ways they were lucky. They were lucky enough to be at the vanguard of a revolution. They were present at or near the beginning of rock and roll. They were only a few years later than Elvis. The formula – amplified guitar + blues + soul + Tin pan alley was new, and had yet to be explored. And as time goes by, when more and more songs are written, the possibilities get closed off. I’ve always believed that pop music is a finite resource. Write something that sounds too much like something that’s written before, and you’re – maybe a little unfairly – labeled as a copycat. That’s why a lot of the great pop comes from the 60s when all this was new. By the 80s or the 90s, it was hard to come up with something in the same formula without having it labeled as Beatle-esque.

And that’s basically true of the 21th century pop music. Because the baby boomers have already written all the pop songs, the millenials just have to pick up the scraps. Some of them have coped admirably, by making music that’s truly remarkable and adventurous. But the truly excellent music will not be mainstream.

So for a phenomenon for the Beatles, there were a few reasons why they stood tall above all the pop idols of their time, and thereafter. The achievements of the Beatles can also be compared to those that came after them. They really are the greatest rock band ever. They changed the music industry. They put Britain on the musical map (although to be fair if they hadn’t done it, there were also a lot of British pop groups very popular in America, like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple). Most importantly, Lennon and McCartney were two of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. They were good enough at their instruments. They were the rarest of rarities – teenage idols with substance.

And they had the luck to come up during the 60s. There can only be one 60s in pop culture, a great flash of light which neatly divided the world into “before” and “after”. It was a decade that began with Cliff Richard being a good two shoes teen idol, and it ended with the triple deaths of Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison. It was the era of sexual revolution. The envelope was pushed further, and in a shorter span of time, than any other period in pop music.

And – that’s the thing, once something has been invented, it cannot be re-invented. The “studio as a pop instrument” concept could only be pioneered by the Beatles and the Beach Boys once. The “raucous loud amplified blues” of the Rolling Stones could only be invented once. The shocking and brutally frank depictions of lowlife by the Velvet Underground could only be invented once. The blueprint of punk could only be invented once, by Iggy Pop. The fusion of blues and gospel into soul music could only be done once, by Ray Charles. The introduction of drugs as a commonplace subject into pop music could only be done once, by Bob Dylan. The commodification of black popular music into an assembly lines that resembled the car factories of nearby Detroit could only be done once, by Motown. The transformation of soul into something more primal and basic like funk, could only be done once, by James Brown. And the assimilation of soul, rock and funk into a seamless brew could only be pioneered once, by Sly Stone.

People can argue on and on about whether the 60s represented the apex of musical achievement in pop music. Maybe not, because there was more tweaking and turning to come, more sonic innovations. Rap, punk, post-punk, grunge, disco and techno still lay in the future. But in many important respects, most of the blueprint had already been written in those years. And nobody will dispute that because it was such an exceptionally fertile era for invention, we are still living in its shadow. In fact, I remember one remark that Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins said of My Bloody Valentine’s “Loveless”. He was astonished that there was still stuff that hadn’t been invented in the 60s. You thought that Jimi had already dug out everything that was to discover about the electric guitar by then.

So while the author of the article argues that there were other bands as good as the Beatles, I don’t think so. The Rolling Stones were not as good as the Beatles – their range was too narrow and they were not better songwriters than the Beatles. The only thing they did better was they had a better rhythm section – one of the best rhythm sections in rock music. The Who were not better. Townshend was a fine songwriter, but clearly no match for Lennon / McCartney. They were more easy to imitate. Almost exactly the same thing, although for different reasons, could be said of the Velvet Underground. The Doors – don’t make me laugh. The only other people who could hold a candle to John and Paul were Burt Bacharach and Brian Wilson, which is why I like to name them the three Bs of pop music – Beatles, Beach Boys and Bacharach. (The three Bs of classical music are Bach Beethoven and Brahms). But the Beatles were extremely lucky to have two great songwriters in the same band, and two other people with personalities warm and gracious enough to form a tightly knit unit.

These are the reasons why the Beatles were the greatest. As a pop band, they had more great songs than anybody else. I tried to write down the good songs of certain bands I knew. With a few bands, I got a lot of song titles – REM, Beach Boys, Sonic Youth, Sly Stone, Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, David Bowie, Stevie Wonder, the Smiths. But only with the Beatles, did I get more than 100. And the astonishing thing is that those 100 songs all came out within the period of 10 years. There will be people who have written 20 songs better than the best 20 songs by the Beatles. Maybe Brian Wilson managed to do that. But when it comes to the top 100 songs, the Beatles own everybody else.

Also, they dabbled in many different styles. They didn’t just do straight up pop music. They did country music, bubblegum pop, psychedelic rock, hard rock, musical numbers, avant garde. They turned the studio into a musical instrument – check out “Tomorrow Never Knows”. Listen to “Setting Sun” by the Chemical Brothers and you will realize how much of their sound was shaped by that one song.

They defined the pop group as you know it. People know all the general details of their biography. The chance meeting between John Lennon and Paul McCartney is the stuff of legend, and would define the way that bands got together – two strangers meet to talk about music and hit it off by chance. Grant Hart and Bob Mould. Johnny Marr and Stephen Patrick Morrissey. Daryl Hall and John Oates. There were the frantic performances in Hamburg. Years later, REM would recount driving from city to city in marathon touring sessions in order to earn their place as the greatest underground band of their time. There was the Beatlemania, that would years later be echoed by T-Rextasy and Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” era. There was the “no more touring, we’ll concentrate on the albums” that was echoed by Brian Wilson. Then there was the band being put offtrack by the presence of Yoko in the studio. There were the “creative differences”, now the standard excuse for bands to break up. There were the legal entanglements, the lawsuits and the counter lawsuits. These guys almost wrote the blueprint of what it means to be a rock band.

Also, given that the Beatles came at a time for great social change, and were the favourite bands of one of the most powerful generations of all times – the boomers? That was luck. But they came to partially symbolize the newfound freedom that that generation of people found. They symbolized a new way of life, new mores. They came at the dawn of mass media, where it was possible for a live act to dominate the scene, because those were the days before cable TV came in with hundreds of channels, and before the internet changed that to millions of channels. It was luck that they came in at a time when it was possible to dominate the landscape. But they didn’t completely dominate the landscape – they had to share it with the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, the Zombies, Motown, Burt Bacharach, King and Goffin, Jimi, Woodstock. The 1960s was no cultural desert. They were bigger than any one other band, but they certainly weren’t bigger than all of them put together. Also, they were good looking, talented and hardworking.

So in a small sense, they are a little overrated. Scratch a little below the 60s rock, and you’d find bands like Love, Laura Nyro, the MC5, the Stooges, Tim Buckley, Santana. It’s not that fair if they were to be forgotten just because you’re fixated on the Beatles. But yet the Beatles symbolized the 60s, and while the rest of the 60s was like a great big mountain, they were sitting on the top of that mountain. And this is why they’re overrated: memory is a winner-takes-all thing. The Beatles certainly didn’t dominate the 60s. Nobody did, because there were so many big figures back then, even in popular music. But you will remember maybe only five to ten acts, and the Beatles will be one of them, because that’s the way the human mind works – you only remember the great icons. Even if you don’t like that – too bad. Nobody can change the way the human mind works.

Yes, the Beatles existed in the golden age of mass media. In fact, they also existed in the early part of the golden age of mass media – and were also instrumental in buttressing the image of the golden age of mass media by presenting the world with what is almost a complete mass media image – four guys, talented and handsome, almost starry eyed, taking over the world with music. They played their own instruments and wrote their own music, almost daring the rest of the world to do likewise. There was John Lennon who appealed to the cynical punk in all of us, and Paul McCartney who anybody would bring home to meet the parents. There was a remarkable balance when you put those two together. They made their own films too. I struggle to think of anybody else whose impact on the mass media was that complete. And what’s more they also took over the world during a more innocent age, before people fully realised how the mass media could be manipulated, and before people understood how Beatlemania worked. There was Elvis, of course and he and his managers rather cynically milked his legacy during his later years. There would be David Bowie, Madonna and Michael Jackson, who would take the art of manipulating the media to new heights. In comparison, for the Beatles, it was more a case of “going viral”.

More crucially, we have to realize that the golden age of mass media is gone. It was displaced by the internet. The ability of any pop group to monopolise the attention of people the way that the Beatles did is forever lost. This is due to two factors: first there was punk and its DIY aesthetic. That greatly lowered the barrier of entry for anybody wanting to release music to the public. (In a way, the Beatles had a relatively low barrier of entry. This was not a case of classical musicians made to practice for 10-20 years before they could perform in public. They were a bunch of working class boys made good). The second development was the internet, which destroyed the monopoly of mainstream media. I struggle to think of bands that capture the attention of the world, who came up during the age of the internet. Crucially, U2 and REM came up just before the internet went viral.

Where the author gets a little ridiculous is when he starts to say that since there aren’t any bands today operating just like the Beatles, they ought to be forgotten, or be allowed to fade into history.

There is another analogy that I can use for the Beatles, and one that also comes from the same part of England. Liverpool FC of the 70s and 80s were not only the greatest team in England, but also Europe. Then after that – more than 20 years without winning the league. In retrospect, that makes that Liverpool team even greater, because every Liverpool team to put on the shirt – even those who win the Champion’s League – will invariably be compared to the Liverpool of Kenny Dalglish, Ian Rush, Alan Hansen and Graeme Souness (the player not the manager).

All the more they should be commemorated. Yes, Nirvana is one of the last bands ever to (however briefly) command the attention of much of the world. Maybe there were U2 and REM in the 90s. Now, the pop scene is very fragmented. In a way this is good because your choice of music is basically boundless. But will there ever be as much quality product as there was in the 60 to the 90s? My answer to that is no. At the very least, the amount where there is overlap with commercially viable, innovative music with artistic merit – it’s getting quite rare. The Beatles music hit the sweet spot. I don’t really know what happened. Maybe the world collectively ran out of ideas.

Or put it this way, there was the golden age of the fairy tales during the time of Hans Christian Anderson, and the Brothers Grimm. There was a window of time during which these stories seeped into the collective consciousness of the public at large. After that, there hasn’t been anybody who could displace those ideas from the public consciousness. Maybe other stories were told that a. were simple enough to appeal to children, b. were great stories and c. were popular enough to become pop culture references. But very few would displace the centrality of Hans Christian Anderson and the Brothers Grimm. Maybe Harry Potter will, maybe Alice in Wonderland is a more recent addition, but that’s basically it. It will be the same for the Beatles. The jazz musicians are still playing from the great American Songbook long after the musicals they came from faded from memory, and there hasn’t really been another golden age which has contributed greatly to the jazz standards. I’m quite sure that when you think about popular song in the next 50 years, this is what the Beatles will be like.

We can see something like this playing out in rap music. Everybody knows that the golden age of hip hop is somewhere between 1985 and 2000. Everybody knows that the icons are Flavor Flav and LL Cool J. Everybody knows that anybody who tries to get into the rap game will be compared to Nas, or Rakim, or Jay Z. That golden age will cast a shadow over the rest of rap music, for ever and ever.

OK, so the author says that this is no longer the era of the 40 minute album that was typified by the Beatles. But why shouldn’t we be missing the 40 minute album? In written literature, works of differing lengths can compete with each other. People will always wonder whether the short story, the novella, the novel or the epic are the right length, but most probably people agree that the novel is the supreme art form. Right now, there is a discussion over whether cinema or TV series offers the highest possibilities for expression. For music, I think that the single and the album have their merits, but you really can’t achieve the full possibilities with just a single. All this talk about single vs album, though, is quite moot since the Beatles were both a great albums band and a great singles band.

Another aspect about the career of the Beatles was the sheer creative intensity of it all. There are some creative people who will write music but save them for later because they don’t want to run out of steam. In contrast, the Beatles let it all out in one rude blast, to the extent that their own solo careers were somewhat marred by a form of creative exhaustion. But what they achieved in 8 years is truly extraordinary. They were pushing the boundaries for much of these 8 years, and for a very short and precious time, the rest of the world were pushing these boundaries with them as well.

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are not going to live forever. I will most probably outlive them. And then what happens? Thing is, the Beatles will stop being humans and they’ll start being gods. And it’s high time we started thinking about them as gods. John Lennon did indeed say “I don’t believe in the Beatles. I believe in me, Yoko and me.” And I did feel that chill down my spine when I heard him say that on my newly bought copy of Plastic Ono Band. But I don’t have to give a fuck about what John Lennon thought about John Lennon because John Lennon is dead. He is less a human being now than a distant passive god. They are all gods now.

Not only that, but they trade in the same currency as the great classical composers of the past: songs. Not performances, but songs. The Rolling Stones were more of a real band, more about musicianship and musical interplay between the instruments. But the Beatles were about great songs. Great songs that will outlive us all because it’s a Beatles song, no matter who performs it. Whereas the Rolling Stones wouldn’t be the Rolling Stones without Mick and Keith (and don’t forget Charlie who sits behind them). The Beatles songs are covered, but when bands pay tribute to the Rolling Stones, they go for the Rolling Stones “sound” or “feel”. Just as Primal Scream of the Black Crowes.

If there is something wrong with people who hang up pictures of the Beatles on the wall simply because those pictures are 40 years old, then does that make classical fans a bunch of freaks? Why do people automatically assume that pop music is so disposable that it’s somewhat wrong to worship something produced far away enough in the past? That doesn’t make sense.

Anyway – just to sum up, the Beatles are the Beatles. They are a product of talent and circumstance. There will never be another Beatles. There will continue to be new music, great music and popular music. But it will be very rare from now on that you will get music that combines the three the way the Beatles did in the 60s. That’s why they will still tower over our imagination for a long time to come.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: