The Beatles, less than you think they were
Who are these guys? Musicians?
I was eating breakfast, when my former partner Bill Lessard sent me an IM with this essay on the Beatles. Now, I don't agree with the premise, but it is an interesting argument.
The fact that so many books still name the Beatles "the greatest or most significant or most influential" rock band ever only tells you how far rock music still is from becoming a serious art. Jazz critics have long recognized that the greatest jazz musicians of all times are Duke Ellington and John Coltrane, who were not the most famous or richest or best sellers of their times, let alone of all times. Classical critics rank Beethoven, who died poor and ignored, over classical musicians who were highly popular in courts around Europe. Rock critics are still blinded by commercial success: the Beatles sold more than anyone else (not true, by the way), therefore they must have been the greatest. Jazz critics grow up listening to a lot of jazz music of the past, classical critics grow up listening to a lot of classical music of the past. Rock critics are often totally ignorant of the rock music of the past, they barely know the best sellers. No wonder they will think that the Beatles did anything worth of being saved.
In a sense the Beatles are emblematic of the status of rock criticism as a whole: too much attention to commercial phenomena (be it grunge or U2) and too little attention to the merits of real musicians. If somebody composes the most divine music but no major label picks him up and sells him around the world, a lot of rock critics will ignore him. If a major label picks up a musician who is as stereotyped as one can be but launches her or him worldwide, your average critic will waste rivers of ink on her or him. This is the sad status of rock criticism: rock critics are basically publicists working for free for major labels, distributors and record stores. They simply publicize what the music business wants to make money with.
Hopefully, one not-too-distant day, there will be a clear demarcation between a great musician like Tim Buckley, who never sold much, and commercial products like the Beatles. And rock critics will study more of rock history and realize who invented what and who simply exploited it commercially.
The Beatles most certainly belong to the history of the 60s, but their musical merits are at best dubious.
The Beatles came to be at the height of the reaction against rock and roll, when the innocuous "teen idols", rigorously white, were replacing the wild black rockers who had shocked the radio stations and the conscience of half of America. Their arrival represented a lifesaver for a white middle class terrorized by the idea that within rock and roll lay a true revolution of customs. The Beatles tranquilized that vast section of people and conquered the hearts of all those (first and foremost the females) who wanted to rebel without violating the societal status quo. The contorted and lascivious faces of the black rock and rollers were substituted by the innocent smiles of the Beatles; the unleashed rhythms of the first were substituted by the catchy tunes of the latter. Rock and roll could finally be included in the pop charts. The Beatles represented the quintessential reaction to a musical revolution in the making, and for a few years they managed to run its enthusiasm into the ground.
Furthermore, the Beatles represented the reaction against a social and political revolution. They arrived at the time of the student protests, of Bob Dylan, of the Hippies, and they replaced the image of angry kids with their fists in the air, with their cordial faces and their amiable declarations. They came to replace the accusatory words of militant musicians with overindulgent nursery rhymes. In this fashion as well the Beatles served as middle-class tranquilizers, as if to prove the new generation was not made up exclusively of rebels, misfits and sexual maniacs.
For most of their career the Beatles were four mediocre musicians who sang melodic three-minute tunes at a time when rock music was trying to push itself beyond that format (a format originally confined by the technical limitations of 78 rpm record). They were the quintessence of "mainstream", assimilating the innovations proposed by rock music, within the format of the melodic song.
The Beatles belonged, like the Beach Boys (whom they emulated for most of their career), to the era of the vocal band. In such a band the technique of the instrument was not as important as the chorus. Undoubtedly skilled at composing choruses, they availed themselves of producer George Martin (head of the Parlophone since 1956), to embellish those choruses with arrangements more and more eccentric.
Thanks to a careful publicity campaign they became the most celebrated entertainers of the era, and are still the darlings of magazines and tabloids, much like Princess Grace of Monaco and Lady Di.
The convergence between Western polyphony (melody, several parts of vocal harmony and instrumental arrangements) and African percussion - the leitmotif of American music from its inception - was legitimized in Europe by the huge success of the Merseybeat, in particular by its best sellers, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Beatles, both produced by George Martin and managed by Brian Epstein. To the bands of the Merseybeat goes the credit of having validated rock music for a vast audience, a virtually endless audience. They were able to interpret the spirit and the technique of rock and roll, while separating it from its social circumstances, thus defusing potential explosions. In such fashion, they rendered it accessible not only to the young rebels, but to all. Mediocre musicians and even more mediocre intellectuals, bands like the Beatles had the intuition of the circus performer who knows how to amuse the peasants after a hard day's work, an intuition applied to the era of mass distribution of consumer goods.
Every one of their songs and every one of their albums followed much more striking songs and albums by others, but instead of simply imitating those songs, the Beatles adapted them to a bourgeois, conformist and orthodox dimension. The same process was applied to the philosophy of the time, from the protest on college campuses to Dylan's pacifism, from drugs to the Orient. Their vehicle was melody, a universal code of sorts, that declared their music innocuous. Naturally others performed the same operation, and many (from the Kinks to the Hollies, from the Beach Boys to the Mamas and Papas) produced melodies even more memorable, yet the Beatles arrived at the right moment and theirs would remain the trademark of the melodic song of the second half of the twentieth century.
Their ascent was branded as "Beatlemania", a phenomenon of mass hysteria launched in 1963 that marked the height of the "teen idol" mode, a extension of the myths of Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley. From that moment on, no matter what they put together, the Beatles remained the center of the media's attention.
Musically, for what it's worth, the Beatles were the product of an era that had been prepared by vocal groups such as the Everly Brothers and by rockers such as Buddy Holly; an era that also expressed itself through the girl-groups, the Tamla bands and surf music. What the Beatles have in common with them, aside from almost identical melodies, is a general concept of song: an exuberant, optimistic and cadenced melody.
The Beatles were the quintessence of instrumental mediocrity. George Harrison was a pathetic guitarist, compared with the London guitarists of those days (Townshend of the Who, Richards of the Rolling Stones, Davies of the Kinks, Clapton and Beck and Page of the Yardbirds, and many others who were less famous but no less original). The Beatles had completely missed the revolution of rock music (founded on a prominent use of the guitar) and were still trapped in the stereotypes of the easy-listening orchestras. Paul McCartney was a singer from the 1950s, who could not have possibly sounded more conventional. As a bassist, he was not worth the last of the rhythm and blues bassists (even though within the world of Merseybeat his style was indeed revolutionary). Ringo Starr played drums the way any kid of that time played it in his garage (even though he may ultimately be the only one of the four who had a bit of technical competence). Overall, the technique of the "fab four" was the same of many other easy-listening groups: sub-standard.
Theirs were records of traditional songs crafted as they had been crafted for centuries, yet they served an immense audience, far greater than the audience of those who wanted to change the world, the hippies and protesters. Their fans ignored or abhorred the many rockers of the time who were experimenting with the suite format, who were composing long free-form tracks, who were using dissonance, who were radically changing the concept of the musical piece. The Beatles' fans thought, and some still think, that using trumpets in a rock song was a revolutionary event, that using background noises (although barely noticeable) was an even more revolutionary event, and that only great musical geniuses could vary so many styles in one album, precisely what many rock musicians were doing all over the world, employing much more sophisticated stylistic excursions.
While the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, the Doors, Pink Floyd and many others were composing long and daring suites worthy of avant garde music, thus elevating rock music to art, the Beatles continued to yield three minute songs built around a chorus. Beatlemania and its myth notwithstanding, Beatles fans went crazy for twenty seconds of trumpet, while the Velvet Underground were composing suites of chaos twenty minutes long. Actually, between noise and a trumpet, between twenty seconds and twenty minutes, there was an artistic difference of several degrees of magnitude. They were, musically, sociologically, politically, artistically, and ideologically, on different planets.
Beatlemania created a comical temporal distortion. Many Beatles fans were convinced that rock and roll was born around the early 60s, that psychedelic rock and the hippies were a 1967 phenomenon, that student protests began in 1969, that peace marches erupted at the end of the 60s, and so on. Beatles fans believed that the Beatles were first in everything, while in reality they were last in almost everything. The case of the Beatles is a textbook example of how myths can distort history.
The Beatles had the historical function to delay the impact of the innovations of the 60's . Between 1966 and 1969, while suites, jams, and .........
The melodies of the Beatles were perhaps inferior to many composers of pop music who still compete with the Beatles with regard to quality, those who were less famous and thus less played.
The songs of the Beatles were equipped with fairly vapid lyrics at a time when hordes of singer songwriters and bands were trying to say something intelligent. The Beatles' lyrics were tied to the tradition of pop music, while rock music found space, rightly or wrongly, for psychological narration, anti-establishment satire, political denunciation, drugs, sex and death.
The most artistic and innovative aspect of the Beatles' music, in the end, proved to be George Martin's arrangements. Perhaps aware of Beatles' limitations, Martin used the studio and studio musicians in a creative fashion, at times venturing beyond the demands of tradition to embellish the songs. Moreover, Martin undoubtedly had a taste for unusual sounds. At the beginning of his career he had produced Rolf Harris' Tie Me Kangaroo with the didjeridoo. At the time nobody knew what it was. Between 1959 and 1962 Martin had produced several tracks of British humor with heavy experimentation, inspired by the Californian Stan Freiberg, the first to use the recording studio as an instrument.
As popular icons, as celebrities, the Beatles certainly influenced their times, although much less than their fans suppose. Even Richard Nixon, the American president of the Vietnam war and Watergate influenced his times and the generations that followed, but that doesn't make him a great musician.
Rubber Soul (December 1965) completed the transition from the 45 to the 33, and also from Merseybeat to folk-rock. Following their U.S. tour, the influence of the Byrds is very strong. The rock and roll beat in Drive My Car and Run For Your Life, the exotic mood of Norwegian Wood (a David Crosby-ian litany accompanied with the sitar, already utilized by the Yardbirds, possibly based on what the Kinks had done a few months earlier with Till The End Of The Day), and the timid psychedelia of Nowhere Man and Rain (with backward vocals, but inspired by Eight Miles High, that had charted just weeks before) cover a vast repertoire of harmonies for their standards. In spite of the fact that the Beatles sought success within rock and roll, it was evident that their best work was expressed through melodic songs. The tender ballads Girl and Michelle (a classic for acoustic guitar, melodic bass and chorus, in the style of 1950s vocal groups) are truly excellent songs in their genre, but because they lack both rhythm and volume, they were considered "minor" at the time.
1965 was the year of the San Francisco hippies, of psychedelic music, of Indian gurus and experimental LSD. It all seemed to go unnoticed by the Beatles, who recorded another melodic masterpiece, We Can Work It Out, ground out on barrel organ and accordion, inspired by French folk music. They pursued the mirage of the "rave-up" with the hard riff of Day Tripper (stolen from Watch Your Step of blues man Bobby Parker), a pathetic response to Satisfaction by the Stones and You Really Got Me by the Kinks. Both songs, hard rockers, had shocked the charts that same year.
The Beatles finally freed themselves from the obsession of emulating others in 1966, with Revolver, an album entirely dedicated to sophisticated songs. The album, extremely polished, seems the lighter version of Rubber Soul. The psychedelic Tomorrow Never Knows (mellotron, sitar, backward guitar, organ drones), the vaguely oriental Love You Too, the classic Eleanor Rigby, the Vaudevillian operetta Good Day Sunshine, the rhythm and blues of Got To Get You Into My Life and Dr. Robert, are all mitigated by an ever more languid and romantic attitude. The few jolts of rhythm are kept at bay by a tender effusion in I'm Only Sleeping (with a timid solo of backward guitar), There And Everywhere and For No One. With this album the Beatles left behind rock and roll to get closer to pop music, the pop music of the Brill Building, that is, a genre of pop that sees Revolver as its masterpiece. (At the time melodic songs all over the world were inspired by the Brill Building). Of course Revolver was a thousand years late. That same year Dylan had released Blonde On Blonde, a double album with compositions fifteen minutes long, and Frank Zappa had released Freak Out, also a double album, in collage format. Rock music was experimenting with free form jams as in Virgin Forest by the Fugs, Up In Her Room by the Seeds, Going Home by the Rolling Stones. The songs of the Beatles truly belonged to another century.
The formal perfection of their melodies reached the sublime in 1967 with two 45s: the baroque/electronic Penny Lane/Strawberry Fields Forever, released in February, an absolute masterpiece that never reached the top of the charts, and the psychedelic Paperback Writer, backed with the sophomoric Yellow Submarine, a mosaic full of sound gags and barroom choruses. Penny Lane represents the apex of the Manneristic style: Vaudevillian rhythm, hypnotic melody, Renaissance trumpets, folkloristic flutes and triangles. Strawberry Fields Forever is a densely-arranged psychedelic experiment (backward vocals, mellotron, harp, timpani, bongos, trumpet, cello).
1967 was the year that FM radio began to play long instrumentals. In Great Britain, it was the year of psychedelia, of the Technicolor Dream, of the UFO Club. The psychedelic singles of Pink Floyd were generating an uproar. Inevitably, the Beatles recorded Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This concept album was released while the Monterey Festival was consecrating the sanctifiable, the big names of the times. Unlike most of the revolutionary records of those days, often recorded in haste and with a low budget, Sgt. Pepper cost a fortune and took four months to put together. The Beatles soar in the ethereal refrain of Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, utilizing the sitar, distorted keyboard sounds and Indian inspired vocals; they indulge in Vaudevillian tunes such as Lovely Rita and When I'm Sixty Four (a vintage ragtime worthy of the Bonzo Band), and they showcase their odd melodic sense in With A Little Help From My Friends. They scatter studio effects here and there, pretending to be avant garde musicians, in Fixing A Hole and Being For The Benefit Of Mr Kite, but in reality these are tunes inspired by the music halls, the circuses and small town bands. A Day In The Life is the culmination of the relationship between technique and philosophy. It represents the happy marriage between Martin's sense of harmony, employing a 40 piece orchestra in which everybody plays every note, and Lennon's hippie existentialism, that dissects the alienation of the bourgeoisie.
Everything was running smoothly in the name of quality music, now entrusted to high fidelity arrangements and adventurous variations of style, from folk ballads to sidewalk Vaudeville, from soul to marching bands, from the Orient to swing, from chamber music to psychedelia, from tap dance to little bands in the park. Everything had been fused into a steady flow of variety show skits.
Rather than an album of psychedelic music (compared to which it actually sounds retro), Sgt. Pepper was the Beatles' answer to the sophistication of Pet Sounds, the masterpiece by their rivals, the Beach Boys, released a year and three months before. The Beatles had always been obsessed by the Beach Boys. They had copied their multi-part harmonies, their melodic style and their carefree attitude. Through their entire career, from 1963 to 1968, the Beatles actually followed the Beach Boys within a year or two, including the formation of Apple Records, which came almost exactly one year after the birth of Brother Records. Pet Sounds had caused an uproar because it delivered the simple melodies of surf music through the artistic sophistication of the studio. So, following the example of Pet Sounds, the Beatles recorded, from February to May 1967, Sgt. Pepper, disregarding two important factors: first that Pet Sounds had been arranged, mixed and produced by Brian Wilson and not by an external producer like George Martin, and second that, as always, they were late. They began assembling Sgt. Pepper a year after Pet Sounds had hit the charts, and after dozens of records had already been influenced by it.
Legend has it that it took 700 hours of studio recording to finish the album. One can only imagine what many other less fortunate bands could have accomplished in a recording studio with 700 hours at their disposal. Although Sgt. Pepper was assembled with the intent to create a revolutionary work of art, if one dares take away the hundreds of hours spent refining the product, not much remains that cannot be heard on Revolver: Oriental touches here and there, some psychedelic extravaganzas, a couple of arrangements in classical style. Were one to skim off a few layers of studio production, only pop melodies would remain, melodies not much different from those that had climbed the charts ten years before. Yet it was the first Beatles album to be released in long playing version all over the world. None of its songs were released as singles.
The truth is that although it was declared an "experimental" work, even Sgt. Pepper managed to remain a pop album. The Beatles of 1967 were still producing three-minute ditties, while Red Crayolas and Pink Floyd, to name two psychedelic bands of the era, were playing long free form suites - at times cacophonous, often strictly instrumental - that bordered on avant garde. In 1967, the band that had never recorded a song that hadn't been built around a refrain began to feel outdated. They tried to keep up, but they never pushed themselves beyond the jingles, most likely because they couldn't, just as Marilyn Monroe could not have recited Shakespeare.
Sgt. Pepper is the album of a band that sensed change in the making, and was adapting its style to the taste of the hippies. It came in last (in June), after Velvet Underground & Nico (January), The Doors (also January), the Byrds' Younger Than Yesterday (february), and the Jefferson Airplane's Surrealistic Pillow (February) to signal the end of an era, after others had forever changed the history of rock music. (Most technical "innovations" on Sgt Pepper were copied from Younger Than Yesterday, whose tapes the Beatles had heard from David Crosby at the end of 1966). The uproar generated by Sgt. Pepper transferred those innovations from the American underground to the living rooms and the supermarkets of half the world.
The Beatles tried every fashion exported by the US: Chuck Berry's rock and roll, the vocal harmonies of the Beach Boys, the romantic melody of Tin Pan Alley, the baroque sound of Pet Sounds (Beach Boys), the rock opera Absolutely Free (Frank Zappa), the psychedelic arrangements of the Electric Prunes and the like, the hard riffs of the blues-rock jams (Cream), the synthesis of folk-rock (launched by Dylan and the Dead), and so forth. Yet the audience credited these innovations - brought about by others - to the Beatles. All things considered, their success is one of greatest paradoxes of the century. They Beatles understood absolutely nothing of what was happening around them, but the success of anything they copied was guaranteed. By buying their records, one bought a shortcut to the music of those times.
The influence of the Beatles cannot be considered musical. Music, especially in those days, was something else: experimental, instrumental, improvised, political. The Beatles played pop ditties. Rock musicians of the time played everything but pop ditties, because rock was conceived as an alternative to ditties. FM radio was created to play rock music, not pop ditties. Music magazines were born to review rock music, not pop songs. Evidently, to the kids (mostly girls) who listened to the Beatles, rock music had nothing to say that they were willing to listen to.
They were influential, yes, but on the customs - in the strictest sense of the word. Their influence, for better or for worse, on the great phenomena of the 60s doesn't amount to much. Unlike Bob Dylan, they didn't stir social revolts; unlike the Jefferson Airplane and the Grateful Dead they didn't foster the hippie movement; unlike Jim Morrison and Jimi Hendrix they didn't further the myth of LSD; unlike Jagger and Zappa they had no impact on the sexual revolution. Indeed the Beatles were icons of the customs that embodied the opposite: the desire to contain all that was happening. In their songs there is no Vietnam, there is no politics, there are no kids rioting in the streets, there is no sexual promiscuity, there are no drugs, there is no violence. In the world of the Beatles the social order of the 40s and the 50s still reigns. At best they were influential on the secret dreams of young girls, and on the haircuts of young nerdy boys.
The Beatles had the historical function to serve as champions of the reaction. Their smiles and their choruses hid the revolution: they concealed the restlessness of an underground movement ready to explode, for a bourgeoisie who wanted to hear nothing about it.
They had nothing to say and that's why they didn't say it.
posted by Steve @ 11:14:00 AM