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The Beatles

A 1960s English rock band

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Yeah Yeah Yeah!!!?..?.... .........Yeah, Yeah.

  • Jun 6, 2011
John. Paul. George. Ringo. No last names are necessary here. Four musicians of breathtaking originality, talent, and ambition. Born in the unlikely city of Liverpool, England, and the changers and modern musical conquerers of the civilized world.

At least that's how the story is most often told. I have to be honest here: Whenever I think of The Beatles, I think of a quote I once read about their Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album. I don't remember exactly how it went, but this will accurately sum it up: "There are two things you should know about The Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band: First, it is grossly overrated. And second, even if it was reviewed on its own merits as an album and not according to its mythology, it would still be the greatest record ever released."

That's a very accurate representation of my own feelings toward The Beatles themselves. I love their work, and as I currently read Meet the Beatles by Steven Stark, an explanation of just why people keep saying they changed the world, I'm beginning to truly appreciate the band's contributions to popular culture and I can say that we live in a richer, more vibrant world for having had The Beatles. I don't believe I would be accepted in a pre-Beatles United States. And of course, even if you don't believe the hype, you do have to admit their contributions to rock music itself are unassailable. It would be a trial for a band to record one of the greatest albums of all time, but when we talk about The Beatles, it's actually harder to find a record they recorded that can't be considered one of the greatest.

Unfortunately, all of this has led to The Beatles being surrounded by demigod aura which makes them appear immune from criticism. And this is why I'm writing this essay. I do not believe or accept the critical invulnerability of The Beatles, and it in fact annoys me so much that my rebellious side has a bad habit of kicking in during conversations regarding the band and, as I mentioned in my Abbey Road review, I tend to come off as a hater.

Maybe my standards for changes in the world are pretty high, but as much as The Beatles have done for our culture, I cannot bring myself to say they changed the world. Changing the world is a very tall order, since the world involves countless different cultures and attitudes, and Stark writes in Meet the Beatles that American culture wasn't as warm and fuzzy to them for their final tour in 1966. The country was in a time of massive upheaval, and the band seemed to be a victim rather than the instigator of a lot of the political carnage. By the end of the tour, even Paul McCartney - who was the most pro-tour member of the band - had enough. Maybe I'm reading too much into it, but I've taken it as the implication that their 1966 American tour roughed them up enough to scare them off touring for good.

Putting on my 60's goggles now, reading up on the band gave me a new appreciation of their and their early fans' backgrounds, and I probably would have been a Liverpool Scouse had I been born in that decade and fallen head over heels for the band. Most of The Beatles had backgrounds that were very hardscrabble by the standards of post-WWII America, and a few of John's personality traits in particular are traits that I find very endearing. I especially love the fact that The Beatles basically had to sell out to become popular in the first place. Like every other band on the planet, they went through their hard times. In the early 60's, The Beatles wore leather, jeans, and different-length hair during gigs in seedy Hamburg nightclubs. Their stage act included smoking, swearing, chowing on fried chicken, and - I SWEAR I AM NOT MAKING THIS UP - nailing condoms to the nightclub walls and setting them on fire.

This is a reason why the impact of The Beatles is lost on me. It's very hard for me to look at those old Ed Sullivan clips and listen to their early work and envision anyone being shocked by the deep bow they closed their act with. In this respect, The Beatles have completely lost their old impact. When I listen to the other British bands of the period, like The Who or The Rolling Stones, they still sound primal, powerful, and energetic, as if they're stating "fuck you!" with an extended middle finger on one hand and the revolutionary prop du jour of the moment in the other. The early Beatles are a boy band, straight up. When I listen to their early records, I chuckle with visions of today's soft pop groups in the recording studio, being told by their managers, "Okay, songs for the new album: We've got four 'hearts,' three 'girls,' three 'babys,' a 'don't go,' and an 'everybody.' Let's get the necessary two 'darlings' recorded so this thing can ship tomorrow!"

I don't know enough about the band to know just when they began changing their sound, although Sgt. Pepper, Rubber Soul, and Revolver seem to be popular candidates. The individual members of the band began to spread out artistically, and while this created the experimental, awe-inspiring records of their later years, it also caused a lot of bickering and resentment.

Most of the fascination with The Beatles is focused on John Lennon and Paul McCartney. This is natural because the two of them always had a rivalry in every aspect of their lives - they even got married within weeks of each other. They wrote a lot of songs together. But as the band got more and more creative, John's own work as a songwriter got more pretentious. I will say this: I do believe John was an extremely talented songwriter. But a lot of his work in the final half of his Beatles years is so marred in experimentation that it borders insufferable. Much of the time, it sounds like it was recorded with John's self-image as a great artiste in mind, rather than the need to create music he was really feeling in his heart. This carried over into John's solo work. When John began recording solo work after a period of being a househusband, though, he began to reclaim the feeling that made his earliest songwriting memorable. He hit his creative apex during this time, but was tragically shot dead.

Paul McCartney's songwriting has a bit more of a mainstream sound, but I don't believe Paul ever got the credit as an experimenter he deserved. I think the trouble is that John's experiments are more sonically consistent; that is, each part of his songs sound like they flow naturally into each other, and no matter how different the beginnings and ends of his songs are, the changes flow so easily they just sort of creep up on you. Paul's work contains a lot more sudden rhythm changes and disruptions, and so it sounds like a whole new song is starting to play when Paul is merely moving into a different part of the song. John simply had a better ear for experimentation, and his work is better built than Paul's. But that doesn't make him a better songwriter, and I wildly prefer Paul's work to John's.

The great tragedy of the John/Paul spats is they overshadow George Harrison. I think it was George who was known as The Quiet Beatle. George didn't have quite the song output as John and Paul, but he wasn't collaborating with anyone either. This means that people tend to neglect him. This is another aspect of Beatles mythology that annoys me because I believe the bickering over John and Paul without consideration for George is trying to argue quantity over quality. Meanwhile George wrote more than a few Beatles songs himself, and they're not obscurities known only to diehard record collectors either; George is responsible for "Taxman," "Here Comes the Sun," "While My Guitar Gently Weeps," "Within You Without You," and "Only a Northern Song" among several others. The first time I heard George's first solo album, All Things Must Pass, I came to a pair of realizations: One, George was superior to both John and Paul in almost every songwriting respect. Two, being part of The Beatles might have actually held him back.

Ringo only wrote two songs for The Beatles. One was the classic "Octopus's Garden," and I can't find the other one to save my life. He did sing a number of songs, though, and he exuded the band's most obvious everyman persona. Ringo was a last-minute replacement who was brought in because the band's original drummer, Pete Best, was sort of the black sheep. He didn't fit in with the rest of the band, and so despite being a merely average drummer, Ringo joined because he was a better fit for their style and character. (Best, by the way, was with the band right through their Hamburg days, after they met Brian Epstein, the manager who made them THE BEATLES. He was naturally a bit miffed over his firing, and so he later released a solo record called Best of The Beatles to get even. There was nothing any consumer activists could do about it, though, because the record was exactly what it claimed to be: A record by (Pete) Best, (formerly) of The Beatles.) But it's tough to imagine songs like "A Little Help From My Friends" stripped of the essential earthiness Ringo brought to his role.

The later years of The Beatles are also important because it was during those years the band revolutionized the way albums could be constructed. Most artists back then - as well as plenty now - saw albums as nothing more than a collection of songs. It was The Beatles who redefined the concept and began constructing songs with the purpose of them being placed specifically before or after other songs on that same album. Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road are the two examples of this dynamic that I'm most familiar with. The medley on the second side of Abbey Road, which was made into a single, is especially good at confusing us, making us believe all the songs involved are just part of a single song. It confused me so much when I first heard it, in fact, that I had to keep going back to see if I had misheard anything. The entire Sgt. Pepper album is basically the same way, except the songs are longer.

I do find their work to be borderlining the hit-or-miss department, though. I REALLY don't like The White Album - I believe it was more of a vanity project than anything. This may not be entirely the fault of the band, though, because they were barely on speaking terms when it was recorded. And some of the work in that transition between old Beatles and new Beatles sounds like the teenager going through puberty; sometimes his voice will crack. Likewise, some of the songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver feel a bit out of place. They don't detract from my enjoyment of the band's music, though. When The Beatles are on, they're ON. When they're off, their creativity tends to flair out in all kinds of different directions and they can sound as though three of them are resentful of the song they're playing. Earlier Beatles records don't have this problem, but their earlier records tend to sound more rudimentary anyway, and many of those early songs tend to have similar sounds, especially with their vocals.

That makes perfect sense. The early songs were, after all, intended to be played in front of live audiences and so they're the simple three-chord rockers. The band seemed to realize this after awhile, though, and by the time Beatles for Sale rolled around, they seemed pretty sick of the same old routine - although the album produced "No Reply" and the iconic "Eight Days a Week," there are still numerous spots where you can hear some of the exhaust. But their experimentation is an interesting spot for the band - on their last tour, they couldn't perform any of the songs from Revolver live. As I listen even later in The Beatles' discography, it alleviates the feeling they wouldn't have been able to perform a number of those songs live. It makes me wonder if The Beatles ever would have toured again had they stayed together and John wasn't shot. There have been remarkable advances in onstage technology since The Beatles were touring; one of my favorite bands, Rush, composes songs of incredible sonic depth and complexity and not only do they play those songs live, they sound incredible doing it. This could well have been The Beatles. Then again, when you consider the fact that one of their great artistic achievements - "Eleanor Rigby" - was recorded without any of the band members playing instruments, I have to wonder.

I do love The Beatles and appreciate the astounding depths and textures they brought to rock music. If your favorite band is The Beatles, I honestly won't blame you one bit. I should be softer on the band than I am, but people treat the band as if it's immune to all forms of criticism. They're really not, and the fact that Beatles scholars emphasize the later part of their career more than the earlier part is proof of that for me. People calling them the greatest band and songwriters of all time is something I do understand. But I've never been able to accept their canonization and I'm not shy about letting people know that. For god's sake, for everything said about them, for their cultural contributions, they were still just a rock band, a gang of Liverpool Scousers who happened to get lucky at precisely the right time.

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July 03, 2012
Personally, my favorite band from Liverpool is Carcass. I basically agree with you on the Beatles. While I don't think they were bad at all (I personally like Sgt. Peppers' and the White Albums the best), boy do people hype the hell out of them.
July 04, 2012
I don't know Carcass, but thanks. I like Sgt. Pepper's and Abbey Road myself.
July 07, 2011
Wow...this was a very detailed review about The Beatles. I agree with quiet a few points you've made too. I don't see why people have surrounded them with a demigod aura, as you describe it. They are not one of my favorite bands, but I do enjoy some of their songs/lyrics.
More The Beatles reviews
Quick Tip by . October 20, 2010
posted in Music Matters
The fab four. Perhaps the biggest name in music ever. They made a lot of albums, a lot of great or at least classic songs, they are awesome.
Quick Tip by . August 15, 2010
posted in Music Matters
For me they are the best!!! I still listen to them on a weekly basis. I got both my daughters to appreciate them at an early age. My 29 yr. olds favorite is Rocky Racoon off the White album.
Quick Tip by . July 14, 2010
posted in Music Matters
I grew up with the Beatles because of the simple fact that they were (and probably still are) my dad's favorite band. My father had his own band, and the Beatles were his inspiration, he even looked like them! If you saw a picture of my dad when he was 20, you would mistake him for Paul McCartney! I am not a huge fan, but to say that their songs make me nostalgic is an understatement.
Quick Tip by . September 23, 2009
My Favorite Band of All-time!
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Nicholas Croston ()
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The Beatles were an English rock band, formed in Liverpool in 1960, and one of the most commercially successful and critically acclaimed acts in the history of popular music. From 1962 the group consisted of John Lennon (rhythm guitar, vocals), Paul McCartney (bass guitar, vocals), George Harrison (lead guitar, vocals) and Ringo Starr (drums, vocals). Rooted in skiffle and 1950s rock and roll, the group later worked in many genres ranging from pop ballads to psychedelic rock, often incorporating classical and other elements in innovative ways. The nature of their enormous popularity, which first emerged as the "Beatlemania" fad, transformed as their songwriting grew in sophistication. The group came to be perceived as the embodiment of progressive ideals, seeing their influence extend into the social and cultural revolutions of the 1960s.
With an early five-piece line-up of Lennon, McCartney, Harrison, Stuart Sutcliffe (bass) and Pete Best (drums), The Beatles built their reputation in Liverpool and Hamburg clubs over a three-year period from 1960. Sutcliffe left the group in 1961, and Best was replaced by Starr the following year. Moulded into a professional outfit by music store owner Brian Epstein after he offered to act as the group's manager, and with their musical potential enhanced by the hands-on creativity of producer George Martin, The Beatles achieved mainstream success in the United Kingdom in late 1962 with their first single, "Love ...
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