The Finch Formerly Known As Gold

22 November 2004

The Drab Four

Michele 'fesses up:

I am not a Beatles fan. I do not like the Beatles. I don't enjoy about 90% of their music. I don't like any of their solo stuff, especially Paul's. I don't particularly hate them, I just don't care for the music — save for a few songs.

There was a time when I would have raised my voice in protest. Today, I can barely raise an eyebrow. And while my shelves are groaning with Beatles stuff, released, unreleased and occasionally disavowed, I have to make this clear: it's okay to ignore the Beatles. Yes, it is. By now, it's pretty clear to me that the Liverpool lads didn't revolutionize music so much as they revolutionized the process of music, and even their technical innovations were adaptations of things they found elsewhere.

Concept albums? The Beach Boys' Pet Sounds not only predated Sgt. Pepper's, but McCartney admitted up front that one of the motivations for Sgt. Pepper's was to outdo Brian Wilson. And if you're looking for actual narrative via pop songs, even Pet Sounds is surpassed by the dozen or so singles James "Shep" Sheppard cut with the Heartbeats and later Shep and the Limelites, a continuous chronicle of a love affair that started before "A Thousand Miles Away" and ended some time after "Daddy's Home".

You want a self-contained band that wrote its own material? Think Buddy Holly and the Crickets.

Incorporating non-rock instrumentation? See Holly and Wilson, supra.

Their influence may be incalculable, but it's also extremely nebulous: what made the Beatles distinctive was their willingness to try anything on a record, yet latter-day recordings described as "Beatlesque" generally don't resort to obvious studio trickery. What power-pop groups drew from the Beatles was the basic two guitars/bass/drums instrumentation, a deployment that predates even Buddy Holly.

Eventually you'll find that what really distinguished the Beatles was their sheer market dominance during the first half of 1964, as their fifth single finally broke through in the US and other labels rushed their previously-failed Beatles product to market, resulting ultimately in that anomalous week in April when the Beatles occupied the first five slots of the Top 10. There's nothing wrong with market dominance, but it's hardly a musical influence, especially today, with a market dominated by recordings where actual music is almost an afterthought.

And in the end, they were just a band that cut a number of really good sides — and entirely too many really unlistenable ones. Any pop history must include the Beatles, but no pop history either begins or ends with them.

Posted at 9:30 AM to Tongue and Groove


TrackBack: 9:41 PM, 25 November 2004
» Ianam from triticale - the wheat / rye guy
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TrackBack: 10:54 PM, 30 November 2004
» Beatles Notes from Notes & Musings
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Are you saying that "happiness is a warm gun?"
hee-hee

Posted by: paulsmos at 11:05 AM on 22 November 2004

Kind of jumping the gun there, aren't you, Mother Superior?

Posted by: CGHill at 11:32 AM on 22 November 2004

Charles, that is one of the best summations of the Beatles that I've ever encountered. Thank you.

And re: me -- I enjoy only three or four songs by the Fab Four.

But I do enjoy some of the Paul's "solo" stuff, namely Wings.

Posted by: David at 2:46 PM on 22 November 2004

And yet...and yet...when I'm building an iTunes playlist for a multi-hour car trip, I inevitably include a handful of cuts by the Fab Four, because so much of their music, if chosen carefully, is so darn singalongable.

Perhaps they weren't so much a musical phenomenon as a cultural one; perhaps they were just in the right place at the right time with the right haircuts. I guess that's what marketing is all about, though.

Posted by: Eric at 11:08 PM on 22 November 2004

Singalongable? GOO-GOO-GA-CHOO?!

Nope.

Posted by: David at 10:28 AM on 23 November 2004

Just a pale imitation of the Dave Clark Five, in my opinion :-)

Posted by: Donna at 10:28 PM on 23 November 2004

Think you're selling them a little short. They were one element of the British Invasion of the 60's that included the Stones, the Zombies, the Kinks, Dave Clark Five, Gerry and the Pacemakers, and a few others. But the Beatles stood out, and I think for good reasons: they were pretty good singers and excellent songwriters. For pop music, surely Lennon and McCartney will be listed in history books as among the very best songwriters (as would a couple of Motown writers I can't name).

Posted by: Dave at 12:44 PM on 24 November 2004

At Motown? The troika of Brian and Eddie Holland and Lamont Dozier; Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong; and, of course, Smokey Robinson, all by his lonesome.

As for Lennon-McCartney, their best songs stand comparison to anyone's best songs. But then you have to deal with stuff like "Run For Your Life" and "For No One".

Posted by: CGHill at 1:41 PM on 24 November 2004

Maybe you're just going through a phase. I was 9 when they appeared on Ed Sullivan, and was a Beatlemaniac for about 2 years. Then I lost interest, then got reawakened by Abbey Road and the White Album in my mid-teens, and then for about 30 years I cycled through phases of loving them and being mostly indifferent, with their albums gathering dust on my shelf while I focused my attention on other artists or even other types of music. Then, about 2 years ago I started writing songs, and I began to appreciate the astounding breadth and depth of John Lennon's talent, as manifested during the middle 60s anyway...and, as I look back, I also have gained appreciation for the sheer productivity and inventiveness of the Beatles during that time. I think it's also remarkable that they produced such a diverse body of work over the relatively short span during which most of their recordings were made (1963-69). They continuously grew as artists, and finally had the good sense to break up when the group thing didn't work anymore.

Hold onto those CDs. They're keepers.

Posted by: MDMartin at 2:30 PM on 24 November 2004

Now you've just assured that I'll be popping in a Beatles CD on the way to work this morning...

It's not to all tastes, but marginalizing the Beatles' dominance over the most significant decade in the history of pop music has been tried before, and it still doesn't cut it. They weren't just dominant in 1964, they were the benchmark and the influence of everyone in the rest of that decade. Maybe it's the "process" in some ways, but their greatness transcended that. They just had the right combination of image, musical ability, songwriting, and sustained their initial hype well past their competitors.

Posted by: Ron at 5:08 AM on 25 November 2004

I agree.

Posted by: Interested-Participant at 10:07 AM on 26 November 2004