Monday, 13 September 2010

Why The Beatles aren't over-rated

The following was written for a No Ripcord debate piece on whether The Beatles are over-rated...

The combination of hyperbole and hindsight could very well be the music critic’s worst enemy. The desperation of wanting to be the person who spots the hip new thing coupled with the fear of missing the boat on the latest act to hit big means that, occasionally, reviews and features heap more praise on an artist than they really merit. Add to this cocktail the element of a fast-approaching deadline and before you know it, Oasis’ Be Here Now has been proclaimed a universal masterpiece. Then, it’s too late, and it’s only when the impossible to ignore poke of hindsight arrives that everyone acknowledges that it’s not a masterpiece, but an ego-laden, coked-up mess of a record that no-one wants to hear again. Of course, the words that were originally written can’t be taken back, and the history music journalism is full of effusive reviews for truly terrible albums.

Yet one of the acts that seems immune to these revisions of opinion are those lovable, Liverpudlian mop-tops, The Beatles. They’re hardly unique in this position; you won’t get many articles entitled, “Now I’ve had a while to think about it, Bob Dylan / Ray Charles / Miles Davis / Kraftwerk / Leonard Cohen was a bit rubbish”. However, The Beatles were the only band to combine lasting critical acclaim with such enormous popularity and influence, and that can’t be an accident.

If you’re a fan of popular music in any of its multiple forms, being a fan of The Beatles is practically a corollary. Between Please Please Me in 1963 and Abbey Road in 1969 (or Let It Be in 1970, if you’re so inclined), The Beatles redefined the popular landscape, introduced new concepts to a mass audience and developed their sound in a way no band ever has in such a short space of time.

It may help to look at The Beatles as two separate bands: the knock-out-songs-every-couple-of-minutes group and the sonic-adventurer group, with 1965’s Rubber Soul charting the time the former metamorphosed into the latter. So, now, a little music might help, so go and put one of those early Beatles albums on, whichever one you like. Have a listen - brilliant, isn’t it? They may sound slightly anachronistic and na├»ve compared to the music of today but with, for example, I Saw Her Standing There, I Wanna Be Your Man, Can’t Buy Me Love, Eight Days a Week and Ticket to Ride, the quality of the writing and melodies can’t help but shine through. What’s also striking about those early records is the sheer urgency of the delivery. It’s as if they’re trying to burst through your speakers and when you consider how many gigs they were playing, how many songs they were writing and how much they were travelling, it’s just exhausting. Think of your favourite band and work out how long they took between their last two albums. The Beatles were churning out gold-plated, enduring pop records almost at a rate of two a year in their early career.

During this prolific formative period, The Beatles went against the received wisdom that you couldn’t write all the songs on your own album whilst retaining popularity. It’s only when you put something like that into context you’re able to see what a feat that is. An appreciation of music and a curious sensibility meant that The Beatles were alchemist magpies; assimilating what they loved and what fascinated them into an irresistible package.

The vast majority of bands would have been content to rest on their laurels after such success but The Beatles were always wanting to push the boundaries of popular song and explore further possibilities. Neither of the key songwriting team of Lennon and McCartney were classically trained, meaning that they just made chords that sounded good to them and fitted in with what they were trying to express. From Rubber Soul onwards, you can hear a dissatisfaction with their previous achievements manifesting itself in a yearning for something outside of the constraints of the pop music of the day.

The argument against the above is that The Beatles weren’t the innovators; they weren’t the first to discover Eastern mysticism and sitars, incongruous sound effects or the approach of changing tack altogether mid-song (see A Day in the Life). Whilst it’s difficult to refute those claims - how do you prove who was the first person to do anything? - the real genius of The Beatles came in merging these ideas into their records, taking previously specialist concepts into the mainstream and creating their own private universe of which the listener could inhabit with just a 12” record.

Appealing to the mass-market and being commercial may be seen as going against the ethics of art and expression, and may even raise accusations of “selling out” (something which seems almost quaint these days) but it’s yet another reason why The Beatles are still so revered these days and why an enterprising writer like myself is spending a sunny Sunday afternoon indoors singing their praises. Their early incarnation may seem like something you’d now liken to a boy band: identical uniforms, hoards of screaming females and songs about unnamed girls in order to make the hysterical 1960's teenager feel that they could well be the subject. It was a tactical masterstroke and The Beatles didn’t lose their ability to market themselves. In fact, they got cleverer.

How do you be taken as a serious act and still try and appeal to millions? Keep the matching uniforms but make them grown-up (Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band), say you’re making a concept album (Sgt. Pepper… again), play on the roof of your record company headquarters, say something outrageous that will be quoted for years to come (“Ringo isn’t the best drummer”, “we’re bigger than Jesus”, and so on). All things that may not have been exactly new, but things that the biggest band around hadn’t done before.

All of the above reasons - and many more - tell the story of why The Beatles weren’t over-rated and fully deserve their place at the top of the popular music pantheon. It’s a subject that could stretch out over pages and pages (you may not be entirely unsurprised to hear that this isn’t exactly the first piece of music journalism to conclude The Beatles were a bit better than your average beat combo) and it’s wonderful to think that over 40 years since their last album, The Beatles are still one of the most popular groups around.

One last parting shot before you’re free to resume your busy life. As important as all these aforementioned reasons are, not enough has been made of the single most important factor: the quality of the songs. It was touched upon when discussing the raw energy of the early years, but The Beatles never lost sight of why they were so popular in the first place, and endeavoured to still write to the best of their abilities throughout their career. They were incredibly blessed in the writing department: the best groups rely on a songwriting partnership where the two members bring out the best in one another and are free to bounce ideas around. Well, The Beatles had the best partnership in the history of popular music, as well as George Harrison; himself an incredibly competent songsmith. Hey, even the unfairly derided Ringo wrote a handful of better-than-average numbers (admit it; Octopus’s Garden is great). So, if you only take one thing away with you, it’s that you can ignore any hyperbole and with hindsight, recognise that The Beatles had the best songs - it really is as simple as that.

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