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47 Miles of Barbed Wire: 6 Reasons the Beatles Did NOT Save Music.
Many people will hate on me for this post, but I don’t care. My beef is NOT with the Beatles, a popular beat combo from Liverpool, England, but rather with their lazy-ass fans and humanity’s need to follow the herd. Ugh, hate that. More after this provocatively placed jump.
Here in the United States, the prevailing mass-market narrative about the Beatles is pretty heterogeneous: rock and roll music was awesome, but then Elvis went into the Army and Buddy Holly died and there was a lot of bad pop on the charts and the country was in an Eisenhowerian rut. Then, in 1962, the Beatles sailed the ocean blue, sprung fully-formed from the head of Zeus, and set the world on fire with their magical mystery music! This pretty much led to John F. Kennedy being elected the best president ever (RIP Big Red); Martin Luther King, Jr., making his “I Have a Dream” speech, which ended racism once and for all; psychedelic hippies popping up on every street; and Woodstock, which was awesome, and everyone has a great-uncle who was there and the rain stopped and there were awesome drugs and no rapes at all and it ended the Vietnam War ON THE SPOT, etc. Basically, that’s what it boils down to.
Stop me if you’ve heard this one before, but I hope you know that this is bullshit all the way down the line. I’m not here to teach an American History class, but I can speak to the Beatles thing. I know everyone loves them, and your fave rave Beatle can reveal your personality, and the new reissues of all their albums are setting the world on its ear once more after all these years. But I just feel like I need to say this and get it off my chest: the Beatles were a very good band and did many pretty songs but they are NOT the saviors that everyone now says they were, and here is a short list of why, counting down from #6.
6. Before the Beatles, people expressed themselves about music through dancing. People were busting moves all over the place, even if they weren’t all that good at it. But post-Beatles, it suddenly became good enough to just scream and cry, especially if you were on a TV show. For showing a generation of young women that tears were the new Peppermint Twist, let me say “ew” and “boo.”
5. Have you heard music today? It’s a mess. It’s all over the place, it has no consistency, it makes funny weird squiggly sounds, it does not appeal much to your grandmother. So if that was the aim, a saved sort of music, a sacred thing that helped all the children come together for all time, then let’s just call it: FAIL.
4. Early Beatles stuff was a straight-up rip job from American rhythm and blues music; not just the general sound and tenor of the stuff, but often the actual songs themselves. They idolized a lot of U.S. musicians, not just Chuck Berry and Little Richard but a lot of other ones as well, and had the good grace to be kind of embarrassed that they were able to have massive monster hits by blanding down wild original versions of songs like Little Richard’s “Ready Teddy” and Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Rock and Roll Music.” But most people conveniently forget this and focus instead on Lennon/McCartney as this unstoppable team that originated and innovated and created everything they did from day one — yeah, not so much.
3. Many of the Beatles’ so-called innovations were actually done first by many other people. I wouldn’t dwell on this too much, but the other day some dude (who should know better) twittered that the Beatles invented techno music with “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Again, not so much; I would argue that Spike Jones (NOT the modern director) did this first by using sound effects in the songs, or maybe Les Paul who actually physically invented the 8-track tape machine AND reverb AND delay, or whoever came up with the player piano, invented techno. Same with unified album statements (Frank Sinatra, Charles Mingus, etc.), surrealistic lyrics (about 2,000 different Delta blues singers, Bob Dylan, etc.), and everything else. And there were a hell of a lot of great British groups springing up at the same time, from whom the Beatles stole just as much as those groups stole from the Beatles. If anything, the Fabs were generalists; you could plausibly make an argument that no other act was better overall at ALL the different aspects of being a band, or that the Beatles were smart about being close to the avant-garde edge, or what have you. And they were a very innovative and skillful group. But FIRST to do anything? Naw.
2. There was nothing wrong with American music before 1962, and the idea that the Beatles needed to come save us is extremely offensive. You don’t have to know a lot of history, here, just check the charts. In the year or two before the Beatles broke over here (late 1963/early 1964), we had Little Stevie Wonder and the Angels and the Crystals and the Four Seasons topping the charts, and all kinds of weird burblings from Kyu Sakamota (“Sukiyaki”) and the Singing Nun (“Dominique”) and Jan and Dean’s “Surf City” and “Sugar Shack” and “Hey Paula,” the kind of absurdist novelty stuff that always catches people’s fancy. And that was just the stuff that hit number one on the charts; there was Stax Records in Memphis and Motown Records in Detroit and King Records in Cincinnati, there was the surf stuff out west — and never forget that without the Beach Boys and Phil Spector and Bob Dylan egging them on, the Beatles never would have done anything more complicated than “Help!”
1. Idolize them all you want, but John Lennon and Paul McCartney both tried to de-mystify themselves over and over again, in song (“Glass Onion,” “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”) and in deed (being assholes). Poor George, always underrated by everyone, including himself, was the most insistent about the end of the monolith…but no one listened. Seeing the Beatles in the Apple ads, or CGI’ed into performing a ghostly concert on Abbey Road for the Rock Band franchise, or even seeing religious people on “American Idol” try to reclaim “Imagine” — an explicitly anti-religious song — as worship music, is pretty hilarious; and it is criminal seeing Lennon, one of the most conflicted and complex people of last century, reduced to a wry Einsteinian figure who said “Peace” instead of “E=MC2.” But to see the Beatles as tragic heroes, bigger than life, etc., is preserving them in holy amber. Keep them if you want, but remember their two top songwriters repeatedly told you NOT TO DO THAT.