The Beatles: Are They Really the Greatest Rock Band of All Time?

‘Well of course they are,’ I hear many of you saying, ‘they’re the most successful and they invented the very idea of being a rock band.’ The first claim, in terms of album sales, is certainly true, but means very little: Celine Dion is one of the best-selling artists of all time, after all. The second claim is a fallacy that has been presented as fact by tired publications like Rolling Stone and Classic Rock over the years, to the point where we no jazz-honors-the-beatles.jpglonger question it. But dig a little deeper and you’ll find that Buddy Holly’s The Crickets were an autonomous band who wrote their own songs long before The Beatles did, and whose name, presentation (as four men in suits), and rockabilly style The Beatles consciously aped in their early years. Hundreds of bands were forming in Liverpool and around the UK in the early 60s, modelled on the innovations of The Crickets, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and of course Elvis Presley: The Beatles were just one of them, and they certainly didn’t invent the guitars-bass-drums combo. But as we know they were the first to erupt into a major commercial force. Why?

You could be cynical and argue, as Piero Scaruffi does in this infamous Beatle-bashing article, that it was all just a case of ingenious marketing on the part of Brian Epstein (manager) and George Martin (producer), who constructed the idea of four loveable, cheeky moptops playing black music in a way that was palatable for white audiences and sold it to the masses. This theory holds only amongst academics who like to think that popular music is a capitalist con to dupe gullible people into parting with their cash. It assumes that Beatles fans were, and still are, all thick as pigshit (Scaruffi calls them ‘peasants’), working class morons with no understanding of real music, whatever that might mean, and whose lack of education makes them easy prey to advertising.

On top of being offensive, this ignores the broadness of The Beatles’ appeal when they first emerged, a cross-cultural phenomenon of a kind that had rarely (if ever) been previously witnessed. Of course marketing played a part in stirring up the frenzy known as Beatlemania, and both their photogenic faces and cheerful, unthreatening demeanours (symbolised by the suits – nobody’s ever done any harm in a suit, have they?) helped to make them popular across the generational divide that is often said to have defined the 60s. But that doesn’t sufficiently explain the scale of what Greil Marcus describes as a ‘pop explosion’, something that affected (or infected, depending on your point of view) every walk of life and directly changed the listening habits of millions of people, and the reverberations of which can still be felt today.

As I’ve mentioned before their music was far more derivative than is often acknowledged, and in the early years it was explicitly so, with half of their albums being comprised of cover versions of rock, pop, and R&B classics. So if it was not simply a case of marketing or innovativeness that made them so successful, what was it?

I think the key to understanding the phenomenon comes, once again, from Greil Marcus:

Back at the radio I caught “I Saw Her Standing There” and was instantly convinced it was the most exciting rock and roll I’d ever heard (with Paul’s one/two/three/fuck! opening—how in the world did they expect to get away with that?). Someone from down the hall appeared with a copy of the actual record—you could just go out and buy this stuff?—and announced with great fake solemnity that it was the first 45 he’d purchased since “All Shook Up.” Someone else—who played a 12-string guitar and as far as I knew listened to nothing but Odetta began to muse that “even as a generation had been brought together by the Five Satins’ ‘In the Still of the Nite,’ it could be that it would be brought together again—by the Beatles.” He really talked like that; what was more amazing, he talked like that when a few hours before he had never heard of the Beatles.

The exhilaration with which The Beatles infused the world was not because they were the first rock n’ roll band, nor the most heavily promoted. It’s simply because they were the best, the catchiest, the ‘most exciting’ as Marcus puts it. Individually, they were not much up to scratch as musicians: George was a mediocre guitarist, a virtual clone of Carl Perkins; Paul was a decent rock vocalist but a dreadful balladeer; John was a much better all-round vocalist but still quite stiff and unconvincing as a guitarist; and Ringo was the cheerful amateur along for the ride. When compared, instrument for instrument, with The Rolling Stones, they come up short. But it was as a complete set, as a band, that The Beatles cohered better than just about anyone before them or since, the Stones included. Their unity – the haircuts, the suits, the accents, but also the harmonies, the trio of frontmen, and the songwriting credits – seemed to signify a surging, optimistic national unity emerging from the sterile austerity of the 50s. So when that fella Marcus describes above envisions their generation being brought together by The Beatles, you can see why, and it only partially sounds like hippie nonsense.

the-beatles-wikipedia-the-free-encyclopedia-55c98138448cc.jpgOvercoming their great limitation (mediocre musicianship) to create the most powerful music of the 60s, The Beatles embodied the spirit of punk well over a decade before it was due to be born. They powered through amateurism with confidence, speed (songs rarely ventured past the 3 minute mark), an enthusiasm for music and life, and most of all a reckless creativity that uncovered boundless possibilities within the 4/4 rock format. Their inspirational message, and the reason that they’re still the touchstone for bands forming to this day, was that suddenly anyone could give it a go, or so the thought went – four working class Liverpool lads with absolutely no musical training had produced some of the best music of all time, so why not me?

Of course, very few bands would be able to duplicate the brilliance of The Beatles, because although they made it look easy, and perhaps it was to them, songwriting talent of their calibre is exceedingly rare to find. What makes them so fresh to listen to even to this day is their attention to detail: the stop-start phrasing of ‘Love Me Do’, the famous sixth chord that ends ‘She Loves You’, the guitar solo that drifts away without a rhythm section on ‘I Feel Fine’, the mocking call-and-response of ‘I’m Down’, the exquisitely reassuring harmonies on ‘If I Fell’, the descending guitar runs that accompany John’s cries for ‘Help!’, the gorgeous acoustic opening that anchors the country-tinged ‘I’ve Just Seen a Face’… The list goes on and on, moments that never fail to surprise and deliver shivers down the spine even after hundreds of listens.

You might notice that these moments all come from early on in the career of The Beatles, and that’s deliberate: I feel that their greatest contribution to musical culture came before the run of albums that started with Rubber Soul and gained them the artistic credibility they so craved. Too often, The Beatles are overpraised for their experimental tendencies, as if the use of sound effects, trumpets, orchestras, and forays into Indian ragas and avant-garde soundscapes are indicative of artistic genius on their own. In fact, the miracle of Revolver and Sgt. Pepper, both excellent albums, is not that they play around with so many different genres, which is a rather superficial kind of achievement. It’s that they never lost sight of the melodicism and sense of fun that always kept them grounded, even when indulging in the most ridiculous of psychedelic excesses, such as the kaleidoscopic circus effects that rise to consume ‘Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite’, still a remarkably great, hummable tune.

But on The White Album and Abbey Road they went too far – although there are terrific songs on both, they are far too erratic in quality to be judged as masterworks. The White Album in particular suffers from being frontloaded with all of its best moments (except ‘Yer Blues’), leaving the final half an hour on the second disc as one of the worst passages to ever exist on the album of a major band. It culminates in the infamous ‘Revolution 9’, which stands as absolute proof that experimentalism on its own is not equivalent to artistic success.

Believe me, I still love – and I mean love – most of The Beatles’ catalogue, from beginning to end. But I still feel that their towering reputation as artistic geniuses often obscures any objective judgments from being made about their works. We are expected to believe that Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road ushered in the era of the concept album, when they both conceptualise in rather half-assed ways: they are much better viewed as good, in Sgt. Pepper’s case outstanding, collections of songs (see Robert Christgau’s review of Sgt. Pepper, the most accurate assessment that I’ve ever read).

The Beatles’ genius, I would argue, and their greatest conceptual achievement, stems from their much more profound work in the early years, when they were a plain old rock n’ roll band singing silly little love songs. Because although love might seem a little bit silly, that’s actually just one of an infinite number of things that it is, and The Beatles managed to explore it from a vast range of different angles. Take ‘She Loves You’ for instance, which I regard as their masterpiece. It’s easy to dismiss as naff, but take a closer listen: brilliantly, it’s written from a third person perspective, which means that The Beatles are getting all excited about the romantic attention being paid to someone else. The ‘oohs’, the rs-431-the-beatles.jpgjubilant guitars, and the ‘yeah yeah yeahs’ are all triumphant affirmations that love exists in the world, not just somewhere but everywhere – ‘she loves you’ is so generalised it could be sung to just about anybody and everybody. That’s why the chorus appears again in the long fadeout climax of ‘All You Need is Love’, another song that is a paean to the universal nature and importance of romance.

It’s easy to be snide about such innocence, particularly when artists like Bob Dylan and the Stones were making dark, politically engaged music about the sinister side of the 60s at the same time. But as someone who believes passionately in the need for the escapist element of music and culture in general, and who also unashamedly believes that love not only exists but is one of the most variable and fascinating aspects of the human race, I give The Beatles a standing ovation for taking both of these philosophies seriously and embodying them in their art.

So they’re my favourite band, the one I listen to the most frequently and with the most pleasure, but I still believe that they’ve been a little overinflated. The greatest band? That suggests they were the most influential, which is an incredibly difficult argument to make – I would say that more rock bands have followed in the mould of the Stones and Led Zeppelin, for example. Or perhaps ‘greatest band’ means that The Beatles pushed musical boundaries the furthest, which is again questionable – The Velvet Underground are one band from the 60s I would argue more fully explored the boundless possibilities of rock as a medium for experimentation.

The arguments over which is the greatest band will carry on, and The Beatles will most likely continue to triumph, for as long as there is rock n’ roll. But it won’t last forever. Do you really think, in 10,000 years, if by some miracle the human race is still around, that people will still be listening to The Beatles? I hope not. The great achievement of popular culture is that it’s temporary and knows it, suffers no delusions of grandeur and doesn’t pretend that it’s going to last forever. It’s all about enjoying yourself in the moment.

So don’t worry about whether The Beatles are the greatest band or not, it’s a trivial question. Just be incredibly grateful that you happened to be alive at a time when you were able to enjoy their joyous, beautiful, effervescent, and meaningful music. Then let it enrich your life.



7 thoughts on “The Beatles: Are They Really the Greatest Rock Band of All Time?

  1. Pingback: The Best Films and TV Shows of 2016 | oliver's twist

  2. Great band review. I have loved the beatles for pretty much my entire life which included listening to their music on forty-fives as it came out. I wanted to weigh in on a few points. While the Beatles may not have been amazing musicians, they were certainly good enough to handle their music. And the music comprises their greatness. I’m often just as happy listening to covers of the Beatles as I am to the listening to the Beatles themselves (Prince covering while my guitar gently weeps).

    Sure, I love the early stuff, the covers and the poppy radio hits of their early career, but where I think they really excel is in the later years. I even love the crap at the end of Abbey Road. And this is what makes the beatles so great. They are really four distinct bands. The early cover band, the radio pop band, the psychedelic experimenters and the bluesy rockers at the very end. They do each well and their own way.

    So they attract people with one genre of music and then draw them into the next. When I was a kid, I was all about magical mystery tour and abbey road. I’ve since branced out to truly love their entire collection of music.

    Thanks for dragging me down memory lane.


    • Appreciate the thoughtful feedback, thanks! I don’t think they’re terrible musicians either, perhaps I should’ve made that more clear – Paul McCartney’s ability to pick up and play virtually any instrument in their latter stages is particularly impressive. My point was more that for a band unanimously declared ‘the greatest’, when you compare them even to other bands around at the same time (Stones, Who, Kinks and Velvet Underground especially), they come up short in instrumental prowess. Which I think makes their achievement all the more miraculous – like the later punk bands, it was their energy, enthusiasm and wit, along with the outstanding tunes, that really made them so wonderful, rather than how well they could play their instruments and sing.

      Abbey Road used to be a favourite of mine too, but revisiting it for writing this piece left me a little disappointed. I love the end suite, George’s tracks, and a few others, but ‘I Want You’ especially dragged it down a little. I don’t think it’s as consistent tunewise as their earlier albums. But as you suggest, each to their own, and the wonderful thing about the Beatles is how rich and varied their catalogue is, so you can appreciate different albums at different times in your life.

      That said, I’ve always struggled to understand the hype around the White Album – jut because it contains the most Beatles songs doesn’t mean it’s the best!


  3. I have to offer disagreement on the White Album, especially the comment that the final half hour on the second disc is “one of the worst passages to ever exist on the album of a major band.” C’mon ! In that final half hour, you get one track that shows the Fabs could do hard rock or metal as well as anyone (“Helter Skelter”), a lovely George ballad (“Long Long Long”), a funky, bluesy take on “Revolution” that I vastly prefer over the attack of the single version (“Revolution 1”), a charming ode to vaudeville that Paul does so well (“Honey Pie”), etc. In fact, on the entire White Album, I would argue that there’s only a total of six tracks that could truly be eliminated or considered inferior – “Wild Honey Pie”, “Bungalow Bill”, “Don’t Pass Me By”, “Why Don’t We Do It In the Road ?”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey” and “Revolution 9”.

    It’s Abbey Road that’s the overrated one. It always gets praised for the medley on side two, and deservedly so. But one great side does not equal an entirely great album. Side one goes straight downhill after the magnificent opening shot of “Come Together” and “Something”. In fact, my opinion is that “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer” stands as the single worst track the Beatles ever recorded. And “Octopuss’ Garden” isn’t far behind.

    And to call Paul a “dreadful balladeer” ? Oh really ? “And I Love Her” ? Wonderful. “Yesterday” ? Outstanding. “She’s Leaving Home” ? Totally moving. And other ballads such as “Things We Said Today”, “I’ll Follow the Sun”, “Here There and Everywhere” and “For No One” showcase his excellence and versatility with ballads. It’s only when he piles on the syrup – such as on, for example, “Michelle” – that he becomes “dreadful”.

    The Beatles’ catalog is amazing. It’s just that, while all of their albums can be rated an A or A – in my opinion, they just didn’t have that one single album that hit the A + mark. No Beggars Banquet, no Who’s Next, no Born to Run, no Highway 61 Revisited or Blonde on Blonde. But taken overall, they DO have the best collection of music that any rock artist or band has been able to achieve.

    One more thing quickly: While I enjoy some of the Velvet Underground’s music in doses, they are way overpraised. So they were one of the first bands to sing about S&M sex and heroin addiction. Is that necessarily a good thing ? And “European Son” (with all of that awful feedback) and “Sister Ray” are two of the most unlistenable recordings I’ve ever heard. However, Loaded is a truly great rock ‘n roll album.


    • Hi Robert, thanks for your long and thoughtful reply. The half hour stretch I was referring to on The White Album is everything after Helter Skelter, which I like – perhaps should’ve been more clear on that one. It’s interesting how tastes differ – I think “Long Long Long” is so minimalist as to disappear into thin air, “Revolution 1” by far the inferior version, and “Honey Pie” rather irritating. The other tracks in that end sequence do even less for me, particularly “Revolution 9” which is exactly 8 minutes too long, and “Good Night”, where it’s so treacly I can’t tell if it’s satire or not and frankly don’t really care. But on the other hand I really enjoy the bizarre harmonies of “Wild Honey Pie”, the countrified stomp of “Don’t Pass Me By”, and for some reason Lennon’s vocals on the verses of “Bungalow Bill”. To each their own, eh!

      I stand by my thoughts of The White Album as an incoherent mess, particularly its ending, but I agree with you regarding Abbey Road being overrated, even if I like more of the songs on Side One than you do (I rate “Oh Darling!”, “I Want You” and “Here Comes the Sun”).

      I was being a tad harsh calling Paul a dreadful balladeer, I must admit now, nearly 2 years on from writing this. But I don’t like his vocal on “Yesterday”, even if I find the tune and the arrangement beautiful. And same goes for “And I Love Her”. He sounds too earnest – it makes me miss the dark quirkiness of John’s vocals. I do love “She’s Leaving Home” and “I’ll Follow the Sun” though, so again my use of the word “dreadful” was overstretched.

      I know what you mean about none of their albums being perfect all the way through, although Rubber Soul, Help!, Sgt. Pepper, and A Hard Day’s Night each have so many wonderful moments I would probably push them all up to an A+ despite one or two reservations apiece. And I find myself returning to the 1 compilation often, which is a perfect rush of superb music from beginning to just-before-the-end (I exclude “The Long and Winding Road”, which I’ve never liked, and is the worst Paul-as-balladeer moment by far).

      I will say this about The Velvet Underground: I don’t give a damn about S&M or heroin, but I love their catalogue from beginning to end. The Velvet Underground & Nico tries its hand at so many different genres and somehow succeeds in nearly all of them (I don’t particularly like “European Son” either), White Light/White Heat is crazy but grounded by insanely good guitarwork (particularly rhythm guitar) throughout, The Velvet Underground is one of the most beautiful albums I’ve ever heard, and Loaded is the perfect sunset to their career, full of folk-rock gems. I’d recommend checking out some of their live recordings if you haven’t already – they really were an insanely good, insanely musically adept band. I listen to them over and over again, almost as much as The Beatles.

      Thanks again for your comment, always glad to have a reason to head back into the old music archives!


      • Hi, Oliver. This is a bit of a delayed reply to your reply of my original posting, so forgive me for that…

        One thing that I really appreciate about the ‘White Album’ is that, while I agree that it has its moments of incoherence, it is also an accurate reflection of where the band was at the time. ‘Abbey Road’ strikes me as an overly slick, dishonest album that tries to portray the Beatles as an ongoing creative force when they were, by all accounts, on the verge of splintering for good.

        And the ‘White Album’ is also (if you examine it closely) the ONLY post-‘Revolver’ Beatles album where John Lennon has an equal number of song contributions to its makeup that Paul McCartney does. I don’t know if it was his self-admitted heavy LSD intake or meeting Yoko or a combination of the two, but Lennon’s overall interest in the band grew markedly less after ‘Revolver’. Perhaps the fact that he was relatively clean and sober while in India in 1968 allowed him to clear his mind for active songwriting – hence, the reason you get so many Lennon-penned songs on the ‘White Album’.

        One side note: I find Paul’s ballad contributions to ‘Revolver’ to be his best and most sincere (“Eleanor Rigby”, “Here There and Everywhere” and “For No One”). “Here There and Everywhere” is particularly beautiful, and “For No One” is a perfect encapsulation of what a guy’s broken heart feels like after he’s been dumped by the girl of his dreams. In fact, I find ‘Revolver’ to be McCartney’s overall high point quality-wise to the Beatles’ albums for individual song contributions, just as I consider ‘Rubber Soul’ to be Lennon’s.

        And a small correction to your earlier reply: when you noted that “I like more of the individual songs on Side One than you do”, you included “Here Comes the Sun” which – as we both know – is the lead-off track on side Two. I love “Here Comes the Sun”. In fact, I would rank it as the best song on the entire ‘Abbey Road’ album. But for myself, it doesn’t beat “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, which I consider to be George’s best song with the Beatles.

        OK, I’m done speaking. Sorry for being so long-winded !


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