‘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 longer 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.
Overcoming 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 jubilant 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.