How Yesterday Is The Beatles’ Music?
The recent media blitz by Apple touting the Beatles’ inclusion in iTunes has inspired a couple of questions that have been running through my mind over the years:
1) Who would’ve thought in 1978 – when the Beatles’ Apple Corp. filed a lawsuit against Apple Computer – that the two would eventually have to partner?
2) Are the Beatles overrated?
The first question is just rhetorical irony – no need to belabor it.
The second question is way too expansive to handle in a blog post and I’m not sure I’m qualified or interested to answer it so I’m going to narrow it to something more attackable:
Have the Beatles’ songs/albums lost resonance over the years?
The Beatles are near-universally regarded as the best band ever.
They’ve sold more albums in the US than any other musical act and the Beatles dominate most ‘best album’ charts like no other act. For instance, Rolling Stone’s top 500 album list from 2003 has 5 Beatles albums in the top 14 albums ever and 8 in the top 100. (To give some perspective, Bob Dylan has 5 top 100 with 4 in the top 40 and the Rolling Stones has 4 top 100 with one in the top 30. See here for a more user-friendly list than provided on RollingStone.com). MOJO - a popular British music magazine – had 7 Beatles albums in the top 100 of all time in its 1995 list and no other act has more than four. Even Pitchfork, whose reviewers can be harsh, gives all but two Beatles albums a 9.0+ rating.
The Beatles were also trailblazers in many ways including writing their own songs (most popular artists and bands relied on songwriters) and studio production (culminating in the Sgt. Pepper album).
But historical album sales and top album lists aren’t a great measure of a band’s resonance. Hell, I’m sure the Beatles sell more catalog albums now than any other artist but who’s to say that isn’t because of baby-boomers, marketing, etc.
So how do you measure music’s resonance? I have no idea. But I’m going to theorize and focus on the percentage of people for whom songs truly resonate. I’m throwing out anyone who reply to the question ‘What type of music do you like?’ with one or more of the following phrases: ”Top 40″, “A little bit of everything”, “80′s music”, “Anything but country”, or “Dave Matthews”.
So here it goes. I apologize ahead of time for not crediting anything I’ve absorbed from reading other books and articles…..
I think music tastes are formed and cemented during your teenage and 20-something years. Music helps supplement our life where it may be deficient (passion, beauty, confidence, etc.). It echoes our beliefs and feelings so we can feel righteous (including righteous anger).
The life of a teenager/20-something has changed dramatically in the 40 years since the Beatles were writing/producing albums. People are getting married later so there’s more formative ‘music taste’ years spent bouncing between and seeking out new relationship partners. Plus, pre-tween and teen culture is more sexualized. The net effect is that the search for sex/love – and the emotional baggage that comes with failures/heartbreaks on both fronts - plays a greater part in the life of anyone born after, say, 1970 than before it.
At the same time, self-absorption has only increased over time thanks to smaller family sizes, increased psychiatry (both professional and amateur), and the Internet which allows everyone to share their POV via Facebook, Twitter, message boards, etc.
So if I had to boil down to one word what music’s most resonant role of music for those under 40, I’d say…..swagger. This varies per person – some want to latch onto it to fill or forget their voids while others use it to wear their wounds with pride. Love and marriage still exists but it’s something that’s earned through putting your heart out there and letting it get broken a couple times. And until it’s found, lust will fill the void. But we can all use that boost of swagger than music can provide.
Think about the lasting music trends since 1970 and their relationship to swagger….punk + heavy metal (angry swagger), anthemic/arena rock (all types of swagger), glam + hair metal (sexual swagger), disco (sexual swagger), reggae (the beat is all about sexual swagger), rap (angry swagger), techno (energetic swagger), grunge/alternative (disillusioned swagger), indie rock (varying types of swagger such as emo’s swagger through ownership of your insecurities, sexual swagger of garage rock, underlying lyrical angry swagger in indie pop like The Shins), etc. Compare that with some noteworthy 50′s/60′s trends like girl groups, Motown, psychadelia, etc. All great stuff but not there’s not a lot of edge/swagger to it. Some of it’s musical style but it’s also lyrical – 50′s/60′s music tends to be vague and stay on the surface of anything like pain, heartbreak, or lust where 70′s and beyond swim in it. As the Rolling Stones wrote in 1974 in ‘It’s Only Rock ‘n Roll’, “If I could stick a pen in my heart, spill it all over the stage, would it satisfy ya?”
Now of course there are exceptions (e.g., 50s/60s – Elvis + Soul music clearly have swagger, the 70′s brought us the swaggerless Billy Joel and the f***in’ Eagles) but my point is that there’s an underlying tonal shift in music that occurred in the 1970′s to reflect the changing times and I’m defining it as ‘swagger’.
So how do the Beatles hold up if resonance today is defined primarily by ‘swagger’?
With all due respect to the Beatles amazing volume of output, trailblazing productions, elevation of the album above the single, etc., I think their music has definitely lost resonance because of its lack of swagger.
Here are some musings on why I think Beatles music doesn’t resonate like it once did.
Their Unique Lives
Beatlemania was insane. Insane enough that it drove them to study transcendental meditation with a Maharashi for several months in 1967-1968. I’m not judging the validity of transcendental meditation because I don’t know anything about it. But how many people with normal lives would choose this path? And this trip followed many other trips thanks to good ol’ Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.
Through 1966, the Beatles music was maturing at a rapid rate. Lennon’s first two songs on ”Beatles For Sale’ (‘No Reply’ and ‘I’m A Loser’) and the title track of ‘Help!’ mark the beginning of Lennon’s confessional writing, the melody and broad title of McCartney’s ‘Yesterday’ turns a one-sided breakup into a universally affecting mourn for a better past, and other tracks like “You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away” and “I’ve Just Seen A Face” show off the influence of folk musicians like Dylan.
‘Rubber Soul’ takes it a couple steps further, though, and stands as their most complex statement on love/relationships and a lot darker than it appears. Not coincidentally, it marked a time when: 1) Paul was having relationship issues with his girlfriend Jane Asher, 2) John was cheating on his first wife Cynthia, and 3) George started seeing and married Pattie Boyd (later to be Eric Clapton’s inspiration for the Layla album WHILE George’s wife and then eventually became Clapton’s wife after Harrison and Boyd divorced). McCartney goes from tame bewilderment about being dumped (‘You Won’t See Me’) to anger (‘I’m Looking Through You’) while Lennon touches on earned love (‘In My Life’), difficult love (‘Girl’), tongue-in-cheek revenge on a girl (‘Norwegian Wood’), and extreme, albeit crass, jealousy (‘Run For Your Life’).
But while the next albums (‘Revolver’, ’Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’, ‘Magical Mystery Tour’) show huge progression musically, they virtually abandoned writing about love/heartbreak/lust save for McCartney’s songs on Revolver (‘For No One’ is heartbreaking, the melody of ‘Here There and Everywhere’ triumphs over the saccharine lyrics) as Lennon fixated on drugs/pscyhadelia and McCartney fixated on character studies and lame concepts (like creating a fictional band and the ‘magical mystery tour’). (Note: The peacenik love in ’All You Need Is Love’ or the saccharine love in ‘When I’m 64′ don’t count.)
Perhaps that’s because most of those albums (Sgt Pepper, Magical Mystery Tour, White Album Abbey Road) were written under the influence of LSD or while visiting an Indian guru. A lot of good music is written under the influence but their odd journey must have distracted them a tad from applying their peak-level talents towards producing some more personal songs.
Then again, those were crazy times so maybe their issue comes down to…
The Beatles’ recording career began in Fall 1962 and wrapped up in August 1969. Contemporaries like the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Kinks extended into the 1970′s and beyond. The Beatles had gone through several evolutions over the years and were already splintering as they stripped down the studio tricks of their Revolver/Sgt Pepper/Magical Mystery Tour on The White Album and Get Back/Let it Be recordings. How resonant would the Rolling Stones be today if they splintered after their 1967 psychadelic phase (Their Satanic Majesties Request) instead of coming together to produce their most timeless stretch of music (1968′s Beggar Banquet, 1969 Let It Bleed, 1971 Sticky Fingers, 1972 Exile on Main Street)? So it’s possible that if the Beatles band hadn’t splintered (a big if given that, unlike their contemporaries, the band had three songwriting voices vs. one) they would’ve produced music more in line with today’s tastes except…
…McCartney, Lennon, and Harrison recorded plenty of songs in the 1970′s and very little resonates today. This isn’t to say they didn’t produce some strong or daring work (the first two John Lennon solo albums in particular) but there’s no sense that a united Beatles would’ve greatly altered their respective personalities/songwriting approaches.
McCartney was always fantastic melodically but 1) his lyrics rarely (if ever) delved very deep into love/sex/insecurities and 2) he preferred to record mainstream rock + ballads versus anything that could be confused with swagger like R&B, soul, alternative rock, etc.
Harrison is a great guitarist and underrated songsmith but his writing was more preoccupied with mystical/Eastern religious stuff than swagger stuff. ’Something’ is a great love song but anomalous when compared to other big songs by Harrison: ’While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Here Comes The Sun”, “My Sweet Lord”, etc. (That said, the Phil Spector-produced ‘All Things Must Pass’ has the best sounding post-Beatles rock songs. See ‘What is Life’, ‘Wah Wah‘)
Lennon was increasingly forthcoming in bearing his soul – both at the end of his time with the Beatles and in his solo career. But he never really found that writing muse for earned love, lust, pain and heartbreak. He has some great songs in this vein for sure – ‘In My Life’ and ‘Jealous Guy’ come to mind – but a lot of his songs from Rubber Soul and on ended up being surface-level sadness/depression (e.g., “Help!”, “I’m So Tired”, “Yer Blues”), drugs (“Doctor Robert”, “Tomorrow Never Knows”), populist politics (“Revolution”, “Power To the People”, “Imagine”, “Love”, “Working Class Hero”), self-referential (e.g., “Ballad of John and Yoko”, “How Do You Sleep”), or touching upon topics that don’t illicit much swagger (“Mother”, “God”).
But it’s not like lyrics are the only thing that makes music resonate. Most punk (and some alt rock) lyrics aren’t about love/heartbreak/relationships (Can you think of a noteworthy Clash song in this vein? And, no, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go’ is not noteworthy). How many rap lyrics are just empty rhymes about having better MC skills, partying, gang-banging, etc.)? Even if the Beatles’ lyrics weren’t particularly resonant, their music surely would so perhaps some of the issue is….
…their production style. The early Beatles sounds good but has a dated sound like most stuff prior to 1966 that gets shoehorned into ‘oldies’. The psychadelic stuff – while impressive and influential – is too ornate and abstract. The White Album/Let It Be/Abbey Road threesome have great moments but which songs on these albums would you say sound contemporary? How much sounds revelatory? Maybe it’s like watching Hitchcock – his ‘Ordinary man in extraordinary situation’ shtick got used so much after his movies that what once was revelatory now seems a bit ordinary. Or maybe all that time in the studio masked the immediacy of their earliest incarnation as a 50′s rock/Motown cover band.
I don’t know. I think a lot of this comes down to opinion (I wanted to write personal opinion but that’s repetitively redundant). But for those of you who cared enough to read this much and feels like I’m slighting the Beatles, indulge me with an exercise:
1) Pick the five situations where listening to recorded music means the most to you.
2) In how many of these situations would Beatles songs be a good fit?
Here are my five situations:
1) Driving in the car – particularly long drives out on open highways
2) Jukebox at a bar, chilling out, with a beer in hand and a few in the belly
3) When I’m fried and want to recharge.
4) When I’m depressed and want to wallow.
5) At a party- either in the background (if small talking) or in the foreground (if dancing)
While the Beatles wouldn’t be completely out of place in these situations, I can’t say they’d be particularly relevant either. And it’s not just the fact that the Beatles recorded in the 1960′s because I wouldn’t mind hearing some Phil Spector-produced girl group music, peak-era Stones, Kinks, Zombies, some Beach Boys, some Who, Velvet Underground, baroque pop (e.g., Left Banke), ‘California Dreamin’, etc.
And so I think it’s ridiculous when I see music lists and reviews where the Beatles are put up on a pedestal. Just because they may be the ‘best band ever’ doesn’t mean they didn’t produce some music that, over time, now seems just good or even just okay. I think there early stuff has some great moments. I love ‘Revolver’ and ‘Rubber Soul’. I think ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ is by far the most overrated album in the history of popular music and borderline unlistenable aside from the first and last tracks. I like ‘White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’ but I don’t think they are in the top 100 of best albums BASED ON TODAY’S TASTES – let alone top 10.
(For argument’s sake, some albums not in Rolling Stone’s top 100 that I prefer to ‘White Album’ and ‘Abbey Road’ include: ”Radio City” by Big Star, “The Velvet Underground” and “Loaded” by Velvet Underground, “Hunky Dory” by David Bowie, Elvis Costello’s first four albums, “Marquee Moon” by Television, “Pleased To Meet Me” by Replacements, “Doolittle” by Pixies, The Stone Roses self-titled debut, “What’s The Story, Morning Glory” by Oasis, ”Being There” & “Yankee Hotel Foxtrot” by Wilco, “Too Far To Care” by Old 97s, “Different Class” by Pulp, “If You’re Feeling Sinister” by Belle & Sebastian, “The Gilded Palace of Sin” by Flying Burrito Brothers, “Grievous Angel” by Gram Parsons, “Copper Blue” by Sugar, “Girlfriend” by Matthew Sweet, “Pinkerton” by Weezer, “Figure 8″ by Elliott Smith, “Bandwagonesque”by Teenage Fanclub, “The Bends” by Radiohead)
Then again, who is the biggest band of the past 10 years? U2? Coldplay? Ugh, makes me long for yesterday…