I think a lot of what we think we know are things that we are told and we shrug and accept. For many years of my life, I knew that The Beatles were the best band that had ever lived and worked. Their music was the pinnacle of human achievement and that was that. After 1970, it was all down hill.
This is the boomer myth, and I swallowed it without question. I knew it because everyone said it. Even as a youngster, I preferred music that was challenging, and for a while, The Beatles sustained me. They were a formative influence for me, right there with Jimi Hendrix and The Stooges and The Velvet Underground (somehow “Heroin” and “I Wanna Be Your Dog” were filed with the rest of the classic rock by a fairly liberal mp3 site), but gradually the promise of adrenaline and noise won out over pop and whimsy. I traded “Revolver” for “Daydream Nation” and “Psychocandy” and for many years, I never looked back.
There were still bits of The Beatles I valued, even if I didn’t actively visit them. George Harrison was, and still is, my favorite of the four, though his role in the group was always peripheral at best. In my estimation, The Beatles’ output, since canonization, should be approached the same way a key text or an artifact in a museum should: as a road map to other parts of our culture. The George songs pointed in some of the most intriguing directions: drone and Indian classical in particular. The most outre George songs, along with the early Velvet Underground and Black Sabbath at their slowest, helped me develop the patience to listen to La Monte Young, Pandit Pran Nath, Tony Conrad, etc.
Jumping from that, my two favorite John Lennon compositions are The Beatles’ most celebrated and maligned moment of studio fuckery. Revolver’s closing track, “Tomorrow Never Knows” is a wash of tape loops, circular drums, and throbbing directionless melody. It’s Stockhausen pop, Faust in miniature, justly loved and celebrated and under-explored by the group from then out, save the soundscapes “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” and “Strawberry Fields Forever”. In spite of its complexity, I’m told it was recorded and performed a la an avant-Phil Spector: in a lot of open space, with a lot of loops and microphones, fingers crossed (I should add that the tape loops were courtesy of Paul McCartney, a musician who has been ghettoized forever as making grandmother music).
Less beloved, in part because of the very audible influence of Yoko Ono, was the song “Revolution 9”, a long collection of tape loops, vocal fragments, and found sounds, arranged into an atonal swirl towards the end of the White Album’s second disk. Much like an infamous acolyte of 60’s psychedelia who will remain unnamed, I was obsessed with the piece. I’d never heard anything like it. It was dark, unsettling, unsafe. It was a musical, a big wash of repetition spilling into soundbites that spilled into nothing, like the final whorl of “A Day in the Life” slowed to a crawl, tucked nefariously into a double disk set of beloved pop music. It felt sacrilegious (and if you peruse the comments on the YouTube video, mainly people still feel betrayed by its existence), and when I found out there were entire discographies of music similar to it (Nurse with Wound being the clearest example), I marched into the woods and never came out.
And what of Paul? I happen to enjoy grandmother music. His music hall pastiches were charming, like an unassumingly hetero ancestor to “Hunky Dory” or glam musical theater. They were analogous to The Kinks at their most winking or The Beach Boys at their most formally complex, annoying to some but surreal in the context of their creation and insertion next to songs that practically dripped with acid sweat. It felt like a punk move by a nice young man who just wanted to make music he enjoyed, and his songs are some of the few that have escaped being seriously dated.
And poor Ringo. Ringo, I’ve read, was a hell of a musician. He was sturdy, the John Entwhistle of the group who made rare but necessary contributions and functioned as the eye of the storm when The Beatles got real wild. Would “Tomorrow Never Knows” be the banger it is without that great drum part? Absolutely not. Could any of the other members pull off “Yellow Submarine” (a song I probably don’t need to hear again in this lifetime) or “Octopuses’ Garden” without sounding cloying or cynical? “Piggies”, a George song, read like allegory to the aforementioned and unnamed wannabe sixties prophet, but Ringo had the sweets to pull off something silly like “Good Night”, parlaying that into a somewhat successful covers career and assuring him guest spots on Leon Redbone albums and otherwise for decades to come.
I stopped being sold on The Beatles at their most universal. “All You Need is Love” is a song that annoys the living shit out of me, and a lot of Beatles songs that are beloved are also them at their most repetitive and grating. “Hey Jude” has lyrics that are criminally under-cooked, and to stretch the song out past seven minutes is asking for trouble. Shameless rip-off or not, “You Can’t Always Get What You Want” edges it out as an overblown orchestral singalong.
The Beatles’ clearest rival, after The Beach Boys imploded during the “Smile” sessions, became The Rolling Stones, a band I ultimately preferred and still enjoy and listen to. The reason lies in part because the band is still active, at least in the sense that they never broke up and haven’t lost any key members since Brian Jones. Their influence has been more far flung and, to me, better. With acts as diverse as GG Allin, Deerhunter, and Devo drawing inspiration directly from The Rolling Stones, The Beatles’ worst qualities are the ones that seem to stick in the musicians that follow their lead: the trite lyrics about love, the goofy world-changing stance, the inability to end certain songs when they need to end (in a world without The Beatles, would pop songs collectively be a minute or two shorter?), and especially the crap end of “psychedelia”.
As far as bands that stretched out, Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin did better at making music longer. Where the longer Beatles songs end around the seven to eight minute range (and sometimes drag), a Pink Floyd epic can dominate a vinyl side and not overstay its welcome. This is (somewhat unfortunately) a core characteristic of psychedelic music, and as far as I’m concerned, the generation immediately following The Beatles did it with less fluff and more instrumental color. Late sixties Pink Floyd can lay claim to inspiring The Verve and Swans, and The Beatles’ influence has to settle for Lenny Kravitz.
As far as the lyrics, for every “Across the Universe”, there’s an “All You Need is Love” or especially “Revolution”, a snide sneer at all the people in the late sixties who attempted practically to change the world. I’ve always found Henry Flynt’s essay about the late sixties to beautifully articulate the reasonable distrust I’ve felt about the late sixties popular culture:
“The “youth” craze of the Sixties became increasingly dubious (from flower power to Altamont), and the Beatles and their imitators morphed, leading their fans to a mystique of consumerist dissipation. (Carnaby Street and “Yellow Submarine.”) For me, the Beatles’ consummate song was “Revolution,” which begins “If you wanna make a revolution, count me out.” It served as the anthem for all the mediocrities who responded to the stresses of the late twentieth century by embracing institutional co-optation.”
So where does that leave The Beatles? I suppose that’s what I want to find out. Little by little, I’m going to give each of their releases (and contemporaneous singles compilations) a fair shake, and try to report my findings on exactly what The Beatles bring to the table in 2015.
Article originally featured on Medium, Oct. 23, 2015.
Featured image credit: https://classicrewind.files.wordpress.com/2012/04/guypeellaert_thebeatles.jpg.