I’ve been planning a post on the Beatles for awhile, but thought today would be a good day for it, partly because it’s so well planned it can get past my writer’s block, and partly because everyone in the world seems to be talking about them thanks to the new game (which I’m not getting) and the reissues (bought the mono box today).
While most people are perfectly aware of why the Beatles were so important, there are many – including some who I know normally have excellent musical taste – who just don’t ‘get’ them. They certainly don’t get why I spent two hundred quid today on a box of albums I already own, just because they’re very slightly differently mixed.
The simple answer to that is this:
Yep, that’s a mildly racist kids’ Saturday morning cartoon from the mid-60s, which includes a drone setting of a section of the Tibetan Book Of The Dead and a bouncy singalong section which encourages the kiddies to sing “She said I know what it’s like to be dead, I know what it is to be sad, and you’re making me feel like I’ve never been born”.
Personally, I think the idea of a ‘best band ever’ is a rather fatuous one, and presumes that the Monkees and the Sun Ra Arkestra were trying to do the same kind of thing and should be judged by the same criteria. But on pure quality alone, I think if there *were* a best band ever, it would be hard to argue that the Beatles were a bad choice – when you consider that songs like I Am The Walrus, Yesterday, Norwegian Wood, Girl, Revolution, Across The Universe, While My Guitar Gently Weeps, Here, There And Everywhere,Here Comes The Sun and All My Loving were never even released as singles because they always had something better or more commercial lying around, the sheer depth of their catalogue becomes quickly apparent. There are few if any other bands where almost everyone knows almost every album track.
But the key thing about the Beatles is the kind of band they were. When they started, they were disposable pop – their competition at the time was Cliff Richard, Adam Faith and The Tremeloes – and they were a huge success for reasons only very tangentially related to their talent. They were a *good* band of that type – Please Please Me is still a remarkably good album – and they obviously, even then, were music lovers rather than just performing puppets, as their choice of cover versions showed, but there was no immediately obvious reason why they should be bigger than, say, The Searchers.
But they did get big, and what matters is what they did when they were big. Most bands in their position would have continued cranking out formula hits and shaking their mop-tops as long as they could, raked in a huge amount of money, and then retired. The Beatles instead – presumably as much through boredom as through any finer motives – decided to try and expand their art as much as possible, and incorporate as many different influences as they could, everything from Dylan and Ravi Shankar to John Cage and Stockhausen.
The mere *existence* of a track like Revolution #9 (a Stockhausen-esque sound collage on The White Album) is extraordinary. Whether you like it or don’t (I actually do), tens of millions of people own that album and have heard that track at least once. For many of them that will have been their first – and possibly only – exposure to the techniques of the avant-garde from the previous twenty years. Likewise, millions of people first heard of Ravi Shankar via the Beatles.
To understand how unusual this is, imagine if Beyonce decided she was going to have a John Zorn phase, or whatever today’s equivalent of the Spice Girls are (I don’t keep up with the young person’s pop music of the day) citing Throbbing Gristle as the biggest influence on their new album. Normally when teenpop stars try to ‘be a serious artist’, they’re George Michael – just doing the same pabulum without any of the fun.
There have been a few other Pop-with-a-capital-p stars who’ve been quite daring, of course – the Monkees did a hell of a lot to subvert their own image, as well as making some truly great records – but the only one to undergo such a total metamorphosis I can think of is Scott Walker, who did it over a much longer timeframe, was much less popular to start with, and lost most of his original fans along the way.
The Beatles, because of a once-in-a-century combination of luck, talent and willingness to experiment, got six-year-olds singing along to songs about Peter Fonda causing bad acid trips, and teenage girls listening to atonal avant garde tape-loop experiments. And *THAT’S* why they’re important.
As for today’s releases – I’m not buying the stereo reissues, as I have them all on vinyl anyway, and Rock Band doesn’t appeal (partly because I can play real instruments, a bit, partly because I’m no good at video games, and mostly because I own neither a Wii or a TV) but the mono boxset is wonderful – every album up to the White Album, plus the non-album tracks, in their original mono mixes. The sound quality is astounding – I’m hearing all sorts of tiny little details I’ve not heard before, like Ringo’s sticks clicking the vocalists in on Paperback Writer (which I’m sure the rest of you heard on the old versions, and I’m stupid for not noticing before, but anyway), and I also love noticing all the differences between the mono and stereo mixes (the processing on John’s voice on Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds, the different tape-loops on Tomorrow Never Knows, the different ending to Penny Lane). The bass response in particular has improved drastically.
Is it worth two hundred quid? Unless you’re the kind of obsessive fan who actually owns and has listened to Liverpool Sound Collage and who knew that the second half (but not the first half) of Please Please Me was a different take in the stereo mix to the mono one, then no – unless you don’t own this music at all, in which case yes, but why don’t you? But if, like me, you’re the kind of person who’s been to see Pete Best live, then yes, it is worth it. It’s only a little over a quid a song, after all…