Why The Beatles Matter

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…

This entry was posted in music and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

23 Responses to Why The Beatles Matter

  1. mike says:

    The white album is interesting. So many different styles of music are on there. My favorite album is Sgt. Pepper.

  2. Oranjepan says:

    Oh joy!

    It really is all about the music, but underlying that is what goes into the creative process and how fresh and rich the depth of the sounds still come across even today.

    It would have been easy for them to be swallowed up by their commercial success and lose the early idealism, but the wonderful thing is how they never completely lost their connection to their roots and so the money appears to have fueled their wider social ambitions. They had paid their dues by the time they were famous, so instead of crumbling under the attention of the hysteria they stood tall because it was deserved.

    Their stories are simultaneously cautionary and truly inspiring.

    I played a pub game trying to chart how each of the members voted in each general election over the years, but that’s only for real obsessives who know which constituency they were registered in at what time… we came upon some surprising results… you should try it!

  3. I knew of the existence of that Beatles cartoon, but had no idea it lasted into the Revolver era and beyond. Now that I’ve looked it up on Wikipedia, the idea that there was once a cartoon that actively encouraged children to sing along to “Eleanor Rigby” and “Run For Your Life” is pretty staggering.

  4. When I was at primary school in the early 80s they used to make us sing Nowhere Man in hymn practice!

  5. Matthew Huntbach says:

    The problem with the Beatles was that what they did was very good, amazing, but it was the end of the line. After them so many others tried to do the same, but it just ended up being pompous. The Beatles destroyed the simple raw pop they started off with. I find now I prefer the non-pretentiousness of pre-Beatles pop. I like that raw sound, and I like those artists who didn’t take themselves too seriously. Once the Beatles had happened, you couldn’t get back to that.

    I compare this with what happened on a much larger scale with the art of the High Renaissance. Da Vinci, Raphael and Michelangelo took it to its limits, after that it was Mannerism, which was pompous, lesser artists trying to do what the masters did, the pretentious development of the artist as tortured individual rather than craftsman, and the loss of an innocence which could never be regained.

    • Mike Taylor says:

      That had never occurred to me before, but it’s so true.

      But … what then? I’m sure you’re not saying we’d be better off if there had never been the Beatles.

      • Andrew Hickey says:

        I talk about some of this in the book, actually, in the chapter on Let It Be.
        If it hadn’t been for the Beatles, it would have been someone else – the Kinks, or the Beach Boys, or Smokey Robinson or someone, would have been the model everyone imitated. We’d still have the imitators, we just wouldn’t have the particular great music they were imitating…

        • Mike Taylor says:

          Ah, I’ve only got as far as Pepper. (Funny how you start by saying “I don’t think it’s a very good album”, and end up praising almost every song as a classic :-)

          I wonder if you’re right. I only know the Kinks and Beach Boys from Greatest Hits compilations, but while that’s enough to make me like them both, it’s also enough to make me suspect I will never love them. Whereas when all I knew of the Beatles was the Red Album and the Blue Album, it was immediately obvious to me that here was greatness. I’m not sure any of the other acts you mention had the weight to do anything remotely like what the Beatles did, even if the Beatles hadn’t already occupied that niche.

          • Andrew Hickey says:

            Well, it’s not a very good album *compared to other Beatles albums*, rather than compared to all albums ever made ;)

            Depending on what greatest hits you’ve heard, you might be surprised at the depth and variation of the Kinks’ catalogue – Ray Davies was easily as good as either Lennon or McCartney, just not as good as both together. The Beach Boys by contrast are *definitely* misrepresented by their hits compilations – the surf & cars music had pretty much finished within 18 months of the start of their career. It’s a bit like a Beatles ‘Best of’ that would only include songs from Please Please Me and With The Beatles along with a couple of the Decca audition tracks.

            If you have Spotify, have a listen to my ‘best of’ playlist of them, which has practically no overlaps with the hits collections – http://open.spotify.com/user/stealthmunchkin/playlist/38u0fE4VRiV8em6oqLncB6

            • Mike Taylor says:

              Sadly, no Spotify for me: I tried installing the experimental LInux version on my Ubuntu box (despite my dislike of installing third-party software), but it just seggy-faulted.

              Still, if you want to recommend one of the Beach Boys’ actual albums — their Revolver if you will — I’m quite prepared to be won over by it.

              • Andrew Hickey says:

                It depends on what kind of music you want to hear – their career was very vaired…

                The best bet, though, is to go for Brian Wilson Presents Smile, the 2004 completed version of what would have been their 1967 masterwork. A suite in three movements, modelled loosely on Rhapsody In Blue, it’s some of the most astonishing music I’ve ever heard. After that, I’d recommend a CD called Endless Harmony, which is actually the Beach Boys’ equivalent of the Anthology series – outtakes and alternative vcersions and unreleased stuff from throughout their career, but much of it better than the released material.

                (It says something about the perversity of the BBs’ career that when asked to recommend a Beach Boys album I choose something not by the Beach Boys and something that isn’t an album, but that’s the way it is…)

                Also, if you’ve not heard Pet Sounds you really must – not because it’s their best work (it isn’t), but because you won’t understand the pop music of the last 45 years without it…

                • Mike Taylor says:

                  Seriously, your top two recommendations are an unreleased album and a bunch of studio outtakes. No, come on — give me an actual album. The stuff that was supposedly influencing Lennon and McCartney in the 60s.

                  • Andrew Hickey says:

                    Well, Smile *was* influencing Lennon & McCartney in the 60s – McCartney visited and took part in the sessions, and Van Dyke Parks to this day is angry about what hesaw (wrongly in my view) as their plagiarism on Sgt Pepper. But if you want an album that definitely influenced them, then Pet Sounds is the one to go for.

                    • Mike Taylor says:

                      Pet Sounds it is! Thanks!

                      Although I’m not immediately disposed to feel positive about the fact that their horrible Sloop John B is on it. I guess if Pet Sounds is their Revolver, I’ll write of Sloop John B as their Yellow Submarine.

                    • Mike Taylor says:

                      (Why can’t I reply to my own comment? Oh well, I’ll reply to the one my other reply was in reply to …)

                      Instant reaction on the beginning of Wouldn’t It Be Nice: the singer has a truly horrible voice. I think it’s going to be a real barrier. It’s a reminder of just what good singers John and Paul were (and to an extent George). But this has about it something of the feel of listening through an album where Ringo got all the vocals.

                      (Hopefully I will look back on this in a couple of months and go “Oh, what WAS I thinking?!”)

                  • Andrew Hickey says:

                    Replying here because the thread got to maximuym length…

                    I like Sloop John B more than you do, but Brian Wilson has stated many times that it was only included on the album at the record company’s insistence, and it was mostly recorded as a favour to Al Jardine, the folkie of the band (and in many ways the band’s Ringo figure).

                  • Andrew Hickey says:

                    You can’t reply to your own comment because the thread is at its limit. Just start a new thread – I’ll see it.
                    I’ve never known anyone to have *that* reaction to Brian Wilson’s voice in ’66 before – Mike Love’s, yes (and if you don’t like the vocalson Wouldn’t It Be Nice you might find That’s Not Me and Here Today *very* painful, but I honestly think you’ll realise the vocals are better than you’re giving them credit for…

                  • Andrew Hickey says:

                    But one thing about Pet Sounds as opposed to Smile (which is why I suggested Smile first) is that Pet Sounds is very much a grower while Smile is far more immediate.

                    I’m going to be doing a series of posts on the Beach Boys albums, starting tonight, by the way…

  6. Wesley says:

    Is the mono “Penny Lane” the version that ends with a final trumpet flourish? I heard that one years ago on the radio, and ever since the standard version has sounded incomplete to me.

    (I have the mono box set backordered on Amazon. Apparently, although it’s still a limited edition, EMI is producing more of them than originally planned.)

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      No, as far as I’m aware the only CD release of the trumpet flourish is at the end of the Anthology 2 version. This one actually just has a little bit of phased cymbal that’s not on the end of the stereo version…

    • Tilt Araiza says:

      The extra trumpet flourish was from a rejected mix that accidentally appeared on some promo copies issued by Capitol. That version isn’t on CD anywhere (I think), but it is on an US LP called Rarities (there’s also a UK LP of the same name that doesn’t have that on, the US version has a grey cover and a photo of the group, the UK version has a solid blue cover with the title in gold).

  7. Geezer says:

    I really object to the fact that the mono box is £200 in the UK, and but $230 in the US. As always, the dollar price is simply converted into pounds. £100 would be about right for the mono box. But then 20 quid would be about right for an IPod, in my view. I really want the box, but if I pay 200 pounds, I am going to hate myself, and also have to starve. So I’m not buying it.

    • Andrew Hickey says:

      I get your point, but in fact it’s pretty much an equivalent price when you take into account cost of living/average wage and so on – the official exchange rate doesn’t matter so much with these things as how much things cost in shops, and my USian wife says it’s pretty much a 1-1 correspondence.

      I agree it is an extortionate amount of money, and I had to think long and hard about buying it – but at the same time, it’s only around a quid a song (less if you count the original stereo mixes of Help! and Rubber Soul which are included as bonuses). It’s only because you’re buying so much at once that it seems ludicrous.

      I accept that most people can’t afford it – and I couldn’t even a few months ago (this time last year I was on half my current salary, so I know what the ‘having to starve’ bit is like), and I would really much prefer that this music was legally available for next to nothing, rather than as a luxury item. But given that I *can* afford the luxury item, it’s worth it to me…

Comments are closed.