The Beatles are fairly well known. Praised reasonably highly. Quite popular. And this leads some people to decide, seemingly out of nowhere, and certainly not through learning anything about them, that The Beatles must therefore be overrated.
Well I’m afraid they’re not. They’re rated exactly as they ought to be.
Some people do it right: they will say that they, themselves, don’t like The Beatles, that they wouldn’t listen to them, but also that they appreciate the impact they have had and the reasons for their current status.
Others don’t do it right. They’re the ones who will smugly announce that The Beatles are overrated, are, in fact, not good at all, said with a superior air due to their not having fallen prey to such a mainstream, uninteresting, common and popular opinion as that of liking The Beatles. The problem is, these people invariably know absolutely nothing about the subject. They have maybe heard Yesterday and Yellow Submarine, and have then simply assumed, have decided to go against the majority, to be contrary, to stun everyone with their far more obscure and remarkable tastes, because that’s just the kind of fascinating, breaking-the-mold person that they are.
It is not without reason that a band receives an almost absurd amount of success and critical praise, not only throughout and just after their career, but for the next 45 years, with no sign of it slowing down. Do you really think that you, in your perceptive musical wisdom, have managed to hit on something that millions of others over half a century, including those who were there during the 60’s, including those who work in the industry, including those who’ve studied everything about The Beatles, in short, including those who know what they are talking about, somehow missed?
It is not without reason that the pre-eminent satirist, commentator, and chronicler of life in the Western world of the latter half of the 20th century, and greatest TV show ever written, never ceases making references to them:
(Perhaps next I need to write a blog along the same lines as this one for people who think South Park and Family Guy (or 21st century Simpsons, for that matter) are better, or even comparable.)
Their output was certainly not flawless, or without genericity. Aside from a few brilliant cover-versions, and some interesting bits of bass, vocal harmony and songwriting in general within the original material to hint at what was to come, the first two albums (Please Please Me & With The Beatles) are not genre-defying or -defining works of art. The “White Album” is a mess, which should have been edited down to one disc of maybe 13 songs. And I can’t recall the last time I listened to Abbey Road and didn’t skip past Maxwell’s Silver Hammer (more of Paul’s “granny music”, as John Lennon would say). But from the opening chord of A Hard Day’s Night (a chord which has had more said and written about it than some songs and entire albums (hell, even careers)) to the closing E-major chord that rings out for forty seconds to bring to an end Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band, a perfect period of three years, followed by an imperfect, but still groundbreaking, three further years that resulted in Magical Mystery Tour, The Beatles (the aforementioned “White Album”), Abbey Road, and Let It Be, The Beatles (including, in equal measure, the crucial fifth Beatle, producer George Martin) radically altered every aspect of pop music.
And that is the key: this is within the context of popular music. Compared to The Beatles, there are better bass lines and more sophisticated chords in Jazz. Superior vocal harmonies saturate Choral music, even Barbershop. There are certainly better lyrics (future blog post no. 2: Bob Dylan is also not overrated). But it was the act of bringing so many genres and styles and influences uniquely together, and yet retaining huge popularity and success, upending pop music and any supposed constraints or rules of the genre. Not only did they change the song-writing and musical elements of pop music, they changed the recording process, the album making process, the attitude to the album itself, the concert/touring aspect, the business aspect, the relationship with the media, the concepts of celebrity and fame, the expectations of a popular, mainstream band.
Of course, they wouldn’t have gotten very far had Elvis not already kicked open the door, and if Bob Dylan were not in the process of removing the frame and the rest of the wall around it. Yet they found a way to inexplicably be, all at once, commercial, experimental, immensely successful, regularly risk-taking, mainstream, creative, lucrative, difficult, churning out six albums in three years, yet retaining artistic integrity and innovative originality in each, a pop band, exceptional.
“But they are exactly that: a pop band,” you say, “and pop music equals three chords, two minutes, one theme” (the theme being love and romance, which even The Beatles struggled to break away from: it took until Rubber Soul, album number six, and Nowhere Man, track number four, until a song appeared that was about something else). You continue on, intelligently: “Surely their music is generic, uninventive and by-the-book…”
– All You Need Is Love passes in and out of the time signatures 4/4, 6/4, 7/4 and 8/4.
– Tomorrow Never Knows took tape-looping to unprecedented levels, and, along with the rest of the album Revolver, utilised superimposition, acceleration, deceleration, cutting up, and playing back in reverse, combined with several new influences: Indian (Harrison), Classical (McCartney), and LSD (Lennon).
– The percussion for I’m Looking Through You consists primarily of Ringo Starr tapping a matchbox with his fingers.
– Eleanor Rigby is a pop song about loneliness and death, played by a string octet.
– For sections of A Day In The Life, George Martin and Paul McCartney conducted a 40-piece orchestra, providing sheet music showing nothing but the lowest and highest note possible (near the chord of E-major) on each instrument, with twenty four empty bars between them, and the instruction to start from the lowest, and end, somehow or other, twenty four bars later, at the highest.
– George Harrison’s Something was described by Frank Sinatra as the best love song of the last fifty years, by Elton John as one of the best love songs ever written, and by Paul Simon as a masterpiece. To make the point about variety: this apparent love-song-of-all-love-songs is on the same album as a children’s song about an octopus, a heavy, riff-centric rock song that lasts nearly 8 minutes and ends abruptly after a repetitive cycle lasting almost half that time, and a medley of eight tracks, each a mini-song, with one running into the next.
This list of little song-facts could be extended until there is at least one, if not many more, for every song on every album. Don’t believe me? I’m exaggerating? Well it’s already been done, in the form of a 400-page book: Revolution In The Head, by Ian MacDonald.
Nobody has ever come to the conclusion that The Beatles are overrated through the process of actually listening to their albums, reading even a little about their work, lives, and the context surrounding it all, and generating a basic understanding of the topic. If you say that you did, then either you are lying, or you went away and listened to The Monkees by mistake.
A thing I’ve noticed within the “The Beatles are overrated/not good at all” camp is a tendency to quickly resort to this: “John Lennon wasn’t a very nice person, don’t you know” (or a similar sentiment, just with four-letter words). Well, while there is a lot that seems to suggest that that was at least sometimes the case, it’s not exactly relevant to the conversation at hand. If you want to begin an interesting conversation about hero worship, idolisation, celebrity, and whether the personal flaws and imperfections of certain famous people are significant or outweighed by positives, that’s great. However, I feel that this argument is usually employed due to a swift realisation that they have no real argument or fact with which to defend their viewpoint on a subject that, really, they just don’t know the first thing about.
So you don’t have to like The Beatles. You don’t have to listen to them, or enjoy them. Just, before you start sharing your lack of knowledge with the world, perhaps instead simply recognise and appreciate why so many, many others do. But if you insist on proudly announcing that The Beatles are overrated, or not good at all, when somebody cites them, you are not being interesting and alternative, you are not to be commended for your more diverse and less popular opinions and interests. You are, and we’re talking objectively here, just plain wrong.