The Beatles

the beatles - in colourFirst I want to make it clear that The Beatles isn’t one of my favourite bands. They made some terrific singles in the sixties but, overall, I think they have always been overrated. That said, they were the best pop band around in the mid-sixties and She Loves You was the song that prompted me to take a bit more than a casual interest in music.

Before The Beatles there were one or two exceptional songs on the radio that impressed me but nothing that presaged a whole new musical genre. Back in 1963, though, The Beatles were recording hit after hit after hit. That year they had four smash hit singles (Please Please Me, From Me To You, She Loves You, I Want To Hold Your Hand) and by the end of the year Beatlemania was in full swing. The Beatles wasn’t a band any more, it was a phenomenon. (I guess you could say they went from band to brand.)

the beatles - earlyIn some ways the deification of the Beatles was deserved. Please Please Me got to number 1 on every London music chart except the one used for retrospectively official statistics (Record Retailer), where it stalled at number 2. Their other three single releases that year all reached the top slot whichever chart you use. These weren’t just exceptionally good pop songs they were records with an enormously wide appeal. Lennon and McCartney’s music took on Elvis Presley, Cliff Richard and Roy Orbison, beating them all in both sales and release rate. Everybody was a Beatles fan in 1963.

Searching for ‘Beatles’ on Spotify produces just one album (The Early Tapes of the Beatles) and a few (probably ghastly) covers of Beatles songs. For the sake of completeness I listened to snippets from The Early Tapes. If you want to know what a second-rate Elvis impersonator sounds like backed by a late 50’s skiffle and rock ‘n roll band give it a whirl. Don’t indulge for too long, though; its rank cheesiness will give you heartburn and terrible nightmares. (You have been warned!)

If you want to listen to Beatles tracks you’ll find a good selection on YouTube. As a rule, I assume that YouTube videos violate copyright and I try not to provide links to them. But, in the UK, copyright on sound recordings lasts 50 years, so I don’t need to worry about that for any recording released before 1965. There are several Beatles playlists on YouTube; the one I like is: The Best of The Beatles. It has recordings from both before and after 1965 so please don’t blame me if some or all of the tracks have been removed when you play it.

the beatles - sketchIt’s hard to pinpoint what made the early Beatles compositions so appealing. At the time the critics put it down to the heart-rate beat and I suppose that was part of it; music that opens a teenager’s purse has to have a pulse. But there was more to it than that. To get played on the radio in the sixties there had to be a memorable tune and Beatles songs certainly had that. Then there was their sound – twangy electric guitars – very different from the staple fare of the session musicians or small orchestra backing most pop songs. The young were excited by a totally new sound while their parents accepted it as a more respectable variation on the rock-and-roll they danced to just a few years ago.

Later, as the years have gone by, I have come to appreciate some other things about the Beatles. The band must have learned their craft from some respected guitarists – you can hear it in their licks. They use the full repertoire of techniques, too: plucking, strumming, bending notes and stroking broken chords. Although based on conventional ideas there’s plenty of originality in Beatles songs, particularly in their harmonies. (The last ‘yeah’ at the end of She Loves You adds a distinctive major sixth, which isn’t in the rule book.)

In the final analysis, The Beatles recorded a lot of mediocre and dead duck tracks, especially later on, but many more of their songs still sound fresh and exciting. It may be more than 50 years ago now but no other artist can touch The Beatles for Band of the Year 1963.

6 thoughts on “The Beatles

  1. To back up my ‘overrated’ comment here’s something that happened just a few days ago…

    There’s a quiz program on BBC TV called Pointless in which the contestants try to find obscure answers to questions on general knowledge and popular entertainment. Before the program the TV station gives 100 people 100 seconds to provide as many answers as they can to questions for the show. So, for example, they might have been asked to name as many songs from Rubber Soul as they can. If 20 people said Norwegian Wood that answer would score 20 points. In the televised part of the quiz four pairs of contestants answer the same questions and the pair with the highest score is eliminated in each round. An incorrect answer scores 100 points and an answer that none of the 100 people gave scores 0, a perfect, pointless answer.

    Last week on Pointless they had questions about the Beatles’ White Album, a double LP record with a total of 30 tracks. In the final, one of the contestants was familiar with the album and his pair won the prize money but, more interestingly, the great majority of the tracks on the album were pointless answers – answers so obscure that no-one in a sample of 100 people could think of them. Obscure tracks by The Beatles? How can that be? Well, frankly, it was a really rather poor album with lots of utterly forgettable tracks.

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  2. As a pretty big Beatles fan, I can both disagree with and understand your comments at the same time. I think perhaps the feeling of them being overrated can come from so much deification of them over the years. Who could ever live up to that? Add to that the advances in music since then and it’s easy to think that they were a big hype surrounded by some good tunes.

    I think the best way to appreciate The Beatles is to look at them chronologically, almost in a you-are -there mode. And listen to what was going on in rock contemporaneously with them. That gives, I think, a better appreciation of what they actually accomplished. Even comparing themselves to themselves is astonishing . Consider the astonishing leap in songwriting from 1962’s ‘Love Me Do’ to 1967’s ‘A Day in the Life. ‘ Or for that matter, everything pre- Sgt. Pepper.

    As to the White Album, I’ll somewhat give you that. What you are hearing there are four somewhat burned-out guys who are by now, less a band and more four individuals with their respective back-up bands. This would have been a dynamite solo album.

    So, conclusion: overrated? Yeah, probably to some extent. They carry the aura of their whole ’60’s thing with them. But given how they continuously pushed the envelope and how on on any given day there are thousands of people listening to their music and watching tribute bands, I’d say there’s something cross-generational going on here. History will be the real test especially when baby boomers like myself are gone. Will people still listen to, study and play these songs? I think they will.

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    • Thanks for that, Jim. It sounds as though we’re broadly in agreement. The Beatles did make some really good records, especially in the sixties and especially when you consider what else was happening at the time. Will they stand the test of time? I suspect their earlier material will be regarded as dated, Sgt. Pepper (and possibly Magical Mystery Tour) will be remembered fondly, and everything else will be quietly forgotten. But, of course, prediction is hard – especially about the future!

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      • Hmmm. Not really sure we are as much in agreement as it might sound. I was reacting to your statement about their being ‘overrated’ in the sense of ‘how can any one band live up to that hype?’ And your post made me wonder how much their legacy would outlast their generation. I think it will but I think there’s also a large nostalgia quotient which, as a boomer, I freely admit. But if you want my real take on the band, check out my series on my blog. I think you’ll get a better feel for it. And you may even then consider me one of the overraters. But I think it paints a truer picture.

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