First 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.)
In 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.
It’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.