Saturday, 15 February 2014

Reappraising The Beatles...and Youthful Enthusiasms

This month sees the 50th anniversary of the appearance of The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show, an event which can be seen as a marker of a major cultural shift which, without too much hyperbole, can be labelled a cultural revolution. While I was a generation younger than The Beatles, I grew up an enthusiastic listener to their music, my first exposure being around the age of ten when, holidaying at my grandparents' house, I found an old 45rpm single of 'Rock and Roll Music' backed by 'Honey Don't' (my aunts were still teenagers) which sounded much more exciting than the overwrought Engelbert Humperdinck ballads my Nan usually played on the big His Master's Voice stereogram in the lounge room while she did the housework. I was hooked - I played it over and over again, the sound through the bass heavy speakers was both raucous and hypnotic. Later I built up a collection of such vinyl "45s", buying them on my way home from school with my pocket money from a local second hand shop that retrieved them, unwanted by the 1970s, from jukeboxes. To this day, Strawberry Fields Forever doesn't sound quite right to me without the cracks and hisses of my particular Parlophone 45rpm single. 

But the passing of time gives one the perspective to be able to reappraise youthful enthusiasms. Firstly, as the following piece suggests, The Beatles were not the musical geniuses we thought them to be. They were not that original, blithely copying the styles and even the chord progressions of various notables who had preceded them in popular music (for e.g. compare their 1968 hit Lady Madonna with the 1956 English trad jazz piece Bad Penny Blues. Indeed, in his post-Beatles career, George Harrison was sued for plagiarising the melody and chord progression of his 1970 hit My Sweet Lord from a 1963 girl group hit, although I still like to think it was an inadvertent, subconscious transgression). It's just that their fans were too young and unsophisticated to remember the originals:

"The occasion of the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show has inspired some obligatory guffawing at those old squares who greeted the band with derision. One put down that fairly stands out for its utter revulsion was from none other than William F. Buckley, who wrote in the Boston Globe in September 1964: "The Beatles are not merely awful; I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are god awful. They are so unbelievably horribly, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.” Without appearing willfully contrarian, I get where these critics were coming from, if only in a roundabout sort of way...there is not a chord or trope or motif of theirs that Cole Porter and George Gershwin would not have recognized." More here.

And, while they are often compared favorably by social conservatives with the truly awful and vulgar Rolling Stones, The Beatles were, in their own way, just as subversive of traditional authorities and virtues, even while they performed dressed in suits: 

"...The 1964 Beatles may not have been overtly anti-authority, but covertly, they certainly were. They were even, in their way, political. Their platform? Joy, excitement, pleasure. Within their aura, the future — that distant and sober thing for which the young people of 1964 were supposed to plan, so they could inherit the responsibility of upholding the greatest way of life the world had ever seen — evanesced. That fact alone made many in the establishment nervous, and rightly so." More here
Not that the Establishment of the day was not in need of challenging in areas, mind you (e.g. race relations), but the influence The Beatles acquired in the youth culture of the day as role models in everything from dress to drug taking to an interest in eastern mysticism could fairly be termed idolatrous and it has been decadent in its impact on Western culture. 

Of course, they did write some memorable tunes (my favourite is still the sublime Here Comes the Sun, in which George Harrison surpassed the song writing skills of Lennon and McCartney), but these days I find myself more sympathetic to the Anglo-Indian man in the street I grew up on, the father of one of my friends, who must have then been in his 40s and was certainly the most cultured person I had met at that time (he preferred Scotch whisky to Australian beer, read Kipling and smoked imported English cigarettes), who, when he became aware of my enthusiasm for The Beatles, loaned me an album, The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Plays The Beatles, which he assured me was much better than the originals. I didn't get the orchestral settings at the time (the RPO didn't know how to be raucous, bless them, and the lack of a backbeat meant there was no subconsciously felt hypnotic effect) but I appreciate them more now (and they prompt me to reflect on how much the classically trained producer George Martin must have had to do with the musical sophistication of The Beatles' recordings comparative to their contemporaries).

When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 1 Corinthians 13:11 (ESV)


Mild Colonial Boy, Esq. said...

The Kinks were and are far better.

Acroamaticus said...


Well, I do rate 'Waterloo Sunset' as the best pop song ever written. Good to hear from you, by the way.

Steve Martin said...

I like The Beatles, and The Kinks.

Also, Gerry & the Pacemakers, The Hollies, The Searchers, The Zombies, Badfinger…well…you get the picture.