Were they fake cultural monoliths to the Baby Boomers or musical greats?
There’s an edgy, spiteful contrarianism that continues to linger over The Beatles’ brilliance. From the Guardian citing them as “The safe, money-spinning, housewives’ choice”, and the Sydney Morning Herald blames their enduring ubiquity to the rose-tinted glasses of generations past. Perhaps a band a lifetime ago continuing to conjure discourse is a reflection of their enduring cultural and musical legacy? Alas, it’d be fitting to reflect on the sheer musical scope exerted by the Fab Four in their 7 short year career. From contemporaries like Bob Dylan and the Beach Boys to Oasis and Nirvana, the Beatles’ progeny are endless. From Beatlemania, to embodying the nascent cultural movements of a generation, The Beatles are worthy of discussion.
Their early period is marked with youthful exuberance and innocent ebullience. Sharpened by performances throughout the Hamburg and Cavern Club scene, they had all the refinement of seasoned musicians, yet a wide-eyed euphoria personifying Beatlemania’s frenzy. This carried over to their music, and whilst maturation would follow, their raucous energy would never be eclipsed. Their song, She Loves You, revels with infectious optimism, all two minutes and twenty seconds brimming with all the pop’s catchiness and the energy of rock and roll. From the oft, there’s an immediacy, the hook “yeah, yeah, yeah!” a jackhammer driving its way into your skull with every second. A blank canvas, it’s driven by the lively call and response of “she loves you” preceding each hook. With the intimate attachment from the “Because she loves you, And you know that can’t be bad” refrain, framing the listener’s own personal relationship and self-identification, it’s the archetypical pop song.
The titular track to their 3rd studio album, A Hard Day’s Night is an embodiment of the youthful enthusiasm and excitement of Beatlemania, a definitive statement of their early sound. From the unmistakable opening chord, bright jangly guitars, palpable exuberance from Ringo’s pounding backbeat to Lennon’s impassioned screaming howl, and a rocking guitar flourish by Harrison to finish sets a tapestry of rock euphoria. It personifies the dichotomous innocence and dynamism of 60s British rock as much as Beatlemania’s pinnacle. This was their first transatlantic chart topper marking unprecedented success.
Only months after A Hard Day’s Night, their next release, Beatles for Sale marked a transitional period, downbeat and moody sentiments drawing more introspective lyrical stylings. Whilst suggestive of later sophistication, they at times sounded uneven and weary, from the exhaustive grind of Beatlemania. Nonetheless, the musical exploration of I Feel Fine and 8 Days A Week, with guitar feedback and fade-in show innovation. The eponymous album opener, Help! exemplifies increasing uncertainty between their commercial aspirations and maturity. The musical backdrop is upbeat and energetic, masking Lennon’s earnest cries for help, baring his insecurities and vulnerability. This is evident through the admissions of “But now these days are gone, I’m not so self-assured/ Now I find I’ve changed my mind and opened up the doors”.
Whether their uncertainty had any effect, they shed a new vanguard of musical frontiers with Rubber Soul, a transitional pivot in their evolution from the band of Beatlemania’s past. Feted with different sounds with every track, there’s undeniable influence of contemporary Bob Dylan, seeping with folk rock sounds and deeper introspection beyond love, from the philosophical musings of Nowhere Man, government critiques with Think for Yourself and nostalgic waxing of In My Life. Yet, it also refines familiar grounds of love beyond a saccharine exterior, evocation of loss and revenge with an Eastern texture in Norwegian Wood, to the haunting melancholy of Girl, beautiful as yearning in Lennon’s laments to his once ‘girl’.
Paperback Writer and Rain are bookends to their nascent psychedelia, the former marking McCartney’s lyrical development and the latter, with its reversed/backward vocals, coupled by uneasy dissonance from the slow downed rhythm a sign of things to come. Their 7th album, Revolver is perfection, introducing Eastern inspired musicality’s and using the studio as an instrument.
Hyperbole aside- it’s great music. Best to listen with your eyes closed with a candle burning, it’s a pseudo-religious experience, transcending music’s limitations into the human condition. Evocations from existential questioning, poignancy and enlightenment blissfully stir, exploring sonic and worldly limitations alike.
What followed this was Sgt Peppers, considered the best album ever. If Revolver stretched the margins of popular music, Sgt Peppers broke them open. Amidst sprawling aural tapestries of discordant harpsichords, circus sounds and eastern flavours was a stage for McCartney’s vaudevillian jaunts across textural canvases, reminiscent to classical literature and compositions past.
Functioning like a symphonic act, each track is a fragment to a whole, cohesive with varying movements. The finale A Day in the Life is a vignette, an epic psychedelic experience where Sgt Peppers was flippant and playful, streams of kaleidoscopic thought in sound. Reservations can be made however of McCartney’s overarching artistic concept, with its ambitious yet somewhat arty pretentions. His dominance lacks a counterweight; Lennon’s foreboding introspection and cynicism at times sacrificed Macca’s melodic lightweight whimsy. With Sgt Peppers lending itself to a uniform strength, it lacks a track-by-track strength of album’s past.
The Magical Mystery Tour segues where Revolver left off, its psychedelic textures coupled with the ambition of Sgt Peppers stretching the envelope of pop, from the profound yet melodious Penny Lane, to Strawberry Fields Forever and the nonsensical ramblings of I Am the Walrus.
1968’s self-titled The Beatles was a back-to-basics approach, their retreat to India cleansing them of psychedelic indulgence, to subdued, cleaner tones yet nonetheless retaining wide-ranging influences and musical brilliance. Remnants of experimentation remained, Revolution 9 so divisive to a band normally lapping in the critics’ adulation, superlatives ranging from strange, embarrassing and bad. Its existence functions outside the realms of convention, baring all its pretentions to the fore, intentioned as art rather than music.
Abbey Road is their most well-known album, a cover intimated by millions and filled with radio staples. Whilst tracks like Come Together and Something are rightfully celebrated, side 2’s medley with incorporations of disparate influences and innovative techniques yet a whimsy personifies the band at its end, having broken down all of pop’s barriers yet ambitious to the end. Still, whether the proliferation of electronics, or general weariness, it perhaps lacks the energy or experimentation of prior efforts, disconnecting me from the emotion of albums past.
Let it Be, their final album, was divisive as maligned as any Beatles album. I’ve never had the nerve to listen through it, given its mixed reception to tracks like Let it Be and The Long and Winding Road drawing ambivalence, from heavy-handed strings to a deliberately sappy mood.
Are the Beatles as good as musical legend dictates? Probably not. Better or for worse, their music is still entrenched in the annals of popular culture, easily digested as disseminated for the masses. Rock music, however decried by rock purists over the drudgery and inauthenticity of the pop mainstream, is just as easily subsumed with pop music. That is, rock music is pop music. I mean, for every Led Zeppelin there’s a Mötley Crüe. And let’s not forget Motown acts like The Supremes and The Miracles, whose contributions have been largely overlooked, yet have been as influential, if not more in music and breaking down racial barriers.
The Beatles’ eminence in rock’s pantheon is unquestionable, yet rock’s status is arguable. Is the value of art music forms like classical and jazz intrinsically better than pop-who is to say that any music has any objective worth, given its aesthetic nature? You can’t go around discrediting a person’s opinion, whether they prefer Transformers over Gone with the Wind, or whether they prefer Rogue One over Empire. Someone can always appreciate art, but likewise not like or understand it, The Beatles included. Music is also dependent on set and setting. There are times when I’d rather listen to 80’s pop, and consider it better. It’s just different strokes for different folks. The honest truth is, nothing is as good as it is bad, only perception. Where they the equivalents of composers like Mozart or Schubert, or corporate puppets manufactured to appeal to Baby Boomers? – well, neither.
Initially pop starlets with matching outfits and teenage fans, they evolved into revolutionaries who blazed a trail for music. Whether other musicians were more deserved for, or for the sake of decrying the need for musical figures for a new generation, it doesn’t excuse contrarian ignorance detesting their name.
Quite simply, their music was good. And isn’t that all that matters?
Loves Friends, Mad Men and Revolver; loathes adulthood and responsibilities