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… in which I pass judgment on The Beatles.

6 November 2009

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Current Mood: happy relieved

I have now listened to all of their studio albums — most of them for the first time — in all of their 2009 remastered glory, alongside each of the period-correct singles and b-sides culled from the “Past Masters” volumes.  And I think I’m ready to rule on the matter.  (I’m sure Paul and Ringo are anxiously awaiting my opinion.)  Again, I took this on as an academic exercise to fill a glaring deficiency in my pop music education.  The Beatles are of course one of those bands that you just are supposed to know about.  And I knew something about them, but this was me really going in with both feet.  A crash course in their music, with only a limited knowledge of the stories behind it (most of which were filled in for me ad hoc by Nick and Colin).  So after two months of listening critically and strictly chronologically, each album at least twice before moving on to the next, what do I think of the music?  In a word: excellent.  By anyone’s standards, the amount of quality work they put out in a relatively short period of time is remarkable.  Unquestionably more hit than miss, and clearly a massive influence on literally thousands of bands.  Not many can claim that!  To be fair though, The Beatles weren’t as important as Elvis, and neither of them were as good as The Smiths, but I digress.  🙂

What did I like?
Most of all, and maybe most obviously, I appreciated their strong pop melodies and arrangements.  More often than not, the songs are full of memorable hooks, in fact some of the most memorable in pop history.  Interspersed in there too are many moving ballads, some of them quite famous of course.  Now, I didn’t always buy the emotion in Paul’s or John’s voice, and the lyrics didn’t always hit the same emotional depth for me that I get out of a lot of other music… but really, how often am I that moved by bubblegum music from that era?  (I mean, it happens… but it’s not usually the first place I look.)  They also had a lot of inventive stuff going on that sounds fresh even today, and I would assume they were the first ones doing some of those things.  How much of that was studio trickery (where credit might be more due to George Martin?), I’ll leave to the experts.  The record collector in me loved the big album concepts and album art in the later part of their career, and I can imagine it was a lot of fun being in that band and putting those together.  Finally, historically speaking, it was really interesting to hear the influence on other bands that is clear in these recordings.  For example, The White Album was a major part of the sound of The Smiths’ Strangeways, Here We Come.  And there are more blatant lifts, such as the “Sexy Sadie” connection with Radiohead’s “Karma Police” (pointed out to me by Colin), and stylistically as in… well all of Oasis’ music (listen to “Hey Bulldog” and tell me it doesn’t sound like an Oasis song).  I’m sure there must be websites dedicated to documenting these influences and “borrowings,” and these are just some obvious examples.  The more subtle impact of The Beatles on virtually every band that followed them must be immeasurable.

What didn’t I like?
In those first few albums, the original compositions were wonderful, but there were so many covers.  And to my ears, they were, almost without exception, dreadful.  Not least because I’m quite familiar with most of the original songs, and so The Beatles’ versions had much to live up to with me.  Some were more excruciating than others.  One exception I can think of though is “Twist And Shout” which is probably more famous than the original.  I also was turned off by their penchant for what I would call “silly” songs.  Little tunes throughout many of their albums that sound like inside jokes or just the band fucking about in the studio.  Maybe they’re just jokes I don’t get because I’m not from that place and time?  Not my thing, anyway.  And that ties in with the fair amount of filler on a few of their albums.  Not that most bands aren’t guilty of that from time to time, but for the greats (in which I assume The Beatles should be included), I expect more.  For instance, I can’t think of a single filler song that Led Zeppelin ever recorded, let alone The Smiths.  All just a matter of opinion of course.  Similar, but not exactly filler, were the occasional psychedelic songs that seemed to go on too long and just waste time.  And then in their later albums, there were a lot of songs that were trying hard to sound soulful and bluesy and were just not pulling it off.  Sorry Fab Four, blues and grit maybe not your forte.  OK, last bit of poison to spit here: almost the entire Let It Be album.  Yikes!  With the exception of a couple of good ballads and the fantastic “Across The Universe,” I think I view this as their worst album.  But in fairness, I think I get it, I guess they were falling apart at the time, not to mention recording it all in front of a television crew.  Poor guys…

Some Lists…
With the sheer volume of material we’re talking about here, any attempts to rank or list anything is going to be problematic.  But just to get something on the board here…

Top Three Albums
1) Revolver (edgy, rockin’, experimental, dark; me gusta)
2) Abbey Road (the most consistently good; apparently their real “last album”)
3) Rubber Soul (Revolver lite; similar but not as edgy)
Honorable Mention: Help! (another great one which I liked especially for its folky darkness which at times reminded me of Simon & Garfunkel)

Top Ten Songs
I was surprised at the songs that jumped out at me.  Some of them I don’t think I’d heard before.  Probably not your average hits.  Of course there are loads of good ones, too many to cover.  Presented here in no particular order.
1) I Saw Her Standing There
2) Across The Universe
3) I’m So Tired
4) Tell Me Why (bubblegum, but I love it)
5) Happiness Is A Warm Gun (proto-glam?)
6) While My Guitar Gently Weeps (epic!)
7) Helter Skelter (maybe their ballsiest number)
8) I Want You (She’s So Heavy) (not lyrically, but musically proto-Zeppelin and Jethro Tull, with some Cream)
9) Norwegian Wood
10) For No One (one of their more touching lyrics)
Honorable Mention: I’ve Just Seen A Face, Girl, Taxman, most of the medley at the end of Abbey Road, Something, Here There And Everywhere, You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, You Can’t Do That, And Your Bird Can Sing, No Reply, Julia, Come Together, Mother Nature’s Son, Revolution, Don’t Let Me Down, and yes… Yellow Submarine.

Top Three Surprise Learnings
1) Just how many songs I knew!  It was literally an endless slew of “oh yeah, they did this one too!”  Lots of childhood memories of hearing this stuff in mom’s car.
2) The breadth of styles they covered in their catalog!  Bubblegum pop to folk ballads to wall of sound torch songs to blues to country to psychedelic freakouts.  And still it always sounds like them.
3) The same old boring hits that I’ve heard a million times in my life, possibly due to the remastering job, sounded new and fresh to me.  Amazingly rich and lush production.

Open Questions
So I listened to the stereo boxed set, but what about this mono boxed set?  The completist in me has urges, particularly because I know there are significant differences like different intros, guitar solos, etc.  But I don’t like this band enough to need every version of every song.  I don’t need it.  It would be an inexcusable and irresponsible waste of money.  (This is what I’m telling myself.)  Besides, I dislike mono so much.  I so prefer stereo versions where I can hear every instrument more clearly, and where I can have the experience of being immersed and surrounded by the band, rather than a one-dimensional wall of sound blaring at me from one direction.  Stereo feels so much more alive and “real” to me.  Thoughts?

I haven’t done the analysis, but based on the songs I liked in the list above, anyone know if I’m leaning more towards Paul or John… vocally or writing-wise?

Once I bought a compilation of John Lennon’s solo work (I think at Lala’s behest).  There were some gems on there, but overall I wasn’t blown away.  On the subject of pop music education, do I need to delve into their solo work too?  I can’t think of much that Ringo has done?  George had “My Sweet Lord” and “I Got My Mind Set On You.”  Paul did a ton of stuff, right?  Off the top of my head, there was that Christmas song, the James Bond song (“Live And Let Die”), a couple collaborations with Michael Jackson, and that “Vanilla Sky” song wasn’t bad.  That was probably a sacrilegious summary of their combined post-Beatles catalog, huh?  Well… do I need to know/hear more?  Or can I skip it?

Final Word
I expect my opinion on this stuff will change some over time.  When I first heard The Smiths, I knew I liked it, but it was so different… I didn’t fully understand what I was hearing.  It took me some time to get my head around it and really fall in love with it.  I don’t anticipate the same experience here, and I don’t expect I’m ever going to be a huge Beatles fan… but maybe with more listening, I will come to appreciate them more?  50,000,000 Beatles fans can’t be wrong, right?  Anyway, it’s all been very educational.  And now I can go back to listening to other artists again.  Thank you, and goodnight.

“Half of what I say is meaning less…”

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8 Comments to “… in which I pass judgment on The Beatles.”

  1. You inspired me to listen to “I Want You” and it reminded me how much I love that song.

  2. Well, I can’t say you didn’t try, that’s for sure. One thing to remember when listening to the group, is that this was the beginning of an era. From “Bubblegum” to “Psychadelic”, we were just beginning to “trip” on music. Many of us didn’t even own a stereo, and the only “stereo” sound we got was from the local garage bands or, if we were fortunate enough, a live concert. I know this sounds very much like the “I walked ten miles to school in the snow, barefoot>>>” etc. etc.” tal <TRUNCATED>

    • I hear you… it’s probably impossible for me to appreciate their music now the same way you did when it was new and it was what was happening. Outside of that cultural context, it certainly must be colored for me in some way.

      • Yes, excellent point. I really have never listened to the Beatles with that difference in mind, and it makes perfect sense. I guess it’s like when I listen to Morrisey, I love it, but I can’t possibly experience the way that you did in the 80’s, or like it is for you now. Thanks for making that clear for me.

        I just have to adjust my view. 🙂

  3. This was the music that I was forbidden to listen to by my conservative father, therefore this was the music I craved. Funny that when The Monkees reruns started airing on MTV in the 80’s, that was family television. When I was introduced to The Beatles by my best friend, we embarrassingly argued over which songs were better: The Monkees or The Beatles. Little did I know, Neil Diamond wrote the majority of The Monkees hits. HA! Little by little, my friends & I explored to <TRUNCATED>

    • Thanks for the back story! It all makes more sense to me now. 🙂 What are your thoughts about exploring their solo work (as that question was mainly aimed at you)?

      I definitely went into this thing viewing as an educational experience because they are so significant culturally. But again, outside of that here and now context… I mean, I have just always known and taken for granted that they were culturally significant because of the time and place I happened to discover them, but <TRUNCATED>

      • I would say Lennon has the best scattering of post-Beatles songs, but like I said, they are scattered on a bunch of albums. The Lennon Legend compilation is allright, but leaves some key songs out. We had our discussion a few years ago about Lennon’s solo work, so you already know I wasn’t a big fan of the wife’s presence in those recordings. But hey, if you love John, you gotta love Yoko too. Favorite solo-Lennon tunes include “Oh My Love”, “Out of the Blue”, “Watchin’ the Wheels” and <TRUNCATED>

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