Strange New Thoughts

The place where I slam down gauntlets and pick up the pieces.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Twilight of the Four-Headed Monster

(Or, Why the Beatles Phenomenon Can Never Happen Again)

This just in: Emeli Sandé has just broken the Beatles' record for the longest stay by an album in the British Top 10. Please Please Me spent 62 weeks there; that feat was recently eclipsed by Emeli Sandé's Our Version of Events, 63 weeks and counting.

Wonderful! Congratulations. But my first question was: Emeli who? Is she the new 'next Beatles'? Dare we hope?

Short Answer: Are you kidding?

The Beatles phenomenon, from Beatlemania to Sergeant Pepper to university courses on the Fab Four, cannot be duplicated or even paralleled for the same reason that the American Revolution can't happen again. The circumstances leading up to, surrounding, creating and shaping the Beatles' musical and cultural impact on global society are gone. Extinct. History.

There's more to it than that, but assertions by my generation (the Baby Boomers) that today's music lacks creativity, originality and depth come dangerously close to claiming that the currently upcoming generation is uncreative, unintelligent, untalented and shallow. This seems to me highly improbable. I read many years ago that the fall of the Roman Empire was linked to the Romans' use of lead pipes in their plumbing, subjecting the best and brightest minds of its last few generations to lead poisoning and its attendant decline in mental competency. I have no reason to believe that recent, vapid assertions by teenage beauty contestants
(“…some people out there in our nation don't have maps…”) have any connection with ingestion of toxic waste, inbreeding, hereditary mental illness or anything else that could serve either to condemn or excuse said generation, or its forbears. Said generation has, however, been dealt a very different hand than the Beatles were dealt 50 years ago, and no matter how well they play that hand, the pile of chips can never again be as high as that raked in by John, Paul, George and Ringo.

The set of circumstances that allowed the Beatles to dominate pop culture could be likened to a once-per-millennium planetary alignment. European, African and Latin cultures had combined in the American Melting Pot to produce a wild hodgepodge of new sounds which gradually drifted back across the Atlantic, this time to a bleak seaport called Liverpool. The generation that had fought and won World War II now fought for personal peace, albeit a suburban peace of subdivisions, picket fences, station wagons, and patriotism (a well-deserved peace, by the way.) The generation born during and soon after the war knew little or nothing of the sacrifice and struggle that had defined their parents' world, and the 'generation gap' that had been widening since before the war now became a chasm, questioning, judging and rejecting traditional values.

A rare point of agreement between many of both generations was the election of President John F. Kennedy, who had himself fought in WWII, yet embodied the hope and vision of a young generation anxious to move forward. JFK barely had time to champion Civil Rights, the Space Race, the Peace Corps and other vital issues before being gunned down in Dallas in November of 1963. A nation was now bereft of its charismatic young leader, and countless hearts were empty, waiting for God-knew-what.

Rewind to the late 1950s, when John Lennon and Paul McCartney met fortuitously and pooled their talents, passions and lives for the sake of rock 'n' roll. The Beatles' story has been told and retold too many times to warrant even the briefest recap here, but I need to revisit certain key elements in order to force my point down your throat. The multicultural musical gumbo that American sailors brought to England on precious phonograph records was now being listened to and learned from by kids whose earliest listening experiences were largely European, particularly in the British music hall tradition. As Lennon and McCartney tried their hand at writing their own songs, the trans-Atlantic cross-pollination of musical styles was inevitable. While America coped with the Cold War and early rumblings of Vietnam, The Beatles, by now honed razor-keen by lengthy stints as a cabaret band in Hamburg, Germany as well as Liverpool, were taking England by storm with their unusual image (yes, their hair was actually considered long in 1963,) electrifying music, and an interpersonal chemistry that made them greater than the sum of their parts.

In January of 1964, into the emotional void left by the JFK assassination, a strange new song called “I Want To Hold Your Hand” became a hit in the U.S., paving the way for the Beatles' first visit to America. Their appearance on 'The Ed Sullivan Show' was like nothing we'd seen before. A rock and roll group (it wasn't yet 'rock' music) with its own collective personality? Before, you'd had 'Bill Haley and the Comets', 'Buddy Holly and the Crickets', 'Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons'. But now - a drummer with a name and a personality? Ringo? As if the 'long' hair weren't enough, the songs themselves could polarize any mixed gathering of young and old (“Yeah, yeah, yeah” arguing for banality; the eight or so chords in 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' or 'All My Loving' raising the bar for baffled garage bands everywhere).

Perhaps any major fad or fashion could have swept America in the void left after the Kennedy assassination, but the Beatles were too appealing, too controversial and too otherworldly to have been a mere fad. Their early hits, although sometimes displaying more sophistication than most standard three-chord rock songs had shown up until then, barely hinted at the groundbreaking creativity that would soon have critics and public alike grasping for words to describe it. Their first film, A Hard Day's Night, proved that they could act as well as sing and play. Lennon's first book, In His Own Write, extended the Beatles' reach to the literary realm. Lennon and McCartney's collective songwriting prowess inspired such aspiring writers as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards to try their hand, with far-reaching results.

Few aspects of the Beatles have been as hotly debated as their musicianship. Part of the problem stems from so many people's confusion of being 'good' with being 'great'. To call the Beatles 'the Greatest Rock Band Ever' immediately raises the hackles of those who rightly point out the nascent virtuosity of their peers – Cream, The Jimi Hendrix Experience, The Who, The Yardbirds, and the next wave of British rockers like Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. The Beatles never aspired to be able to play circles around guys like Eric Clapton or Ginger Baker; they simply wanted to express themselves and create good art. I side with those who assert that the Beatles' secret weapon was their chemistry - the inexplicable interaction between them that caused them to spur one another on, to compete with each other and champion one another at the same time.

As a professional musician and music teacher, I know firsthand exactly what the Beatles had going for them as instrumentalists. John Lennon is possibly the most underrated rock guitarist ever (try duplicating his blazing intro to 'Revolution' or his lilting jazz solo on 'Honey Pie', and report back here.) Paul McCartney took the humble electric bass to dizzying heights of creativity, tone and taste (I could eat his work on 'With A Little Help From My Friends' for lunch), while his occasional forays into six-string territory produced such landmark tracks as the acoustic rite of passage, 'Blackbird', and his snarling east-meets-west solo on George Harrison's 'Taxman'. George himself rose through the ranks, going from minimal competence (his barely-passable intro to 'Roll Over Beethoven') to delightful creativity (his tangled descending runs on 'Help!') to indispensable (his timeless contributions to 'Strawberry Fields Forever'). His forays into Indian classical music infused his guitar playing with sitar-hardened discipline – witness the exquisite solo on his Abbey Road masterpiece 'Something', and the flawless microtonality of his slide guitar work thereafter.

Ringo gets his own paragraph (sorry, taller Beatles.) He holds the distinction of being almost certainly the most underrated and overrated drummer of all time. He deserves it, too. A southpaw, forced as a child to write with his right hand, Ringo brought a secret weapon to the table, one generally reserved for highly trained percussionists: A recessive hand that could keep up with his dominant left. Thus his two-handed unison fills that created the sonic illusion of two drummers playing the same thing on two different drums. (The “so-in-love-with-you” climax of “Tell Me Why”, as seen in the film A Hard Day's Night, is a perfect example of this difficult technique, effortlessly executed by this self-taught inspiration to thousands of young drummers.) Others have written at length about Ringo's musical importance and vast influence, so I turn reluctantly from an in-depth analysis of same to the incidental fact, alluded to above, of Ringo's instantly identifiable persona – for many early Beatles observers, he was the only member they could pick out at once. (I myself couldn't tell the other three apart at first, even in the cartoons.) The once-humble drummer was now a star, an equal partner, receiving the most fan mail of the Four, and paving the way for the Phil Collinses, the Dave Grohls and the Don Henleys who would silence those who long considered drummers to be somehow less than musicians.

This dynamic, combined with the Beatles' unequalled impact on music and culture, led many to assume that the drummer of in the Greatest Band of All Time must therefore be the Greatest Rock Drummer of All Time. John Lennon, in response to this assumption, allegedly alluded to Paul's considerable drumming prowess with the quip, “He wasn't even the best drummer in the Beatles!(Note: This quote has since been debunked. Ed.) Still, greatness trumps mere virtuosity, and Ringo's status as Most Influential Drummer Ever is rivaled only by his friend and colleague, Led Zeppelin's John Bonham.

The Beatles, more than anybody before or since, raise a chicken-or-the-egg question: Did they shape culture, or merely reflect it? The Sixties, that turbulent decade of war, protests, innovation, discovery, creativity, social and cultural upheaval, ad infinitum, surely would have happened anyway. It could be argued that the Fab Four were both agent and patient, standard bearers of both their own revolutionary brand of creativity, and that of their contemporaries. The Beatles did in fact frequently pay homage not only to their early rock 'n' roll influences (Elvis, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, etc.) but also to their peers and rivals. The Beach Boys, Jimi Hendrix, The Who, Bob Dylan, and even Fleetwood Mac provided inspiration for stylistic experimentation as the Beatles themselves turned influence into originality.

The world in which record labels would invest in new artists, allowing them to develop over the course of several albums, is gone. So are the days of the album cover, that square foot of cardboard that allowed artists to boldly express themselves in a way that the measly CD insert or mp3 artwork can never hope to equal. Boy bands rocket to stardom, then plummet to punchline status in the same amount of time it took the Beatles to discover, then abandon the electric 12-string guitar. Not even Michael Jackson's stunning rise and fall could ever equal the Beatles' status as game-changers whose influence will forever extend far beyond mere music (as though music could ever be thus trivialized.)

So, the Grand Funk Railroads and Spice Girls and Emeli Sandés of this world will forever be hyped as “outselling the Beatles”, “more popular than the Beatles”, “staying on the charts longer than the Beatles”, and “having more #1 hits than the Beatles” (remember the remix of Elvis' “A Little Less Conversation”? Me either.) The Four Headed Monster (as Mick Jagger dubbed them) continues to roar from the highest mountaintop, challenging all comers. And eating them for lunch.