Why The Beatles are underrated
In the course of our forty-year love affair with The Beatles, something was lost. Their craft became obscured by their artistry, their artistry disappeared into their significance and their significance was eventually folded inside their legend. The result is that they are underrated for the work they did and overrated, if anything, for what it all meant.
Louis Menand's Iron Law Of Stardom holds that no show business career can be sustained longer than three years. After that time creativity is exhausted and public affection begins to flag. He defends his theory against Beatles exceptionalists by pointing out that they actually had a six-year career divided into two; three years as cheery moptops immediately followed by three years as psychedelic adventurers.
It's the second period that tends to impress us now. That's the one focused on by critics in the rock monthlies or people of Noel Gallagher's generation. It's not a complete surprise. There's a perceptible stylistic link between the White Album and, say, Paul Weller. A few years ago an Oasis-loving friend of mine decided to buy a Beatles record to see what the fuss was about. He bought *Let It Be*and was disappointed. He admitted later that he'd actually bought that one because the cover showed them looking most like his idea of a modern rock band. Like my friend, a lot of people are only comfortable with the idea of the Beatles when they appear to be serious, edgy, hip and of today.
While that second three-year career is not without its delights the first period was actually when their collective genius was operating at full tilt. To fully appreciate it from the vantage point of 2009 we have to shrug off our infatuation with fashionable gloom and shed the illusion that true artists are all complex and impenetrable. We must accept the fact that the greatest pop group of them all didn't consider it beneath them to make their records for 14 year old girls. When they made their classic records the false opposition between rock and pop hadn't yet been invented. This wall between the two has been the refuge of scoundrels and snobs ever since. To appreciate why we still underrate The Beatles you have to shrug off that prejudice and travel back to 1963 when they were far from a done deal.
There were things the Beatles did first. They took the previously separate skills of songwriting, arrangement, A&R, backing instruments and production and conflated them into the one skill; creating great records. Nobody had done that before.
The records were often better than the songs deserved. The Beatles weren't great songwriters like Cole Porter was a great songwriter. Many of their lyrics are banal in the extreme. They were only interested in writing the songs insofar as songs were a vital ingredient of great records.
They combined the qualities of a good vocal group with the skills of a capable instrumental group. The fusing of two previously separate competences created a new musical shorthand and explains why they sometimes seemed to be putting more into the record than there was room for.
When their chance came they were ready. As Malcolm Gladwell pointed out in his book *Outliers* they had 10,000 hours of live experience behind them before they saw the inside of a recording studio.
They were the epitome of a group. Groupness is not about having the people best qualified to discharge a certain role in a group. It resides in how well those people make up *that* group. Lennon's jibe about Ringo not even being the best drummer in The Beatles was off the point. Even if Ringo was not the best drummer in the Beatles he was certainly the best drummer *for* the Beatles.
Then there was Lennon and McCartney; two lost boys who somehow transformed their antipathy into a creative dividend. Unlike most partnerships where creative tension is allegedly at work they managed to avoid discouraging each other. While clearly capable of loathing from time to time, it was the contributions each made to the other's ideas that struck the sparks. At their best they were like magnets in balance, holding the iron filings of the Beatles' music in perfect suspension.
Then there's the stylistic stuff. They were clever without being educated, which is often a handicap for a pop musician. They were from the English provinces in an age when that appeared to be a barrier you could never surmount without a *Pygmalion* transformation. In his 1964 book *Love Me Do* Michael Braun even suggested that to the media and the London-based Establishment they were actually a new kind of people.
None of this accounts for the fact that forty years later I'm writing this. There's something else; above, beyond and beneath all this ballyhoo. At the heart of the Beatles saga is the key ingredient of popular music success, the element that people spill bitter sweat to achieve, rarely credit when it's present nor fully note when it's absent and certainly never give enough weight in critical histories. It accounts for the waxing and waning of every career in popular music. It is, as far as pop musicians are concerned, the spark of life at the end of God's outstretched finger, without which all their greatest efforts are as naught. It is the simple but devilishly elusive quality we can only apologise for calling catchiness.
Traditionally, catchiness is a measure of how memorable a tune is, particularly the first time upon the ear. When it comes to making records rather than songs, this is an inadequate definition. Lennon and McCartney could noodle their way to a good tune. But they wouldn't stop there. Some combination of restlessness or fear would make them come up with another tune, hook or melodic idea complementary to the original one, something that they could build into their song. Their records are strewn with details that anyone else would have been happy to base a complete record on. The coda of *Hello Goodbye* is one such. The prequel to *Here There And Everywhere* points to another ballad altogether. Their early albums are full of wonderful songs they never put out as singles because they didn't think they were quite number one material. It's been said before but it bears regular repetition; *Penny Lane*/*Strawberry Fields Forever*, which is on many people's lists of the best single ever, was left off *Sgt Pepper*, which is on many people's lists of the best album ever, because they had more good tunes than they knew what to do with.
The richness of their golden period has never been equalled. I can remember hearing the first radio play of *We Can Work It Out*/*Day Tripper* in the winter of 1965. Many acts can devise a tune that's catchy. What really hooks the listener is the promise of layers of catchiness to come. I knew there was enough on the glistening surface of *We Can Work It Out* to be going on with but I was also aware of something in that deliberately ungainly middle section that would tug away at me for a longer time. Because they had such flair for arrangement, such ears for a telling junction, their records were full of neat, thrilling transitions that became hooks in themselves. The listener would ricochet from one hook to another like a metal ball in one of Mr Bally's machines.
I had the same feeling in the summer of 1967 when Kenny Everett first played *Sgt Pepper* on the radio. There was more than enough in *Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds* to enchant on first hearing but there was also a promise that the enchantment wasn't going to wear itself out easily. Nothing in pop music is more powerful than a thrill containing the promise of further thrills. Between *All My Loving* and *Penny Lane* the Beatles made at least twenty records that managed that rare trick. In doing so they redefined catchiness.
This serial approach to catchiness provided its own unique rush of joy. All their mid-60s chart toppers gathered intensity as they went along. Even when the song was supposed to be the heartfelt plea of a broken down man, as in *Help!*, they delivered it with bracing glee. Even when they started leafing through the Tibetan Book of the Dead in 1966 they were still taking *Tomorrow Never Knows* at a rare clip. They never idled away their efforts on long instrumental intros. There was no foreplay. Listen to *All My Loving*, *Penny Lane*, *Eight Days A Week* or *No Reply*. *Help!* begins like a leap from a high cliff which then goes into a steep climb. They started in the middle and finished soon afterwards. They began every number as if the shepherd's crook of time was about to hoik them off the stage and deposit them back at the dole office in Liverpool.
While writing this I got my record deck out and played their original 45s and mono LPs. The whole house was energised by the sound, teenagers and all. This is music aimed at simply making people happy. Sadly, for rock critics, it's not complicated. In the early cover versions the headlong dash to delirium was signalled by the yowl of joy announcing every guitar break. In the later days it was achieved by more sophisticated means, such as the climbing middle eight in *No Reply*. All their middle eights, such as Lennon's "when I was a boy" in *She Said She Said* or Paul's "me I'm just the lucky kind" in *Things We Said Today*, offer renewed injections of the quality they managed to exude naturally or synthesise so well you couldn't tell the difference; optimism. Cheer was what pop music was traditionally supposed to offer, just as the movies today are meant to provide a thrill ride. I recall a radio jingle that used to describe "the happy sound of Radio One". They wouldn't be able to say that today even with a thicket of inverted commas. Happiness makes people uneasy nowadays.
The Beatles were war babies, born into times a good deal harder than ours, even right now. The music their parents danced to was intended to make them forget their daily troubles, whether that meant the food they didn't have or the bombers overhead. The music the Beatles played as young men was about providing ecstasy in three minute hits. But it was still accepted that daily life was dull and full of care. As standards of living have inexorably risen and peace has continued in the forty years since they broke up, as the undemanding excitement of the 60s and 70s has given way to the anxious torpor of our connected society, it's probably inevitable that we've become more blasť. Because we never grow out of pop music we have to somehow invest it with adult qualities in order to justify it to our adult selves. Nobody uses the word "happy" in connection with pop nowadays unless it's to sneer.