Why the Beatles Still Deserve our Attention
On 24th December last year, the Beatles released their back catalogue onto several major streaming platforms; they now sit in the 50 most listened-to artists on Spotify. Although they’re by no means threatening to challenge Justin Bieber’s hegemony over the charts, that’s an impressive figure for a band dating back over 50 years. Few would disagree that they were immensely successful and influential, but I also know that several of my peers don’t really take an interest in their music. If anything, I think the Beatles have been too successful for us to be able to listen to them, without prejudices, as just a band.
I can understand why people dismiss the Beatles. Just look at them. The identikit suits, the nauseatingly wholesome image, the haircuts. Let’s be honest, they could well be your granny’s favourite band – although if that’s what you’re after, I salute you (and your granny). Think too of Paul McCartney being wheeled out at any public occasion that’ll take him, like the unwanted straggler in a box of After Eights. Most irritatingly, there’s the massive hype originating from aged loyalists, which may offer a chilling insight into the future of One Direction fans.
Here’s another problem: if you were asked to name a few of their most famous songs, chances are ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Hey Jude’ would feature. A band who just wrote songs like that would be a schmaltzy novelty act who played exclusively at birthday parties for sentimental 50-year-olds and their unfortunate offspring. I don’t think those two songs are ‘bad’, but an album’s worth of that kind of four-square mid-tempo balladeering could get tiresome.
The thing is, that novelty act is nothing like what the Beatles were, and they have a lot more to offer than late-McCartney cheese or even confoundingly cheery 60s pop. I’ll try to explain why I think this perhaps overrated band are still worth listening to.
Most importantly, the Beatles were innovators, who used their popularity to explore new ideas to incredible effect. There were early signs on A Hard Day’s Night (1964), notably in the radical, gorgeous harmonies of ‘If I Fell’ and the peculiar opening chord of the title track, which inspired dozens of guesses as to its identity. Rubber Soul (1965) saw the ground-breaking introduction of the sitar, along with a departure from the ‘I love you, yeah yeah yeah’ lyrics they’d built their success on. Then Revolver (1966) really ushered in the weirdness, for example in the chamber music setting of ‘Eleanor Rigby’, the Motown paean to drug use ‘Got To Get You Into My Life’, and the psychedelic drone and seagull noises of ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. Not to mention the psychological odyssey ‘Yellow Submarine’.
Fuelled by John Lennon’s spiritual and political interests, Paul McCartney’s knack for melody, George Harrison’s fascination with Indian music, and maybe even Ringo Starr as well, the Beatles ended up as a band who could work in just about any style they wanted, and invent a few while they were at it: ‘Helter Skelter’ from The Beatles (1968) has often been cited as a forebear of heavy metal, and modern psych-pop acts such as Tame Impala owe a lot to songs like ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’.
All this means that the Beatles have probably written at least one song you like, and indeed at least one song you don’t like. The Beatles, usually referred to as ‘the White Album’, summarises this overflow of ideas and arguably the group’s whole career. It’s a mighty sprawl of thirty songs, comprising amongst others the universally derided ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’, Lennon’s moving tribute to his dead mother ‘Julia’, the complex and brilliant ‘Happiness Is a Warm Gun’, and a lengthy soundscape entitled ‘Revolution 9’. There’s also a brief number called ‘Why Don’t We Do It In The Road?’, just to assuage any fears they might be a safe option for all the family.
Throughout all these changes, the main constant was their gift for songwriting. Their music was good because of what was written into it, not so much because of how they performed it – which goes some way to explaining the number of Beatles covers out there – although at least three of them were very good instrumentalists too, and they could all express a lot through their singing. The Beatles’s best tunes are instantly memorable and seem somehow inseparable from the lyrics. Those lyrics, too, could be anything from tender to boisterous to utterly nonsensical, but always have a sense of confidence; they know what they want to say (if anything) and how to say it. ‘In My Life’ must be one of the finest examples of this coordination between words and sound; with a beautifully simple melody, Lennon weighs someone against his most treasured memories and places, concluding “In my life, I love you more”.
The Beatles have plenty going for them, then, but it can be hard to see past the surrounding culture of pedestalisation. So think of this as a sales pitch. The Beatles don’t have to be the best to be good; being overrated doesn’t mean they’re not worth your time. If you try listening to a couple of their albums without judging them on the criterion of being The Greatest Albums Ever, I hope you’ll find that, when it comes down to it, the Beatles were just a band that made some really good music. And you can’t ask for much more than that.