Friday, November 09, 2012

The Beatles Thing

"But the Beatles thing is over," Paul McCartney declared in a Life Magazine interview 44 years ago this week. While it was not the official notice of the end, careful readers would have taken note of the finality of his statement and been seriously concerned. And it was true - privately the Fab Four had already determined that they would no longer continue as a group. But the Beatle thing is never really over, is it? Here's some thoughts on why that might be.

I can understand how easy it is to take The Beatles for granted. After all, my mom used to wake me up with a 45 of I Want To Hold Your Hand, which puts them very nearly at the earliest point of my nurture - close enough that I now consider them part of my nature.

Perhaps they are so extraordinary that's it's easier to see them as part of the furniture, so to speak, than to try to grapple with what they really achieved. "The blues is a chair," John Lennon said, so he knew something about music as furniture, but unlike the blues, the universe of The Beatles was essentially created by four very young men who followed their (both creative and commercial) muses never suspecting - at least not until the end - that they were essentially creating a one-band genre.

A defining feature of that genre is that anything went - add a string quartet, put the tape on backward, strip it back to naked human anguish, get silly, sing in French, make a collage, base your lyrics on a poster or a box of chocolates or the Tibetan book of the dead, get angry, write songs, get folky, sing other people's songs, etc. That's why I always say you can use the Fab Four to get exposed to nearly everything music can do. Listening to their music can be the start of a love affair with music, one that the listener can pursue down countless avenues. "I like the way that song makes me feel - where else can I find that?"

This far along from their demise, people are still trying to parse The Beatles, to see where they fit alongside other musicians and separate the strands of what made them work. "How good were The Beatles as lyricists?" or "Where does George Harrison rank as a guitarist?" are typical starting points for articles or blog posts. In the first example, if you examine the lyrics in the cold light of the dissection table, you might find some of them wanting. Not as deep as Dylan, or as clever as The Kinks or The Who, or as dark as The Doors or The Rolling Stones - to name only some of their contemporaries. As for the second example, while his style is quite distinctive and his technique excellent, I wouldn't put George in my top five guitarists.

But the point is, they can't really be parsed. It was the hydra-headed foursome of them that made it all work and the unified quality of their output that astonishes. There is much we know now about the interpersonal difficulties they had, but that just makes it all the more remarkable. More than any other band, it is impossible to imagine The Beatles doing what they did with anybody other than John, Paul, George and Ringo. The dream of human unity - always just out of reach - is exemplified by their remarkable music. Even photographs of the four of them are inspiring.

"Not liking The Beatles is like not liking the sun," someone once wrote in Rolling Stone. While I believe that it takes all kinds to make a world, part of me agrees with that statement and maintains a mild suspicion of those who say flat out "I don't like The Beatles." Then again, being jaded by them might be worse, so dust off that musical furniture and try to listen to The Beatles as if you've never heard them before.

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