Tue. November 20
Why The Beatles Still Reign over Justin Bieber, Pink, and Beyonce
Today’s pop stars aren’t weird enough.
That’s the conclusion I came to after listening to the magnificent new Beatles’ vinyl boxed set, a gorgeous doorstopper that includes every album the Fab Four made. I started with Please Please Me and didn’t stop until Abbey Road. I also thoroughly enjoyed the handsome hardback book that comes with the set.
Listening to The Beatles soup to nuts, I was struck with an unusual thought: what a weird band. “A Hard Day’s Night.” “Eleanor Rigby.” “Dear Prudence.” “Glass Onion.” “I Am the Walrus.” “Hey Bulldog.” These are great songs, yes. But they are also strange songs. And it was the avant-garde strangeness and that made the Beatles truly revolutionary.
Of course, to get to that place of creating groundbreaking art, The Beatles had to master rock and roll. And that required the kind of toil and persistence that is not as common these days, in the era of GarageBand and laptop studios. These modern tools are great in that they democratize music creation, but they also make people lazy and encourage hacks. “When I joined The Beatles we didn’t really know each other,” Ringo Starr once said, “but the four of us had virtually the same records.” Those records were mostly by American rock and roll and blues musicians: Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Elvis, BB King, Little Willie John. And John, Paul, George, and Ringo had to offer blood, toil, tears, and sweat to learn how to play that music. Everyone sees the clips of the armies of girls screaming at The Beatles and the obvious joy the band felt at playing music. Just once I’d like to see a film or documentary that showed the slow, bloody (for your fingers) apprenticeship that the band went through to gain worldwide acclaim. Because the sweat is a crucial element to creativity. Paul McCartney had to master his guitar before “Yesterday” could come so easily in a dream.
One of the reasons that I love rock and roll is that, when it’s at it’s best, it exemplifies St. Augustine’s observation about God being ever ancient and ever new. When you hear a great pop song for the first time there is a sensation of both familiarity and innovation; you feel like you’ve discovered something wonderful and timeless that has always existed that at the same time is fresh and mysterious. Contemporary pop music is good at the evoking the first feeling, but not the second. Justin Bieber, Beyonce, Pink–these are all talented artists, but when you buy one of their albums, you know exactly what you are going to get. In fact, things have devolved to the point where there is a terrible sameness to the music. I’m willing to bet that I can predict what will be on Pink’s next album. It will be some high-adrenaline guys-suck pop-rock, with a couple ballads tossed in. That will also be the next Kelly Clarkson album. Justin Bieber will be bringin’ the sugary dance floor beats and the baby-baby-baby goo, and Beyonce will be hollering about independent women. And so on.
Listening to The Beatles’ catalogue–and on delicious vinyl–it’s startling how the trajectory of their career was the exact opposite of today’s rock stars. Today’s bands usually begin weird and adventurous and grow bland and mainstream over time (a great exception is Radiohead). The Beatles did the exact opposite. They started doing American R & B covers, and ended with “Revolution 9.” It’s fascinating to see the change taking place over the course of their career. The last three songs on the album Help are “I’ve Just Seen a Face,” “Yesterday,” and “Dizzy Miss Lizzy.” Most of today’s bands couldn’t muster that much diversity over ten years.
One last historical note. The Beatles’ first gig in America was in February 1964 at the Washington Coliseum in my hometown of D.C. I made a short film of the new vinyl boxed set, and part of it was shot at the coliseum, which is now a parking lot. It’s the big cavernous space that’s in a couple shots behind my friend Brooke, who served as a model.
Oh, and the “One-Two-Three-FAAHHH” count-off of “I Saw Her Standing There” is, and always will be, the greatest in rock and roll history.