The Beatles! Indisputably the best-loved and best-known rock band of all time! And equally indisputably among the most overrated!
For indeed, how could they be the one without the other? No matter how talented each of the members were (and they were), no matter how hard-working (and they were), no matter how innovative (and they were), no matter how influential (and they were), how could any group of popular singer-songwriter-instrumentalists possibly rise, in anything like objective terms, to the unparalleled level of cultural dominance enjoyed by the Fab Four? The planet is home to a lot of musicians. Hundreds of thousands of bands, you have to concede, must have been as talented, or as hard-working, or as innovative at the Beatles, and it would be silly to deny that there must be, or have been, at least several hundred that could meet the Beatles, so to speak, on all three scores.
As for influence, well, influence is a tricky bugger, innit? The Beatles would have to be on any rational person's short list for Most Influential Band. To acknowledge this is, however, is to stop well short of an implicit (and often explicit) assumption in our folklore of music history: the Beatles came along, and everything changed.
Well, no it didn't. Early Beatles music sounds much like popular music of the day, and it only takes a quick listen to their huge hit "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- a decidedly mild, pleasant, midtempo piece of fluff -- and I think you'll understand that there was something going on with those screaming, swooning, freaked out 1963 teenyboppers that had nothing to do with revolutionary new directions in music. As the decade went on, of course, the Beatles would eventually move on to help break new musical terrain, and were often at or near the forefront of new musical directions. But then all of popular culture was on the move in the 1960s, and -- critical point, here -- the technology of recorded sound was going through the most rapid stage of its evolution. (Don't get all excited about digital technology, either; you can manipulate sound faster and more efficiently with digital tech, but the technology to process noises at a level relevant to human hearing was for all intents and purposes perfected during the short tenure of the Beatles.)
So sure, the Beatles influenced other musicians. But then, the Beatles were deeply influenced themselves, by their own musical mileau and by the technologies available to them. They were, arguably, among the most influencED band of all time. So it is interesting to imagine an experimental control Earth, where everything is exactly the same except that George, Paul, Ringo, and John never meet. How would the history of music be altered? No way of telling, of course, although obviously there would be a lot of specific very well-known songs that never got written. But in terms of the overall sounds and song forms, the history of popular musicology? I would have to think that, if the Beatles had never been, music today would sound pretty much just like it does today. The Beatles, I believe -- pointlessly, since it is a belief equally immune to attack or proof -- are far less important as a transformational force in musical culture, or even as creators of a very popular body of musical work, than as a symbol, a little bit of synecdoche that helped and helps people make sense of a period of rapid changes, musically and culturally, in the 1960s.
Scope of Work
Which brings us, in a roundabout sort of way, to our project. I have assembled recordings of the thirteen (13) Beatles albums that no less an authority than the Wiki describes as their core canon. And I am going to listen to them, and talk about them. Will I be underwhelmed? Will I be blown away? We'll find out! Your job, meanwhile, will be to skim what I write and then send links to all your friends, so that they will go to my posts and my "clicks" numbers will go up, and that will make me feel all validated and like this little hobby of mine, keeping a blog, isn't just so much time hurled down the toilet. But I digress.
Before we can proceed, I must first indicate my preconceptions of the albums, so that I can either shake my head at my own naivete later, or so I can feel smug about how I really knew what I was talking about all along. So:
1. Please Please Me
2. With the Beatles
Two albums of competent but unremarkable popular music of the early 1960s, with several songs that are extremely well known, and therefore immediately accessible, by virtue of having been recorded by the Beatles.
3. A Hard Day's Night
Includes music from the odd film of the same name. Still fairly pop in tone, but with some impressive glimmers of complexity and sensitivity.
4. Beatles for Sale
I have no idea what's on this album.
This is the one where you begin to get a little bit of an edge. Also -- I'm vague on this -- this is about where the lads stopped pretending they were recreating American blues music; contrary to Whig rock history, the next three decades of popular music will be dominated by the influence of British folksong.
6. Rubber Soul
Who can keep these two straight? These are something like the alternative rock Beatles albums, if memory serves, and I vaguely expect to like them the best.
8. Sgt. Peppers
The title track sure is weird. Seriously, if it wasn't so familiar, you'd never expect that it could ever possibly become popular. I don't really know what to expect from rest of the album.
9. Magical Mystery Tour
Ah, Magical Mystery Tour. When I was a very little boy, I had very little record player with the Sword in the Stone soundtrack, the Jungle Book soundtrack, John Denver's Greatest Hits, and the Magical Mystery Tour album. I could have done much worse. MMT, by dint of that familiarity, is my starting-point favorite Beatles album, despite that it is only really one side* of music and with that one side including "Blue Jay Way."
*If you are too young to know what a "side" of music is, I simply can not believe you are reading this blog.
10. The White Album
"While My Guitar Gently Weeps," if memory serves, plus 3 4/5 sides of filler. Includes "Rocky Raccoon," very possibly the worst song ever to have become, by dint of sheer familiarity, beloved.
11. Yellow Submarine
The title track sure is weird. Seriously, if it wasn't so familiar, you'd never expect that it could ever possibly become popular. I don't really know what to expect from the album.
12. Abbey Road
The one where they're crossing the road and don't really like each other anymore. I forget what's on it, but I suspect it's one of the strongest. I think it's the one with the medley of all the very short songs at the end. Like "The End."
13. Let It Be
The one where they loathe each other and can't wait to quit being the Beatles, and largely a product of post-production. I dunno. I've always kind of LIKED "The Long and Winding Road," but then I'm just a big mush at heart. I don't expect it to be great.
And there we have it! The journey begins!