This semester, I have a cultural studies class called 50 Years of The Beatles. So I read all three books for the class. You get to read the reviews.
Steven D. Stark
The first book is a straight-forward history of the band in terms of their cultural impact. Stark goes from The Beatles first days as the Quarry Men where they were very much like The Monkees who poked gentle fun at them later. They weren’t very good and often lacked a drummer. But when Paul McCartney and John Lennon formed a partnership, something sparked, solidified by the addition of George Harrison. Their biggest problem was keeping a drummer. They often performed without one, and it would be 1960 before Pete Best and the future Ringo Starr (who started out covering for Best occasionally) would provide stability behind the kit (and, more importantly, the kit itself). Best and Stuart Sutcliffe are often remembered as The Beatles who lost out. While Best was ousted (mainly through the prodding of George Martin and Brian Epstein), Sutcliffe lost interest, drawn more to art. However, their role is almost as important in finishing The Beatles as the arrival of Ringo. (Best, it should be noted, was the only former Beatle to attend road manager and Apple CEO Neil Aspinall’s funeral, the others represented by children, one ex, and Yoko Ono to prevent the service from becoming a circus.)
Stark then proceeds to elaborate how The Beatles phenomenon caused a cultural shockwave. They were the first somewhat androgynous rock stars, well-dressed and rather asexual compared to the raging machismo of Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis, and, to a lesser extent, Buddy Holly. Their encounter with Bob Dylan led to chemical and lyrical experimentation that only enhanced their popularity, which in turn made them trailblazers in the counter-culture.
On the downside, Stark is rather uncharitable to The Beatles’ efforts after their breakup, is dismissive of Abbey Road, and has a bit of a bias against Paul McCartney in his role in the band’s end. Everyone puts the blame at least one of The Beatles, except maybe Ringo. He also ignores the closeness that remained after the breakup. John and Paul made several attempts to bury the hatchet, potshots in the press aside, and George Harrison was extremely distraught over Lennon’s murder.
But where Stark shines is showing where The Beatles came from and why they were who they were. John, Paul, Ringo, and, Stark adds, Pete Best were all from homes where one parent had died or abandoned them. George came from a hard-working blue collar family who saw his efforts with The Beatles as an extension of their Liverpool roots. Moreover, the importance of Stuart Sutcliffe’s presence, particularly his influence on John Lennon long after his death in 1961, becomes crystal clear.
Edited by June Skinner Sawyers
Read the Beatles is a different kind of history of the group. Editor Sawyers collects 52 essays from all corners, kicked off with a foreword by Astrid Kirchherr, the band’s ardent supporter in their Hamburg days and girlfriend of original bassist Stuart Sutcliffe. The essays range from speculation (“The Afternoon Hours” by Jim O’Donnell, a fictionalized account of John and Paul’s first meeting) to eyewitness account (Jim Kirkpatrick’s piece on George Harrison’s first ever radio appearance in America) to fanboyish (Christopher Porterfield’s Time Magazine essay practically drooling over the band’s output and position in culture.)
It’s the interviews that give the best account of The Beatles. Gloria Steinem conveys a sense of confusion after meeting the human whirlwind that was the pre-Yoko John Lennon.More poignant is Lennon’s last interview, give only 48 hours before his death. Perhaps more poignant was the inclusion of a poem by Paul McCartney where he is barely able to convey his grief over the loss of his former partner.
There is, however, an annoying tendency by the critics in this collection to dismiss the Beatles’ solo efforts as lacking or pale shadows. Also, one essayist seems miffed that Abbey Road is as beloved as it is. Despite firsthand accounts by three of The Beatles (Ringo is criminally underserved here.) stating that the breakup was almost inevitable after Sgt. Pepper, many of the writers are very much guilty of asking the same question Robert Plant summed up about Led Zeppelin later. “Where’s my ‘Whole Lotta Love, Parts 2, 3, and 4?” They seem to want Sgt. Pepper, Volumes II, III, & IV. Even if they had stayed together, a 1970’s Beatles would have sounded vastly different from even Abbey Road. (Ironically, the most Beatlesque former member these days is Pete Best, whose output sounds like a fresh take on Beatle co-conspirator Jeff Lynne.)
What really sells the collection, though, is the final essay by music writer Toure. Toure writes about discovering The Beatles as a kid, which seemed odd to him as he is black. But while the racial angle provides a unique perspective on The Beatles, Toure came to the group the same way I did, becoming aware of them after they broke up. The only Beatles tune I remember when it was current was “Something,” which may explain my fondness for Abbey Road. But Toure compares those who grew up watching The Beatles grow into an institution to his early adulthood and Michael Jackson’s rise and fall. Jackson appeared during my high school years and was the closest thing to an Elvis or a Beatles my or Toure’s generations knew.
This last book could a literary version of Sound City, only instead of a bunch of bands trying to get the sounds of their amps onto vinyl, The Beatles attempt what was never attempted before: Putting sounds that can’t be made onto vinyl. Whereas the former derides digital recording as a cheap way to cover the shortcomings of less talented musicians, the latter shows what happens when the studio becomes an instrument. Granted, much of what was accomplished on Revolver could be done in a couple of hours now using Pro Tools, the sounds on that album came about from trial and error. It’s rather telling that Paul McCartney is in Sound City, because much of his approach to creating “Cut Me Some Slack” with the remnants of Nirvana date all the way back to the experiments he did with Lennon, Harrison, and Starr.
Rodriguez also posits that Revolver, not Sgt. Pepper’s, is The Beatles artistic peak. In the first third of the book, he describes the back and forth with other bands that drove the Fab Four to higher and higher creative efforts. There were creative rivalries with the Beach Boys (Brian Wilson was insanely jealous of Paul McCartney), the Rolling Stones (who, despite their friendship with The Beatles, annoyed John Lennon to no end), and The Byrds. They also had a collective man crush on Bob Dylan.
The last third deconstructs Sgt. Pepper’s, which Rodriguez ultimately finds wanting, with the exception of the brilliant “A Day in the Life.” In between, Revolver is a music nerd’s delight, discussing such arcane things as varispeed and ADT. While the book does give insight to the band’s inner workings and politics, it dispels several myths about how the band got along in the mid-1960’s. George Harrison truly came into his own on this album, not only contributing three songs, but providing some of the glue that holds the album together. Also,the importance of Ringo Starr’s presence in the studio is brought into clear focus here. Starr was not the typical rock drummer, who are generally seen as light-headed, unpredictable, and otherwise there for rhythm. Not only were Ringo’s instincts on the drums crucial to nailing the right sound, but he also provided snippets of lyrics and melody that brought many of the songs together.
The Beatles made their final live appearance on the roof of Apple Records, a concert made famous in the film Let It Be. Here now is a clip from that concert…
OK, that’s not “Get Back.” Here’s the real clip, after the jump.
When most people think of The Beatles’ most influential album, they usually think of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. If you listen to what came before, you can see why. It took The Beatles’ own Revolver and Rubber Soul, along with the Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds, and turned it up to 11.
But let’s be honest. Sgt. Pepper’s sounds dated. There are songs on Rubber Soul and Revolver that still sound fresh and modern 45 years later. Sgt. Pepper’s is more a snapshot of the era in which it was recorded. If you want to look at the most influential album The Beatles ever recorded, you have to take a serious listen to their self-titled follow-up, colloquially known as The White Album.
It, too, is clearly a product of the sixties, but as often as not, the songs defy definition. A few, such as “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” have achieved timelessness. Not bad considering that the guest guitarist, Eric Clapton, was pining for George Harrison’s wife as the song was recorded.
The White Album emerged during an era when The Beatles had abandoned live touring for the studio. So from 1966 until 1969, The Beatles would practically live at Abbey Road. By now, Apple Records was a going concern and Brian Epstein had already passed away. The Beatles were the biggest band in the world and could literally do no wrong. (Almost. The Magical Mystery Tour proved they could make a bad movie.)
So what do you do when you’ve created the album against which all future rock albums will be compared? (The Stones’ Their Satanic Majesty’s Request was an admitted dig while Dark Side of the Moon is constantly referred to as Pink Floyd’s Sgt. Pepper’s.) The smart answer is “Anything we want.” But with the exception of “Revolution 9,” the band is surprisingly less self-indulgent than many bands at their peak. (Taking notes, Coldplay? Go ask U2 how they recovered for that faux pas.) They kick it off with a Beach Boys parody (“Back in the USSR”) and end it with a show tune (“Good Night”). In between, they hit blues, ragtime, psychedelia, and even heavy metal. To this day, “Helter Skelter,” even without help from Charles Manson, remains one of the most menacing songs ever recorded, giving even Black Sabbath a run for its money. Without it, there would have been no Who’s “Miles and Miles” and likely no “Smoke on the Water.”
Most of the songs, “Cry, Baby, Cry,” “Blackbird,” and “Why Don’t We Do It in the Road” (which you can hear the vibe from in “Cut Me Some Slack” by Paul jamming with Nirvana) don’t sound fixed to any point in time. A few (“Birthday,” “Wild Honey Pie,” “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”) are definitely relics of the later sixties. But the album as a whole, which defies categorization, is a work of art, one that endures nearly fifty years later. Not bad when you consider that Ringo quit in the middle of it and demonstrated that The Beatles were four musicians, not three musicians and a drummer. Paul drums on a couple of songs, but thankfully, they lured Ringo back into the studio before they finished.
Let It Be is overproduced. Abbey Road might be a better album artistically. But The White Album, more than Sgt. Pepper’s, continues to redefine rock 45 years after it was released.
I thought I’d start talking about my favorite bands or musicians here, since music’s played a huge role in my writing. And I might as well go with the first band that really sucked up all my attention. That would be The Beatles. My parents probably wished I’d have gone with Elvis or some country singer, but no, it was the boys from Liverpool who awakened my music consciousness.
Surprisingly, I was not into them when John Lennon was murdered in 1980. I don’t think I really cared much about music at that point. I’d had flirtations with it and was even a member of the KISS Army in the fifth grade. But I was in a lull when Lennon died, and didn’t immediately leave it. I only remember being shocked by the killing.
It was a year later when The Beatles released Reel Music that they grabbed my attention. From there, I started playing old records by my aunts, a couple of whom were huge Beatle fans. I set about discovering everything I could about them.
So what was it about The Beatles? And why not the Rolling Stones? I once called the Stones the Band of the Rock Era for their longevity. Really, the eighties were their only bad decade, though the albums following Steel Wheels I found wanting. That said, the Stones are, indeed, essential to all things rock, but the Stones would never have been anything more than a blues rock curiosity had it not been for The Beatles. The Beatles redefined rock. The Stones gave it its mojo.
I like their early stuff well enough. They took what already existed in rock and roll and refined it a bit. Much of their early work sounds like The Eisley Brothers (hence their cover of “Twist and Shout”) and the Everly Brothers. Yet it was different. And then came Rubber Soul. That music was a decade ahead of its time, and I remember being surprised to learn “Got to Get You Into My Life” was actually a Beatles tune when I was a kid. “Did they get back together?” I asked when my mother told me. I later learned that, about that time, John and Paul very nearly showed up at 30 Rock when Lorne Michaels made his gag $3000 offer to get the band to reunite on Saturday Night Live. Can you imagine how that would have gone over?
From Rubber Soul, they went to Revolver, which bent the rules even more. George Harrison’s writing started making the grade, and Indian music started creeping into their sound. And then there’s Sgt. Pepper. There had been a little friendly competition between Paul McCartney and the Beach Boys’ Brian Wilson. When the Beach Boys released Pet Sounds, McCartney said he needed to step things up a bit. So they did Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, foreshadowing the classic Pink Floyd motif by about seven years. Songs melding into each other, shifting styles on a dime, and that bizarre – even for today – cacophony at the end of “A Day in the Life.” It sounds really poppy today, but listen to the Stones (who clearly wanted to do something similar at that point) or The Yardbirds last album before morphing into Led Zeppelin. Sgt. Peppers was light years ahead, and it paved the way for a lot of other British (and quite a few American) acts to raise their game.
But Sgt. Peppers was the appetizer. The White Album was the main course, and it is the quintessential Beatles album. In fact, it’s the first one I ever owned. But they would save what I consider to be their best for last. Everything The Beatles did between 1962 and 1969 can be summed up in Abbey Road. It’s the best of their albums, their one of the road (though Let It Be would be released after Abbey Road despite the latter being finished first), and produced by George Martin. They knew the ride was over, and they wanted to go out on a high note.
I have a soft spot for Abbey Road. Li’l Sis gave me a copy while she was in college, and it really stuck with me. Plus, one of my earliest memories is of riding around in Dad’s old 65 Falcon hearing “Something” on WKYC when Abbey Road was still new.
Beatles vs. Stones? Well, I pick The Beatles for quitting on a high note and blazing the trail, but it’s a bullshit argument. The Beatles are a headphone band. The Stones are the ones you see live or play loud on your car stereo or when you want to get freaky with your girl. It’s like comparing Ram trucks to a Camaro. Apples and oranges.
As we close in on the final year of the decade, one burning question remains.
No, not how much longer before we’re rid of George Bush.
Who is the band of this decade. What band defined the decade more than any other?
After the jump, we take a look at what bands came before, starting with the dawn of rock and roll.
[Originally posted to Northcoast Exile on April 13, 2005. This was the most popular post on the old blog that didn’t feature a naked soccer mom. I wish I’d saved the comments, but something tells me this subject will generate reams of new ones. – Jim]
“Beatles or Rolling Stones?
Superman or Batman?
‘He or she’ or singular ‘they’?”
Let’s get the first two out of the way. Batman, because when Superman has to be Clark Kent, he’s a wimp. When Batman has to be Bruce Wayne, he’s still a bad ass and not to be screwed with.
They. Linguists and grammarians need to just get over it. English lacks a proper gender nonspecific pronoun. Sorry, but “it” doesn’t cut it. So if we can have a royal “we” and an all-purpose “you,” English can survive a generic “they” for gender non-specific third person.
Now to the heart of the matter: Beatles vs. Stones. Beatles. Hands down. They were all working class stiffs. Quite frankly, they reinvented rock. Poppy? Hell, yes, and so what? Without The White Album, Sgt. Pepper’s, and the criminally underrated Abbey Road, rock simply would not be rock. That’s not to say the Stones didn’t do their part. “Sympathy for the Devil,” “Satisfaction,” and “Gimme Shelter” anyone? But… Well, let Scalzi tell you:
“The Beatles had the stones (so to speak) to break up and stay broken up, meaning that their canon is undiluted from years of post-creative suckage.”
Scalzi cuts off the Stones productive years at Tattoo You. I say Steel Wheels had merit, but, like Pink Floyd’s Momentary Lapse of Reason, it was designed to be an album you’d expect from the band. The only difference is that David Gilmour used that phrase as a title. Mick and Keith really did have a momentary lapse of reason. It’s the double whammy of musical crap called Dirty Work and Undercover, both the worst Stones albums I’ve ever heard. (And yes, I include the two post-Wyman yawn fests. “Anybody See My Baby” my ass!)
A lot of bands should have packed it in or at least shed deadweight. Much sooner. Led Zep probably needed to call it a career anyway when John Bonham died. Page just wanted to play guitar, and Plant had already developed his own sound. Pink Floyd did a Wall too far with the bloated Final Cut in 1983. One wonders if the follow up would have been stronger if Roger Waters had either quit sooner or let David Gilmour and Richard Wright have their way. Genesis… Invisible Touch? I’m still pissed off about the title track off that song. What was that? Phil Collins and Mike & the Mechanics rejects? (To be fair, We Can’t Dance was decent, but the post-Phil Calling All Stations was a huge mistake.)
Prog bands generally outlive their usefulness. Somebody tell me why Emerson, Lake, & Percussionist and Yes are still around? Have you heard their post-eighties work? Tragic. Have you heard their eighties work? The Asia albums that never were.
I’d call for Metallica’s demise, but I want to see them live. I’d also call for Guns & Roses demise, but then I like them again since they became Velvet Revolver.
The band that should be around, but can never be again, is Alice in Chains. Remember Alice? This is a rant about Alice. I miss the hell out of those guys.
UPDATE: I wrote this before A Bigger Bang came out. While not earth-shattering or by any means a classic, it is a decent album. If the Stones had gone from Tattoo You to Steel Wheels to A Bigger Bang, skipping everything in between, this post would have been very, very different.