The Beatles released Let It Be, the last of their thirteen albums, 36 years ago.
1 Today there is no one musical group or soloist capable of commanding the attention paid to John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr between 1964, when they first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, and 1970, when McCartney announced that the group was disbanding. Just as there is no longer a common culture, so there is no longer a common style of music to which most English-speaking people listen. Yet the Beatles and their music continue to fascinate successive generations of music lovers, so much so that more than two dozen books have been published about them, the latest of which is a thousand-page biography by the journalist Bob Spitz.
Written in a straightforwardly journalistic style, The Beatles: The Biography provides an exhaustive and generally reliable account of the bandmembers' lives and careers up to 1970, and is of no small value as a study in what might be called the sociology of celebrity. But like most pop-music biographies, it has little of interest to say about the Beatles' work; anyone in search of a thoughtful critical appraisal will find it unhelpful.
Such an appraisal must begin by taking into account the fact that the Beatles were the first rock-and-roll musicians to be written about as musicians. Elvis Presley, for instance, had attracted vast amounts of attention from the press, but for the most part he was treated as a mass-culture phenomenon rather than as an artist, and so were the other rock musicians of the 50's and early 60's (and the swing-era band-leaders and vocalists who came before them). Not so the Beatles. Almost from the time they began making records in 1962, their music was taken seriously—and praised enthusiastically—by such noted classical composers as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Ned Rorem and such distinguished critics and commentators as William Mann, Hans Keller, and Wilfrid Mellers.
What was it that made these four musically untutored pop stars stand out in such high relief from their contemporaries? And has their music proved to be of lasting interest, as their admirers of four decades ago predicted it would?
In one sense, “the Beatles” can be understood as a shorthand term for the songs written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney, separately and together, between 1962 and 1970. (The two wrote some songs individually and some in collaboration, but all were credited as the joint work of “Lennon-McCartney.”) Most of the Beatles' hit singles were Lennon-McCartney songs, many of which would later be performed and recorded by other artists. It was the best of these songs that initially won them the respect of musicians who had hitherto been indifferent or hostile to rock-and-roll.
Lennon and McCartney began to write together as teenagers. Their first hits—“Love Me Do,” “She Loves You,” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand”—were largely derivative of the lyrically naïve styles of the American pop stars of the 50's whom they most admired, including Elvis, Little Richard, and the Everly Brothers. But even back then their music contained surprising glints of originality, in particular the modally colored tunes that would become one of their trademarks.
4 Within a brief time it became evident that, for all their lack of formal training, they were naturally gifted composers whose fast-growing musical sophistication was reminiscent of the similarly rapid stylistic evolution of another self-taught songwriter of genius, Irving Berlin.
By 1964 the two were experimenting with the irregular phrase lengths and unexpectedly complex harmonies of such songs as “And I Love Her” (by McCartney) and “If I Fell” (by Lennon), whose stereotypical boy-meets-girl lyrics are far less interesting than the graceful, sinuous melodies to which they are set.
5 Indeed, it was for their music that Lennon and McCartney were first acclaimed, and it would not be until McCartney's “Yesterday” that they recorded a song whose lyrics were of correspondingly high quality.
Written in 1965, “Yesterday” is a perfectly balanced miniature whose long arches of melody arise organically out of the three-note cell (“Yes-ter-day”) that constitutes the introductory phrase. The lyric is no less noteworthy for its unadorned directness: “Yesterday/All my troubles seemed so far away/Now it looks as though they're here to stay/Oh, I believe in yesterday.” The result is a song reminiscent in its deceptive simplicity of classic Berlin ballads like “All Alone” and “Always,” a fact that helps to explain why it was the first Beatles song to become a full-fledged pop standard. (It has been recorded by more than 2,000 other artists.)
Around the same time, Lennon began to listen closely to the music of Bob Dylan, whose deliberately, even self-consciously poetic lyrics constituted a radical departure from the more conventional approach of his commercially-minded peers. Thanks in part to Dylan's influence, Lennon made his own, similar break with the clichés of the day, beginning to write allusive, increasingly cryptic lyrics that had little in common with the pop songs on which he had been raised: “He's a real nowhere man/Sitting in his nowhere land/Making all his no-where plans for nobody/Doesn't have a point of view/Knows not where he's going to/Isn't he a bit like you and me?” (“Nowhere Man,” 1965).
Unlike the professional-tradition songwriters of the pre-rock era, Lennon and McCartney lost interest in writing about romantic love, and from 1966 until the dissolution of the Beatles four years later they produced an amazingly varied portfolio of songs whose subject matter ranged from the wry domesticity of McCartney's “Lady Madonna” (“Lady Madonna/Children at your feet/ Wonder how you manage to make ends meet”) to the unsettling surrealism of Lennon's “She Said She Said” (“She said/I know what it's like to be dead/I know what it is to be sad/ And she's making me feel like I've never been born”). These songs were as powerfully influential on the rock musicians of the 70's and 80's as the recordings of Louis Armstrong were on the jazz soloists of the 30's and 40's, and their echo continues to be heard in the work of singer-songwriters not yet born in the days when the Beatles were still (in Lennon's much-quoted 1966 remark) “more popular than Jesus.”
Yet for all the immense influence of the Lennon-McCartney songs, only “Yesterday” became a standard in the old-fashioned sense—that is, a song that continues to be regularly performed by large numbers of other singers. Indeed, not until the 90's did classic-style pop singers born in the 60's and 70's start to reinterpret the songs of the Beatles in the same way that their predecessors had reinterpreted the classic songs of the pre-rock era.
One reason for this is that the Beatles wrote most of their own material, recording only Beatles-written songs from 1966 on. Once this became common practice for most other rock groups, it was harder for “standards” to emerge from the vast body of new pop music. No less important, though, is the fact that the Beatles were among the first pop musicians to start thinking in terms of recordings, not songs or live performances, as the finished musical product that they would offer to the listening public.
Airchecks of their TV appearances indicate that while none of the four Beatles was an instrumental virtuoso, all of them were effective stage performers with an engaging, distinctive group style.
7 For the most part, their earliest recordings sought to reproduce this style, albeit in more polished form. But by 1965 the Beatles had become so popular—and their female fans so hysterically voluble—that they could barely hear themselves play over the screaming of the crowds that came to their concerts. This caused them to lose interest in live performance at more or less the same moment that George Martin, the classically trained musician who produced their recordings, began to introduce them to the fast-growing range of techniques by which recorded sound could be manipulated and transformed in the studio.
It soon became clear to Lennon and McCartney that the sound of “the Beatles” on record need not be restricted to the simple guitar-bass-drums instrumentation of their live concerts. McCartney, for example, recorded “Yesterday” accompanied by his own acoustic guitar and a string quartet arranged by Martin. In 1965 the band released Rubber Soul, an album of extensively overdubbed studio performances in which Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison (as well as Martin) could also be heard playing piano, harmonium, sitar, bouzouki, and other instruments. Not only was Rubber Soul too complex in texture to be reproduced in concert—at least not under the conditions prevailing in 1965—but it was meant to be experienced not as a collection of fourteen individual and free-standing songs but as something considerably more ambitious. “For the first time,” Martin explained, “we began to think of albums as art on their own, as complete entities.”
Needless to say, this approach to album-making did not begin with the Beatles. Other jazz and pop musicians had already experimented with thematically unified “concept albums,” most notably Frank Sinatra in Only the Lonely (which he recorded for Capitol, the Beatles' American label, in 1958). In addition, a number of classical performers and record producers, including Glenn Gould and John Culshaw, had started to make studio recordings that were not meant to be literal “records” of live performances. As I have written elsewhere:
Such famous albums as Glenn Gould's 1955 recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations, Frank Sinatra's Only the Lonely, Miles Davis's Kind of Blue, or the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band are not attempts to simulate live performances. They are, rather, unique experiences existing only on record, and the record itself, not the music or the performance, is the art object.
After Rubber Soul, the Beatles stopped performing in public and thereafter devoted themselves exclusively to the making of just such recordings. The most artistically successful was Revolver (1966), in which the playing of the classical horn soloist Alan Civil and the string and brass sections heard on “Eleanor Rigby” and “Got to Get You Into My Life” are combined with a dazzlingly varied assortment of studio-crafted effects. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles (1968, popularly known as the “white album”), and Abbey Road (1969) would make more extensive use of overdubbing and additional instruments, as did singles like “Penny Lane” and “All You Need Is Love” (both released in 1967). But it is on Revolver, the best of their thirteen albums, that the Beatles can be heard at their most disciplined and musically impressive.
It is, I suspect, no accident that after 1970, none of the four Beatles would write any songs or make any recordings comparable in quality to the ones they made as a group. Together, their musical limitations had been offset by the creative synergy of their collaboration (as well as by the discreet guidance of George Martin, their producer-mentor). When they began to work independently, the limitations overwhelmed them, and they spent the rest of their lives struggling in vain to rival the achievements of their youth.
The historical significance of these achievements, however, cannot be overstated. After the Beatles, rock-and-roll would never be the same. What started out as a stripped-down, popularized blending of country music and rhythm-and-blues intended for consumption by middle-class teenagers evolved into a new musical dialect in which it was possible to make statements complex and thoughtful enough to seize and hold the attention of adult listeners.
This is not to say that rock in general has always repaid such close attention. Unlike jazz, which developed with great speed from a purely functional accompaniment of social dancing into a full-fledged art music of the highest possible seriousness, most rock has remained as commercial as the simplest-minded pop music of the pre-rock era. But between the late 60's, when rock became the lingua franca of the baby boomers, and the late 90's, when the disintegration of the common culture brought its stylistic hegemony to an end, the best rock groups had much to offer the serious music lover.
Without the Beatles, this might well not have been the case. Neither virtuoso instrumentalists nor pure songwriters, they instead explored the possibilities of the hybrid art of the record album as art object more successfully than any other popular musicians of their generation. For this—and for the beauty of their best music—they will be remembered.
1 The Beatles' commercial recordings have all been transferred to CD and remain in print. Readers unfamiliar with their music should listen first to Rubber Soul (Capitol 46440) and Revolver (46441). Also of interest is The Beatles 1 (29325), an anthology of 27 of the group's chart-topping singles. Except as indicated, all of the songs mentioned in this piece are included on these three CD's.
2 The! Beatles: The Biography, Little, Brown, 983 pp., $29.95.
3 By far the best book published to date about the Beatles' music is Allan Kozinn's The Beatles (Phaidon, $24.95, paper), a brief life published as part of the “20th-Century Composers” series of classical-music monographs edited by Norman Lebrecht.
4 Like most self-taught musicians who start out playing guitar rather than piano, both Lennon and McCartney were conditioned by the feel of the guitar fingerboard, whose stepwise layout facilitates the harmonization of the flattened-seventh, Mixolydian-mode melodies first heard in such early Beatles songs as “Can't Buy Me Love” and “A Hard Day's Night.”
5 Both songs are included on A Hard Day's Night (Capitol 46437).
6 See, for example, John Pizzarelli's 1999 album, John Pizzarelli Meets the Beatles (RCA 61432).
7 Some of these recordings have been collected on Live at the BBC (Capitol 31796, two CD's). In live performance, George Harrison played lead guitar, Lennon rhythm guitar, McCartney bass guitar, and Ringo Starr drums, with Lennon and McCartney splitting most of the lead vocals.
8 “Why Listening Will Never Be the Same” ( COMMENTARY, September 2002), reprinted in A Terry Teachout Reader (Yale, 2004) as part of the longer essay, “Life After Records.”