Discover more from Let Us Now Praise...The Beatles
No one in their tree
Welcome to the launch of Let Us Now Praise…The Beatles!
First let’s get the obvious out of the way, as if the name isn’t clear enough: this project is a celebration of the artistry and cultural impact of the Beatles.
The raw material, which will hopefully delight and educate casual and dedicated fans alike, is a unique archive — the largest in the world — of comments, memories and insights about the Fab Four by other leading musicians, artists and public figures.
The celebration will revolve around the music primarily, but not exclusively: there were many ingredients that went into the Beatles potion. The band’s energy and exuberant camaraderie, for example, is part of many musicians’ recollections of what they first found irresistible about the Fab Four. So were about ninety-seven other things. All will be illuminated with eloquence and passion by a global chorus of famous voices.
Now, I know what you’re thinking: we need to wade through more stuff about the Beatles like we need more coronavirus. You’re thinking one more vacuous anniversary tribute and you might join an insurrection. Haven’t we read enough and watched enough about the Beatles to last a lifetime? Haven’t we heard enough bland platitudes about them to last several lifetimes? For some, especially the three or four people who aren’t fans, maybe.
But before you nod your head too quickly, this isn’t going where you think it is. The problem isn’t too much Beatles per se. (As even casual fans know, there’s no such thing). The problem is the subtle but perverse damage done by too much mindless repetition, too much Beatles “shorthand.”
We’ve all experienced it: Beatles music as aural wallpaper. . . incessant cover versions, often neutering the originals’ vitality. . . endless rehashing of the same old stories and myths. . . simplistic stereotyping of the band and their music.
The repetitive, banal drone of absent-minded hagiography has dulled the reality of who the Beatles were and what they wrought. It has softened every edge, erased all the radicalism, muffled much of the excitement. Major events such as Peter Jackson’s Get Back documentary notwithstanding, the Beatles — progenitors of the most seismic musical and cultural shift since the advent of recorded sound — often seem to have receded into cliche.
Hopefully then, one benefit of Let Us Now Praise will be, if we can paraphrase Little Steven, to revise the revisionism. Collectively these quotes can correct calcified myths, provide surprising insights and even make the case that the Beatles — crazy as it may sound — are actually underrated.
Not that the Beatles are alone in being gradually fossilized.
The passage of time often robs historical figures and events of impact and context. The shock of a phenomenon as it is experienced in real time can never be sustained. Its visceral immediacy recedes. Shared experience is transformed into mere description, relegated to outdated media, supplanted by modern events and recency bias (often mistaken for progress). Slowly but surely, the phenomenon is reduced to a cartoon. It is caricaturized, decontextualized, oversimplified.
Babe Ruth becomes a fat guy who hit a lot of home runs. Charlie Chaplin is a sentimental clown. Louis Armstrong turns into a grinning, gravel-voiced crooner.
And the Beatles. . . they become a pop group. A hugely successful pop group, yes, but still a pop group, in the pejorative sense of the term: the original “boy band,” popular but safe, the idols of screaming pre-teen girls and, later, of nostalgic baby boomers.*
*In the 1960s, pop meant something very different. Everyone in rock — whether that rock was folk, acid, blues, hard, soft, progressive, heavy, country or jazz — was part of the umbrella pop scene and referred to themselves as such. Modern fans of the Who, the Stones and Jimi Hendrix might be surprised to hear the likes of Pete Townshend, Mick Jagger and Hendrix self-identifying as pop artists.
There are many shibboleths in Beatles revisionism. One of the most stubborn is the idea that they were not really a rock band, that other groups from the Sixties, and many since, were edgier, grittier, rocked harder and more powerfully embodied rock’s rebel ethos.
Consider this exchange between music journalist Maureen Droney and mega-producer Rick Rubin for Mixonline.com back in 2000:
You've been fortunate that your personal taste has struck so many chords with the public. How do you think you developed that taste?
I was lucky enough to grow up with The Beatles. What little I know about music is from them.
Ah, the gold standard. But you were attracted to more hard core, rebellious music, which The Beatles really weren't.
But they were. Because they became the biggest band in the world, and because they don't exist anymore, you don't look back on them as being this outlaw band. But they really were.
This is a particularly revealing exchange. The interviewer expresses, almost as a statement of fact, a view of the Beatles that is now practically mainstream: Yeah, the Beatles were great songwriters and hugely popular, but they weren’t “hard core” or “rebellious” or any of the things which are supposed to make rock music matter to its contemporary generation.
Does she have a point?
Ozzy Osbourne: The Beatles were revolutionaries. And their music was revolutionary music.
Chris Cornell: A lot of The Beatles' songs were heavier than most so-called metal tracks of the last 20 years.
Billie Joe Armstrong: There are Beatles songs that are way more punk rock than anything the Circle Jerks or Bad Religion ever put out.
Joe Perry: The Beatles were ahead of their time — there are songs they wrote that predated Led Zeppelin, predated Deep Purple, predated [groups] that we call heavy metal and hard rock. . . songs which get right down to the root of what heavy rock can be. They did it before anybody else, and they did it better than anybody else.
Okay, but was there really anything radical about the Beatles?
Edgar Winter: The Beatles altered the mindset of an entire generation, and they brought about a revolution without ever firing a shot. . . a revolution in the freedom of thought.
Gene Simmons: There are what scientists call singularities. They happen every once in a while and have a quantum effect on life as we know it. When the Beatles first appeared, it really changed the world.
Sinead O’Connor: I have this theory that the Beatles were actually the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you know? Insofar as they changed the entire face of the planet.
Justin Hayward: There was one huge explosion and that was the Beatles. It’s difficult to explain, but they just completely changed the world, and not just musically. They were in a different stratosphere, a different planet to the rest of us.
Booker T. Jones: They crossed boundaries and reached heights that no one else in rock 'n' roll had done. Everything about them just spoke creativity. . . and I don’t know if enough people at the time really recognized the Beatles as the infinitely creative people that they were. They were doing earth-shaking, ground-breaking things.
Lemmy: The Beatles were the greatest rock band of all time. Nobody even comes into the same planetary system. They changed everything — not just rock music, but life, the universe, everything. You had to be there to truly understand what I’m on about but for anyone that was there, they know. After the Beatles, no one was ever the same again, the young and the old, singers and politicians, sportsmen and actors. Everyone.
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It’s funny, but the tendency to downplay the influence and brilliance of the Beatles rarely comes from other musicians. It’s usually found in certain quarters among fans and even writers and critics. This is understandable to a point — younger music listeners, for example, are more likely to have only a passing familiarity with the Beatles. But for others, and especially for the pundit class, the possible explanations tend to ring more hollow. Maybe they grew up with hyperaggressive modern music forms, or are partisans in the tired Beatles-Rolling Stones debate, or believe dismissing the Beatles’ musical and rock bonafides is the cool stance to take — that doing so confirms their iconoclast, connoisseur credentials.* Or maybe they are simply ignorant of the history.
*We’re not talking about personal taste here; obviously there’s no objective “truth” when it comes to art of any kind, high or low. To this day my own endorphins are triggered more by “Playground In My Mind” than almost anything by the Grateful Dead, but I wouldn’t claim that Clint Holmes was more important or musically advanced than the Dead. At least I think I wouldn’t.
So what accounts for the persistence of the revisionist narrative?
Let’s go back to that interview with Rick Rubin. Look again at his response to the assertion that the Beatles weren’t a “rebellious” group. The key line, aside from his blunt correction, is surely “because they became the biggest band in the world.” It gets at the core of why so many people today, even if they enjoy Beatles music, would never put the Beatles and “outlaw” in the same sentence. As the award-winning British actor Stephen Merchant put it, describing how for a time he had stopped listening to their music, “It felt like the Beatles had become a piece of the furniture. I’d just taken them for granted.”
“A piece of the furniture.” This may be as good a summation as any of the place the Beatles occupy for lots of people — even many who count themselves as fans. The Beatles are a cultural given, almost an abstraction. Consider the hundreds of “reaction” videos which proliferate on YouTube, in which young fans videotape themselves reacting to music they haven’t previously heard. The Beatles, unsurprisingly given their name recognition, are the subject of a disproportionate number of these videos. As often as not the reaction is rapturous. . . and just as often it is bathed in surprise, as for many of these YouTubers the Beatles are synonymous with a sort of bland universality. If they know Beatles music at all, it’s what they might have sung along to as small children in school. Some Beatles songs have become as ubiquitous as Christmas carols. And how many Christmas carols are radical or rebellious?
No wonder the journalist talking to Rick Rubin so casually says that “the Beatles really weren’t.”
But as Rubin is quick to point out, the Beatles were. It just so happened that they were also avatars of joy, seduced millions, and were immortal songwriters. That they could check so many boxes may be a miracle (the Beatles are surely among the few to ever pull off the trick of being hip and mainstream at the same time) but it’s also a curse: mass popularity, usually for good reason, breeds cynicism and backlash. We assume that mass success is driven by mindless consumerism and we like to congratulate ourselves for not being among the mindless.
Which brings us back to Let Us Now Praise. . . The Beatles. An ongoing project, the amassing of thousands of quotes about the Fab Four by other artists and public figures is at its core about the music, but it’s also something else: a kaleidoscopic reminder of all the Beatles’ myriad dimensions: musicianship and performance, imagination and innovation, humor and charisma, ribaldry, poetry, exuberance, style, excitement, brotherhood, versatility. Of their still unmatched reach across cultures, creeds and continents. Of what might be called Beatles exceptionalism.
Patterns emerge. “Wow” moments are constant.
We’ll hear from some of the baddest asses in rock history about how phenomenal the Beatles were as a live band, especially in the group’s early years.
We’ll hear from icons of jazz and the classical music world who marvel at the unschooled Beatles’ mastery of melody, harmony, arrangement and song structure.
We’ll hear from guitar heroes, bass gods, keyboard wizards, drum gurus and singing stars who explain why John, Paul, George and Ringo are massively underappreciated as players and performers.
We’ll hear from the biggest innovators in cutting-edge music, from house to hip-hop to electronica to thrash, citing the Beatles as a primary source and influence.
We’ll hear from black artists about the Beatles’ cross-racial appeal, the warmth and respect that was mutual from the start, and even how the Beatles changed the black community’s perceptions of white people.
We’ll hear from prominent Eastern European figures about what the Beatles meant to those living under Communism – and how they contributed to the collapse of the Soviet Union.
We’ll hear from a chorus of famous fans from the 1960s who will put the lie to the myth that the early Beatles were a “boy band” that appealed mainly to preteen girls.
We’ll hear from people who worked with the biggest stars in the business and are world-famous themselves — yet attest to an almost supernatural aura and charisma around the four Beatles.
We’ll hear not just from musicians, but from writers, actors, dancers, painters, business icons, athletes and world leaders.
And we’ll hear, always, about the music — music, in the words of author Hunter Davies, “which will be sung as long as we are on the planet and have the breath to hum the tunes.”