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QUICK(ISH) TAKE: "Liars"?
Some stars can't accept that there are those who don't like the Beatles
“Going viral” (a phrase which itself long ago went viral) typically refers to rampant spread of media posts and videos. But lots of other things go viral. Spelling errors, for example: for some reason America seems to have fallen in love with spelling “lose” with two “o”s. Facial hair, for another: the percentage of American males sporting either casual stubble or a groomed goatee has to be approaching 100%.
But going viral doesn’t have to be on a national scale. It can be limited to communities, groups, adherents of one thing or another. It can also be less than truly rampant; a minor virus, if you will.
And minor viruses definitely exist in Beatles comment. Certain expressions pop up again and again, like a Herpes outbreak. Suppose a writer or musician is discussing the innovations that characterized Revolver or Sgt. Pepper. A good drinking game can be built around the inevitable drop of the phrase “using the studio as an instrument.”
Another good one is “like going from black-and-white to color.” This has been used by so many people* to describe the impact of the Beatles that the wonderful vividness of the phrase has been dulled to something like, well, black-and-white.
* At the risk of spoiling future citations of the term (you’ll note one below, in fact), those who have used this precise metaphor include Ann Wilson, Holly Johnson, Tom Petty, Francis Rossi, Eric Idle, George Thorogood, Steve Lukather, Larry Kirwan, Bob Herbert, Ozzy Osbourne and Andrew Solt — just to mention a cross-section of musicians, playwrights, journalists, documentarians and actors.
One particular conceit which seems unique to Beatles fans — and is shared by many artists and musicians — is that Beatles universality is so literal that those who claim not to like them are actually lying. As touched on in an earlier post, there are variations on this theme in the form of excuses or rationalizations. Thus, Beatles dissenters are explained away as suffering from too little exposure to the group’s eclectic catalogue; too much exposure to the same few songs over and over; they could be drinking the self-deceiving Kool-Aid of the cooler-than-thou hipoisie, or cowed by their social group’s orthodoxy; they could be ignoramuses, misanthropes, tone-deaf, party poopers. Whether someone simply won’t admit they like the Beatles, merely doesn’t know enough to appreciate them, or is a genuine crank — it all adds up to the same thing: it’s not normal. The mammoth Rolling Stone Album Guide puts it this way: “The Beatles are the last great consensus in rock. Not liking the Beatles is as perverse as not liking the sun.” Ozzy Osbourne, as usual, is more pithy: “To me, it’s like saying you don’t like air.”
Which leads to the minor virus of “they’re lying.” I’m trying and failing to think of another artist in the rock era whose importance other musicians believe is so beyond dispute.
Billy Squier: If you’re a rocker from the ‘70s or ‘80s, there’s only two types of people: either they’ll tell you the Beatles meant everything, or they’re lying. Those are the only two musicians possible.
Dennis DeYoung: The fact that all four of those guys got together at that time and brought those miraculous talents in one spot to make all those records basically in seven years – it can’t make any sense to musicians like myself. It’s unrepeatable. And I guarantee any musician who denies this is a liar. How they did that, none of us will ever know.
George Thorogood: You know, to me, the world was totally black and white . . . and [then] all of a sudden the world went technicolor. You know what I mean? That’s what threy did for me. But the Beatles did that for everybody. I’m not the only one. And anybody who says different, who was born after 1950, is lying to you. The Beatles opened it up.
And it’s not just musicians of a certain age. Artists of the 21st century use the same terminology.
Justin Russo: Everybody’s influenced by them. It’s unavoidable . . . and, well, anyone who says the Beatles didn’t change their life is lying or lives under a rock.
Jana Peri: If you’re a rock musician and you say you don’t like the Beatles, then you’re a jerk. You’re just trying to be cool, but you’re really not. You can’t deny the Beatles.
a Nameless Ghoul: They have a quality that few bands have — which is a sheer beauty in itself — and that’s a universal appreciation of their music. Everybody all over the world knows and loves the Beatles. If you say you don’t then you’re a liar.
Let’s have a little fun with this. Apparently some people who profess not to like the Beatles really are lying. Some of the more conspicuous evidence goes all the way back to the 1970s, especially the early years of British punk.
It was essentially a litmus test: if you hoped to be on the cool side of the rock divide in mid-1970s Britain, you had to disavow not only the prevailing mainstream of slick, well-produced pop music and virtuosic rock genres such as prog, but the sacred classic acts of the 1960s — starting with the Beatles.
The front line of punk’s idol-smashing brigade were the Sex Pistols (whose leader Johnny Rotten notoriously despised the Fab Four and sacked bassist and primary songwriter Glen Matlock in part for being a Beatles fan), and The Clash, who famously sang “phony Beatlemania has bitten the dust” in their anthem London Calling, and whose rallying cry, first chanted on “1977” from their debut album, was “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones.”1 But the Pistols and the Clash were only the most noisily explicit; the anti-legacy anti-Beatles stance was pan-punk orthodoxy, and became de rigueur amongst many others in rock who wanted to stay musically relevant. David Bowie, for example, loved the Beatles and adored John Lennon; but he also acknowledged that in the punk days he would never have admitted such a thing. “One wouldn’t have declared it in the ‘70s. Because that would have been most uncool: to say that you actually liked the Beatles in any way, shape or form.”
It goes further. Billy Idol, whose Generation X was one of the biggest of the early British punk groups, makes a pretty explicit connection between the Beatles being “uncool” in the ‘70s and . . . well, lying. In conversation with Bill Flanagan in 2018 he talked about those seminal days.
Flanagan: When punk came along and everybody was pretending to hate the Beatles and the Stones, you did not join in. You always stuck up for the great British rock of the ‘60s, didn’t you.
Idol: Well yeah, I did — but I was a massive Beatle fan. And you know it’s funny, because a lot of the American punk rock groups, like the Ramones, loved the Beatles. It was just the English punk rock groups were very against them, but I found that very difficult. It was very difficult for me to pretend that I didn’t love them.
Flanagan: It’s funny ‘cause in later years guys like [the Clash’s] Joe Strummer all admitted that of course they were fans.
Idol: Of course they were. It was trying to be Year One of a revolution, so of course a lot of people said things that were kind of ideological rather than what they truly felt. Like, I knew [the Clash’s] Mick Jones loved the Beatles.2
In this light it’s fun to go back to that recollection of Bowie’s that in the punk days you wouldn’t be caught dead saying you were a Beatles fan. Because if your guard was down, you’d be caught indeed. In 1980 — when punk and new wave were thriving — long-time BBC journalist Andy Peebles came to New York to conduct separate interviews with Bowie and John Lennon, who had just emerged from a 5-year musical hiatus. This is how he described his time with Bowie.
I was in town to meet both him and Lennon. David was spellbound by that. All he talked about was the Beatles.
Sometimes, ascribing dishonesty to Beatles deniers — or, to give them the benefit of the doubt, mere abnormality — is rhetorical. Smokey Robinson: “We were all Beatles fans. I mean, who wasn’t?” Melissa Etheridge: “Who isn’t? How can you be in music and not be a Beatles fan?” It doesn’t have to come from musicians either. Former New York Mets pitching great Ron Darling has a piquant way of putting it: “If you’re alive and have a heartbeat, you enjoy [the Beatles].” So when it turns out that someone has a heartbeat but doesn’t enjoy the Beatles — well, that can be too much to handle. The always colorful Elle King explained to Billboard in 2015 why she had to break up with a guy who wasn’t sharing her love of the Beatles. “My ex-boyfriend, I said to him, ‘I can’t stop listening to the White Album, it’s the greatest album fucking ever made, let me give you a blowjob listening to it.’ And he’s like, ‘Not into it.’ I was like, ‘Fine, next, we’re breaking up.’”
And she’s not the only one . . .
Steve Lukather: If you don’t dig The Beatles, I just can’t talk to you. If you don’t get that, I’m sorry.
Eric Hutchinson: Everything you could do with pop music, it begins and ends with them. I broke up with a girl once because she didn’t like the Beatles!
Ozzy Osbourne: I remember talking to Steve Jones of the Sex Pistols. He said, “I didn't like the Beatles.” I said, “There is something fucking wrong with you.”
Kate Nash: I don’t really trust people who don’t like the Beatles.
The “trust” thing is almost a mini-meme. For example, Ben Lovett of Mumford & Sons was asked in an interview with Q magazine which artists make him distrust anyone who doesn’t like them. “The obvious one is the Beatles.”
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Unspoken in every flavor of disbelief is the idea that, ok, someone may think they don’t like the Beatles but they really would if they would just take off the blinders (or earmuffs). And to be sure, there are artists who became fans by doing just that. (So many in fact that an entire Let Us Now Praise installment can be built around them). But we’ll just look at two here, representing two sides of the same anti-Beatles coin: ignorance on the one hand, and a kind of demographic political correctness on the other . . .
Aidan Moffat is the leader of the band Arab Strap and something of a cultural Zelig, popping up variously as poet, indigenous Scottish folk performer, guest artist with other rock groups (Mogwai, et al), and writer. Born in the ‘70s and finding success in the 2000s, he’s likely fairly representative of his age group in musical tastes and biases.
I hated the Beatles. I wasn't interested in them. My mother would talk about them and it seemed like another world away, nothing that could ever speak to me in any way. Then when I was 16 or 17 a friend of mine I was at school with, his parents went away on holiday in the summer and left him alone, which is something I will never do with my children. He's like, "Come round to my house and we'll get pissed [drunk] and see what happens." So I went around to his house and his dad had one of these brilliant old record players that had a little brush on it so as the record played it would also clean it. He's trying to play me his dad's records and to me the idea of listening to your parents' music was fucking awful — nobody did that. He was like, "Do you want to listen to the Beatles?" and I was like, "Fuck off!" I was not remotely interested in the Beatles. He said, "Trust me, this is a genuinely brilliant record," and he takes out his dad's White Album and he takes out his dad's brandy and I eventually ended up on the floor, drinking his dad's brandy listening to the White Album and — I didn't know the Beatles sounded like that. I didn't know the Beatles ever made a sound other than the pop sound that I knew them for. The White Album is such an intense and claustrophobic record . . . hearing it for the first time, you can't understand where it's coming from or what's going to happen next. Famously, it became an inspiration for mass murderers and fucking lunatics because it's so confounding; you try to find a meaning in it, but there isn't really any meaning in it at all, it's absolute chaos and there cannot be any better description of life than that.
And here is how hip-hop star-turned-actress Eve responded when she was asked in an interview to name one album she loves that would surprise people.
A year and a half ago, somebody introduced me to The Beatles' I album, with all the Number One hits. And I was like, "Oh, shit, that's kind of hot. Do I like the Beatles? I can't like the Beatles!" And then, fuck it, I bought the album. You can't deny good music.
“I can’t like the Beatles!” How much is packed into those 5 words? Despite many rap artists being unabashed Beatles fans — including Public Enemy, Run-DMC, Outkast, the Beastie Boys, Jay-Z, Kanye West, Dr. Dre, Coolio, and Biz Markie — the default posture among most of the hip-hop community is not exactly one of Beatlemania. But sometimes all it takes is a listen.
Maybe the most honest outliers are those who genuinely don’t like the Beatles yet freely acknowledge their importance (and, weirdly, often love one of the individual band members — usually John). Julian Cope, for instance, describes himself as “someone who loathes the Beatles but realises that it’s me who’s out of step.” And yeah, he’s crazy about solo John Lennon (especially the early Plastic Ono Band period).
Even that most notorious of Beatle haters, John Lydon (aka Johnny Rotten) of the Sex Pistols and Public Image Ltd, who has maintained his anti-Beatles bona fides to this day, allows (hilariously) that their influence was seismic, including on himself.3
“They were vital to my development.”
Johnny Rotten’s own acknowledgment of the Beatles’ importance and influence is the kind of counterweight against musical misinformation that may become more useful as time goes on. Consider, for example, the Quora post below, which is a reasonable proxy for a strain of thought not uncommon among otherwise knowledgeable people. The background: someone had asked why the Beatles are so much more popular than many bands which “rocked way harder.” One answer pointed out that in the context of their time the Beatles rocked as hard as anyone, and that many of the bands the original poster had in mind wouldn’t even exist had it not been for the Fab Four. This in turn engendered the following response:
The idea that without the Beatles, most bands that rock “way harder” wouldn’t even exist is preposterous. The Rolling Stones, The Who, Hendrix, The Doors, Creedence, Cream, Black Sabbath, Led Zeppelin, etc were not influenced by the Beatles at all. The Beatles tend to be an influence for pop acts, e.g. The Monkees, Brian Wilson/Beach Boys, ELO, etc.
This kind of ahistorical revisionism is what happens when posturing and gratuitous iconoclasm is absorbed by those who don't know better. The fact that almost every band on the above list is on record attesting to how they were influenced by the Beatles is beside the point.4 So is the fact that — again, by their own admission — many of the biggest bands that followed the Beatles, including the Rolling Stones (Keith Richards: “there’d be no Stones without the Beatles”) and hard rock bands from Anthrax to ZZ Top, would indeed not have existed if the Beatles never had.5 What’s not beside the point is that this is far from an isolated misconception and is too often casually propagated — repetition giving counterfeit currency to a fallacy. Listen to thrash metal legend Scott Ian:
“If you don’t educate yourself on the Beatles . . .”
I hope it’s been clear that practically this entire post is done with tongue at least partly in cheek. Vive la difference! The world would be a pretty terrifying place (not to mention crushingly boring) if everyone liked and disliked the same things and experienced the same events in exactly the same way. We think we’d be in paradise if every single day had beautiful weather, but after a while we wouldn’t even notice it (just ask San Diegoans). Just as it can take freezing winters to really appreciate the beauty of summer, or fasting to really appreciate eating, it can take dissent to really heighten one’s own passion (and to appreciate consensus). Then there’s the simple entertainment value of variety: take a second to imagine what it would be like if everyone really did love the Beatles . . . how much less colorful would the world be without William F. Buckley’s priceless commentary at the height of Beatlemania?
The Beatles are not merely awful, I would consider it sacrilegious to say anything less than that they are godawful. They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as “anti-popes.” It helps a little bit to know that no one thinks they are more of a joke than the Beatles themselves, and one is relieved in supposing that they go to bed at night laughing at their utterly inexplicable success, if solemn at the thought that they must inhabit a world that features themselves.
Great stuff. And note: it sure doesn’t sound like Buckley is lying. Neither, undoubtedly, are the many others (ok, maybe the two or three) who insist they really can’t stand the Beatles.
A future installment will be a deep dive into Beatles dissent (“Let Us Now NOT Praise The Beatles”?), and that will be both fun and enlightening. There’s plenty to go around and it’s certainly not all without merit. But there’s something in the mere phraseology of artists who can’t fathom that dissent (“they’re lying,” “I broke up with them,” “there’s something fucking wrong with them”) that says so much about the universality of the Beatles’ appeal and the depth of their cultural impact.
Rick Wakeman — known to most of us as a grand old icon of progressive rock but also a classically trained pianist with a formidable command of historical piano repertory — said recently, “I don't think there's a musician alive today that hasn't been influenced in one way or the other by the Beatles.” Not a musician alive today? Hyperbole perhaps; but it goes some way to explaining why some musicians call others who hate the Beatles liars: thousands of other musicians, across multiple genres, would agree with Wakeman. When it comes to the Beatles, happily that kind of hyperbole seems to be the most viral of them all.
Years later the Clash would explain that the “phony Beatlemania” lyric was always misunderstood: it’s set up by the previous line, “now don’t look to us,” and was a rant at empty nostalgia and idol worship, not at the Beatles themselves. And even “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones!” had a qualifier: by the early 1980s Joe Strummer was taking to barking “But John Lennon rules, ok?” immediately afterward.
In fact, in a particularly jarring admission, Jones said in 2007 that he was a big fan of “[Just Like] Starting Over,” John Lennon’s 1980 comeback single. “Don’t tell the punk police, but I loved this at the time and I love it now.”
In 2015 Lydon finally suggested a reason why he could never abide the Beatles. “The Beatles were poisoned for me when I was young because my mum and dad played them all the time, so it would drill into my head like rusty nails. ‘She loves you, yeah yeah yeah . . .’ It’s hard to get that stuff out of your head.” He’s also another example of the non-Beatles fan who loves Lennon. In the same interview he admits that, “In my memory, there's always a great place for John Lennon. Always. Working Class Hero and the album Imagine are highlights of my musical collection.”
The inclusion of The Doors and Creedence Clearwater Revival on a list of bands that “rocked way harder” is rather comical and kind of self-disqualifies the post to begin with. But that’s also beside the point.