[10 November 2009]
One of the most enduring Beatles legacies is the myth of innovation. Briefly stated, the myth of innovation suggests that the Beatles remain important to the history of music because of the innovation that went on in their music. I want to briefly outline the enduring legacy of this myth and then suggest that elusiveness is more important in long-term appreciation of the Beatles.
The Beatles were innovative on every level. Musically, they invented backward masking, dance-rock (“Baby, You’re a Rich Man”), backwards guitar solos, pudding drums, automatic double-tracking and DI’ed bass. The Beatles also restlessly reinvented their art. They used modal songwriting in “Norwegian Wood”, explored the impact of drugs, self-loathing, and more.
The Beatles innovation did not stop with music. They invented long-form music videos (Magical Mystery Tour), changed the expectation of performances (e.g. Ed Sullivan Show, the rooftop Apple Corporation show), invented the idea of the studio band, and gave new ideas of cover art and fashion.
No lesser authority than Ian MacDonald notes that “treating the Beatles as icons can only be fruitful for young pop musicians because they coin(ed) almost every trend which has succeeded them”. But the truly mythic aspect to the Beatles innovation myth is how entrenched it is in modern musical and critical thinking. Indie has swallowed whole the dictum that music must be innovative to be worthwhile. The restless people who quickly get bored with Stereolab’s new album for sounding like the last one, the vicious scenesterism of blogs vying to find the new sound, the large-scale emphasis on new genres, these are all part of our absorption in the innovation myth. To be good, you must be new. Even punk’s existence as a reaction to prog, post-punk’s decision to use punk to create new worlds reflects, to some extent, the innovation myth.
It is convenient for historians to stress the myth of innovation. For example, Robert Palmer stresses the change in the Beatles post-Dylan, they started to write meaningful songs like “Eleanor Rigby”. It is easy to construct histories in which newer music is different to older music, much easier, in fact, than talking about the emotional relevance or impact of music.
But convenience for historians doesn’t necessarily add up to a whole view of the Beatles. If you ask most Beatles fans what their favorite Beatles songs are they probably won’t list the tracks I’ve mentioned so far—at least not from the history books. The reason for this is simple: the most moving and affecting works the Beatles produced are often the least innovative.
Take, for example, “Something”, “Here Comes the Sun”, and “Hey Jude”. These are the songs which people love to sing along to, which mean something to all who hear them, but they are also not particularly innovative. One common factor in the above-mentioned songs is their allusive nature. They always have a quality of opening up to new worlds. The waking up the dead quality of “Here Comes the Sun” is in the music, in the synthesizer and orchestration rising up slowly, in the playful strum of the guitar, in the gentle take-up of the drums. And each time we listen we feel the world open up a little more, we feel that taste of spring arriving.
I don’t know where the elusiveness comes from. It could be from links back to older music forms like the blues, to physiological links to our body rhythms, or to spirits. It may just be that it takes some time to understand the expressive meaning of innovations so that the later works have more emotional depth. Wherever elusiveness comes from, it is ultimately these moments that make the Beatles still worth listening to.
While innovation is important to help push music forward, it is ultimately less important than elusiveness. Innovation is a good challenge for artists, but many innovative acts are, in the long run, quite boring. Once innovation is absorbed into the mainstream it loses its power. However, the power of the more elusive songs of the Beatles stays with us, their worlds and emotional suggestiveness giving them new life each time we listen.