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A few theses about the Beatles

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Monday, Sep 10, 2007

These were inspired by reading this alternately brilliant and irritiatingly self-involved essay in the Guardian by Jonathan Lethem.


1. George Harrison released the best solo album by a Beatle. This, of course, is Cloud Nine. Okay, it’s All Things Must Pass, and you have to ignore the god-awful third disc of jams appended to it. What this suggests is that Harrison had become the best songwriter in the Beatles by the end of their career, which is borne out by his contrbutions to Abbey Road and maybe even the Get Back sessions prior to that. By the end, McCartney was content to try to rewrite “Hey Jude” style anthems over and over, and Lennon couldn’t muster anything other than rote blues jams for the most part.


2. Ringo’s not such a bad drummer. Sure,  he’s not Ginger Baker back there, but he stays out of the way of the songs and plays admirably economical fills that have become part of the vocabulary of pop music. They are in fact a huge part of what signifies “Beatlesque.”


3. Lennon’s attempts at political expression are unfortunate. His heart was probably in the right place, but his attempts to be relevant weren’t particularly insightful. The band’s mere popularity was enough of a political statement in itself; the lyrics really didn’t need to make any sociocultural statements. It’s a shame because Lennon’s genius was for writing songs about personal pain: “Help”, “I’m a Loser”, “Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey.”


4. The Beatles became archetypes after the fact. They became famous as a group and thus ended up being interpreted in the media in terms of group-psychology notions about family dynamics and sociological types. The band members’ identities were defined in relation to one another on the basis of very limited samples of behavior and then became self-reinforcing. These identities seem to apply only to the individual Beatles as Beatles, and in terms of how they are understood publicly. Their private characters remain especially unknowable, though I think we know more about John and Paul’s “real selves” from Walls and Bridges and Give My Regards to Broad Street respectively then from any accomplishment they had while Beatles.


5. Beatles songs are in danger of becoming simply the soundtrack to the story of their own rise and fall. The proliferation of an industry based on the Beatles’ celebrity threatens to make their songs significant only in the context of the band’s history rather than standing alone and being absorbed into the private and personal life of listeners. Instead of being tied to the listener’s specific memories, the songs tend to signify first and foremost the Beatles themselves. The same way Abba’s songs are now the soundtrack to a broadway musical rather than possibly the soundtrack of your life, the Beatles songs mark moments of progress of the Fab Four on their way to beatification. You can vicariously pretend to their lives, but it’s much harder to imagine they had your dilemmas in mind when they were churning out hits.

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