Sunday, April 18, 2010

Best of the Beatles

Years ago when I was in college, I struck up a conversation with a fellow student about The Beatles. It turned out that we were both big fans. Unlike me though, this guy was a lot more well versed in music, and he had the vocabulary to explain some of the things that were so special about some of their songs. He was able to break down one song in particular and point out how the note at the end of one of the verses was tricky and completely different from what you'd expect from a typical song's structure.

Of course, he must have been talking about something that was post-Revolver when the band started to experiment with different sounds and instruments and became more of a studio band than a touring band. Right?

Wrong. He was talking about "I Saw Her Standing There." That's a song off of their first album, Please Please Me.

I've been a fan of The Beatles as far back as I can remember. They're one of those bands that my mom would listen to that I not only liked then, but I still like now. (What do I no longer like? ABBA. What did I never like? I'm looking at you, Air Supply.) By the time I got my first CD player when I was in high school, I started collecting all of their music. I found myself liking pretty much everything, but if I was forced to pick a favorite, it would probably be Rubber Soul. To me, that album really showcases how their music was progressing from catchy pop tunes to much more sophisticated fare.

Of course, I would encounter people who didn't like the Fab Four. Personally, I think that there's something sinister about people like that. It's like not liking puppies or chocolate. It just ain't right. Aside from that, I'd talk with some people who thought that pretty much everything pre-Rubber Soul was worthless, and then I'd hear from those who thought that everything past that was too "weird". As for me, I did, and still do, defend the entire catalog. I think it's safe to say that I'm not alone on this score.

As for the early stuff, sure the lyrics aren't too insightful and they don't really probe any deeper issues for the most part. It is what it is - pure pop music. However, there has to be some reason why it has stood the test of time and continues to find new fans whereas so much has fallen by the wayside. I think that the key thing to figuring out why is to actually listen to the music (what a crazy concept!) Even with their early records, there's a lot more going on than just a catchy hook. I've been listening to this stuff for decades now, and after playing along with these songs on The Beatles Rock Band I'm still catching little subtleties in the music that I had not noticed before (or I had perhaps forgotten about). Perhaps much of the credit is due to their producer, George Martin, but ultimately it was Lennon and McCartney who wrote the majority of those early hits.

The maturity of their lyrics came earlier than a lot of people might think though, as I'd argue that songs like "If I Fell" and "Things We Said Today" are amongst some of their best, lyric-wise, and they appear on their third album, A Hard Day's Night. The next album was Beatles for Sale, and that one has some great lyrics on songs like "I'll Follow the Sun" and "I'm a Loser". With each successive album, you got songs with lyrics that were more and more sophisticated while still maintaining the great melodies that they already had going for them.

As for the later stuff, sure "I Am the Walrus" is pretty nonsensical. However, I don't think that Lennon was trying to create some kind of unified, cohesive statement with them. He was just putting together words and sentences that sounded interesting together. I don't have a problem with that sort of a thing. I have a problem with lyrics when they're trying to say something but are nonsensical when you think about them. (See "Ironic" by Alanis Morrisette and "Life is a Highway" by Tom Cochran and that cheesy country band that covers the song.) Still, "I am the Walrus" remains one of their most popular songs.

Is it possible that Beatles fans are just apologists and are willing to say that anything that they did was good? I suppose that's possible. However, I know myself pretty well, and I think that I'm pretty good at being objective and realizing when I like something for reasons other than the fact that there's some genuine quality there. (See my Clash of the Titans review.) If I was like this, I'd try to tell you that anything post-Kieth Moon by The Who was good. I'd try to tell you that 70s Elvis (and the soundtrack to Clam Bake) was just as good as what he was doing in the 1950s. I'd try to tell you that most of Paul McCartney's solo career wasn't a colossal waste of time!

But "I am the Walrus"? Dammit, that's just a good song. It rewards careful listening. There's a lot going on, and I curse my lack of musical vocabulary as I can't really put into words what's so interesting about it.

Here's the thing - there's a reason why they made a movie called Across the Universe that basically told a story through Beatles songs. There's a reason why they did that Cirque du Soleil tribute. There's a reason why The Beatles Rock Band was made whereas you don't see The Troggs Rock Band. It's because pound for pound, the Beatles put out a high ratio of quality music. No other band comes close. I don't know of any other band that has that many albums and songs where I can listen to everything and only consider a few parts to be the low notes. People will continue to discover them years from now, and a lot of other bands - even some good ones, and even some of my absolute favorite ones - will be an interesting footnote in musical history. It's not because there's some sort of international conspiracy that perpetuates some sort of myth about them. It's because they really are that good.

1 comment:

Ingrid said...

I like "Come Together" best.