Why the Brilliance of the Beatles Should Piss You Off

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What would have happened to the evolution of American music without the invention of the Beatles? (Photo: The Beatles)

Commemorating the anniversary of an assassination is somewhat offensive, because doing so also memorializes the assassin, those pasty, bloated, narcissistic moths who live only to sizzle on someone else’s porch light. We should celebrate the life of John Lennon 365 days a year, and forget the name of his killer.

We should celebrate the life of John Lennon 365 days a year, and forget the name of his killer.

I would like to honor John Lennon’s life by doing something I suspect he would approve of: realistically addressing a couple of aspects of the mind-numbingly massive and complex legacy of the Beatles. Time, and the tragic martyrdom of their most martyr-hating member, has made the Beatles something no artist—and no man—should ever be: infallible. The Beatles were plenty goddamn fallible, and treating them as gods stands in the way of accurately interpreting their place in history. Let us take them out of Mount Olympus, so we can love them more.

Now, not a word of this is meant to denigrate the Beatles’ creative achievements; their music is monumental, magical, infinitely creative, revelatory, valedictory and endlessly instructive to anyone who has studied (or ever will study) music, our time, the story of the West, the age of electric; nor is there any intent here to disparage the Beatles as people. Their work, their personalities, stand uncorrupted. It is the effect their body of work had on America that I wish to bring to account.

When I was a child, Thanksgiving was a big deal. We were taught a fairly rigid story that celebrated the role of the white man in taming a savage republic, and we commemorated this with all manner of pageants, recitations and TV movies. Between our dreams of Buzz Aldrin and Bud Harrelson, we may have suspected that something was wrong with that picture, but folding construction paper into pilgrim hats and cutting paper feathers for our faux-Indian headdress was, all things considered, a fairly easy way to pass a day. At some point, we began to recognize that the holiday actually commemorated the arrival of people whose goal was to annihilate native culture, to erase the rites, rights and way of livelihood of an entire continents aboriginal population.

The Beatles did not intend to commit an act of cultural genocide, I am quite sure of it. But the effect they had on the musical DNA of the United States is so profound that it virtually had that outcome.

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(Photo: The Beatles)

Like the brave men and women who colonized this continent, laced its prairies and deserts with the railroad and made the mountains sigh under the weight of the automobile, the Beatles erased a culture; like the men and women who brought this side of the Earth the grace and compassion of Christian-Judeo worship, the Beatles erased a culture; like the men and women who tamed cotton, cattle, wheat, and rice and made food rise from the rocks of the land, the Beatles erased a culture; like the people who built the grandest cities Gaia had ever known, and filled those cities with industry, the Beatles erased a culture.

The Beatles’ invention was so devastatingly brilliant it obliterated the gorgeous musical evolution of the culture of an entire continent.

Think, for a moment, of how a few classic American rock songs are constructed. Consider “Who Do You Love” or “Bo Diddley” by the artist of the same name; Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Great Balls of Fire,” Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally,” and Elvis’ “That’s Alright Mama”; and let’s also throw in Eddie Cochran’s “Something Else” or “Summertime Blues.” These songs all basically find a riff, a rhythm or a melodic line and they’re off and running; there may be various shades of mood or volume, some instrumental-only bits, and perhaps a few stop/starts, but basically, it’s a train moving down the tracks in one direction, without stopping for a bridge.

This format—you sing a verse until your work is done—is a natural descendent of African-American work songs. To put it in simplistic terms, when you were breaking rock, moving rail or picking cotton, you sang to keep the work gang coordinated in rhythm (eight people trying to straighten a length of railroad track all at different times doesn’t get very much done; eight people doing it at once in rhythm moves the rail). Structurally, very, very little differentiates a song like “That’s Alright Mama,” “Long Tall Sally” or even The Sonics’ “Have Love Will Travel” from the field recordings Alan Lomax made of work songs that long predated rock and roll.

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(Photo: The Beatles)

But there’s another way of writing songs.

This vein begins with the affecting, often brilliant, and (most of all) compact and organized songs of Stephen Foster; this reasonable, orderly, less aboriginal and less function-based style of songwriting led to the melody-factories that came to be known as Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building (this is a nearly grotesque over-simplification, but it will have to do). Each of those names initially referred to a specific place—locales where work-for-hire songwriters composed en masse, as a day job—but have also come to stand for a certain, fairly identifiable, style of songwriting. The verse/chorus/verse/chorus/bridge/chorus repeat form of songwriting that is synonymous with (what we generally consider) a pop song is derived from this Foster/Tin Pan Alley/Brill Building format.

The Beatles’ invention was so devastatingly brilliant it obliterated the gorgeous musical evolution of the culture of an entire continent.

Despite being English, perhaps the single most seismic act of the Beatles was introducing the relatively rigid Brill Building/Tin Pan Alley form of songwriting to British electric beat groups (who up to that time had primarily been influenced by hillbilly, trad jazz, English Music Hall and that peculiar mash-up of all three of those styles, Skiffle).

See, even if this “polite,” white and systematic form of songwriting impacted rock in the years before the Beatles (and it most certainly did: for instance, after leaving Sun Records, Elvis performed Brill Building songs almost exclusively, and amazing proto-rock artists like Wynonie Harris and the Treniers, to name two, sang songs easily recognizable as products of post-Foster regimentation), prior to the Beatles a rather huge chunk of American rock and R&B retained a very fierce character that had precious little to do with this formalism, and could still draw a straight line of descent from slave ship, plantation and holler. This beautiful blur, ancient and modern and played on gourds and Gibsons, literally stops dead at the Beatles’ door.

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Cultural demolition men. (Photo: The Beatles)

And when that line stops, the potential for evolution stops, too. What on Earth would have happened to American music, what magic would have evolved, if the lovable Beatles virus hadn’t changed everything? The Beatles’ invention was so charming, persuasive, powerful and attractive that it virtually wiped the slate clean of American guitar bands working in the “old” mode, the mode defined by the music of the hills, bayous, hollers, plantations and inner-city sidewalk rhymes.

(True, some remnants lived on—in Pet Sounds and SMiLE, Brian Wilson tried to do nothing less than integrate a century and more of American tics into a harmonic acid dream—and electric bands descended from the folk and bluegrass boom, like the Lovin’ Spoonful, Tim Buckley and the Dead, not to mention Zappa and Beefheart, tried to swim against the tide with some success.)

But the link had been cut. We will never know how the American sound would have evolved if the lineage had continued without interruption, if there had been a continued evolution from the sound of Bo Diddley, Eddie Cochran and Huey Piano Smith to a more progressive and artistically engaged form of music, without the interregnum of the Beatles.

What on Earth would have happened to American music if the lovable Beatles virus hadn’t changed everything?

The sound of our times was created by atrocity.

Slaves and their descendants birthed rock and pop, and the parts they weren’t responsible for were sired by America’s disenfranchised, both black and white. The entire foundation of pre-Beatles rock was built, virtually in whole, by those shut out financially and politically from the American dream, those consigned to menial jobs in an inescapable American underclass caused by Jim Crow and enormously strong barriers in class and education. The onset of Beatle ubiquity did its very best to derail the power of that connection by watering it down with the ethnic forgeries and musical fripperies of Tin Pan Alley and the Brill Building. The Beatles meant no harm, I am quite sure of it, but their music did its best to ensure that you would forget that there is a slave market lying at the foundation of every tom roll and bass line.

There’s another reason why this is such a big deal. It’s important to contemplate the role Beatle-ism may have played in muting meaningful political dissent via music in the 1960s. Again, this was in no way a deliberate intention of the Beatles, but it is a fascinating and deeply troubling byproduct of a “revolution” that advocated and advised stylistic change over political action of any real consequence.

Let the kids fight to grow their hair long and wear short skirts, and maybe they’ll think that’s actual protest.

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The Beatles performing at the Winter Gardens in 1963. (Photo: The Beatles)

This almost cruel deception, which has wasted the times and hopes of many generations since the allegedly countercultural, hippie minstrelsy of the 1960s, is echoed more recently: Black Flag changed nothing but the way independent bands toured (mind you, a fairly important thing, but did it stop Reagan or Bush?). Likewise, how did the Earth really change because a lot of people sang “All You Need Is Love”? Boy, after they heard that, the Viet Cong and Robert McNamara just dropped everything and sang “Kumbaya,” didn’t they.

Although the Beatles came to represent a certain aspect of the 1960s’ cultural rebellion, this was an utterly different animal than the challenges to authority posed by pre-Beatles rock music in the 1950s. Rock in the 1950s—and that includes white appropriations, like those of Elvis—threatened certain people because it carried the aroma of the disenfranchised classes, particularly the African-Americans, who white and corporate America had done so much to install as a permanent underclass. The Beatles’ cultural revolution did not truly threaten the status quo, because its Tin Pan Alley-ism did not smell or sound like the work of the underclass.

The kind of stylistic rebellion done in the Beatles’ name (i.e., people thinking that dressing like their wackily dressed heroes is actually an act of rebellion) is far, far less threatening than the potential class destabilization posed by music that directly descended from the semi-permanent American underclass made up of former slaves and poor rural whites. In other words, think of those old newsreels you see of people protesting “n*gger” music in the 1950s and early 1960s; the Beatles crooning “When I’m 64” and “Till There Was You” would have been perfectly damn fine with those buzz-headed troglodytes.

When you take the Beatles off the cross, you can examine their impact in a genuinely informative and realistic way that honors them.

I’d like to think dear John Lennon was at least slightly aware of the points I outlined above.

One of his albums, the stunning Plastic Ono Band, seems to have a stark, chilling, desperate power that evokes an effect similar to the songs Alan Lomax recorded at Louisiana’s Parchman Prison in the 1940s; and another one of his albums, Sometime in New York City, is a genuine attempt to go beyond chatting about stylistic revolution and incite genuine political action (likewise, some of Paul McCartney’s best work of the last 30 years has been the amazing albums he recorded with Youth as The Firemen, where he abandoned the formalism of Beatle-ism virtually completely).

Once again, not a word of the above diminishes the extraordinary aural and artistic accomplishments and inventions of the Beatles, and I am very aware that the Fabs have provided more genuine pleasure and inspired more musicians than any other band, now or ever. But when you take them off the cross, you can examine their impact in a genuinely informative and realistic way that honors them, the music that inspired them, and the music that thrived before they set foot in America.

P.S. Do you know that if you listen very carefully to footage of the living Beatles recording in the 1990s for the Anthology project, you can actually hear Jeff Lynne rubbing his hands together and saying “My precious…my precious”?

Thanks to Johnnie Johnstone. A small portion of this piece dealing with the political implications of the Beatles originally appeared in his amazing blog, thenewperfectcollection.com. Also thanks to David Klein, who graciously chewed over some of these ideas with me.