Mark vs Cancer

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Beatles' Genius

I recently have been reading through a special edition of Rolling Stone, "The Beatles 100 Greatest Songs."  It has been a exhilarating trip down the penny lanes of nostalgia and creative genius.

I think the enjoyment comes from recognizing and relishing their genius, which was so unique, so fresh and challenging, so overpowering that, in the span of eight short years, they revolutionized the world of music, and the world generally.  How did they do it?  How did they go from Liverpool to the Ed Sullivan Theatre to Strawberry Fields to Abbey Road, from Yesterday to Tomorrow Never Comes to A Day In The Life to The End in the short span of eight years?  Seeing in pictures the physical transformation of the group is fascinating, from the close cropped hair of the early years, to the mop tops of their American invasion, to the John-Lennon-is-Jesus hippie look of the later years.  What would it have been like to have witness that evolution--no, revolution--in real time.  I remember my dad relating to me the sheer excitement he felt when taking the newest Beatles LP out of its sleeve for the first time.

The creative collaboration between John and Paul was propulsive, ecstatic with energy, and yet some of their very best songs were written by George.  Ringo seemed to be the perfect complimentary personality for the group, congenial and comedic.  What would have happened if they hadn't been pushing each other?  It's interesting that early in their careers, they didn't really even consider themselves talented song writers.

The external rivalries and collaborations with their contemporaries are also fascinating.  Bob Dylan and John Lennon had a decades-long rivalry going.  Paul and Brian Wilson of the Beach Boys were constantly trying to one-up each other:  Rubber Soul begat Pet Sounds which begat Sgt. Peppers which eventually begat Good Vibrations.  Chuck Berry, Elvis, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, and most other contemporary rock and rollers and folk rockers figure prominently in the Beatles' development, yet they also seemed ahead of the curve, pushing and exploding the envelopes, dragging the rest of the musical and cultural universe along with them.  The songs are all forty-plus years old, and yet they sound as energetic and pertinent as ever.  Timeless.

It all happened so fast.  Eight years ago I was just graduating from medical school, which still in some ways seems like yesterday.  But in eight years, John, Paul, George and Ringo changed the world.  They weren't even thirty when they broke up.

There are such interesting parallels in their music that matched their trajectory as a group, from the explosive energy of the early chords that heralded their arrival, to the psychedelia of the middle drug-infused years, to the mature, contemplative ballads of the later years.  And yet the music was sublime every step of the way.  It's as if they simultaneously created and mastered this new form of musical expression.  They couldn't have known that Let It Be would be the title track for their last released album, or that the final song from their final recording session, which would become Abbey Road, would be entitled "The End" and finish with lyrics "And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make."  The long and winding road came to a presaged ending.
But I guess the simplest reason that reading about the Beatles songs is enjoyable is because the music is just so good, and so familiar.  I think we all have imprinted in our brains, in a literal way, the massive original creative output of these four boys from Liverpool.  Hearing these songs, or even just reading about them, instantly trips multiple pleasure switches in the brain.  It's almost like some of these songs exist independent of their creators, like they were melodies and harmonies and lyrics that the Beatles didn't so much write as discover, digging them out of the ether of the cosmos, polishing them, and then leaving their indelible fingerprints all over them.  In some cases, like Yesterday and Blackbird, that is true:  Paul woke up and fell out of bed with the fully formed song buzzing through his brain.  Sometimes, genius is a work of persistence, and sometimes a product of inspiration.  In the Beatles case, it was seemed almost like an organic, synergistic and semi-spontaneous phenomenon.

Here are the top fifty songs from Rolling Stone's list.  I don't quite agree with all of their placements, but how can you argue, when their perfection was so prolific?

  1. A Day In The Life
  2. I Want To Hold Your Hand
  3. Strawberry Fields Forever
  4. Yesterday
  5. In My Life
  6. Something
  7. Hey Jude
  8. Let It Be
  9. Come Together
  10. While My Guitar Gently Weeps
  11. A Hard Day's Night
  12. Norwegian Wood
  13. Revolution
  14. She Loves You
  15. Help!
  16. I Saw Her Standing There
  17. Ticket to Ride
  18. Tomorrow Never Knows
  19. Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds
  20. Please Please Me
  21. All You Need Is Love
  22. Eleanor Rigby
  23. Abbey Road Medley
  24. Happiness Is A Warm Gun
  25. Here, There, And Everywhere
  26. If I Fell
  27. You're Going To Lose That Girl
  28. Here Comes The Sun
  29. Can't Buy Me Love
  30. We Can Work It Out
  31. You've Got To Hide Your Love Away
  32. Penny Lane
  33. I Am The Walrus
  34. Eight Days A Week
  35. Paperback Writer
  36. I Should Have Known Better
  37. She Said She Said
  38. Blackbird
  39. Day Tripper
  40. For No One
  41. Get Back
  42. I Feel Fine
  43. Drive My Car
  44. All My Loving
  45. No Reply
  46. Don't Let Me Down
  47. Things We Said Today
  48. The Ballad of John and Yoko
  49. The Night Before
  50. Got to Get You Into My Life


        Anonymous said...

        I am wondering what Maggie will change about this..

        Yours truly,

        Matthew said...

        The Beatles were certainly pivotal in the development of rock and pop music. Many of their songs are simply perfect examples of the form.

        For me, what makes Beatles' tunes so unique is they way they blended the traditional format of pop music (for instance the AABA song structure) with rule-breaking creativity. Nearly every Beatles tune has some kind of strange curveball in it, even in their early work. An odd chord change (Please Please Me, Michelle), unique instrumentation (Norwegian Wood) or bizarre time signatures (Dig A Pony, I Want You She's So Heavy). And of course, there are always those sublime, perfect melodies.

        I always say that, if you want to learn how to write good songs, listen to the Beatles and you won't go wrong. They were pivotal to my development as a musician and I rarely tire of their music.

        Having said that, geez Beatles nostalgia has been done to death! Magazines love to publish crap like this because of the celebrity worship factor. The Beatles were masters of their art, but they were not gods, just four guys with talent who happened to come on the scene during a pivotal period in the development of rock music. I'd personally rather listen to the tunes rather than read yet another list of top Beatles songs.

        People were so heartbroken when they broke up, but at the end of the day they were just another rock band, albeit one that recorded exceptionally timeless music. Lennon was particularly sanguine about it and said something at the time to the effect of, "Well the albums are still there and you can just listen to them if you want."

        There are literally hundreds of Beatles-influenced bands that have recorded much wonderful music in the past 40 years, among them Denver's own Apples In Stereo. There's no reason to keep rehashing the Beatles to death when so many bands have continued and expanded upon what they did.

        But yeah, I still love the coda to "Hey Jude", all these years later, for all the hundreds of times I've heard it. And ditto for many more of their songs. Timeless.

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