That the Beatles were a cultural phenomenon is beyond doubt. The cult of Beatlemania, and the immense impact that the group had on an America suffering from post-JFK trauma are things that almost certainly will never be repeated on anything like the same scale if at all. Their iconic status as the embodiment of the 1960s is etched indelibly into history. But on purely musical terms, has there ever been such a deified sacred cow?
We live in a world run by the “baby boomers”. The post-war generation that Harold MacMillan famously claimed “had never had it so good” are the ones at the top in politics, business and culture. They are ageneration that never knew the deprivations of the depression or the world at war. They grew up in an environment of full employment and readily disposable income. The sixties were their coming of age, and as time moved on, they have raised up their own teenage heroes to the status of demi-gods.
Joining the ranks of middle aged baby boomer rock critics as arbiters of good taste is a younger generation raised on a diet of grim Britpoop and indie music. This was the stuff that was left when the corporate labels took the fruits of post-punk experimentalism, ripped out all of the interesting bits and left us with twenty years of guitar bands who relentlessly cut, paste and recycle the music of 1964 to 1968 with the occasional punky flourish.
In between was a generation who were too young to remember the sixties and whose clarion call was “No Elvis, Beatles or Rolling Stones in 1977”. Guess I’m talkin’ ’bout my generation here. To us the Beatles were just an old group with no special significance attached, and we were encouraged to look forward not back. Many people I knew then had a record collection that had year zero as the first Ramones LP, with just a couple of things like the Velvets and the Stooges as a concession to the past. I was never so dogmatic as that and eagerly explored music of all eras. This was in part due to a childhood love of Motown and seventies pop-soul that I never lost during my teenaged punk and post-punk years. I discovered, and became a fan of, groups as diverse as Love, Springsteen, Fairport Convention, Can and Van Der Graaf Generator. One group that left me absolutely cold, though, was the Beatles.
I don’t know what it was exactly. The inane lyrics didn’t help. The mumsy image of the Beatle-suits. Those cloying, sugary harmonies. The limp and lifeless covers of Motown classics. OK, so that’s the early period. But they never lost that wholesome “Family entertainment” aura, even when they were allegedly consuming industrial quantities of psychedelics. It didn’t exactly turn them into the Thirteenth Floor Elevators did it? Sergeant Pepper is more Sunday Night at the London Paladium than at the Fillmore West. The Beach Boys could be twee, but even the execrable Friends album doesn’t have anything as nauseating as “Yellow Submarine” on it. That’s from Revolver. The greatest album of all time (copyright dullard music critics everywhere). Even the Monkees, a plastic version of the Beatles created for teen TV managed to be more exciting than the real thing. How’d they do that? And how many times have I been listening to some soul compilation or other to have it all but ruined by some lame Lennon and McCartney song. Wilson Pickett: “Mustang Sally”, “In The Midnight Hour”, “If You Need Me”.”Hey Jude”. Aretha Franklin: “I Never Loved A Man”, “I Say A Little Prayer”, “Think”. “Eleanor Rigby”. Do I need to say any more?
Browse any music reference section in a bookshop or library and the shelves groan under the weight of books espousing the “correct” views on what are the musical highpoints of the rock era. Among the untouchable artifacts are the run of Beatles albums from Rubber Soul to Abbey Road whose qualities are unquestioned and uncritically lauded in a form of cultural Stalinism. As the years have passed, the group’s malign influence and invulnerable status has, if anything, grown. From the annual Mojo covers, to the dreary tribute bands like Oasis and their ilk, the Beatles are continually rammed down our throats like castor oil. Is it supposed to be good for us? ‘Cause it tastes like shit to me.
What surprises me is that there are not more voices raised against this conventional wisdom of the Beatles as some kind of peak of twentieth century artistic endeavour. Friends ranging from jazzbos and underground rock fans to soul and dance heads have opinions of the group that run from “they’re alright, I s’pose” to outright antipathy. So who are all these Beatles fans? And can they piss off and take their bloody group with them please!