Can’t talk about the 60s, especially 60s “Love,” without dealing with the Beatles. Last time we were occupied with one of their so-so late 60s numbers, but here we’ll be giving them their real due, by considering their early style. Let’s begin with this , part of a recent appraisal of the band by Mark Judge, one of the conservative pundits on pop-culture for Acculturated:

Today’s pop stars aren’t weird enough.

That’s the conclusion I came to after listening to the magnificent new Beatles’ vinyl boxed set, a gorgeous doorstopper that includes every album the Fab Four made. . . . Listening to The Beatles soup to nuts, I was struck with an unusual thought: what a weird band. “A Hard Day’s Night.” “Eleanor Rigby.” “Dear Prudence.” “Glass Onion.” “I Am the Walrus.” “Hey Bulldog.” These are great songs, yes. But they are also strange songs. And it was the avant-garde strangeness and that made the Beatles truly revolutionary.

An honest reaction, with interesting possibilities, but I must say that I don’t think analysis like this is that helpful a way to take the measure of any band, and especially of the Beatles; at least, it isn’t that helpful when compared to what my main music guide Martha Bayles said about the Beatles’ musical style.

. . . Musically the Beatles did have an edge over the other Merseybeat groups. . . . In particular, Lennon urged his fellow Beatles to study American vocal groups, from the Everly Brothers to Motown, from Buddy Holly and the Crickets to doo-wop, from the Delmore Brothers to Alex Bradford’s Greater Abyssinian Baptist Choir.

To list these influences is not to disparage the Beatles’ initial accomplishment. On the contrary, they lived up to their many predecessors in the Afro-American idiom by stressing creative recombination over radical innovation. From Berry and Holly they took electric-guitar riffs and the importance of writing their own material; from the vocal groups and gospel, they took the knack of mixing harmony and with rhythm and the use of a mid-tempo range to maximize the effect of their singing; from Motown and Phil Spector, they took an emphasis on studio technique, from skiffle , they took a preference for self-played instrumentation over lavish studio arrangements. Given . . . the group’s natural talents, not to mention Lennon’s and McCartney’s gift for collaborative songwriting, these elements combined in a nifty new style.

I use the word “nifty: in a deliberate attempt to avoid the hyperbole that inflates most writing, past and present, about the Beatles. Basically the group replicated the experience of the first white rock n’ rollers: their splendid early style qualified as a truly original contribution to the Afro-American idiom, one of the few arising from a non-black source. But it wasn’t as original as their fellow Britons thought, due to two factors: first, the lack of British exposure to R&B; and second, the passionate desire for a distinctively British style of music capable of reversing the rock n’ roll trade deficit.

Bayles then quotes the great writer and much-missed DJ Charlie Gillett :

“The gospel-harmony groups had very little success in Britain, and the result for the British audience was a sound with a familiar rhythm and a novel vocal style. The way the Beatles echoed one another’s phrases, dragged out words across several beats . . . and went into falsetto cries, was received in Britain as their own invention . . . ”

I think the superiority of this sort of analysis to Judge’s is pretty obvious. We are able to stand back from the Beatles’ genius and see it in its appropriate larger context, that of the “Afro-American idiom.”

One caveat, though. While in full sympathy with what Bayles is up to here, of illustrating why, as Gillett puts it, the Beatles “kept telling anyone who would listen [that] there was nothing particularly new or startling in any of their records,” I think she may err a bit too much in the direction of downplaying their originality. That is, my sense is that the early Beatles style was actually a more unique and idiosyncratic recipe than 50s rockabilly had been. Both were made from existing American musical elements, but whereas rockabilly feels like an inevitable style many artists were organically moving towards around the time Elvis made his breakthrough with it, the early Beatles’ sound seems a bit more their own concoction.
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But I will give it up to Judge for going above and beyond the music blogger’s duty. For not only did the new boxed set inspire him to write a post, but if you follow the link you’ll see that he loved it so much he made an original video , featuring a young woman lovingly taking the plastic wrap off each record contained therein, flipping through the book of Beatles photos, and so on. Oh, everything with the woman is decent, but the way we see that fresh vinyl slipping out of its sleeves . . . ooo-lah-lah!
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P.S. What are your favorite early Beatles’ songs? Nothing past Revolver will be the rule, okay? Mine, at the moment: “Honey Don’t,” “Hide Your Love Away,” “I Feel Fine,” “Love Me Do,” and “Bad Boy.”

Articles by Carl Scott

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