Are you a Beatles fan? I am. Maybe that paints me with a certain brush, but I should say that I’m not a collector. I’m just a guy who likes the band. I’ve found them musically inspirational. I’ve listened to them my whole life. But whenever the Beatles come up, all of these popular myths start percolating. These are some of my answers to the most common ones.
Myth one: Yoko Ono Ruined the Beatles.
Yoko Ono is a great and deserving artist completely apart from her relationship with John Lennon. People who say differently usually have a few agendas, like thinking that somehow without her John would have stuck with the band and been happy, or his divisive and difficult relationship with Paul would have been cured. Or, they’re outright racists who think that somehow she was somehow subverting her geisha heritage and cashing in with the rock star. If you would like to argue to me about Yoko’s negative influence on the Beatles, first prove to me that you have a working understanding of Dada and Fluxus, and then frame your argument without falling back on easy-to-dismiss stereotypes. If the thrust of your argument is “her music sucks” then keep it to yourself. If your argument is “she’s ugly”—the most common I’ve heard—well then. You showed John. Good work.
Myth Two: Linda McCartney ruined Wings
Okay, this is outside the balliwick of what I’m talking about, but despite some embarrassingly bad vocal tracks pulled from live performances, rock music almost always benefits from a little naivte. Good for Paul for sticking to his guns and doing what he wanted, damn the critics. In any case, blaming the women in their lives for ruining the Beatles is to say that they were just whipped little boys who were puppets for the pulling. I honestly think that both of these men, in their day-to-day lives, were probably tremendous pains in the ass to be around—more to each other than to anybody else—but likely to everybody in their lives. Lennon particularly so. In any case, let’s give them a little credit to make their own choices about their lives, without second guessing everything they did, and then blaming it all on the women they had the good fortune to love.
Myth Three: A Beatles Reunion would have ruled
A Beatles Reunion would have sucked. Proof? Free As A Bird. Don’t get me wrong, I like the song as a cool Beatles-sounding thing by some tribute band, but the one thing you should expect from hearing a Beatles album for the first time is that it won’t sound like you expect. It should challenge you and sonically take you somewhere you haven’t been yet. Did Free As a Bird do that for you? Secondly, although all of the Beatles at one time or another made good music after the band broke up, I would argue that none of them made great music. This is a matter of taste, obviously, but John’s strongest albums suffered from his seriousness, and Paul’s suffered from his lack of seriousness. I personally love some of John’s solo work very much, but nowhere near as much as I like the Beatles.
Of course, that argument might be rendered null by the fact that the Beatles strength was their interaction. It could be that Lennon and McCartney getting together again would have sparked something. My belief, however, is that a reunion would have required super-human transcendence of their own legend. It would have been double-edged sword. Either they would be the Beatles of old, and satisfy the fans who just want to hear the hits and more hits like them, or they would have been innovators and dissapointing to the fans who want the hits, but potentially exciting to the fans who love the Beatles because of sheer musicianship. Either way they cut one swath of fans. Damned if they do. Best to don’t.
Myth Four: Ringo’s songs suck.
C’mon—let’s hear your best tune in context next to a Lennon/McCartney juggurnaut. Ringo’s songs were better than 50% of the guitar-by-numbers crap that was flooding U.S. shores from Britain in those days. His latest album, Choose Love, is actually quite good.
Myth Five: The Beatles were a great live band.
The key word in that myth is “were”. When they were rocking the cavern club, or singing to prostitutes and druggies in Germany, yes, they were from all accounts a great live band. But after they stopped touring, and their music got more introspective they became a studio band. Masters of the medium. But what about Let It Be? you might ask. Doesn’t that dissprove this point? Well, that might depend on how you feel about Phil Specter. It may hint that they could have owned the stage again, but they didn’t. This, of course, ignoring the argument that Let it Be is one of their weakest albums, and essentially was an abandoned project put out by the studio to capitalize on the Beatles breakup and contractual obligations.
But more to the point I’m trying to make is not that the Beatles wouldn’t have been good or great live, but that they choose not to be a live band and became a studio band. Let’s not forget to give props here to Sir George Martin, who was as much a master of recording technology, composition and music as the Beatles were of crafting pop songs. Pick up his All You Need Is Ears for some good inside-the-studio perspective on the Beatles.
Myth Six: Michael Jackson should have never sold the Beatles music to commercials.
Fact is, the Beatles are a money-making commodity item. Like it or not. They are also, currently, 40 years old. It’s fine to argue that art should never be sold for commercial purposes—and actually I agree with that sentiment for the most part—but let’s not impose our punk-rock ethos on the Beatles, whom are beloved by millions of people. Fact is, the Beatles at some time or another need to become old and tired to people’s ears so that some new partnership may arise—some new Lennon and McCartney—and recreate what popular music is. Some might argue that Kurt Cobain did it, others will point to Radiohead, Wilco or even the White Stripes—but I say we haven’t yet experienced it. Or, if might be years before we realize that we’re experiencing it now.
As much as I hate hearing rock favorites recycled on car commercials, the fact is that we need that music to degrade in the pop-culture landscape, like a hillside degrades in the real-world landscapes. The sooner it happens, the sooner innovators will come in and prove to us that you can be a pop sensation without losing any artistry. My prediction, is that like the Beatles, they’ll do it as a band that sell singles. And, when they hit, they will avail themselves of the newest technology to make us discover that things we never thought possible were within the reach of humans all along. That, I think, is worth the admission price of not letting the Beatles fester in a hermetically-sealed memory, but to let them wax and wane in memory.
Just to be extra clear: My position is not that it was right to sell the songs to be used in commercials, I am sad that it happened. What I am saying is that this is a natural progression and started when the Beatles became a phenomenon. If you want to blame anybody, blame the fact that Michael Jackson was able to buy the songs in the first place. He was just acting as any good capitalist and maximizing returns on his financial investment.
Posted by: Martin McClellan
On the date of: February 3, 2006 10:30 PM