Some of my tastes are a little on the peculiar side, and I sometimes wonder what they say about my sanity and my relationship with the outside world. But although I might have peculiar tastes in other areas, a vast majority of music fans and critics agrees with me when it comes to naming the greatest rock & roll act of the 20th century — and maybe beyond. Of course, I’m talking about the Fab Four; the Lads from Liverpool; the Mop-Tops; John, Paul, George, and Ringo — otherwise known as the Beatles. Does this paragraph sound like a trite cliché yet?
I’ve been a fan of the Beatles ever since the age of six, and while most of the music I listened to in my years growing up has lost its punch, I’ve never lost my ear for Beatles songs. Even the tunes I don’t particularly like are still very listenable and hold my interest. As a result, Beatles songs — whether performed by the four guys themselves or covered by other artists — are like mother’s milk to me, and just a few familiar notes from one of their songs can give me a solace that few other things can.
Recently, my admiration of the Beatles and their enormous musical legacy intensified — so much so that I joined an on-line Beatles discussion board, “BeatleLinks Fab Forum,” to discuss with other fans what we got out of their music. One of the site’s members started a thread titled “I Always Knew the Beatles Were Different,” in which he put his appreciation for the band in rather abstract terms. This was all perfectly fine as far as what the original poster wanted to say, but I wished to continue his thread by putting my appreciation in a language of things more tangible. Written before Phil Spector’s arrest on murder charges, my post read:
I’ve been thinking about what makes the Beatles special as well. What made them more than a flash in the pan? What makes them so enduring? I don’t think that anyone can come up with a completely 100% satisfactory answer. After all, they didn't come out of nowhere. If it hadn’t been for the precedents of Elvis Presley and Phil Spector, I doubt that the Beatles as we knew them would have come about.
Also, the contributions of George Martin to their records can’t be overestimated. A number of people still laugh up their sleeves at Decca Records passing on the group after they made their demos for the company in 1962. But if the Beatles had signed with Decca, what guarantee is there that the guys wouldn’t have remained a novelty group, one which was not allowed by the label to grow? It’s a bit of kismet that the Beatles and Martin were mutually open to influence and growth — even when such growth seemed to threaten making their records a “hit.”
If I were to name only three elements that set the Beatles apart from the competition, I would limit myself to these:
1. Merging rhythm & blues with Spector's “wall of sound”: I think that the most distinctive part of the Beatles’ early sound was in adapting the elaborate tinkerings characteristic of Phil Spector’s “wall of sound” to the relatively spare instrumentation traditionally associated with rhythm & blues. When you try to reproduce Spector-like fripperies with a four-piece rock & roll band, what you get is music like the Beatles played. The addition of relatively complicated three-part harmonies on most of their songs — harmonies more accessible than Elvis’ near-baritone and not as sugary as the Beach Boys’s — enhances the instrumentation. To me, this is the secret of the “Liverpool sound.”
2. Catchy hooks and chord changes: For better or worse, virtually all of pop music depends on these. If you don’t capture the listener with a riveting series of notes and chords, chances are that the song will not be a hit. And the Beatles became the masters of the hooks. In their early songs, the most noticeable of the compelling chord changes are the ending chord, a sixth chord, on “She Loves You” and the change to a minor chord in “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” (Ringo’s beat is helpful, but not essential.) In a documentary, Roger McGuinn says that the Beatles’ chord changes are closer to those found in folk music, rather than in the rock & roll of the era. [And in a recent documentary on the making of the Beatles’ film A Hard Day’s Night, cast member Kenneth Haigh says that their melodic style was specific to the folk music of northern England.] Of course, as the Beatles progressed, their music became less dependent on this pop-music idiom, but without such a foundation, would their later experiments have found an audience?
3. An unwillingness to stand still: The Beatles could have spent their entire careers rewriting “Please Please Me” over and over again, but they didn’t. Even in their earlier, poppier songs there was a certain restlessness, whether it was in writing a love song in the second person (“She Loves You”) or incorporating electric-guitar feedback into a pop song for the first time (“I Feel Fine”). By constantly seeking new sounds, and new subject matter for their lyrics, the Beatles expanded rock & roll from a relatively primitive kind of music for juveniles to something much larger. Of course, there were outside influences, such as Bob Dylan, the Beach Boys, and the Byrds, but the Beatles chose not to ignore them. By the time the Beatles broke up in 1970, rock & roll was almost unrecognizable from its origins.
And while the Beatles were a particularly special case, something needs to be said for the great musical ferment of the 1960s. The Beatles may have been at the head of the pack, but they were in very good company — not only Dylan, the Byrds, and the Beach Boys, but also the Rolling Stones, Simon & Garfunkel, Jimi Hendrix, Motown, and more. The reasons for this artistic flowering were many and varied, and I won't go into them now. But I wonder if we will ever see such a creative explosion again.