I’ve read it in articles, seen it on Youtube, and heard it on the radio. I kind of get it, since Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is regularly included on lists of greatest albums of all time, The Beatles were the first Boy Band1, and their early work wasn’t thematically deep.
But why say it in the first place? I really don’t get it. Is it a way of dismissing a band’s musical output? Is it because they don’t want to admit that they secretly enjoy bubblegum pop?2 Is it to sound smart or sophisticated?
Well, stop. Because it’s wrong3, and here are five reasons why.
They spent years perfecting their craft
People are so used to hearing The Beatles referred to as “Those Boys from Liverpool,” but they were only boys from the stodgy middle-aged corporate media perspective. When they landed on American shores on February 7th, 1964, they were all veteran musicians (McCartney 21, Lennon 23, Harrison 20, Starr 23) with almost as many years behind them as they would have ahead of them. Compare this to Harry, Liam and Niall who were 16, and Zayn and Louis who were 17 when they were introduced to one another and formed One Direction.
The Beatles were not assembled by a big corporate sound machine or star-making producer. Paul and John met in 1957, George, a schoolmate of Paul’s, joined them in 1958. From 1960 to 19624 they played with Pete Best and Stuart Sutcliffe as the house band in Hamburg (48 days at the Indira Club with 4.5 hour sets, 6 hours on the weekend; then 58 nights at the Kaiserkeller with sets lasting as long as 8 hours), as session musicians for Polydor, had frequent performances (almost 300) at the Cavern club in Liverpool as well as gigs whenever and wherever else they could get them. This isn’t to say that modern boy bands don’t work hard (they do), but there’s really no comparison. The final piece fell into place in 1962 when Best was sacked and the highly-regarded Ringo Starr5 was made a permanent member.
Each brought a unique and indispensable aesthetic to the band
Paul is well known for his pop sensibilities and pleasing melodies, John for his sharp wit, aggressive guitar, and dark artistic nature, George for his spirituality and deft, sensitive playing, and Ringo is known for his feel, consistency, and swing. You can’t take any one piece out and still have The Beatles. While Brian Epstein did help define their look early on, and George Martin made undeniable contributions, the sound was their own.
They wrote their own music
Back then, it was a common practice for new bands to start with covers in order to make an immediate impact with known and liked properties, and to have enough songs to fill out a concert, and early on, The Beatles were no exception. However, they pushed very hard to release an original composition, Love Me Do, as their debut single; after its moderate success (rising to #17 on the UK charts), they were able to convince Martin to allow them to follow it up with another original song, Lennon’s Please Please Me. All their #1 hits were originals.
Their early music was innovative and exciting
I’ve already touched on the thematically & lyrically simplistic nature of early Beatles songs, but if artistic merit relied on lyrical content alone, Motzart’s Marriage of Figaro would be considered little more than a silly romantic comedy. To understand how important their early music was, and why it made such a massive impact, all we need is a little context. The Beatles charted their first US #1 hit with I Want to Hold Your Hand, the week of February 1st, 1964. Let’s look at Billboard’s top 10 from the week of January 18th, before the single dropped:
- There! I’ve Said It Again, Bobby Vinton
- Louie Louie, The Kingsmen
- Popsicles And Icicles, The Murmaids
- Forget Him, Bobby Rydell
- Surfin’ Bird, The Trashman
- Dominique, The Singing Nun
- Hey Little Cobra, The Rip Chords
- The Nitty Gritty, Shirley Ellis
- Out Of Limits, The Marketts
- Drag City, Jan & Dean
Now it’s not like the Beatles developed in a vacuum, and perhaps it would be fair to compare them to other bands of the British invasion. But I’m not going to do that. No more than I would gauge Nirvana’s impact on the national music scene by comparing them to the local Seattle grunge bands they came up with. So while The Beatles sound is a blend of several different musical traditions, I Want To Hold Your Hand stands out from what was popular in America at the time. This was followed to #1 by She Loves You, and Can’t Buy Me Love. The next non-Beatle #1? Hello Dolly by Louis Armstrong.
Now let’s look at a boy-band that has been compared to The Beatles, One Direction. Their first album, Up All Night, debuted at #1 on the Billboard 200 on March 31, 2012, the first British band to do so. Pretty impressive. Here’s Billboard’s top 10 for the week of March 31, 2012:
- We Are Young, fun
- Stronger, Kelly Clarkson
- Glad You Came, The Wanted
- Set Fire To The Rain, Adele
- Somebody That I Used To Know, Gotye
- Starships, Nicki Minaj
- Turn Me On, Dave Guetta
- Take Care, Drake
- Wild Ones, Flo Rida
- Part of Me, Katy Perry
I have to admit that before doing the research for this article, I hadn’t really listened to any of the contemporary songs, and was pleasantly surprised. I found every song enjoyable, unlike the oldies from 1964, some of which have aged badly. But I digress.
The point is that there’s nothing about the composition, performance or production of the 1D songs that is particularly ground-breaking. They sound great, to be sure, but they fit right in. You can go from one song to another on the list and have a pleasant listening experience, unlike the train-wreck that’s the top 10 from 1964. The reason is simple… early on, 1D’s songs were written and produced by experienced industry professionals. Today, producers have almost god-like control over what a band or performer sounds like. Their job is to make hits, not revolutionize the industry. And they do… and they don’t.
They were a powerful, creative force from the beginning
Sgt. Pepper was undoubtedly a milestone for The Beatles and for music in general, but implying that it was the moment they went from bubble-gum pop to innovative art is preposterous.
For the sake of argument, let’s write off Please Please Me, With The Beatles, A Hard Day’s Night, Beatles For Sale, and Help!, which covers January 1963 to August 1965; five albums in a two and a half year period, written and recorded while constantly touring. Think about that for a minute.
But then we come to Rubber Soul, released in December 1965. Recorded in a little over a month, it regularly makes lists of greatest albums. Next is Revolver, recorded from April to June and released in August 1966, an album that many music historians and critics consider to be the best they ever made6. Two critically acclaimed albums written and recorded in a span of less than 9 months. Then in November, when they started recording Sgt. Pepper, a light turned on in their collective heads and they suddenly became artists?
No. Of course not.
Whether it was writing a love song from the 3rd person perspective in She Loves You (also starting the song with the chorus, and ending the song on a major sixth despite the protestations of Martin), using feedback for the hook of I Feel Fine, willingness to experiment with different instruments and cultural traditions, continually reinventing their look, to being one of the first rock bands to create their own record label, they were making bold and innovative artistic choices from the very beginning. As with any artist, they had many creative milestones, growing and evolving over the course of their entire existence as The Beatles, and into their individual solo careers.
As another example of early artistry and innovation is a little ditty called “I’ll Follow The Sun.” Written by Paul sometime before 1960, it wasn’t released until 1964 because it wasn’t considered “tough enough” for their early leather-clad image. The song is immediately identifiable as a McCartney composition with it’s sweet, instantly hum-able melody and alternation between major and minor keys during the verses which give way to the major key chorus. Said McCartney for why they chose to release it:
The next [single] had to always be different. We didn’t want to fall into the Supremes trap where they all sounded similar, so we were always keen on having varied instrumentation. Ringo couldn’t keep changing his drum kit, but he could change his snare, tap a cardboard box or slap his knees.7
I understand that it can be hard to hear this song and think of it as something other than “old fashioned,” but it showed a willingness to try different musical styles and deviate from formula… even their own… at a time when most bands are trying to consolidate their fan base with a consistent sound. Have you ever been to a concert and heard someone complain that a song wasn’t performed in the same way as it was on the album?
Go ahead and make the argument that [Insert Boy Band Here] has a derivative, paint-by-numbers pop sound. You’re probably right. But stop saying they haven’t had their Sgt. Pepper moment yet. Too much is different about how bands are created and too much has changed in the distribution and consumption of music for the comparison to be anything but utter nonsense. And stop shitting on fans because ‘they don’t know any better’—because if you’ve made the Beatles comparison, neither do you.
Addendum: The Elephant in the Studio
A friend of mine dinged me for not mentioning this seminal album by The Beach Boys, or, rather, Brian Wilson with Tony Asher (the rest of the Beach Boys could have been replaced by studio musicians as Wilson demonstrated with his release of Smile in 2004). This album is considered the first concept album, and indeed had a strong influence on the Beatles. By influence, I mean inspiration, because Sgt. Pepper sounds nothing like Pet Sounds (and I don’t say this to knock Wilson, he simply had a different musical aesthetic than the Beatles). But then, Wilson was inspired by Rubber Soul. As I’ve said before, art does not exist in a vacuum. But the reason I went with Sgt. Pepper and not Pet Sounds is not due to ignorance on my part, or musical snobbery, but for the simple fact that no one ever says, “That band hasn’t had its Pet Sounds moment.” Sorry, Brian.
Addendum 9/22: The KOP Curve
If you haven’t seen Ron Howard’s documentary Eight Days A Week, I highly recommend it. One little tidbit they show is the fans of the Liverpool FC (Kopites) singing She Loves You in 1964, the point at which the Beatles were at their most “Boy Band” by today’s standards. I can’t think of another video that so dramatically captures the difference between the Beatles and modern boy bands. Could you imagine the fans at Old Trafford bursting out into What Makes You Beautiful in 2011? Neither could I.
1 I just love unattributed declarations, don’t you? The origins of the ‘Boy Band’ is a bit murky, as is the definition of the term itself. Pop phenomena had come before Beatlemania. There were the teen idols like Fabian, Tommy Sands, and Ricky Nelson, backed by slick marketing and experienced studio musicians; the Doo-Wop groups like The Del Vikings, The Five Satins, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, and of course, Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons; and then there was the original Superstars like Elvis, and Buddy Holly. But before the teen idols were Frank Sinatra and Bing Crosby who ignited the entire “bobby-soxer” craze in the 30’s and 40’s. And before them was the great Enrico Caruso. The focus was either on a single individual, or the band as a whole. Can you name a single member of the Platters? Who Elvis’s drummer was? Name one of the Crickets. You can’t. But almost anyone can name all of The Beatles. This is one of the important similarities between the Beatles and modern boy bands, the intense, almost slavish devotion of fans to each individual member. And the Beatles were definitely one of the first, if not the first band to have this sort of fandom.
2 Sorry, hipster. Modern science says that you do.
3 You have every right to hate a particular band’s music, as well as the right to express that hatred. But fans also have the right to love it without you shitting on them–even if the band is objectively, demonstrably crap. The fans will grow out of it and the band will fade into obscurity without your help. So don’t be a dick.
4 Hill, Tim (2008) John, Paul, George & Ringo: The Definitive Illustrated Chronicle of The Beatles, 1960-1970, Fall River Press.
5 I’m really tired of people writing Ringo off as a joke. Is it because he has a limited vocal range? So did Billie Holiday and Bob Dylan among others, and how many drummers even sing? Is it his lack of soloing virtuosity? There are plenty of skilled drummers who talk about the difficulty of replicating his sound (just watch any Youtube drumming tutorial if you don’t believe me), and many universally acclaimed drummers, like Phil Collins, Steve Smith, Max Weinberg, and Alex Van Halen acknowledge his influence and artistry. I may not know much about drumming, but I’ll defer to the experts.
6. Don’t want to take my word for it? It’s on Wikipedia, so it must be true.
7. “100 Greatest Beatles Songs: 79 – ‘I’ll Follow the Sun'”. Rolling Stone. ISSN 0035-791X. From Wikipedia.