Some friends have expressed concern that my knowledge of the Beatles’ catalogue is more or less limited to a song about a raccoon who intends to shoot off the legs of his rival. My excuse is that, growing up, I looked around me and saw that pretty much everyone in the world liked the Beatles, so the job of liking them was already “covered,” in a sense. (As opposed to the job of, say, liking Eberhard Weber.) I thus proceeded through life completely neutral to the Beatles and thus unmoved to seek knowledge about them except for the surprisingly substantial amount I drew from cultural osmosis. Think about if: if you’ve learned about anything via cultural osmosis, it’s the Beatles.
But at least peoples’ disbelief at my unfamiliarity with the Beatles prompts me to write a sequel to my wildly popular “What I know about television” post. If you’re playing the home game the rules or simple: in true philosopher’s fashion, I must write everything I know about the subject at hand without once consulting any resource outside my own mind. No Allmusic, no Wikipedia, no Village Voice’s Best Music Writing 1982, no informationTunes — nothing.
The Beatles were an English band in the 1960s and seem to remain, even half-dead and 40 years defunct, the most popular one in the world. Depending on the album, they either get labeled as pop, rock, or something in between. Most people I know have gone through a period of strong enthusiasm for the Beatles’ music, usually in youth or adolescence. (Some never leave their “Beatles = music = Beatles” phase, and I don’t know if it’s a coincidence that they tend to come off slightly socially and/or intellectually arrested in general.) The typical Beatles-listening trajectory I observe goes like this:
- “Wow, their early, poppy songs are fun!”
- “No, the stuff that came after their early, poppy songs is better.”
- “Actually, it’s their later, more conceptual albums that best showcase their musical genius.”
- “But wait — I’ve just listened to the early, poppy songs 10,000 times each and discovered their still-unsurpassed true musical genius laying just beneath a veneer of silliness and disposability! Of course!”
The actual Beatles are John Lennon, George Harrison, Ringo Starr, and the aforementioned Paul McCartney. (I hear there was a “fifth Beatle” early on, Pete Best, who now seems to satirize his own unfortunate place in pop history professionally.) Like most Baby Boomer icons, they’re all just a few years too old to be Baby Boomers themselves. I think they all sang on one song or another, but played different instruments. Every fan seems to have a favorite Beatle, and some can get truly creepy about it. I saw one guy’s blog that was mostly erotic sketches of George Harrison.
I get the impression that Lennon is regarded as the “best” Beatle, but how much of that comes from his musical sensibilities, how much from his (nowadays hard to interpret) political sensibilities, and how much from his untimely death remains unclear. He also has a couple musician sons, one of whom I could have written a post three times this long. (Guess which; it’s not the one you think.) McCartney must be the most successful of the four, since he’s never stopped recording, performing at large-scale sporting events, and being alive. Yet, whether because of his goofy side projects, his often unflattering choices in female companionship, or the impudence implicit in outliving the deified Lennon (I remember seeing a giant billboard in San Fransisco that just said, “Imagine John Lennon alive today”), he doesn’t seem to get much respect.
Lennon and McCartney are, I think, the “primary” Beatles, since I hear them talked about the most and since so much of the sheet music for the group’s most popular songs bears a “Lennon/McCartney” songwriting credit. This makes Harrison and Starr the “secondary” Beatles. I don’t know much about either of them, but then again, I don’t know much about the Beatles. I understand that Harrison, who died in I believe 2001, was hardcore into transcendental meditation and left behind a whole slew of intriguing-looking solo albums. (I also remember hearing that, during some recording session wherein an engineer explained the benefits of plugging the guitar straight into the mixing board, he asked if their voices could be plugged directly into the board.) Starr sang “Yellow Submarine”, I’m pretty sure, and these days he seems best known as an eccentric who says “peace and love” a lot on YouTube.
I’m 90 percent sure that all the Beatles’ studio albums were recorded and released between 1962 and 1970. There were a bunch of very short ones early in the decade, which I guess is how they did pop albums in those days. They had titles like Meet the Beatles, Beatles for Sale, Beatles Beatles Beatles Beatles, and There Are Beatles on This Record. I am also aware of a compilation where they’re dressed as butchers on the cover, surrounded by fake baby limbs.
Then came the stuff with much better sleeve images and (I presume) more songs, like Revolver and, uh, Rubber Soul. I gather that most “iconic” Beatles albums are Abbey Road, though I hear suspiciously little about that isn’t to do with that cover image of the guys walking across the street, and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which I hear about constantly but vaguely. From what I can tell, it seems too bizarre for such mainstream success, but I chalk the apparent contradiction up to pure Beatlepower. There’s also another one, Let it Be, which Phil Spector or some producer of a similar aesthetic was supposed to have ruined with an excess of strings. Should’ve dragged the Wall of Sound down from the attic.
Oh crap, I almost forgot The White Album, which isn’t really called that. It’s official title is The Beatles, which I found out in like the mid-2000s. This is the Beatles album I know best, since it’s the one that has “Rocky Raccoon”. I don’t know what else is on it. I know Danger Mouse mixed it together with Jay-Z’s (?) The Black Album, a project which people really like the idea of.
After having more or less grown up, I was sure my window of effective Beatles exposure had closed. It seems to me that the Beatles need to get you when you’re quite young if they’re really going to matter to you. A near-perfect second chance came along in the form of those big Beatles in Stereo and Beatles in Mono box sets, but in the event, I proved too cheap to shell out the 200 simoleons. Ted suggests that I sit down with the Beatles compete works’ — though for some reason I associate the spelling “compleat” with them — and read Ian Macdonald's Revolution in the Head, which discusses every song individually. That wouldn’t make for too bad a weekend, would it?
(If you thought this was bad, you’re really not going to like what I know about Bob Dylan.)