Today wrap up the first instalment of a new feature at A Sound Day, which we hope to run from time to time throughout the year – Turntable Talk. In it over the past week, we’ve invited several other ardent music fans and bloggers to discuss one topic. To start off, a timely one : “The Beatles : why are we still talking about them 50(+) years on?”
Thank you all for reading these pieces this week, we hope you enjoyed the Turntable Talk. Thanks to Paul, Lisa, Keith, Max and Deke for taking the time to weigh in on why the Beatles are still relevant today.
I think the other writers got most of the relevant points. The Fab Four constantly changed their sound and led the way rather than followed trends. They had the good fortune of being surrounded by good people who guided their career well, like manager Brian Epstein and super-producer George Martin. All four of them were great musicians, and they strove to get better along the way. There were at very least three truly great song-writers in the group – John, Paul and George, and while Ringo might not have been at their level, he wasn’t a half-bad writer himself. For a long time, John and Paul at least kept their egos in check and worked well together (although many now see that they perhaps kept George from showing his true potential until late in their run). And they were prolific – 13 albums in about seven years plus lots of standalone singles too!
I add a few more thoughts to it. They were video pioneers. Not only did they make movies (but so too did Elvis years before them) but when they decided to quit touring, they were savvy enough to make promotional clips – what we’d now call “videos” – to show on variety shows and in record stores. Some of them were quite ahead of their time in the effects too, and soon other British stars like T-Rex, David Bowie and Roxy Music would do the same (years before North American artists seemed to take up the idea) but really, The Beatles were the first to embrace that whole-heartedly. Now, we may or may not think MTV and the video-age was a great thing (a possible topic down the road!) , but there’s no denying that videos really shaped the sounds of the ’80s and ’90s – would Madonna, ZZ Top or Duran Duran been as huge as they were had they not made videos and had an audience of millions tuning in to them? Doubtful, just as its doubtful we’d have arrived at that point when we did if the Beatles weren’t doing clips for “Paperback Writer” and “Strawberry Fields” over a decade earlier.
And that leads to another point – they decided to really get into videos when they decided to quit touring. That in itself was kind of revolutionary for a rock group. Most bands made their names back then largely by touring relentlessly. To decide to not do so at the peak of their popularity was more than bold, it was paradigm-shaking. Doing that let them spend a lot more time in the studio and make the masterpieces like Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road… after all, they had all the time in the world and nowhere to go, so why not take time really crafting something outstanding? Not to mention, with no thought of having to do the songs in concert, it let them really experiment with sound effects, over-dubbing and all those good things that would be very hard to reproduce on stage with just two guitars, a bass and drums. The idea of being a studio-only band never swept the music world, but some of the great records of the ’70s and ’80s came from bands that had the same sort of M.O. – Steely Dan, Alan Parsons Project , late-period XTC and so on. There’s certainly something to be said for the thrill of live music and seeing your favorite musicians play, but there’s always room for the mysterious craftsmen who plug away at making fantastic music that will never come to a stage near you. And the Beatles were the first to really dare to do so.
And, one more thing. Although the Beatles only were a going concern of note for about seven years (and about nine if you include the Berlin/Cavern Club years), they didn’t disappear when they broke up. Far from it. Between the end of the Beatles and the end of 1981, they tallied 35 more top 10 songs in the States, collectively, 13 of them #1s. If we looked as them as still-the-Beatles instead of four separate entities, it would be fair to say they dominated the ’70s even more than Elton or the Bee Gees did. And a number of those songs were pretty good too, ones that would have fit into the Beatles canon quite nicely – “Photograph”, “What is Life?”, “My Sweet Lord”, “Imagine,” “Starting Over,” “Live and Let Die,” “Maybe I’m Amazed”…and on and on. It seems fair to say from about 1964 through ’81, no other artists so shaped and dominated popular music. There is a reason so much good pop and rock music of the past few decades – the well-written, well-played songs – are described as “Beatlesque.”
All of those things help explain it, but really, it comes down to one thing doesn’t it? They simply created a lot of great music. End of discussion.