The time is nigh for the inaugural installment of the new regular feature here on The Art Of Noise entitled In The Dock.
Each week one contributor will present their case for the prosecution of something (be it a band, album, venue, genre, concept etc etc), while another will offer a case for the defence.
Meanwhile you, readers, are the jury. Have a look at both cases below, and then leave any comments and your verdict - either guilty or innocent - in the comments box, taking into account the strength and persuasiveness of the arguments as well as any particular feelings / prejudices you may have one way or the other.
The jury's overall verdict will be announced every Friday, so be sure to get your individual verdicts in by then.
Right, without further ado...
This week's subject: The Beatles
.The case for the prosecution
I was sitting at a friend's house for a huge family dinner last year where the hosts had been gently ribbing my friend for an hour about her exploits at school and her old boyfriends. It was a bit of light-hearted ribbing, but you could see her getting more and more irritated with the mickey-taking. Eventually, she cracked. She pointed at me and loudly exclaimed, "Well, HE doesn’t like The Beatles!!!"
The room went silent apart from a series of sharp intakes of breath. Tens of unbelieving eyes focussed on me in absolute horror. "I’ll get my coat..."
The Beatles introduced pop as it is currently known. In fact, they probably changed the musical landscape forever. These facts are largely undisputed. However, I don’t like them and moreover I have no idea why they ever had the impact they did.
Lyrically, they made Huey Lewis look like Bernie Taupin. How can you possibly hold them in that sort of esteem with genius like "she loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
"? Or how about "we all live in a yellow submarine
"? Or "here comes the sun, and I say 'it’s alright'
"? Did they ever write anything lyrically profound? Or a decent protest song? Or anything with any emotional depth whatsoever (and no, that doesn’t include "help me if you can I’m feeling down
Indeed 'Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da' was recently voted the worst song of all time. How can you be the greatest band in the world ever and be responsible for the worst record ever made? Any other geniuses of rock on that dubious list? No, I thought not.
Instrumentally they were also distinctly average. If you had to create a supergroup of 1960s musicians, the members of The Beatles would individually get nowhere near it. Any of The Who, The Kinks or The Stones would have taken precedence, never mind the combined talents of, say, Clapton, Baker, Winwood, Davies, Cocker, Morrison or Bevan.
The Beatles were a band waiting for Stock, Aitken and Waterman to happen. Mass market appeal, slick production, image and songs that took less time to write than they did to sing. I don’t really see why they are any different to, say, McFly. Four young lads playing their instruments distinctly averagely but churning out some decent catchy three minute pop records in front of a gaggle of screaming pubescent girls. And yet whilst McFly aren’t going to go down in the rock 'n' roll hall of fame (rightly so) there seems to me no fundamental musical difference between them.
Culturally and socially there is the world of difference, but that’s not what we are talking about, is it? We are talking about the catalogue and output of a pop band which, in The Beatles' case is distinctly average. It has also been elevated to some sort of genius status by thirty years of wannabe musicians claiming erroneously that The Beatles were their main musical influence just because it made them sound credible.
The Beatles invented modern music as we know it, but it strikes me that they fundamentally missed the point. It was left to people like The Stones to take the idea of youth culture forward whereas had it been left to The Beatles, their pappy playground tosh would have died a very quick death. The Stones, God love them, embark on their annual Steel Wheelchairs Tour having not written a decent record in twenty-five years, but how long would the Beatles have lasted churning out their pithy soulless dribble on an annual world tour?
The Beatles were the Microsoft of their era. Lots of better products and lots of better alternatives were available, but they were muscled out of the market by something inferior that offered mass appeal. They were so benign and 'safe', without an ounce of teenage rebellion that parents the world over must have been delighted for their kids to like the Beatles. Inoffensive, unchallenging and vacuous.
The final point is that the vast majority of cover versions are regarded as inferior to the original. With the Beatles, I think the opposite is true. Think Nina Simone’s 'Here Comes The Sun'. Joe Cocker’s 'With A Little Help From My Friends'. Candy Flip’s 'Strawberry Fields Forever'. Let’s be frank, I even prefer Will and Gareth’s 'Long And Winding Road' to the overproduced overblown original.
So, there we have it. I have gone on t'internet and argued that Gareth Gates is better than The Beatles. Right. Perhaps I should get my coat after all...The case for the defence
Being asked to defend The Beatles is a bit like taking a penalty into an open goal at Old Trafford. It appears deceptively easy, but you know that one little slip will see the ball fly harmlessly over the bar into a sea of baying Manchester United fans [how did you know Lord B was a Man Utd fan? - Ben]. Not good. So, this is my justification of what I think is the blindingly obvious: that the biggest band in the world ever also just happen to be the best band in the world. Ever.
And the obvious place to start is with the music. I’m not going to bother trying to convince you that The Beatles wrote and performed some amazing songs. You know what they sound like already. You know if you like them. But I will say that I remain in awe of the sheer quantity they produced, and the breadth of styles they covered. Their workrate was phenomenal: twelve studio albums in eight years (one a double album), plus three compilation albums' worth of material released only as singles or EPs. That, in the modern parlance, is a shitload of songs. Even allowing for the longer length of albums these days, and multiformat singles, no-one has since come close to that sort of productivity. They sold a fair few of them, too.
Now, for the content of those albums. Is there anything they didn’t try? Straight up rock 'n' roll and R&B, morphing into psychedelia, soul, blues, avant-garde, rockabilly, folk, surf rock, silly comedy songs, music hall, easy listening crooning (mostly Ringo’s), ill-advised cod reggae (Paul, we’re looking at you), and so on. Actually, that’s not fair, I rather like ‘Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da’. But you can certainly like The Beatles and dislike that song at the same time. Hell, George and John did…
Then there’s the experimentation. ‘Revolution No.9’, the freak-out track at the end of The White Album, is the most widely distributed piece of avant-garde art in history. Not bad for a band who were singing "She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah
" six years previously, and getting excited about using "she
" instead of "I
" or "you
". They could never be accused of resting on their laurels. The Beatles took risks, but never for the sake of it. They managed to combine forward-looking, experimental writing and recording techniques with a sense of pop that can only be called genius.
They turned the concept of ‘the song’ upside down, and still had the grans singing along. They reintroduced the drone element of Indian music that had been missing from Europe for, oooh, what, 800 odd years, and stuck it in a song about John having some illicit how’s yer father. (They’d be irritating if they weren’t so bloody good.) They took EMI’s frankly rather crap studios apart with producer George Martin and stuck everything back together in bizarre ways just to create the sounds in their heads. American producers with cutting edge technology tore their hair out trying to recreate the sounds that The Beatles and Martin had created with little more than a few pieces of string and a frying pan, and as such they had a huge effect on the way records were produced. For instance, the recording effect known as "flange" which makes things sound spacey, is so called thanks to a rude in-joke between Lennon and Martin. The filthmongers.
Now, let’s see. Prolific workaholics, check. Musical visionaries, done. Studio avatars, yup. Ah, but in the end, what did The Beatles stand for? It’s a bit much to say that The Beatles were the 1960s, but they represent so much of what we now think of when we think of that decade. Love, peace, freedom, working class ambition, counterculture, and British success. And the last should never be underestimated.
Before The Beatles, British pop music had never really crossed over beyond these shores. When Beatlemania kicked in the doors of America, Japan and the rest of the world, it gave Britain a voice and influence it has continued to enjoy ever since. It showed that British music could sell, encouraging record companies to invest in UK artists and inspiring those same artists to greater heights. If the Beatles hadn’t happened, Britain could have ended up a backwater of musical mediocrity. This, more than the songs, more than the cultural influence, is what every music fan has to thank John, Paul, George and Ringo for, whether you like what they played or not.
* * * * *
Thanks to Lord Bargain and Del. Now it's over to you. Guilty or innocent - YOU decide (to paraphrase some TV show or other). The comments box is open and awaiting your verdicts...