The Beatles – Why Are They So Good?

I occasionally use the website Quora – it’s a social site, where people ask and anwer questions. Most of the questions I answer are about The Beatles, since that’s my own particular field of expertise, and I was asked by one user to answer, “The Beatles: What made The Beatles so epically popular?” Well, I cogitated for some time, and today I wrote an answer. I thought I would share it with you.

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I am grateful to Marc Bodnick for asking me this question, and I have been thinking about it for a while. But first I want to offer counterpoints to those already submitted:

1. JG McLean offers a techno-sociological answer which at first glance has some merit. It is true that The Beatles, more than Elvis, were perhaps the first globally popular group; they took advantage developments in global communications, and coincided with the Baby Boom making them the prime musical memory of the generation which made the largest culture mark since 1945. But this still leaves the question, why The Beatles? Why them and not The Animals or The Beach Boys or Brian Poole and the Tremeloes or Little Richard or the Rolling Stones..? What makes them stand out so spectacularly?

2. Habib Anibaba says its because The Beatles copied popular music and presented it in an acceptable fashion. While, as Paul McCartney himself said, they were “plagiarists extraordinaire”, the point is that they stole with style: they might have ripped off all their idols (and always cheerfully admitted so doing), but their genius lies in the way they synthesised it all into something fresh and new. If the old saw has it that mediocrity borrows and genius steals, this is true to the extent that genius steals in order to articulate, not to repeat. The Beatles never repeated.

My answer, then, is essentially this: The Beatles’ music is endlessly filled with the joy of its creation. Some bands have songs where you hear them discover how good they are (for example, “Porch” by Pearl Jam, “White Riot” by The Clash, “Phantom Of The Opera” by Iron Maiden, “Elephant Stone” by the Stones Roses and “The Four Horsemen” by Metallica). But most bands are lazy, or merely human, and once they have found their groove, rarely develop much further. Few do this continually throughout their career: Pink Floyd, Miles Davis, and Kraftwerk, say.

But with The Beatles, what they did was make every song its own “freshly created universe”, to borrow a phrase from Philip Larkin. Not only did they never repeat themselves, they used every trick of articulation to give as much meaning to their songs as possible. And since every song creates a fresh new world, there’s a sense of delight and wonder in so many of their songs, even in songs that are more downbeat.

To take the first songs on their very first album, Please Please Me: it starts off with the dancehall countdown “One, two, three, fouh!” of “I Saw Her Standing There”, with its insistent handclaps, euphoric “oohs!”, and onomatopoeic “boom”. It is followed by the dry send up of “Misery”, with its ironic piano, and doo-woppy vocals. Then “Anna (Go To Him)” is passionate, featuring a more prominent Lennon vocal, and superlative drumming from Ringo with that hesitant pause after the hi-hat. So many nice touches, so many individual flourishes, so many means of articulation: each song creates something new.

This is of course most vividly seen in their best songs. “She Loves You” for example has so many hooks and touches that sparks fly of it, still, after almost fifty years. The tom-tom roll sets it careening, but the first two declarations of “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah!” are jerked back, heightening to an impossible tension (right from the very start!!), while the third iteration releases it into the first verse with superb momentum. The verses, sung jointly by Lennon and McCartney, just sizzles with their harmonised vocals, and in the chorus, the “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” absolutely soars.

There’s so many examples of The Beatles creating sound-worlds that I barely know where to begin. Consider the alpine-accoustics of “Hide Your Love Away”, with the lovely flute (never again used by The Beatles, I think); the shadowy, twilit, aching “Long, Long, Long”; the psychedelic maelstrom of “Tomorrow Never Knows”; the magnificent heightened orchestral colour of “Strawberry Fields Forever”; the sighing melancholy of “In My Life”; the languid summer heat of “Sun King”; the abyss of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”; the roaring sexual dervish of “Twist And Shout”, the supreme fluency of “Martha My Dear”, the chiselled wintry strings of “Eleanor Rigby”; the kiddies playtime of “Yellow Submarine”.

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I believe that much of this demand for freshness came from Lennon, who inspired by Lewis Carrol knew the effect of surreal juxtaposition. This sense of seeing things differently, and his uncertainty of whether it was genius or insanity, was immortalised in “Strawberry Fields Forever” as “No one I think is in my tree / I mean it must be high or low”. It also probably explains his intemperate appetite for LSD, which of course defamiliarises and heightens vision and impressions. Lennon thus always sought out the different, strange, vivid, compelling. This vision, allied with McCartney’s perfectionist craftsmanship and superb musicianship (not to mention their outstanding singing and harmonisation), gave The Beatles the drive to constantly create something vivid, fresh and new, and the skill to do so. This is what gives their music the joy in its creation, and is what ultimately makes them so epically popular.

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12 thoughts on “The Beatles – Why Are They So Good?

  1. Pingback: The Beatles – Why Are They So Good? | booksandmusicandstuff | The beatles

  2. Mike. Good to see you treading the musical boards again. Too much plum duff turns a guys mind towards a musical post. You can anticipate my comments, so I will spare you except to note I heard my first Beatle song on a transister in NZ prior to my teenage years.

    One of the great rites of passage, tucking your transister under your ear at the local swimming pool and hoping to see nice girls. And the song: I saw her standing there, which has some orgasmic moments vocally.

    Best for 2012

    • Yes, the holiday season has helped me recharge my batteries and gave some time to get posting again! You’ll know what it’s like to have things on your mind but not have the time or energy to get down.

      Being young when The Beatles were on the go must have been great: the books etc can only ever give a flavour of the excitement of Beatlemania, but it must have been immense, when every single rocketed to #1 and they just kept getting better and better. You’re damn right about “I Saw Her Standing There”, the vocal are just delicious with so many Lennon/McCartney sparks flying. Man, they were great. I keep saying it but they constantly amaze me with their brilliance.

      All the best for 2012 too, and I look forward to reading more KT specials.

  3. Pingback: Obscure Gems | booksandmusicandstuff

  4. I shall direct people here if I ever get asked the question again.

    Or any similar question about why some people just stand out so.

    I feel much the same way about Citizen Kane, though many of my friends are not fully persuaded of its greatness. I revel in that zest of creativity about it, the sense that there’s something interesting, unexpected, innovative happening in almost every scene, every shot; and that Welles and his crew are just having a hell of a time playing with the cinematic medium.

    And I particularly like the (knowingly self-referential?) line from Kane: “I have no idea how to run a newspaper. I just try everything I can think of.”

  5. Hi Mike, Bit of late comment to this one, but I just discovered the blog via Froog (…and the top basslines post), I also happen to be a huge Beatles fan. The Beatles obviously had unique individual talents as musicians and songwriters, but what I feel made them so good, was the contribution and talent of some of the supporting actors, it was on a par with The Beatles themselves. People like George Martin (the ‘fifth Beatle’) had a huge impact on creating and developing their sound, introducing them to new instruments (and knowing when to use those instruments), and also guiding The Beatles in creating some great orchestral arrangements. Martin, was very experienced and had been recording classical music for years before The Beatles came along. Also, The Beatles were often the first to try new music technology at Abbey Road like recording desks, or effects units that had newly been built (often from scratch) by talented, well trained sound engineers at the studio. So in addition to The Beatles living through a time of amazing social change, the confluence of the team that worked around them at EMI was also a key factor. This team was as good as any celebrated team in any other field, but never seem to get that much credit.

  6. Pingback: The Beatles – Why Are They So Good? « Michael Cormack, Writer and Editor

  7. Pingback: Musical Orgasms | booksandmusicandstuff

    • I’ve never listened to King Crimson, though I’ve certainly heard good things about them. I haven’t really explored the by-ways of the 60s prog rock boom yet – maybe now is the time! 😉

  8. Pingback: Awesome Intros | booksandmusicandstuff

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