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.
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”.
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.