Several years ago, I interviewed Matthew Friedberger of the Fiery Furnaces, and we somehow ended up talking about Brian May’s guitar solo in “We Will Rock You.” He told me to, without replaying the song in my mind, think about what that solo must sound like. Your presumption is probably the same as mine: big, loud, as stadium-heavy as the song itself, right? Well, no. May actually sits back in the pocket and plays this boogeying little thing that doesn’t really soar so much as it snakes around the surface of that monstrous beat. It is, believe it or not, a pretty awesome guitar solo. But it had been years, maybe a full decade at that point, since I’d actually heard “We Will Rock You.” I’d used it up and filed it away, thinking that I’d never have to think about again. Accordingly, I had unknowingly developed a whole batch of assumptions concerning what the song actually sounded like and how much I could possibly enjoy it. Not that I’m constantly reaching for News of the World, but now, when “We Will Rock You” comes on at a basketball game, I perk up, even if semi-consciously, the same way anybody does when they hear the first few bars of a song they like.
It’s strange how difficult it is to change our ways of thinking. If we are the rational beasts that we confess ourselves to be, then we should be able to re-plot the paths we’ve carved in our mind–particularly those we’ve charted in the service of understanding something so primal and gut-level as the way we feel about music. But it’s an exceptionally hard thing to do, to convince yourself that the way you’ve always thought about something might no longer be the way you think about it. And, actually, the word “thought” there, in the past-imperfect sense, really isn’t correct, because the way we interact with the things about which we’ve already filed away an opinion isn’t to think about them, or even to interact with them at all. It’s more like a cognitive reflex: I hear “We Will Rock You,” and I gag. No active thinking (or, and this is the thing, feeling or engaging of any kind) actually happens. Which is part of the reason why it’s so hard to change our ways of thinking; we’ve trained ourselves to ignore the subject entirely.
And so, Ladies and Gentlemen, The Beatles. The early Beatles, the Beatlemania Beatles, the Ed Sullivan, Pan-Am, three-chord Beatles. The “Love Me Do,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” Beatles, the Beatles whose mere faces sent your mom into hysterics when she was a little girl. These are the Beatles that are almost impossible to like. When musicians now cite these Beatles as an influence, it almost always feels campy, along the lines of the time Kurt Cobain claimed that he was inspired by H.R. Pufnstuf. Their songs jangle. They quiver under the giddy blush of first love, and make you think of a time when people went steady and wore one another’s class rings on a long chain around their necks. Which is to say that they, like everything that comes from any other generation’s idealized youth, lack the edge that we have known for our entire lives. They are post-Fats-Domino, pre-Sgt.-Pepper’s, stuck in an aesthetic and historical wasteland between raw power and intelligent artistry. They only know three chords, and they don’t use them for good.
This is the rut that has been carved into our minds, by any number of sources. This music’s reputation suffers from the same factors that make us unable to hear the early Beach Boys. And while the Beach Boys are certainly among the most canonized, lionized groups in the history of pop music, their influence and renown have nothing on the Beatles. For people of my generation, there has never been a pre-Beatles moment. The Beatles were played for us in our cribs, we sang “Yellow Submarine” and “Octopus Garden” as lullabies. Our opinions on this music were formed before we could even form opinions. And so, when we reached the age of understanding and rationality, those of us who for whatever reason made music into something worth thinking about dismissed the Beatles, flipping the switch easily. There were still a few kids, sure, who walked the halls in middle school wearing Abbey Road t-shirts, but they always seemed to be lacking in imagination, caught as they were in the undertow of their parents’ powerful tug. Years later, maybe in high school, as we began to realize that the orthodoxy against which we were trying to rebel wasn’t that of our parents but of the kids our own age, many of us rediscovered the Beatles. But it wasn’t the cheery pop that had entranced teenagers thirty-five years earlier. It was the stuff we’d been reading about in magazines and books on rock history. Even at sixteen, you were old enough to know that Sgt. Pepper’s had cleaved the cultural world; any traces of brilliance you could find on Revolver and Rubber Soul were the result of those records having been caught in the chronological crossfire. The early stuff, what seemed to us an uncollected mess of singles and TV appearances, was lighter than weak tea.
But of course that’s not really true. Not at all, in fact. John Lennon, years after the group’s dissolution, would tell an interviewer that the best work the band ever did was in the years before they began recording, when they were a bar band gacked up on pills and playing above the footlights in the Cavern Club. A few scratchy bootlegs notwithstanding, the group’s early singles are the closest thing we have to a document of their primordial sound, of the Beatles as some kind of unspoiled genuine article.
But that seems like so much historical justification. We don’t need Lennon’s permission to see the group’s early work as superior to the later stuff in order to appreciate these songs; we don’t even have to put the pre- and post- into competition with one another. On their own, free of historical baggage, these songs changed everything. They created their own context, and even if that context has gone on to obscure the songs themselves for future generations, that doesn’t mean that they can’t ever be heard or rescued.
The fact of the matter is, the early songs that are collected on The Beatles 1962-1966 are not lovey-dovey. They aren’t naïve–not that naïveté would disqualify their greatness. And they’re certainly not lacking in edge. This is impeccably arranged guitar music, a set of pop gems that, had they been written by Belle and Sebastian in the late nineties (which they very well could have been), would be highly coveted in their original pressings by kids who wear badges on the lapels of their pea-coats. Songs like “Love Me Do,” with its downbeat rhythm and minor countermelodies, are far from the cheery ain’t-love-grandisms that we tend to associate with this music (and which, ironically, actually form the intellectual ballast of plenty of what came after Sgt. Pepper’s). Don’t forget, these songs were written in the midst of a youth culture informed by The Stranger, and forged in post-war Germany; that there is longing and want and dread present shouldn’t really be surprising, but it somehow is.
Shake away the vision of Lennon and McCartney waggling their heads and hear the way their voices twine around one another in “She Loves You”’s verses, the way they seem to chase one another into some anxious place. And hear what they’re doing in that chorus: “With a love like that, you know you should be glad.” What they’re singing about is a kind of pain, trying as they are to convince their subject that his girlfriend loves him despite the pain he’s caused her. The “yeah yeah yeah!” of the chorus, that cheeriness that’s looped and entwined itself through everything we think about the early sixties, isn’t the spontaneous sound of giddiness; it’s a shout of exhortation. “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which follows “She Loves You,” is built from the same stuff, with Harrison tossing out strong, palm-muted lead lines onto which McCartney ties his bass like a knot. If the Ramones had written it, it would’ve been called “Now I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and it’d be a venerated classic of the punk moment that we’ve all internalized, regardless of our feelings on punk rock.
I apologize for belaboring the point. But there’s so much wilderness that’s grown up between us and these songs. Fifty years of postulating and monument-building from the generation that skated right on by the late seventies, and which still thinks it’s the only countercultural movement to matter. It’s good to question the interpretation of the sixties that we’ve received from the people who lived it and who romanticize it in the same way we all romanticize and ultimatize the things we took for granted when we were younger. Throw the Beatles under the bus if you need to, sure; lord knows I’ll have plenty to say about John Lennon as we go. But try, if you can, to hear this music free of the fifty years of context that has been built around it. Try to hear it on its own, the way our parents did. Try to get down to the raw sound, to the guitars, drums, bass, and vocals pouring out of your speakers. And hear it.
Sure, the Beatles grew tired of these songs. You can hear them growing restless as 1962-1966 wears on. They start peppering their three-chord mantras with strange intros, stripping away the electric chime of their Rickenbackers and replacing it with strummed acoustic guitars and loping rhythms. These minor experiments are arguably as important to the history of music as the work that would follow–you can hear the DNA of REM’s IRS output in the first three seconds of “Ticket to Ride”–and it’s not hard to imagine what the shape of the rock canon would have been had the Beatles decided to hang it up before ever releasing Revolver, much less Sgt. Pepper’s. These songs aren’t big enough to carry the weight of what was coming, or the weight of what the following fifty years has put on them. And they don’t have to.
1. For some reason, it’s even harder to convince yourself to like something that you’ve already confessed to dislike. Flipping the switch from “Yes” to “No” actually isn’t that difficult, and is one of the chief ways we learn to form and exercise our taste. But learning how to like something–or admitting that you already like something–that causes your mind to gag? It’s chain-gang work. Back to post.
2. Which show was itself only made possible by the Beatles, though those were the later, LSD-infused Beatles. Back to post.
3. Particularly the first LP. For what are probably obvious reasons, the compilers of 1962-1966 and its companion record, 1967-1970, kept Rubber Soul and Revolver in the ranks of the early work, despite what is probably their stronger aesthetic resemblance to the later, “major” work. I hesitated to write about this record today for that reason, but it’s the only album I have of the Beatles’ earliest work, and I want to keep things chronological. To that end, I’m going to hold off on talking about the Rubber Soul and Revolver songs until we get to those records, even though those songs are awesome. Back to post.
4. Which signifiers are also partly the Beatles’ doing, of course. Back to post.