Be grateful the Beatles broke up


The Beatles are shown on the set of the “Ed Sullivan Show” in New York, Feb. 10, 1964. In back is John Lennon; the others, from left to right, are: George Harrison, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney. (AP Photo)

There are no bad Beatles albums, unless you count the concoctions like “Something New” or “Beatles VI” that were thrown together for the American market during the height of Beatlemania. To the bitter end, the Beatles produced great music (and, yes, I’m mentally blocking out a lot of weak songs and outright abominations — you know, “Mr. Moonlight” and so on). By breaking up in 1970, not long after completing “Abbey Road,” they left us wanting more. They generated a decade’s worth of fantasies about a Beatles reunion, until a gunman in New York City rendered that impossible.

The break-up spared us from listening to albums that were unlikely to be as good as their best work. We would have heard the erosion of their genius — because that is what happens with musical prodigies, as a general rule, and because they’d been diverging in their musical interests and instincts for several years already.

No one should bemoan the breakup of the Beatles. They had no choice. They had to break up because no one hangs out forever with his or her teenage pals. They’d been together since they were young teenagers. Look it up: John Lennon was 16 when he asked Paul McCartney to join his new band in the summer of 1957. Paul had just turned 15. George Harrison was 15 when he joined.

The Beatles “invaded” America in February 1964, and as we remember and celebrate the arrival of Beatlemania and their first performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” let’s just remember that they’d already been hacking away at this rock-and-roll stuff for nearly seven years. They’d performed a thousand times in clubs in England and Germany before anyone had heard of them. There is no better example of the virtues of hard work.  John Lennon vowed that his band would be bigger than Elvis — and he said that in 1962, before the faintest shimmy of Beatlemania.

Malcolm Gladwell uses the Beatles as a prime example of the rule that there are no naturals when it comes to cognitively demanding work and you probably need 10,000 hours of practice to be very good at an elite level (Gladwell: “There’s a reason the Beatles didn’t give us ‘The White Album’ when they were teen-agers”). I made a related point in a 1995 essay in The Post:

The problem with “genius” is that it doesn’t give the great talents their due for working hard and plodding through difficult problems and taking chances and knowing which ideas to dump and which to deliver. Geniuses create the same way total ding-dongs create. Geniuses still have to put on their paint one stroke at a time.

So “Genius” is a tad overrated, at least in comparison with pluck, luck, energy and perseverance. A corollary is that genius won’t protect you from the ravages of age, disillusion, drugs, fatigue, and general lack of inspiration. It’s not a secret sauce you can add forever to your dish. It is possible that the missing Beatles albums of the 1970s would have been pretty good (go ahead and combine the solo work in some fashion and you can put together some plausible collections in the first few years of that decade), but they wouldn’t have put a scare into “Sgt. Pepper’s.”

Back in 1990, when Paul McCartney was about to perform in Miami, I did a long article on the Beatles for Tropic, the Herald’s Sunday magazine. The Herald has kindly agreed to put that article back online. I’ll excerpt some of it below, but first, here’s one passage I want to highlight:

What cannot be underestimated is the importance of the audience. The Beatles were creatures of a generational movement. They were a product of the times. They caught a huge wave not of their own making. “Creativity is not the property of a person,” says Howard Gardner, a Harvard professor who studies creativity. “You can’t just say that a person is creative or noncreative per se. When you refer to creativity it always refers to a dialectic between a person and what I call the field, basically, knowledgeable individuals who judge whether something is good or not.” There were more teen-agers alive in 1964 than ever before in history. Cheap transistor radios from Asia had flooded the market. Rock ‘n’ Roll’s great idea -a pounding backbeat that made you want to shake and shout- had been corporatized and denatured. The radio was starved for something other than Frankie Avalon. The scene craved a new sound. So many millions of kids where turned on to Rock ‘n’ Roll by Elvis that the odds dictated that Something New would happen.

Here’s more of the story, from the top:

1. The mating call of the Aeolian cadence

Nineteen hundred and sixty-five was a good year for the Shazam method of songwriting. A scruffy rocker who called himself Keith Richards woke in the night in a road-trip hotel room with an incredible riff in his head. He knew it was a hot guitar lick. What he didn’t know was that it would become the superstructure of one of the greatest hit singles of the rock era. Shazam! Satisfaction.

That same year, Paul McCartney rolled out of bed one morning with a beautiful melody on the brain. It was like a found object, so perfectly realized he figured he must have heard it somewhere. He fumbled with it on the piano. It had a classic melodic arc: A short phrase of two notes, answered by a longer phrase that soars to a high note before meandering back down the keyboard to another short phrase and a little jump at the end, a satisfying roller-coaster loop. Never much with words he sang, “Scrambled egg . . . da da da da da da scrambled egg . . . ”

McCartney was just 23 (and just Paul to most of the world) and his band, The Beatles, had conquered the world as surely as Alexander or Charlemagne. More than your average pop idols, they were angelic majesties, living gods, the acme of cool. They had achieved intensities of popularity that no one had known existed and probably weren’t sanitary. With the King off in Hollywood in arrested animation, they were suddenly bigger even than Elvis. Legend has it that during the hour they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 not a single crime in America was committed by a teenager.

The only asterisk by their name in 1965 was the taint of teenybopperdom. For adults The Beatles were still a guilty pleasure. This tune in Paul’s head would change all that.

Yesterday, the descendant of Scrambled Egg, is the world’s most popular song, recorded by more artists than any other in history, spun 5,000 times a week on DJ turntables in the United States even today. The critic Wilfrid Mellers tried to describe in technical terms why the song works so splendidly:

“The first bar, with its gentle sigh, seems separated, stranded, by the abrupt modulation; and although the troubles ‘return to stay’ with a descent to the tonic, the anticipated modulation sharpwards is counteracted when the B natural is flattened to make an irresolute plagal cadence.”

Gibberish to Paul. His songwriting partner and best friend John Lennon likewise couldn’t have made sense of such language. They were musical savages, holy barbarians, proof that that you can graduate summa cum laude from the University of Rock-n-Roll without being able to decipher sheet music. A tonic was something that went with gin. They took glee in the labored exegesis of their music by high brow types, like when William Mann, critic for The Times of London, swooned, “One gets the impression that they think simultaneously of harmony and melody, so firmly are the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, and the flat submediant key switches, so natural in the Aeolian cadence at the end of Not A Second Time (the chord progression that ends Mahler’s Song of the Earth).”

Aeolian cadences? Sounds like a type of bird, said John.

They were on a roll like none before. In early 1964, when movie producer Walter Shenson told John and Paul he needed four fast songs and two ballads for the upcoming film starring the band, the songs immediately appeared as if pulled from a back pocket. As filming neared completion, Shenson realized he needed another fast song to play during the opening credits, and that it should be called A Hard Day’s Night, to fit the movie title. That night he asked John Lennon for the extra song. Shortly after 10 p.m. John felt the muse. The next morning at 8 a.m., Shenson was summoned to the dressing room. John and Paul were there with two guitars, and a pack of matches was propped up on the mirror with some tiny words written inside the cover. John sang the first 16 bars, Paul the middle 8. The song went to number one on the charts.

Shazam!

What was the secret? Who gave them that gift? These semi- educated street scufflers from Liverpool performed a strange alchemy that turned almost everything they touched into a gold record. They rose to stardom on a profusion of upbeat two-minute songs that stuck to pop music convention with their 8 bar strains, rigidly linked in an A-A-B-A-B-A construction. They were a standard four-instrument band, two guitars, a bass and drums.

If you diagram a Beatles song it looks just like the songs of all those other bands that haven’t sold a billion discs and tapes and aren’t in the Guiness Book of World Records. (Paul McCartney, specifically, is the most successful composer of all time, with 74 gold records with the Beatles and solo. He has hit the No. 1 spot on the singles charts 32 times in the U.S., his only competition being John Lennon, with 26.)

Tomorrow marks the 20 anniversary of Paul’s announcement that The Beatles had broken up, yet the music thrives, not only in terms of sales and daily Beatle Breaks on the radio but also as the subject of Beatleology. At least 40 major books have looked at the band, each one trying to tweeze the material into finer pieces. There are serious books, tattletale books, books that recycle other books, ex-wife books, ex-girlfriend books, ex-friend books, fired drummer books, even a book by a guy who had the chance to sign the Beatles to a contract and blew it. For sheer obsessive detail the blue ribbon goes to a book that provides documentary notes of the band’s recording sessions, describing how many takes each song required.

Every couple of years there is supposedly a new band on the scene that will recapture the glory of The Beatles. There was much hope in the 1970s for the British group Squeeze, with their sweet McCartneyish vocals. Then came The Bangles in the 1980s. The closest thing to white-hot Beatlemania has been the ascent of Michael Jackson, but he’s more in the tradition of Elvis, an entertainer with good stage moves who sings music written by others. The proper heirs of The Beatles have been Billy Joel, Elton John, Bruce Springsteen, The Police, The Eagles, Fleetwood Mac and Talking Heads, songwriters and bands with vast commercial and critical appeal, but none of these have put a scare into The Beatles’ sales records.

What is it that people heard that made them so love The Beatles?

Was there genius in the mix? What was it? Who did it?

Was it Paul? Was it John?

Are the songs really that superior or is it just a marketing coup? How much of it is nostalgia, the backround radiation from the Beatlemania explosion?

What’s genius, anyway? What’s artistry? What’s talent?

And finally, this: Out of all the millions of kids who grew up wanting to be Beatles, who wanted to ascend to the toppermost of the poppermost, why hasn’t any succeeded? Why doesn’t anyone write Hey Jude anymore? Why does even Paul McCartney seem like a pale imitation of Beatle Paul?

Obvious questions. Now for the tricky answers.

RELATED: In my life – A photographer’s look at the Beatles

 

 

Joel Achenbach writes on science and politics for the Post's national desk and on the "Achenblog."
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Joel Achenbach | January 29