Phony Beatlemania Rises From the Dust

|

For reasons that are not entirely clear, Commentary's Terry Teachout performs an autopsy on the Beatles' legacy:

Such an appraisal must begin by taking into account the fact that the Beatles were the first rock-and-roll musicians to be written about as musicians. Elvis Presley, for instance, had attracted vast amounts of attention from the press, but for the most part he was treated as a mass-culture phenomenon rather than as an artist, and so were the other rock musicians of the 50's and early 60's (and the swing-era band-leaders and vocalists who came before them). Not so the Beatles. Almost from the time they began making records in 1962, their music was taken seriously—and praised enthusiastically—by such noted classical composers as Leonard Bernstein, Aaron Copland, and Ned Rorem and such distinguished critics and commentators as William Mann, Hans Keller, and Wilfrid Mellers.

What was it that made these four musically untutored pop stars stand out in such high relief from their contemporaries? And has their music proved to be of lasting interest, as their admirers of four decades ago predicted it would?

Teachout is a strange case, a mix of genuine insights and open-minded criticism, a fuddy-duddy posture that nobody can possibly find credible at this late date, and howlers like this claim that the popularity of some torch singer demonstrates an important political and intellectual shift in America (a shift that, surprise surprise, happens to be exactly the one Teachout's been looking for). Who's he kidding, after all, with that Beatle moptop and supermodel pout he shows off while posing in some arbor somewhere? This article seems strangely like one of those think pieces from the sixties, wherein some intellectual would concede that yes, some of that longhaired kids' music has some artistic merit. You'd think that in an era when, as Nick Gillespie proved, the Beatles have stopped being kids music and become ruin-your-kids'-lives music, the Fab Four wouldn't really need this kind of validation.

But it does put me in mind of a book project I'll never get around to: Turn Down That Noise. The essay collection Turn Down That Noise would survey every type of establishment publication between 1958 to 1968 and cull a comprehensive collection of anti-rock 'n' roll commentary. All the oldsters who dismissed rock as the Martial Music of Every Sideburned Delinquent would get to speak out loud and proud in the pages of Turn Down That Noise, which will prove decisively that the squares were right all along.

Chuck Freund analyzed the Beatles' real roots in dork-rock and ultimate legacy as a music-hall quartet.

"No Pakistanis" lyrics of "Get Back."

Video of Al Capp handing John and Yoko their asses at the bed-in.

NEXT: We Have A Fatwa: Imam Gets In Deeper than He Think$. "I didn't know there were 12," sez cheapskate cleric! Rushdie still in hot water: "Ayatollyah so," egghead claims

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. I knew there was something wrong with The Beatles when as a 16 yr old I found out that my Mother liked them. Up until then “my” music had been nothing but noise to her. 🙂

  2. It was said that the popularity of rock music would lead to the downfall of culture.

    This became true only after it was assimilated into the mainstream.

  3. If anyone needed a reminder of how powerfully the baby boomers grip culture, just look at the recent halftime Super Bowl show, featuring a rock group famous forty years ago.

    That’s the equivalent of the 1965 NFL championship game halftime featuring the Cliquot Club Eskimos (circa 1922), fronted by Ruth Etting (Button Up Your Overcoat).

    The culture is changing so slowly, it could be locked in amber.

  4. That’s the equivalent of the 1965 NFL championship game halftime featuring the Cliquot Club Eskimos (circa 1922), fronted by Ruth Etting (Button Up Your Overcoat).

    I’ve never heard of either of those acts, but I’m sure you’re doing a disservice to their geriatric versions by comparing them to the Stones’ haltime farce.

  5. The Beatles are beginning to sound like the Mona Lisa looks: important historically because they plowed new ground artistically, but not terribly interesting any longer because lots of people since have gone far beyond them. If you weren’t there in the sixties, it’s hard to see what the big deal is. And while their songs are still objectively good songs, we’ve heard them all before.

  6. That’s the equivalent of the 1965 NFL championship game halftime featuring the Cliquot Club Eskimos (circa 1922), fronted by Ruth Etting (Button Up Your Overcoat).

    Woo hoo! I vote Nirvana for Super Bowl LXV !!!

    By then we should have cloning down to where Kurt Cobain can be there too.

  7. If anyone needed a reminder of how powerfully the baby boomers grip culture, just look at the recent halftime Super Bowl show, featuring a rock group famous forty years ago.

    Hey! The Stones are still famous. And they are only twenty years past when they should have hung it up.

  8. Kurt Cobain can be there too

    Yeah, like finding himself playing the superbowl wouldn’t make him want to blow his brains out again.

  9. the Beatles have stopped being kids music

    Didn’t they really stop being kids music after Rubber Soul? I understand the Gillespie point about baby-boomer cultural browbeating but I do think that anyone can appreciate their post-Beatlemania music (mostly) as the work of adults trying to come to terms with life as they experienced it, albeit in an entertaining way.

  10. Arrrgggggh! Don’t remind me of the ’65 championship game. Robbed on a bad call. It still hurts.

    Oh, yeah, I knew my life was over when I heard a Jethro Tull song on Muzak.

  11. Sy, don’t you mean the Western Conference playoff?

    … better game than the championship… for them cheating cheeseheads…

  12. Nice title ref from The Clash’s “London Calling”, Tim.

    First off, well ok, second off, I gotta say; Is this blog the absolute best or what!? Intriguing topic after intriguing topic almost always introduced in an interesting and informed manner. Reason is fully engaged intellectually and seems to be on the cutting edge of everything!

    Concerning Teachout’s mixed bag nature; I have an hypothesis that some art critics, whose exclusive purview is art criticism, judge their own work the way that art is criticized, with an emphasis on style and image, but they sacrifice some substance along the way. These same critics present themselves, in part, as art objects. So if the way Teachout fronts a fuddy-duddy posture just doesn’t wash, ya gotta remember, it’s his image he’s doing.

    So it’s not such a big step for Teachout to willingly write some nonsense that claims to reveal the likelihood that the nascent popularity of a signer is owing to a change in cultural/political sentiment that is favorable to the neoconservative/Wilsonian Liberal agenda. I’ll give some credit to Teachout for being smarter than actually believing that at the same time I subtract from his ethics rating cuz it’s my guess he wouldn’t have penned such drivel if he didn’t write frequently for the neoconservative periodical, Commentary

    BTW, The Ambler, to which Tim linked to cite the Teachout howler, looks pretty good. Its gotta have something good going for it. It lists The American Conservative and Antiwar.com in its useful information links. And Jesse Walker’s as one of its selected columns

  13. Rick: would that the others appreciate (intellectually well-off enough) the work as well as you!

    kind regards,
    VM

  14. Ah Viking Moose, you’re so kind-Always a gentleman and a scholar. Concerning the scholar part, I hope that you’re still enjoying your econ grad studies. And with respect to your generous comment; I think that one of the things that makes this place the best blog in the whole damn sphere is the stellar input of so many of our fellow commenters.

  15. If anyone needed a reminder of how powerfully the baby boomers grip culture, just look at the recent halftime Super Bowl show, featuring a rock group famous forty years ago.

    Ironically enough, those same boomers who, back in their day, cheer Mick, Keith, et al, for their “bad boy” persona feel compelled to bleep out any of those “dirty words” that might escape their lips during the performance. Funny, whatever happened to George Carlin, Lenny Bruce, and fighting “The Man?”

    Oh yeah, the boomers became “The Man.”

    Of course, this is the same generation who loved to smoke bushels of hash, then when they’ve dropped brats of their own, fall over themselves to support the War On Drugs to make sure their kids “don’t make the same mistakes they did.”

    If I ever decided that old age gives me license to be a buttinski authoritarian, please, someone put a bullet to me before I act upon those impulses (e.g. vote for a Republican, send a angry letter to the FCC, drop a dime on the local pot dealer, etc.).

  16. If you weren’t there in the sixties, it’s hard to see what the big deal is.

    And if you were there in the sixties, you wouldn’t remember anyway.

    HAA! I kill me.

  17. Of course, this is the same generation who loved to smoke bushels of hash, then when they’ve dropped brats of their own, fall over themselves to support the War On Drugs to make sure their kids “don’t make the same mistakes they did.”

    I’d even give ’em a pass on the War on Drugs. It’s the war on everything up to and including smoking, fatty foods, and pretty much everything else we enjoy that makes me ill.

  18. Akira,

    From one boomer to another, I think that there are lotsa Democrats who push a buttinski authoritarian agenda more than their respective GOP opponents. Don’t blame all the Repubs for Bush. On a different thread, you talked about a Hotdog purveyor there in Wisconsin whose restaurants, one of which featured a shrine to Reagan, also had “freedom fries”. I wanna fly out and tell the guy that Reagan did indeed have some very laudable points but that the freedom fries bit is Bush BS.

  19. Before the next blowhard talks about how universally praised and admired the Beatles were from Day One I hope they bother to crack out the microfilm from the ’60s. For every grandstanding Leonard “Look How Open-Minded I Am” Bernstein singing their praises there were dozens of Mitch Millers with their fingers crammed in their ears, not to mention all the tone-deaf newspaper columnists calling them out on their commie-pinko faggishness.

    I remember as a pissed off 11 year old the New York Times reviewing the White Album a full year after it was released (a miracle in itself, since they didn’t write about rock music AT ALL up until that point). The name of the review was “90 Minutes of Boredom.” If the reviewer was referring solely to Revolution # 9 he would have had a point, but that was the only part of the album he found “interesting.”

  20. I totally agree with you. Even I too found that one interesting.

  21. Some Guy, yeah, my bad. Western Conference. It was clearly wide.

    Tom Matte was just a real gamer.

  22. “A parting word about [Allan] Bloom’s vision of the young with their Walkmans on, which he reads as deafening them to `what the great tradition has to say.’ It may be so. But maybe it is to be read as their blocking out our opinions and explanations of what they listen to. I do not, on the whole, share their pleasures here. I take it that I am, on the whole, not meant to, meant not to. The young, on this reading, feel that there are times and places in which, in their solitude, they are not answerable to others. Just like us.”

    (Stanley Cavell “Who Disappoints Whom?” _Critical Inquiry_ 15:3, 1989, p610)

  23. I feel your pain. I’d become a revisionist too if the best my generation could produce was Nelly, Ne-Yo and T-Pain. Crappy contemporary music apparently leads to a kind of reverse codgerism among the end-of-the-alphabet generation. “Get off my lawn!” is replaced with “The Boomers have ruined everything!” Get over it already.

  24. … the fact that the Beatles were the first rock-and-roll musicians to be written about as musicians… (and the swing-era band-leaders and vocalists who came before them).
    This has got to be the most patently false quote (from a non-politician) posted this year. I mean it’s just stupid, especially with the inclusion of Swing. There was endless ink spilled on the musical merits of Shaw, Goodman, Basie etc. Not to mention soloists like Hampton and Fitzgerald.

    It isn’t true for rock n’ roll either. Cultural phenom stories may have been the usual fair in MSM, but there were plenty of music critics discussing the virtues and shortfalls of Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, etc. etc.

  25. Don’t sweat it, Sy–either NFL Network or ESPN Classic just had a big thing on the game, Matte and the subsequent “playoff bowl.”

    /better to watch than this year’s Super Bowl, IMHO.

  26. old age gives me license to be a buttinski authoritarian

    I’d love to address this point, but I’m busy reading an article about some kid named Ben Shapiro.

  27. For every grandstanding Leonard “Look How Open-Minded I Am” Bernstein singing their praises there were dozens of Mitch Millers with their fingers crammed in their ears, not to mention all the tone-deaf newspaper columnists calling them out on their commie-pinko faggishness.

    And they’ll all be well represented in the pages of Turn Down That Noise. This is truly a forgotten body of literature, but it was vast: I’d be surprised if you could fit it all into just one volume. Allan Bloom’s Mick Jagger rant in The Closing of the American Mind only seems insane because it came in 1986; it if had been written in 1966 it would have been seen as pure nitro in the volatile debate over the generation gap. By the time Bloom hit it big, nobody even remembered the intellectual tradition he was representin’. Who still listens to Allan Sherman’s “Pop Hates the Beatles”? But Turn Down That Noise will change all that.

  28. Teachout’s fixation on the torch “standard” style’s a bit distracting. But I never malign genuine fuddy-duddyness, as Teachout possesses, for it’s frequently the sign of triumphant, nerdy self-reliance and independent thought. Feeble half-thought-out, half-formed pseudo-duddyness is a different matter.

    I’m 25 and all my friends listened to: The Beatles when I was 16, 17, 18, 19. It’s not merely the Boomer grip: that moment (the 60s) had high overlap between musical innovation, quality and mass appeal.

    As for today, good music has been Babelized, “our generation” has produced “Nelly,” but if dig a little you’ll find there’s your new Beatles, Jimi Hendrixes, John Coltranes, Miles Davises, and Rolling Stones, sort of, they’re just selling less albums to less people in a Balkanized commercial landscape. Most of your digging would turn up crap, of course. Try the Fiery Furnaces, I’ll say they’re as good as the Beatles, they’re on their fourth album.

  29. I pretty much agree with Freund’s assessment of the Beatles. I disagree with the idea (which he reinforces) that they created the “concept album.”

    Sinatra was churning out “concept albums” while Lennon and McCartney were still in grammar school learning how NOT to play their instruments. And I’m sure even Sinatra was not original in that respect.

    Ever heard of “In the Wee Small Hours”, or “Come Fly With Me”, among the many other Sinatra “concept albums”?

    Hell, even the Chairman’s ode to middle age and erectile dysfunction, “September of My Years” beat the British No-Talent’s Pepper album by two years!

    Plus, the Beatles were lousy musicians. A listen to “12 Bar Original” makes me yearn for the sheer artistry of Her Satanic Majesty

  30. The concept album is not a difficult concept. Is it really a “thing” at all? I think the intuitive planning for any album was once probably “let’s put in a nice mix of winner-tunes at different tempos so as to create a balanced listening experience and please everyone,” but after that, once you have the slightest motion of thought towards imagining the “album” could be kind of “art object” with its own special cohesion and feeling and possibly message, wa-la, you have the concept album concept almost ready-made like some miraculous psychic secretion. Arguing about who invented such things seems slightly misguided, although for the record Sinatra beat the Beatles by a considerable margin.

  31. I apologize for my “scare” “quotes,” by the way. It’s those damnable cultural relativists and their Frankfurt School Liberal Brain-Control Lasers.

  32. Plus, the Beatles were lousy musicians

    Gimme a break! They produced such a diversity of music that was so enjoyed by so many. Full disclosure: I also enjoy the Sex Pistols, for whom the case for a lack technical artistry seems tenable to say the least. Of course, that’s the punk style. To me, Beatle music doesn’t sound as technically accomplished as say, Tears for Fears music. But who cares? Isn’t it a goal of musicianship to produce tunes that the musician and other folks enjoy?

  33. Rick: wa-la??

    Al Capp handing John and Yoko their asses at the bed-in

    Funny, I thought that was Al Capp making an ass of his ignorant, hostile, reactionary self.

  34. Funny, I thought that was Al Capp making an ass of his ignorant, hostile, reactionary self.

    When he wasn’t raping co-eds, that is.

  35. It probably should be pointed out that 99% of the people who read Commentary were listening to Frank Sinatra and Benny Goodman when the Beatles first came out and have never stopped. I love Terry’s footnote informing us that all the Beatles’ albums are available on CD. Now that’s research!

  36. Teachout used to write musuc criticism, especially on jazz, for National Review. He’s not only an old fogey, he’s an aged-out young fogey.

    Buddy Holly wrote some interesting pop music, conmplete with “Beatlesque” minor chords, long before the moptops renamed the Quarrymen after the Crickets.

    Kevin

  37. Try the Fiery Furnaces, I’ll say they’re as good as the Beatles, they’re on their fourth album.

    Oh yeah, the Fiery Furnaces, they’ve really changed the world!! No doubt their hysterical fan base and new fans alike will still be listening to them and debating their merits in 40 years and counting!!

    Now before you get mad (or after you get mad), I consider all artistic taste totally subjective. I couldn’t care less if you said The Shaggs were better than The Beatles. In fact, that would be pretty cool!

    The point of my sarcasm is that what’s hard to argue is the impact The Beatles had. Well, sure there’s some degree of subjectivity in that too. And they’ve even been given too much credit in that category by somel. But as I’ve said before, The Beatles could be the most overrated band of all time, and they could STILL be the most significant band (at least in rock) of all, there’d be no contradiction. But if you’re talking anything more than your personal taste, I’ll go out on a limb and say it’s ridiculous to compare the, uh who was that, oh yeah, the Fiery Furnaces to the Fabs. But I’m sure after their fifth album they’ll be a household name.

  38. Tim,

    I think that’s a wicked cool idea for a book.

    Ideal world, who do you get to write the foreward?

  39. “When he wasn’t raping co-eds, that is.”

    Whuuuut?!

  40. Plus, the Beatles were lousy musicians.

    I’m sorry, but this is absolute crap. Paul McCartney (regardless of what you think of his songs) is admired by bass players like Jeff Berlin. Nobody played the bass guitar in popular music the way McCartney did. George Harrison was a highly proficient and versatile guitarist. Lennon was a fine rhythm guitarist and Ringo got the job done.

    Anyone who actually thinks they were lousy musicians either isn’t a musician or is merely ignorant of their music.

  41. Actually I just looked up Fiery Furnaces and they sound pretty cool. The only other brother/sister duo I can think of offhand are The Carpenters! I’ll keep my ears open for them. The main thing about The Beatles is that they had a certain magic that really transcends all rational analysis. And you can hate my guts and call me a moron for saying that if you like. But I also applaud anyone wanting and willing to resist the orders from on high to worship them as the Greatest. It’s endearing, and it’s good for culture. So hate and/or dismiss away. But if you start taking yourself too seriously, I’ll just have to say, hey, get real!!

    All that said, Tim’s idea is a cool one. I’m no expert on the history of what all was said and written, but I’ve always had the impression that plenty of folks thought The Beatles were dreadful in those early days, and that they may even have inspired more bile than any other pop musicians before them. But then, maybe, in a certain sense, that’s an actual part of being taken seriously! Why bother getting upset at bubblegum music, which after all is just kid’s music? Of course, part of the explanation could have been their enormous popularity. But I do wonder if sensing there was something more there than typical pop music actually played a part in bringing out the degree of denounciations they elicited. And maybe that’s why the press asked them if they liked Beethoven, which they never would have asked of any other pop star, because they weren’t sure whether such a question was the height of irony or oddly pithy. Maybe they all had a sneaking suspicion that under all that moppy hair and teeny-bopper screaming…. Well, of course there’s no way of knowing, and ultimately it’s all a big so what except to have fun with. But remember, no less experts than the Taliban called The Beatles the downfall of Western Civilization!!

  42. I must admit I agree with Teachout that Revolver was the best album. Includes the famous Taxman track, which I would have thought would be a favourite of free marketeers.

  43. I also think Revolver was their best album. And if the Beatles were the downfall of Western Civilization, then we all owe Yoko a great big apology.

  44. Thanks for reminding me of that great Nick Gillespie article. For years I thought I was the only who had read that ridiculous Ron Schaumburg book.

    Teachout, I suppose not surprisingly, displays a startling ignorance of the history rock music. He seems unaware that rock musicians, like jazz musicians, did start down the path towards high-minded seriousness and complexity – with varying degrees of success and very different approaches. Frank Zappa, King Crimson, and Sonic Youth are just a few of many examples. But the rock establishment managed to successfully ghettoize these types of band. Maybe it helped that high minded intellectuals were still enamored with jazz and couldn’t be bothered to take bands like King Crimson seriously.

  45. Howlin’ Wolf, Tito Puente, Duke Ellington and Les Paul continued their careers into middle age and beyond. Sonny Rollins, some 40-50 years past his commercial peak, has made some very good records recently and he’s in his mid seventies.

    None of them are stars among the 18-to-24 demographic, and there’s nothing surprising or wrong about that, but they’re not objects of ridicule either. Why does each wave of post-Elvis Western popular music by white folks need to be rejected vehemently rather than just allowed to fade once that generation starts losing hair?

    I’m not a Stones fan and the Beatles don’t make my rotation often at all, but what makes it okay to like Hank Williams, Sr., Patsy Cline and ’50s Sinatra and sad and laughable to still be passionate about Rubber Soul and Some Girls?

    Maybe boomers and boomer hagiographers feel compelled to keep writing asinine defenses of the Beatles and Dylan because the Turn Down That Noise perspective still has a large constituency.

  46. Les Paul is still rockin’ at age 90. A track from his new American Made – World Played, “69 Freedom Special”, just won him a Grammy. Of course, since Les has jazz cred, aside from his pop & rock work, critics have alweays liked him.

    Kevin

  47. Actually I just looked up Fiery Furnaces and they sound pretty cool. The only other brother/sister duo I can think of offhand are The Carpenters!

    The White Stripes are allegedly brother and sister last I heard. Or ex-lovers. They keep it pretty ambiguous. Unless they finally came clean and I didn’t hear about it.

  48. Stevo, they used to be married. They haven’t come clean, but I believe a marriage license has surfaced. Soon, they will pay for their lies!

  49. Re: brother-sister acts, there’s the sublime C86-ish British indiepop band Tallulah Gosh (and its later incarnation as Heavenly), which featured Amelia Fletcher on vocals and guitar and her brother Matthew on drums and I believe doing most of the songwriting duties. (After Fletcher frere‘s suicide, the remnants of the band continued to record, with a somewhat different sound, as Marine Research.)

    Fyodor, it’s really hard to say what critics will find interesting forty years after the fact. Moby Dick is the classic example, but would anyone — and I mean anyone, except possible their dad — have imagined that it would still be possible to purchase an in-print Shaggs record in 2006? Personally I think that the way the global music scene is shaking out (South Korean gangsta rap!) probably indicates that forty years from now music historians will be musing about writing funny books featuring thirty years of music critics alternately attacking and patronizing hip-hop, but hey, Blueberry Boat is a fine album and worth owning.

  50. Maybe it helped that high minded intellectuals were still enamored with jazz and couldn’t be bothered to take bands like King Crimson seriously.

    I would like to repeat this statement, but change King Crimson to King Diamond.

    -Keith

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.