Rock Bands May Come and Rock Bands May Go, But Music Hall is Gonna Go On Forever….


Back in reason's June 2001 issue, Charles Paul Freund unveiled some of the Beatles' less-remarked-on origins while discussing their seemingly eternal appeal. He notes first of all that the D.C.-area station to first help break them big in the U.S. was an MOR one, not a rock n' roll one:

The MOR audience had a template for receiving the Beatles that nobody else had, because MOR stations were the only part of the American music scene at all open to British vocal acts. Top 40 rock listeners accepted foreign singers only as sideshow displays; Lonnie Donegan's 1961 novelty "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor?" was a Top 10 hit……….

One of [Revolver]'s chart hits, the sing-song "Yellow Submarine," reaches back beyond rock for its inspiration. A children's song, it pointed in the direction the Beatles were to go: the British Music Hall.

Sgt. Pepper's (1967) may well have transformed the rock world, but it owes nothing to rock's Romantic myth. It is built largely from the music and imagery of the Victorian and Edwardian pleasure palaces of the industrial working class……Though the Beatles approached the material with a literary sensibility, especially irony, songs like "When I'm 64" and "Lovely Rita" are effective evocations of antique Music Hall style, while "Getting Better" and the melodramatic "She's Leaving Home" make sympathetic use of antique emotion. Indeed, the corny, melodic sentimentalism of the Music Hall repertoire was a rich vein for the group, and they were never to abandon it.

A long list of later Beatles songs is drawn, directly or indirectly, from this tradition: "Martha, My Dear," "Your Mother Should Know," "Penny Lane," "All You Need Is Love," "All Together Now," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Honey Pie," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," "Magical Mystery Tour," "Good Night," and almost everything on the B side of Abbey Road, down to and including the inner-groove run-out, "Her Majesty." While the Beatles continued to write and record rock songs such as "Revolution" and "Come Together," and while they engaged in some entirely different musical experiments on the White Album, the influences that shaped their major, later output—most of the music for which they are best known—emerges from an antique pop style.

All rock n' roll revolutions, well….the word "revolution" does imply turning circles, where the same point keeps coming by us again and again. The Clash, inspired by the Sex Pistols (among others) declared that in 1977 there'd be no more "Elvis, Beatles, or the Rolling Stones." Now, the Pistols' leading (well, only) intellectual (McLaren, for this purpose, doesn't count) Johnny "Rotten" Lydon of the Sex Pistols tells Rolling Stone in its latest issue:

[Lydon] was talking about the humor in the Sex Pistols, which he said had been missed by all the people who came after. "We're music hall," he said, his cheer rising. "This is part of British culture. You're brought up, you sing along in the pubs, there's a piano in the corner, it's an ongoing process. You can sing songs from 200 years ago and everyone will know it, just like you can sing something brand-new, everyone will know it, because it fits into a thing. And basically, Sex Pistols songs lend themselves absolutely to"—and by now he was positively beaming—" 'Does your chewing gum lose its flavor on the lamppost overnight?' "

By the way, anyone interested in writing a revolutionary rock-world sequel to the Clash's "1977" for 2007 could use the line "No Eno, Donovan, or the Gang of Four!" And please do.