Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Best There Ever Was

The other evening I was watching a television special on the 40th anniversary of the Woodstock Music Festival. Two things struck me as I watched and listened. One, how miserable it must have been to be in a huge crowd for three days in the rain and mud with no toilets and no food, and two, how primitive the sound and most of the performances were.

The next evening my wife and I were listening to rock classics on Sirius-XM when she got up and put on a CD. The CD was Abby Road and I was reminded all over again, when it comes to rock, the Beatles were the best there ever was. Nothing of that era stacked up against them.

There were some seriously good musicians at Woodstock. Crosby, Stills and Nash, The Grateful Dead, The Band, Jimi Hendrix to name a few. But none them, in 1969, were anywhere near where the Beatles were in-so-far-as creativity both in the quality of their sound, their production and the songs.

Don’t get me wrong, I love the aforementioned bands and many others but, The Beatles were in a league of their own. By the end of 1970, they ceased to exist.

Four times they changed the music in their short career. I can’t think of another rock band or musician who has done that, not even Bob Dylan.

First, when they showed up as a four-man, harmonizing mix of everything you ever heard but never heard from rock n roll (1963). Second, Rubber Soul created a level of sophistication not heard before in rock (1965). Third, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band, exponentially took psychedelic rock and recording techniques to a different planet (1967). And finally, Abby Road set a production and musical arrangement standard that took the rest of the rock world years to equal (1969).

Many people, including myself, would argue that The White Album should be in that list as well. And maybe it should because, without question, it was by far the most open and diverse rock recoding of its time and maybe the most creatively diverse of any pop music recording ever. But I don’t think it changed the music. Not fundamentally, like the others.

I’ve seen The Beatles twice. Once, before they were the Beatles when they were backing a European singer named Tony Sheridan at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany. And a year or so later in Barcelona, Spain in the bull ring. I believe it was just before their U.S. debut at Shea Stadium, but I’m not certain and too lazy to look it up.

If I had to pick a favorite, it would be Abby Road. It’s hard to believe that it’s been 40 years since I first curled up in my bean bag, took a couple of tokes, and drifted into the Sun King.


  1. Get the current issue of Rolling Stone with the cover of the Beatles on it. The cover story is about their breakup. I thought I knew what was going on, but I didn't know shit.

    I divide the Beatles into two categories: the pop/rock period and the interpretative sound period. Abby Road is a great example of the latter, but I've always felt that Let It Be didn't get enough credit. Yes, Spector's production sucked, but there are still great songs on it--Across The Universe, Let It Be (yeah, I'm sick of hearing it on the radio too.) White Album is amazing. Everytime I listen to it, I hear something new. I didn't like Sergeant Peppers--didn't like the sound. And I still love their pop period--before my time, but I can imagine that it was a great time to be a music fan. Oddly enough, Kurt Cobain copied that period to write his songs for Nirvana--he freely admitted the influence of the Beatles; he couldn't create the multi-textures of studio rock like the Beatles could, but he could write a good song with a hook.

    There are times I get sick of the Beatles, but that is the media's fault, not the Beatles.

  2. Great observations EOR. Strangely enough, like you, I wasn't crazy about Sgt. Pepper either, although I loved Revolver, its precursor. Hendrix' Are You Experienced is my benchmark for acid rock but it wasn't nearly as creative as Sgt. Pepper.

    I was in the military, stationed in Germany, when the whole bell-bottom British invasion thing was cranking up. When I first got there Buddy Holly was still on the juke box downtown. Europeans loved early rock and emulated it.

    I'll pick up Rolling Stone. I can't imagine the pressure the boys were under. When I first saw them they were just a bunch of shaggy haired teenagers. Who could have guessed that within a year fans would be trying to tear their clothes off.

  3. I have to admit the Beatles did set the bar pretty high. I can't really think of one "bad" tune out of the entire play list.

    But that they were driven out of live performance because of their fans ("We couldn't hear ourselves playing for all the screaming" John Lennon") and had to restrict themselves to the studio it gave them time to experiment with the layering that we all remember today.

    I really doubt they could have done the last four albums anywhere but the studio...but then they were The Beatles, so who knows.

    I liked acid music, took a bunch of it to find the groove but for my money give me The Who as the best driven band of the day.

    Pete Townsend Fathered in the whole Punk movement in music single handed.

  4. I agree with WM on Pete Townsend. I have bought most of his solo records. He's great in The Who and he is great solo. How many musicians can say that?

    Revolver is great. I meant to mention that. It to me, was the pivitol record that got The Beatles onto the more atmospheric, layered sound. The songs are more serious, more real. They did away with pop, but they weren't clear on the direction they were heading.

    One thing this article brought out and I find this significant: The Beatles may have ended up hating each others guts, but they loved making music together. Despite all the problems with Abbey Road in terms of their relationship, they really dug making the record. And it shows.

    I can understand why they broke up as they may have gone deeper into the studio sound, but they weren't going to play live again, even though it seems that Paul was agitating for it. John wanted no part of it and George was thoroughly sick of being a Beatle. Ringo seemed to be more of a peacemaker. The relationship between John and Paul is fascinating because it is an obvious case of heterosexual men bonding as deeply as any romantic relationship--minus the romance and sex. It points to the idea that men do bond and when the bond is broken, bad things happen.

  5. Can't say that I'm a big Who fan. I think it was smashing the instruments. They trashed things I would have given my eye teeth for but could never afford. I think it turned me off so much that I simply tuned them out. But that's why there's different flavors of ice cream. It's all good. Gotta admit that My Generation certainly struck a chord with me at the time. And Magic Bus later.

    Got the book in the mail today Mark. Already started reading it. I'll report when I'm finished.

    EOR... George Martin was the 5th Beatle who often gets forgotten. He was the arranger and production guru. In another post I'll take up the subject of California rock and recording and its impact. Most of what Martin perfected started here. The Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead played enormous roles in advancing recording techniques and the first use of synthesizers.

    I believe if John Lennon hadn't been killed, the Beatles would have reunited and played live. Live sound re-enforcement had reached the point to where they could have reproduced their sound on stage. Re: Pink Floyd.

    And you're right about John and Paul. Perhaps the finest songwriting team of all time in any genre.

  6. Excellent point on Pink Floyd who sound every bit as good live as they do on record. And I bet you are right about the Beatles. They probably had to get over all the nastiness that ensued. Ringo did play with George sometimes.

    I'm not a huge Who fan either, but I dig Pete. You can tell the records where he is present: Tommy, Quadraphenia, Who's Next. Those are my 3 that may qualify me as a Who fan. But if you listen to Pete's solo work, you won't find a bad record. Sure, some are better than others, but they are all good. I own them all. Roger Daltry may have a great voice, but that band is nothing without Pete.


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