I used to wonder why, but now I think I know the answer: They were good. They were very good, even. But they weren't THAT good. That is, when I wanted music that challenged me and that reflected a certain social or political posture, the Beatles ceased to be serviceable.
Piero Scaruffi gives a terrific review of the history of the Beatles. He talks about the Beatles/Beatlemania phenomenon while also discussing the other artists and cultural forces around them. His account is scathing at times, and he goes off the deep end on a few occasions, but for the most part he's dead-on -- and it's a freakin' revelation.
The Beatles sold a lot of records not because they were the greatest musicians but simply because their music was easy to sell to the masses: it had no difficult content, it had no technical innovations, it had no creative depth. They wrote a bunch of catchy 3-minute ditties and they were photogenic. If somebody had not invented "beatlemania" in 1963, you would not have wasted five minutes of your time to read a page about such a trivial band.I think "no creative depth" goes too far, but on the other hand we don't need to buy into the corporate myth of their infinite creative depth.
The Beatles were not gritty enough for Scaruffi. They were not adventurous enough in their compositions or in their musicianship. Yet the Beatles produced a great number of songs of very high quality, and they certainly did cover a range of attitudes and subjects, even if they weren't first. The Beatles clearly enjoyed developing new sounds, new styles, and new subjects. Each record sounded and felt different from its predecessor. To me, that's pretty cool.
Jefferson Airplane had a few great songs but then self-destructed. Hendrix was done after Electric Ladyland. The Beach Boys, the Byrds, the Grateful Dead, the Velvet Underground, Frank Zappa, and so on -- their gimmicks all wore off, sometimes very quickly.
The Beatles were more malleable, more adaptable than most acts. And they always had melody. Scaruffi, however, is unimpressed.
Every one of their songs and every one of their albums followed much more striking songs and albums by others, but instead of simply imitating those songs, the Beatles adapted them to a bourgeois, conformist and orthodox dimension. The same process was applied to the philosophy of the time, from the protest on college campuses to Dylan's pacifism, from drugs to the Orient. Their vehicle was melody, a universal code of sorts, that declared their music innocuous. Naturally others performed the same operation, and many (from the Kinks to the Hollies, from the Beach Boys to the Mamas and Papas) produced melodies even more memorable, yet the Beatles arrived at the right moment and theirs would remain the trademark of the melodic song of the second half of the twentieth century.To me, what stands out about the Beatles next to these other artists -- the Kinks, the Beach Boys, the Mamas and Papas -- is the fact that the Beatles were consistently able to put together whole albums of good and polished songs. Earlier, I implied that Beatles songs ceased to be particularly challenging at a certain point. But the polish of the songs included both nuance and layering. Beatles songs tended to throw in plenty of rewarding nuggets: an intersting bass line, a sound effect, a harmonization. I don't think any artist was as aware of details as the Beatles.
And the Beatles had four different lead singers. A Beatles song could draw from any one of the four members. With a group like the Kinks, it was Ray Davies we ALWAYS got. With the Beach Boys, it was ALWAYS Brian Wilson. Not so with the Beatles. We got enough difference in the individual personalities of the songwriters to have our interest maintained on an album.
It also bears mentioning that John and Paul not only had terrific voices, but they had better voices than most every other act and so-called "innovator" out there. I always thought Lennon had the more emotive voice while Paul's was more pleasant. Nevertheless, both men had strong and flexible voices - they could get a range of sound out. In terms of pure vocal ability, I think only folks such as Marvin Gaye, Aretha Franklin, Smokey Robinson, and maybe a few others of that time period can be considered on par.
Another characteristic that made the Beatles distinct was their intelligence. As a musical act, they evolved and even disbanded when they felt the act was finished. Many artists don't change as much as the Beatles did, and many don't quit at the right time. The Beatles were very smart musically and commercially. They depended on melody as their music changed, and they depended on their enormous popularity as their look and image evolved.
So, great to read. Shocking to consider.