I used to take the greatness of the Beatles for granted. Though I would often drunkenly argue in their favour, I assumed my interlocutors were merely arguing with me because they were drunk, and not because they really, truly believed any band could be more significant to the history of “rock” music than the Beatles. But now that time has passed and I am older, it has become apparent to me that the greatness of the Beatles is not a widely held belief among the general public.
I can forgive this ignorance in the young’uns. I get that if you were born after me – after 1981 – or even around then, the greatness of the Beatles, or of any of the trailblazers from the first three-quarters of the twentieth century, is often difficult to see. The obvious reason being the absence of the Beatles on the radio, on the music video channels of the ’90s, and on Youtube.. They used to be played a lot but they aren’t any more.
But I think there is much more to it than just a lack of radio exposure. We live in an era where “pop rock” – that is music that is not “classical,” jazz, world, folk, blues, electronica (though often including hybrids of these) – is extraordinarily difficult to define. There are more genres and hybrids than any one person can count. And all of these genres blend with other genres – both similar and dissimilar – in the hands of not only self-confessed genre-benders but even supposed genre revivalists. It is often difficult to tell what something “is,” without resorting to multiple often contradictory labels. (Think of the sheer number of subgenres with “punk” in their name, for example). And because of this incredible diversification – the listener has more choice of music styles than at any other time in human history – it is very difficult to see it all stemming from a few places; it seems like this diversity comes from everywhere.
There is another major reason why many younger people do not understand the greatness of the Beatles. We have devalued to meaningless the term “greatness.” This since music criticism became democratized. Don’t get me wrong, the democratization of criticism isn’t a bad thing. If music criticism hadn’t been democratized I wouldn’t be writing this book. But with this change – as with every change – there is good and there is bad. One of the most obvious negatives of the expansion of music criticism from “the experts” to the masses is the lack of rigour in regard to language. In the hands of people who haven’t got a strong background in music, words have stopped having precise meanings and often no longer mean what they used to. The best example of this, aside from that endlessly problematic term “rock,” is the term “punk.” Reading practically any music mag or ezine I am struck by the extraordinary overuse of the word, as punk now denotes practically everything that has the least bit of rawness to it, regardless of genre. (Let us remember that punk was once a very specific thing, namely ’50s rock ‘n’ roll reinterpreted in the ’70s as faster, rawer and usually with a political edge. It didn’t just mean “grit”.)
This lack of precision extends to “greatness,” a term that is always fraught with difficulties, even in the best of times. A great – excuse me – example of the problem is regularly seen in the music magazine Exclaim! – and I love Exclaim! I’ve read nearly every issue for the last decade. For years I have complained to anyone who would listen that the vast majority of the magazine’s writers do not understand greatness. I have seen the term “masterpiece” trotted out by Exclaim! writers to describe everyday releases by barely heralded bands, often going even further to label them as one of a band’s many masterpieces. And it’s not that my concept of greatness is exclusive. Compared to some, it’s rather inclusive – I have given 10 out of 10 to hundreds of albums on rateyourmusic.com. Check it out. But I am suspicious that all these bands in Exclaim!, most of whom you and I have never heard of, have repeatedly put out transcendent works of art while toiling in obscurity. The idea that there are multiple masterpieces in multiple genres in a year – sometimes more than one a month – seems a stretch, especially today when there is so much going on in music. How can the true trendsetters and trailblazers be determined until long after the fact? Most of these writers write from within scenes and subcultures where these albums do appear great, only they appear great in relation to everything else around them, and that doesn’t mean much. Though I am loathe to admit there are such things as bad genres – I don’t believe that for a second – all genres and subgenres produce more mediocrity than greatness as a rule. To discover that, all you need to do is immerse yourself in a few. The idea that there is abundance of not only good but great – classic – releases out there every month is patently ridiculous. Has the amount of great artistry increased with the expansion of genres? I doubt it. I think rather that “pop / rock” is so fragmented that often people cannot see the trees for the forest.
One of the culprits in all of this is the internet, obviously. Perhaps the biggest single resource online for music nerds like me is allmusic.com, a ridiculously authoritative attempt to catalogue and review all the music out there. It is an invaluable site but one of its major standards is seriously flawed. Allmusic awards a minimum of 4.5 out of 5 star reviews to an artist’s best accomplishment regardless of how good that accomplishment is in context or in history. So the Guess Who, a singles band who never put out a classic album, gets at least one 9 out of 10 album rating – “near-transcendent” in my terms – despite the incredible lack of consistency on every single one of their albums. (I know: I have listened to them, and I have suffered.) To be fair, this idea has lapsed a little bit in recent years, with some less significant artists receiving only a 3 out of 5 rating for their best, but this still indicates better than average in my mind. The point is that this site, and many others, has encouraged the idea that things should be evaluated in the context of a scene, or in the context of a single artist’s or band’s career, as opposed to evaluated in the context of history. This happened I think in part because most people – including most amateur and many supposedly professional music critics – have not listened to enough music to be able to truly evaluate something in light of music history, even relatively recent music history. Something that sounds good – and better than anything else from a particular scene or that particular artist / band – is now acclaimed as a masterpiece as opposed to his / her / their best work, which is probably all it is, if it’s even that.
So I think that young people have an excuse – or at least a reason – for not being fully aware of the Beatles’ importance. But I’m less sure about people older than me. Yet they also seem to have little respect and knowledge of the Beatles’ greatness. I used to be in a writer’s group in Hamilton where I was the second youngest member – and that only by five months. Everyone else was five, ten, fifteen years older than me – and older, as the oldest was fifty years older than me. It was a social group, with lots of off-point conversation. When conversation ever moved to music I was shocked to find that a vast majority of those older than me did not think much of the Beatles. They made claims that other bands were certainly better – which is fine – or more significant – not so fine, there is a difference – and that I was entitled to my opinion. Opinion! To say that the claim that the Beatles are the greatness band in rock history is my opinion and not fact struck me as shocking.
But as with the young’uns, there is a reason, there must be. The Beatles and, unfortunately, Beatlemania, dominated popular culture for so long there was a backlash. In the ’70s in particular – especially the later half of the decade – and into the ’80s many musicians and critics attempted to distance themselves from the legacy of the Beatles, despite what most bands owed them. Music critics wondered aloud if they hadn’t perhaps been overrated. Also, musicians regularly made verbal statements about the Beatles lack of importance in their lives and music – or the lack of importance of the bands that followed in their footsteps, usually bands associated with art rock / prog rock. And this has continued more or less to the present.