Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Beatles as hacks

I was thinking about the Lennon-McCartney songwriting team one night, and its ability to produce merchandising product.

Now this flies in the face of most of us who think of the Beatles as pure artists supreme, but the fact remains that they got their start by being very talented practitioners of Tin Pan Alley techniques.

Think about it, based upon what we know about the Beatles today. By late 1963, the Beatles and Rory Storm's Hurricanes (and their drummer Richie) had torn both Liverpool and Hamburg apart, playing for hours on end, getting smashed on booze and pills, and having an unknown number of sexual conquests. Lennon had already done the proper thing by becoming a married man so his son would have a father. And what were he and his songwriting partner writing about? What was the subject matter of the song that was about to dominate America?

Holding hands.

Now Lennon and McCartney could have written about Hamburg gangsters or who knows what, but that wouldn't have moved product for Parlophone and Capitol. Songs about holding hands, however, would be bought in mass quantities, so that's what Lennon and McCartney produced.

In short, the two were hacks. Very good hacks, but hacks nonetheless. It would be several years before Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison realized that they could write songs about any dang thing that they pleased. If Harrison had told the Parlophone brass in 1962 that he wanted to write a song about the tax rates in Britain, they would have been laughed out of Abbey Road.

Speaking of Abbey Road, the famous picture inspired a comment thread in Free Republic. And not surprisingly, given the political orientation of Free Republic, the Beatles were not universally admired by all.

I don't hate the Beatles as a group, during their time they were great.

What ticks me off tho is the accolades that have been thrown on the individual artists John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr after the Beatles. Individually they were hacks with nothing noteworthy being produced by themselves but because they were "Beatles", they were still idolized......

I happen to disagree, and in fact think that the reverse is true. Anything that Harrison, or Lennon, or Starr, or McCartney released on their own is often denigrated because the other three are not present. (For this reason, "Ringo" stands out as the best album ever among certain fans.)

But because of my age, and the fact that I was too young to catch the Beatles in their heyday, I personally was able to enjoy the ex-Beatles on their own terms, without immediately comparing it to what had gone before. During the early 1970s, AM radio was defined by the guitar work of George Harrison, songs like "It Don't Come Easy" were enjoyed by all, and that band called Wings was releasing stuff like "Nineteen Hundred and Eighty Five." Only later did I discover that these guys had all been in a former band, kinda like the Monkees but even more zany.

Now I'll grant that the solo Beatles never set out to do concept albums - unless you consider "Double Fantasy" a concept album, and that of course is a collaboration. But all four of them were clearly able to create some great songs on their own.

In fact, I much prefer Ringo's solo work to his work within the Beatles - "What Goes On" is outstanding, but much of the rest is good at best. "You were in a car crash and you lost your hair" over organ and fiddle? Suitably bizarre, but not something that a hackmaster would use to dominate the charts.

In fact, if the Beatles HAD reunited, I suspect that the best part of the reunion concerts would have been the Beatles playing post-Beatles songs. McCartney playing piano on "Imagine." Lennon taking Eric Idle's lines on "This Song." Or better still, a medley of two songs - McCartney's "Too Many People" and Lennon's response, "How Do You Sleep." Now that would make for riveting stagework as Lennon and Harrison joined guitars for McCartney's attack, followed by wild McCartney bass lines on Lennon's attack.
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