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Meeting the Beatles

Of all the commemorations of the Beatles' arrival on these shores fifty years ago, my favorite is this roundup of hilarious-in-retrospect negative critical reactions, compiled by Cary Schneider at the Los Angeles Times. While teenagers were falling over each other to get a glimpse of a Beatle (and paying good money for mop-top novelty wigs), cultural critics were trying to outdo one another in expressing contempt for the flash-in-the-pan Fab Four.

That critics would have rolled their eyes at the hype is understandable. That they would have gone out of their way to proclaim the Beatles' music without merit is bizarre. And yet, as this roundup shows, one serious person after another declared confidently that the group owed no part of its fame to talent: "Not even their mothers would claim that they sing well," sniffed the L.A. Times. William F. Buckley, as usual putting a little too much effort into seeming totally above it all, proclaimed, "They are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art that they qualify as crowned heads of anti-music, even as the imposter popes went down in history as 'anti-popes.'" And Newsweek said, "Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody."

It's difficult for me to imagine a time when the Beatles' hair, as it appeared in February 1964, would have struck observers as remarkably long and unruly. And yet it did, to judge from the amount of commentary from that era focused on their hairdos alone. So obviously that was a matter of perspective. But how is it possible for anyone to have heard even the earliest Beatles hits and insist that they had no talent for singing and no aptitude for music? It's not just bad judgment to say that their songs -- "Please Please Me," "I Want To Hold Your Hand," "All My Loving" and so on -- were devoid of "secondary rhythms, harmony, and melody"; it's factually incorrect. Could it be that even fifty years ago, cultural critics, and columnists, and editorial boards, were pronouncing on matters of taste without doing their research first?

These examples of people getting the Beatles wrong are fascinating not only because they turned out to be so wrong, but also because they are a flagrant example of ego-driven blindness, of status anxiety turned into contempt. Why were so many "serious" people so eager to insist that the Beatles would pass away quickly, leaving no trace exept embarrassment and wonderment at what all the fuss was about? When George Dixon of the Washington Post wrote, "They have a commonplace, rather dull act that hardly seems to merit mentioning," why did no part of him think, Gee, maybe I should watch it first, just in case I'm wrong? It's a cautionary tale for the rest of us -- "Don't criticize what you can't understand," as another '60s songwriter would say.

Even Commonweal didn't quite see the writing on the wall (though to be fair, the magazine was a bit wrapped up in the Council at the time). Come back soon for a follow-up post looking at what this magazine said about the lads from Liverpool.

Update: Commonweal Meets the Beatles.

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The other night David Letterman said that if you remember seeing The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, "it may be time to ask your doctor if Cialis is right for you."

I remember well seeing them, and I also remember seeing them live in Cincinnati in 1966. What I remember about their live performance was how terrific they sounded, even over the continuous screaming of most of the female members of the audience. I remember my father had no use for rock music at all, but my mother was somewhat of a fan. My older sister and I played records or listened to the radio a lot, and my mother was around most of the time. She also was frequently involved with the parish CYO events, which involved very informal dances (to which everyone brought their favorite records) once a month. I do remember she was puzzled by the lyrics of "Who Wrote the Book of Love?" by the Monotones, who admittedly did not enunciate clearly. Her best bet was that they were singing "Who Loves the Moo Cow Now?"

The William F. Buckley quote is about what I would expect from him. The Beatles were exciting as performers and were, of course, brilliant songwriters. The thing I do worry about nowadays is when I hates something (and I hate almost everything having to do with rap), I wonder if it is just because I am as far removed from it as my father or WFB were from rock and had no way of appreciating what was good about it, or if it really is as terrible as I think it is. I am not a prude, and some of my favorite songs of the past few years could not have been played on the radio when I was young. Many of the songs on the Spotify top 100 tracks are labeled EXPLICIT, and they aren't kidding. Some of them are quite wonderful, but most of them sound (to me) like foul-mouthed jerks either ranting or cynically trying to get the EXPLICIT lable to be like everybody else. 

 

I still listen to The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Mamas and the Papas, many other popular groups from the 1960s, and even many of the one-hit wondersIt was great music, and The Beatles were a major influence and not only wrote great music, but inspired others to write and perform great music, too. 

Molly, 

I was at that time an outraged under thirty seminarian who thought the Beattles were detrimental at the time. What changed me rather rapidly was that the students in my catechism class,  who were by all other criteria virtuous kids were absolutely wild about the this loud group from England. I said to myself they cannot be too bad if such youth liked them. It turned out the kids were right about the new group which became recognized as unmistakle artists of music. 

It was truly a case of youth teaching others about what was good in music. 

Love the Beatles - have seen A Hard Day's Night many times  :)

"A Hard Day's Night" remains a little gem of pop culture. The schtick about Paul's "clean grandfather" has an interesting casting story that probably went over the heads of Americans; the actor Wilfrid Brambell played a shopkeeper known for being a dirty slob in "Steptoe and Son," a popular BritCom.

Brambell's scene with Ringo at the police station remains one of the funniest things I've ever seen. 

Grandfather also makes the Irish connection between McCartney and the many other Irish immigrants living in Liverpool.

Thanks, Jean - I didn't know that.  I wrote a post about the movie on my blog after getting it from Netflix in 2009, if anyone's interested ....  http://povcrystal.blogspot.com/2009/11/hard-days-night.html

I like that Science Newsletter went for broke and got Elvis and Sinatra wrong, as well.

There are, of course, still people who don't like the Beatles, and others who think they're overrated (they could hardly be underrated). Interestingly, those who dislike the Beatles now tend to dislike them for the opposite reason: not because they were uncouth, but because they were too smooth and too pretty. On this view, the Rolling Stones were the real beginning of rock and the Beatles—at least the Beatles as they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show—were just the last gasp of prerock pop. By the way, do we know that George Dixon hadn't seen their act? Isn't it possible that he really did find it dull and commonplace, hard as that is for most of us to imagine? De gustibus. Buckley, by the way, would go on to write a whole column about the lyrics of John Lennon's "Imagine," which Buckley considered a kind of anthem of all that he loathed.

But, Matt, I would say that their act wasn't dull and commonplace as a matter of fact, not taste. Insisting that they offered nothing new or original wilfully blind. It's not hard for me to believe that people didn't care for the Beatles' music, especially people of a certain age. God knows I'm not usually excited about whatever music is popular now. But what makes these reactions embarrassing is that they go beyond declarations of taste -- "It's not for me" or "it's overrated" -- to a categorical condemnation -- "It's totally worthless, nothing but hype, and will have no lasting impact."

One great thing about the Beatles, especially Lennon, is that they returned the disregard they got from people like Buckley. That quality of theirs took people by surprise -- those journalists who actually were paying attention in 1964 couldn't help but notice it.

I'm tired of the Beatles.  I find these public, media-driven celebrations of anniversaries worse than boring when the personalities or events have never really faded from public consciousness in the first place.  I felt the same way about last year's Kennedy assassination retrospectives.

I'm young enough to have missed the Beatles hoopla when it actually broke upon the shores of the US.  My overexposure to them has been purely nostalgia-driven.  And yet I've heard their music so much for so long - for the most part without particularly seeking it out - that if I never hear another Beatles song again, I'd be ok with it.

 

Jim P., please don't take this the wrong way, but if you're tired of the Beatles and don't seek them out, how come you're reading this? :-)

I think he who is tired of the Beatles is, in reality, tired of the Baby Boomers.

In another 20 years, there won't be many of us left, and you can listen to Eminem and Bieber instead. Boy that'll be a big improvement!

I think he who is tired of the Beatles is, in reality, tired of the Baby Boomers.

Probably.  They find themselves a lot more interesting than I do.  I guess technically I'm one of them, but I'm at the tail end so I missed all their cultural markers.

 

Crystal, thanks for posting your blog link. I enjoyed Ebert's review of "A Hard Day's Night." I think even Jim P. would like it.

My friend Michael Gerber has written at much greater length about the pathology of "Fuddy-Duddy Beatle Haters" in this post at Hey Dullblog. He has a lot of interesting things to say, about the Beatles and other matters. Buckley, for example: "William F. Buckley’s talent was in being certain, not wise."