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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Mollie Wilson O’​Reilly is editor-at-large and columnist at Commonweal.

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