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Beating up the Beatles
By Don Mathis
Feb 6, 2024
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Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. (Are you tired of this yet?) Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah. (Want some more?) Nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah, nah – Hey Jude!

If you were a child of the 60s, you probably heard this every time you turned on the radio, every time you got into a car, when you got back home, and the refrain seemed like it went on forever.

It's not that I hate the Beatles; I just don't think they deserve the pedestal where most people put them. 2024 is the 60th anniversary of their first U.S. appearance – a good time to reevaluate their popularity and appeal.

When I was a young man, I constantly heard what a great singer Frank Sinatra was. But I wasn't there during his rise to stardom and I don't like his music that much. Sinatra's songs, like "My Way" and "New York," were good but he sounded a tad boastful. I think he was a far better actor than a singer. Yet many of my peers, having heard the hoopla about how great 'Old Blue Eyes' was, think his music is fantastic. And I think that is the appeal of the Beatles for many.

OK, full disclosure; I was opposed to the Beatles at first – but that was petty jealously. My dad was still giving crew-cuts to me and my brothers. John, George, Paul and Ringo had the "exi" (existentialist) haircut style popular among the Merseybeats. No way could a Texas boy compete with mop-tops. But my annoyance towards the Beatles grew past mere envy when outright overkill was attained.

When I was 15, I loved the song, "Snoopy and the Red Baron," by the Royal Guardsmen. I sang along with it every time it came on the radio – and that was often! One time, after it finished playing on the radio, we changed the dial and it was playing on the other station! How cool was that? Fortunately, the one-hit wonder was gone from the airwaves within months, only to be heard again once a year if at all.

But the Beatles' music never went away – much to my dismay. I enjoyed "Snoopy" at the time because I was a teenybopper and such a cutesy thing mattered to me. Two years later, at the ripe old age of 17, I soon tired of "Jude." And really, a seven-minute song has no business being on the airwaves – particularly with a four-minute fade-out coda of 10,000 nah-nah's. To me, familiarity does not equal greatness.

Besides, who really thinks "I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your ha-a-and" is worthy of lasting attention? I was burned out on their repetitive lyrics early on.

For many of my generation, the argument was: “Who is better, the Beatles or the Rolling Stones?” But for me and my 1965 circle of friends, the debate was: “Music from Motown or Atlantic Records?” And although I like the Supremes, the Four Tops, and the Temptations, I would always turn up the radio whenever Wilson Pickett, Sam & Dave, or Otis Redding came on.

I liked the Stones more than the Beatles for the same reason I liked Soul music from the American South more than the Detroit sound. It was more plaintive, more emotion and more soulful.

The Beatles' early American hits were remakes of the Motown Sound. The Beatles were good copy-cats. Their very name paid homage to Buddy Holly’s Crickets.

The Beatles started out as Rockers, a British phenomenon that glorified the raunchy music from the United States. Black leather jackets and cowboy boots symbolized the heyday of American Rock ‘n Roll and the Beatles reveled in it! Had they kept this persona, perhaps I would have liked them better.

When tastes shifted, the Beatles joined the conflicting British sub-culture, the Mods, which focused on fashionable suits and clean-cut outfits. The Who, the Zombies, and the masters of mod, the Kinks, were all influenced by soul, rhythm & blues, and beat music – and the Fab Four followed. The Beatles wanted to be like everyone else – like everyone else. They copied the sounds of the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley. They copied the songs of Buck Owens and Carol King.

The Fabulous Foursome were great copy-caters and other bands copied them. Elvis couldn’t act – but that didn’t stop him from appearing in movies. The Beatles couldn’t act either – and their movies were equally bad, if not worse. Fortunately, “Hard Day’s Night” and “Help” inspired formation of the first ‘corporate’ band – a musical group formed by producers.

The resulting band and TV show, the Monkees, brought new film technology and garnered Emmy Awards. Some people believe Mike, Peter, Mickey, and Davy were better musicians than the smart one, the cute one, the quite one, and the funny one – they were certainly better actors. And other bands were more popular than the Mop Tops.

Have you ever heard of the Funk Brothers? This band formed in 1959 and produced more Number One hits than the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and the Beach Boys combined! The Funk Brothers were the back-up band for some of the best songs from Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Supremes, Temptations, Miracles, Four Tops and other Detroit groups of the 60s. (See the movie, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown,” to learn more about this super group.)

But hits from the Beatles remained in the public mind longer – and made more money. And money is why they are remembered. I think Shel Silverstein was thinking about the Beatles and their “genuine Indian guru” when he wrote, “We sing about beauty and we sing about truth at ten thousand dollars a show” (from his satire of the music business, “Cover of the Rolling Stone”).

More than the guru, the Beatles were more about 'the profit' than 'the prophet' from the very start. In 1963, they recorded a copy of Berry Gordy’s first Motown hit, “Money (That’s What I Want).” The Beatles were all about amassing a fortune than about any lofty idea.

Consider their song, “Revolution,” which capitalized on the Anti-War and the Civil Rights movement. The political left of the day felt it deluded their cause. Twenty years later, the song reappeared in a commercial for Nike tennis shoes (which are mostly made in the sweat shops of Asia). Such is the manner of the Beatles' “Revolution.”

When Psychedelic music hit the scene, the Beatles jumped on it – just as they previously jumped on other music from the Americas. They borrowed musical styles from the folk era, rhythms from the Caribbean, and instruments from India. Did they ever come up with an original idea?

The Beatles are not gods. For a while, John Lennon isolated himself from his fans because of the deification that was projected on him. Of course, this was after he claimed the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus.” But the fact is – their mythology has surpassed the realism.

If not for their myths – their ‘instant’ superstardom, their hair, their good looks, their hair, their foreignness, their hair, their early breakup, and finally, the death of their misunderstood singer – they would not be held in such high esteem. Although the band itself was influential and important, their music and lyrics left a lot to be desired.

Name the most insightful of any Beatles’ lyric. I bet Paul Simon or Bob Dylan can top it. Name their most emotion-filled tune. There are plenty of other bands who can make you laugh louder or cry harder. Name their most intricate and melodious song arrangement. There are others who can do it better.

It is not as their song suggests, “All you need is love.” With the Beatles, “All you need is myth.” And it is time for the myth to end.