Saturday, July 30, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (the grand conclusion, part 2)

Welcome to part 2 of the hit anatomy project's conclusion! As I mentioned in part 1 of the conclusion, part 2 will involve an analysis of the post-Help! singles. Since there's no way of definitively knowing which album-only tracks are "hits" (i.e. are the most popular), we can only define "hits" as the tracks released as singles in the UK. We can, of course, include all the singles, since they all charted quite well.

Here are the songs we're working with. I've grouped them based on the way they were released. The first song in a pair is the A-side track (i.e. the one expected to be the radio hit); the second is the B-side (i.e. the one expected to be less of a hit). In a couple of instances, the group decided that both tracks were strong enough to be considered A-sides. These types of singles were called double A-sides. A star indicates that the track was also included on an album (of course, the album tracks include only those on the official British releases). The peak UK chart position follows each pair:

We Can Work it Out/Day Tripper (#1)

Paperback Writer/Rain (#1)
Yellow Submarine*/Eleanor Rigby* (#1)
Penny Lane*/Strawberry Fields Forever* (double A-side) (#2)

All You Need is Love*/Baby You're a Rich Man* (#1)
Hello Goodbye/I Am the Walrus* (#1)

Lady Madonna/The Inner Light (#1)
Hey Jude/Revolution (double A-side) (#1)
Get Back*/Don't Let Me Down (#1)

The Ballad of John and Yoko/Old Brown Shoe (#1)
Something*/Come Together* (#4)

Let it Be*/You Know My Name (Look Up the Number) (#2)

So how can we categorize these tracks, using the categories we came up with for the album tracks?

Let it Be (A-side)
Something (A-side)
Hey Jude (A-side)
All You Need is Love (A-side)

Psychedelic Rock
Come Together (B-side)
I Am the Walrus (B-side)
Strawberry Fields Forever (A-side)

Straight Rock
The Ballad of John and Yoko (A-side)
Old Brown Shoe (B-side)
Get Back (A-side)
Don't Let me Down (B-side)
Revolution (A-side)
Lady Madonna (A-side)
Hello Goodbye (A-side)
Penny Lane (A-side)
Paperback Writer (A-side)
Rain (B-side)
We Can Work it Out (A-side)
Day Tripper (B-side)

The Inner Light (B-side)


Novelty/Parody Songs
You Know My Name (Look up the Number) (B-side)
Baby You're a Rich Man (B-side)
Yellow Submarine (A-side)
Eleanor Rigby (B-side)

So let's look now at the percentage breakdown. For each song category, the percentage of overall post-Help! tracks in that category is in parentheses.

Ballads: 16.67% (22.7)

Psychedelic Rock: 12.5% (10%)

Straight Rock: 50% (41.8%)

Novelty/Parody Songs: 16.67% (20%)

Ragas: 4.17% (1.8%)

Rockabilly: 0% (3.6%)

Looking at the difference between the singles percentage and overall tracks percentage shows us whether the characteristics of the singles is an accurate representation of the characteristics of the band's output during that period. Now, you'd expect straight rock, ballads, and some more palatable psych rock to be overrepresented in the singles, since those are the types of songs traditionally considered "radio-friendly."

In fact, ballads are slightly underrepresented, while ragas are overrepresented (though that only means that 1 of the 2 ragas the band produced in that period was released as a single). However, the most notable--and surprising--thing about these two distributions is how similar they are. This suggests that the band simply released as singles the songs it considered the strongest; not simply the ones that might be the most radio-friendly.

Finally, let's look at which songs the band decided to highlight as A-sides. These are the ones the group expected would be the biggest radio hits.

All the ballads are A-sides.

Only one psych rock is an A-side, and it's usually listed after Penny Lane.

8 out of the 12 straight rock tracks are A-sides.

Only one novelty song (the most radio-friendly one, Yellow Submarine) is an A-side.

The sole raga is a B-side.

This strongly suggests that, though the characteristics of singles is, overall, very similar to the characteristics of the group's overall output, the songs chosen as A-sides were the most traditionally radio-friendly tracks. In this respect, we see the group not taking as much of a risk as we might have expected it to. That doesn't diminish the quality of the A-side tracks, but it does mean that the group tended to choose its most conventionally radio-friendly material to highlight as potential chart-toppers.

In the final hit anatomy post, I'll closely analyze only the A-side singles to determine, at long last, the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (the grand conclusion, part 1)

So after weeks of preparation, I'm sure you've been losing sleep wondering what the anatomy of a post-Help! hit is. Well, here it is, folks! Before anything else, I have to acknowledge two things:

1. Since this is a blog, and not a book, my analysis will necessarily be somewhat superficial. This isn't meant to be exhaustive analysis, but rather just an effort to lend some critical analysis to the Beatles's music, while having fun.

2. (Almost) all of this is highly subjective, so please don't hesitate to disagree with what I write; that's what the comments section is for!

With the disclosures out of the way, let's get to the hit anatomy. First (in this post), I'll analyze the trends in song categorization.

In the next post, I'll analyze the commonalities among the songs released as singles (the "hits").

In the third and final hit anatomy post, I'll consider both the singles and the categorization (aka the hits, and the context in which they were presented in the albums, at least with regard to the singles that were also included on albums) in order to figure out the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

Part 1: Song Categorization Trends

As the previous hit anatomy post (hopefully) made clear, the post-Help! albums differed greatly in terms of the diversity of categories represented by the tracks. However, there is--overall--less diversity than one might have expected, based on the group's reputation for diversity. Let's look at the percentage of total post-Help! album tracks represented by each category:

Straight Rock: 46 (41.8%)
Ballads: 25 (22.7%)
Novelty/Parody Songs (by far, the category with the most internal diversity): 22 (20%)
Psychedelic Rock: 11 (10%)
Rockabilly Rock: 4 (3.6%)
Ragas: 2 (1.8%)

So out of the 110 post-Help! album tracks, 68.1% of the tracks fell in traditional categories you'd expect a '60s rock group to inhabit: ballads, straight rock, and rockabilly rock. As much as the Beatles are credited for contributing to psychedelic rock, only 10% of their songs qualify (in my subjective evaluation) as psychedelic rock. Of course, it's important to look at when we see particular categories represented more and less. This takes us to album-by-album analysis.

Looking back at the graphs from the previous anatomy post, it's clear that, in Rubber Soul, we see a marked improvement in songwriting and the beginnings of innovation, but squarely within the traditional rock group universe. None of the tracks are anything but ballads, straight rock, or rockabilly.

In Revolver, we see the group break out; however, only one song qualifies psychedelic rock, novelty/parody, and raga. In total, these songs number fewer than the ballads and straight rock tracks.

Perhaps the most interesting trend comes when we look at Sgt. Pepper's and Magical Mystery Tour. Sgt. Pepper's is held up as a paragon of psychedelic rock; however, 7 out of 12 tracks are straight rock! I only found 1 psychedelic track (Mr. Kite) and one novelty track (Day in the Life). Magical Mystery Tour, on the other hand, is comprised of 45.5% straight rock, and 54.5% psychedelic rock.

Based on this breakdown, and the fact that MMT includes Strawberry Fields Forever and I Am the Walrus--Lennon's psychedelic masterpieces--I'd like to argue that MMT shouldn't be considered the ugly duckling of Beatles studio albums (as I think it sometimes is considered). While Sgt. Pepper's is overall a stronger album, it doesn't have a monopoly on the group's contribution to psychedelic rock. If anything, MMT is the group's purest attempt at psychedelia, while Sgt. Pepper's is more an exercise in pushing the rock format to its limits, without delving too explicitly into psychedelia. (I'd like to note here that I'm working purely off of the music; the boys were obviously inspired by LSD and other psychedelic experiences during the writing of both Sgt. Pepper's and MMT).

With the White Album and Abbey Road (setting Let it Be to the side for a second) we see the group turn towards genre experimentation and, thus, a predominance of novelty/parody songs. Certainly they felt that the straight rock format had been exhausted of its creative potential for them; perhaps they also felt that they had moved past the psychedelic experience of 66/67; genre experimentation must have seemed like a logical next outlet for their creative energies.

As a result, the White Album includes 40% novelty songs, and only 2 psychedelic rock tracks. The remaining tracks are ballads, straight rock, and rockabilly.

In Abbey Road, we see a virtual equality in the presence of novelty tracks, ballads, and straight rock. The remaining track (Come Together) qualifies as psychedelic rock. There is no rockabilly to speak of on the album.

So if we look at Let it Be as an effort to go back to their roots (hence the presence of only ballads and straight rock, with the exception of one novelty track, Maggie Mae, that could also arguably be called straight rock), the trajectory of post-Help! work appears to be as follows:

Expansion of the rock format to the limits of its creativity (Rubber Soul, Revolver)

Melding of straight rock and psychedelic rock (Sgt Pepper's)

An attempt at a "purer" expression of psychedelic rock (Magical Mystery Tour)

A move past the constraints of psychedelic rock, straight rock, ballads, or rockabilly into the world of genre experimentation, where anything goes (White Album, Abbey Road)

As I noted before, Let it Be stands out as an explicit attempt to go back to their roots, so it shouldn't really be included in a trajectory of their musical progression.

Phew, that was a long one! Let me know everything you disagree with. :) George is so tired from that post that he has to just put a tambourine on his head.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Beatle Supporter Spotlight: Jane Asher

While I continue to ponder the anatomy of a post-Help! hit, I'm continuing the Beatle Support Spotlight feature in the mean time.

In this post, I really have one objective: to convince you that Jane Asher (Paul's girlfriend and fiancee, from 1963-68) was awesome. Let me elaborate: she was a strong, self confident, successful woman in a time when those qualities were, unfortunately, relatively unusual in women, especially in women romantically involved with successful musicians.

Jane was born to a well-to-do London family, and became a child actress. She had several roles in films and television, including a stint as a jury member on the popular British TV show Juke Box Jury, where jury members attempt to predict whether a song will be a hit or a miss.

Jane and Paul met when Jane interviewed the group in 1963. Jane was an attractive dating prospect for Paul not only because she was beautiful, but--more importantly--because her family's upper middle class lifestyle was essentially what Paul aspired to. He spent a significant amount of time in their home, enjoying their intellectually stimulating conversations, and learning French from Jane's mother, who provided the French phrases in Michelle.

Jane's awesomeness really comes, though, from the circumstances surrounding their break-up. The couple got engaged in 1967; however, Jane broke off the engagement in 1968, when she returned home to find Paul in bed with Francie Schwartz. Think about that for a minute. In 1968, millions of girls would have put up with much more than cheating in order to call themselves Paul McCartney's fiancee; moreover, the other Beatle wives never said a word about their husbands' infidelity (to this day, Pattie Boyd talks about how she wishes she had confronted George about his infidelity rather than go off with Eric). The fact that Jane broke off her engagement with Paul shows a tremendous amount about her character.

After her relationship with Paul ended, Jane stated that she would refrain from discussing their affairs publicly. Though they broke up 43 years ago, she has maintained that position, and remains the only major Beatles affiliate to not publish her recollections in any form. Apparently, her desire for privacy and respect for decorum trump any prospects of financial profit for Jane Asher.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (progression of genre breakdown)

After a short break, I'm back with the next step of the anatomy project. Here's the progression of genre breakdowns. You can read each song categorization in the posts below. For a description of the project that this is a part of, click here.

While all of this information is available in previous posts, I've displayed it here graphically, in order to help you conceptualize it. In the next post, I'll consider this breakdown, and the commonalities in individual singles' characteristics, and present what I think is the anatomy of a post Help hit.

What can we conclude from these graphs?

Well, first of all, Revolver is the only album with songs in every category. Second, while the categories are admittedly quite broad, it's surprising (to me, at least) that we don't see more diversity across the board. I'll delve into this more deeply in the next post, but I think this whole exercise reinforces the reality that, while the Beatles pushed the boundaries of what rock/pop music can be, they remained--with the exception, perhaps, of George's ragas--steadfastly a rock/pop group that conceptualized music within that universe, while pushing the creativity of that universe to its limits.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (abbey road)

Here's the last song categorization! The next post will provide the progression of categorizations (i.e. the progression of number of ballads across albums, number of psychedelic rock tracks, etc.).

But right now, let's see what Abbey Road has for us. I'll be treating each portion of the B-side medley as a separate song, even though they're tracked so as to have no break between them.

Ballads (5)
Here Comes the Sun
Golden Slumbers
Sun King

Novelty/Parody Songs (6)
Maxwell's Silver Hammer
Octopus's Garden
Mean Mr. Mustard
Polythene Pam
She Came in through the Bathroom Window
Her Majesty

Psychedelic Rock (1)
Come Together

Straight Rock (5)
Oh! Darling
I Want You (She's So Heavy)
You Never Give Me Your Money
Carry That Weight
The End

Rockabilly-style rock (0)

So there you have it! Let me know what you think.

Monday, July 18, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (let it be)

As most of you probably know, recording for Abbey Road and Let it Be overlapped. In addition, of course, Abbey Road was released before Let it Be. However, I'm placing Let it Be before Abbey Road in the categorizations since the Let it Be was largely recorded before Abbey Road.

That said, here's the categorization:

Ballads (4)
Two of Us
Across the Universe
Let it Be
The Long and Winding Road

Novelty/Parody Songs (1)
Maggie Mae (I put this here just because it's a traditional Liverpool folk song and they seem to perform it in a very tongue-in-cheek way ...)

Straight Rock (7)
Dig a Pony
I Me Mine
Dig It
I've Got a Feeling
One After 909
For You Blue
Get Back

Psychedelic Rock (0)

Rockabilly-style Rock (0)

Unsurprisingly, this album's tracks ended up in the most least experimental, most conventional categories I have (except for Rockabilly). This is consistent with the album's reputation as the group's attempt to get back (pun intended :) ) to the basics.

Saturday, July 16, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (the white album)

After a one-day break (apologies, but I was just way too tired to post after seeing Paul at Yankee Stadium on Friday :) ), here's the White Album categorization. I look forward to hearing your dissenting opinions on what's sure to be a tough one. :)

Ballads (7)
Dear Prudence
I Will
Mother Nature's Son
Long, Long, Long
Good Night

Novelty/Parody Songs (12)
Ob La Di, Ob La Da
Wild Honey Pie
The Continuing Story of Bungalow Bill
Martha My Dear
Rocky Raccoon
Why Don't We Do it in the Road?
Everybody's Got Something to Hide Except for Me and My Monkey
Sexy Sadie
Honey Pie
Savoy Truffle
Revolution 9

Straight Rock (8)
Back in the USSR
While My Guitar Gently Weeps
I'm So Tired
Yer Blues
Helter Skelter
Revolution 1
Cry Baby Cry (unsure about this one)

Rockabilly-style Rock (1)
Don't Pass Me By

Psychedelic Rock (2)
Glass Onion
Happiness is a Warm Gun

So there you have it. I look forward to hearing everything you disagree with. :)

Thursday, July 14, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (magical mystery tour)

Here's installment #4 of the song categorizations. That means we're going to go on a quick Magical Mystery Tour. :)

In case you're new to this blog, this is part of a project I'm doing on the anatomy of a post-Help! hit. You can read about it here. Descriptions of the categories are here.

And here's the categorization:

Ballads (0)

Psychedelic Rock (6)
Fool on the Hill (this one could be a ballad, too, I guess)
Blue Jay Way
I Am the Walrus
Strawberry Fields Forever
Baby You're a Rich Man

Novelty/Parody Songs (0)

Heavy/Straight Rock (5)
Magical Mystery Tour
Your Mother Should Know
Hello, Goodbye
Penny Lane (this one could be psychedelic rock, but I don't think the subject matter is trippy enough, and the musical arrangement isn't weird enough)
All You Need is Love

Rockabilly-style rock (0)

A few of the tracks on this album could go both ways between Heavy/Straight Rock and Psychedelic Rock, but the decisions I've made make it split almost evenly between the two categories. That's a little surprising to me, just because Magical Mystery Tour (like Sgt. Pepper's) has such a psychedelic feel to it, overall. I'll save deeper analysis for the hit anatomy posts that will follow the categorizations, but it's definitely something I'll be looking into!

As always, let me know what you think of the categorization, especially if you disagree with any of it.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (sgt. pepper's lonely hearts club band)

Here's installment #3 of the song categorizations. Obviously, that means it's time for Sgt. Pepper's. However, before I list the categorization, I want to clarify my working definition of the song categories (something I should've done in the Introduction):

Psychedelic Rock: I'm working under the assumption that psychedelic rock involves recording techniques, rhythms, harmonies, etc. that attempt to somehow replicate the mind-altering experience of taking drugs (most notably, LSD). Such techniques could include the use of tape loops to create unusual vocal effects (ex: Tomorrow Never Knows), backwards guitar/vocals (ex: Rain), and motifs that sound somewhat like gibberish (ex: the end of Strawberry Fields Forever).

Novelty/Parody Songs: These types of songs conspicuously attempt to parody a genre the band does not typically work with (ex: Honey Pie) or achieve some task that is somewhat novel for a rock band (ex: Yellow Submarine as a children's song).

Straight Rock (previously known as Heavy Rock): Heavy Rock was the wrong name for this category. I'm thinking of this category as including straight rock songs, as opposed to the rockabilly-style rock songs that draw conspicuously from Carl Perkins, so I'm just going to call it straight rock from now on.

Rockabilly-style Rock: These songs differ from heavy/straight rock songs in their use of rockabilly/country riffs in the style of Carl Perkins. Examples include What Goes On. These songs have a distinct country feel to them.

Admittedly, the difference between heavy/straight rock and rockabilly-style rock is somewhat subjective. As a result, if you disagree with the categorization of any song (or if you think I've left out a category that should be here), let me know in the comments!

I'm including George's ragas as a separate category, since they really don't fit anywhere else.

Now that we've gotten definitions out of the way, let's see what Sgt. Pepper's has for us:

Ballads (1)
She's Leaving Home

Psychedelic Rock (1)
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds

Raga (1)
Within You Without You

Novelty/Parody Songs (2)
Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite
A Day in the Life

Straight Rock (7)
Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (Intro & Reprise)
With a Little Help From My Friends
Getting Better
Fixing a Hole
When I'm Sixty Four
Lovely Rita
Good Morning Good Morning

Rockabilly-style rock (0)

This was a particularly difficult categorization to do, since the whole aura of Sgt. Pepper's made me want to categorize everything but She's Leaving Home and Within You Without You as Psychedelic Rock. But that's just not really accurate when you take each song on its own. So I guess we're left with 7 straight rock songs, 3 psychedelic rock songs, 2 novelty/parody songs, and 1 ballad. The breakdown is really surprising to me, to tell you the truth, so please let me know if you agree with it.

I also want to note that I put A Day in the Life in the novelty/parody category not to diminish it in any way, but just because it's not clearly psychedelic, but it's certainly not straight rock either. Also, it obviously incorporates elements that are quite novel (the orchestral swells, the tape loops at the end, the radical shift in styles between John's and Paul's parts).

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (revolver)

Here's the next categorization of song genres. It's the latest step in my big project, which you can read about here.

Let's see what Revolver has for us:

Ballads (4)
Eleanor Rigby
Here, There, and Everywhere
Good Day Sunshine
For No One

Psychedelic Rock (1)
Tomorrow Never Knows

Raga Rock (1)
Love You To

Novelty/Parody Songs (1)
Yellow Submarine

Heavy Rock (6)
I'm Only Sleeping
She Said, She Said
And Your Bird Can Sing
I Want to Tell You
Got to Get You Into My Life

Rockabilly-style rock (1)
Doctor Robert

So Revolver seems to be mostly heavy rock, with a surprising number of ballads as well, but it's got something in every category! What does that tell us about post-Help! hit anatomy? You'll have to wait and see! In the mean time, let me know what you think about my categorization (and the project in general) in the comments.

Monday, July 11, 2011

the anatomy of a post-help! hit (introduction & rubber soul)

Those of you who have been following this blog might remember that I posted the Anatomy of a pre-Help! Hit a while back. At the end of that post, I promised to tackle the anatomy of a post-Help! hit. However, as you might expect, the diversity of genres and styles included in the post-Help! albums makes that task pretty difficult.

This is the beginning of my attempt to somehow order the seemingly un-orderable. People often say that the Beatles covered virtually every genre in their post-Help! work (of course, they didn't, but there's that pesky hyperbole clouding actual analysis again), but in the next few posts I'm going to try to determine the actual universe of genres they engaged with by categorizing their post-Help! album tracks. Through that process, I'm going to try to pin down the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

Here's how it's going to work: I've included below the categories that I think basically encompass the album tracks. Each post will include a categorization of one album's tracks into these categories. Once I've posted every categorization, I'll post the progression of genre emphases (in other words, the number of tracks on each album that fell into each category). In this way, we'll be able to see how the styles of the music progressed. Finally, I'll look at both the progression of genre emphases and the hits from that time period (just the tracks they released as singles) to try to pin down the anatomy of a post-Help! hit.

So let's get started! Here's the categorization for Rubber Soul:

Ballads (4)
Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)
In My Life

Psychedelic rock

Novelty/parody songs

Heavy rock (8)
Drive My Car
You Won't See Me
Nowhere Man
Think for Yourself
The Word
If I Needed Someone
Run For Your Life

Rockabilly-style rock (2)
What Goes On
I'm Looking Through You

So Rubber Soul appears to be mostly heavy rock, with a few ballads thrown in for good measure. There's no psychedelic rock or novelty/parody tracks at all! What does that mean for Beatles hit anatomy? You'll have to wait and see.

If you disagree with the above categorization, or if my process is unclear (which is very possible, considering that I came up with this sort of on a whim), please let me know in the comments!

Sunday, July 10, 2011

what does it mean to be a fan right now?

As someone much, much too young to be considered a first-generation Beatles fan (I suppose I'm part of the 2nd generation, or maybe even the 2nd and a half generation), I've thought a lot about what it means to be a fan of a band that broke up 16 years before I was born. There are certainly some who would say that it's ridiculous to consider a band like that your favorite group. People in that camp argue that 1) it's ridiculous to be such a devoted fan of a group that predated your own existence by over a decade, and 2) that each generation should claim its own music, and not poach from other generations.

I'm going to argue that there are really only three clear advantages to being a first generation Beatles fan, and there are significant advantages to being a second (or third, or fourth) generation fan. I think these advantages can, for the most part, be generalized to any group that no longer exists.

Let's start with the advantages of being a first-generation fan:

1. You could have possibly seen them live and/or met one of the members while they part of the group.

2. You had the joy of not knowing what the group might release next, and so were able to discover their music along with everyone else, as it came out. You were able to experience, first-hand, the impact of their innovations.

3. You lived in a world in which the vast majority of people were devoted Beatles fans, so you weren't considered odd or out of date.

Pretty obvious, right? Less obvious, perhaps, are the advantages to being a fan now:

1. The entire discography is available to us. This means that we have a bird's eye view of everything they did, which helps us put in all in perspective.

2. The Internet provides a virtually endless supply of early takes, unreleased songs, interview footage, etc. that was not available in the 1960s. I am willing to bet that today's fans know more about the group than fans of the 1960s did.

3. No one--or virtually no one--disputes the influence the group had. Moreover, enough time has gone by to allow extensive analysis of nearly every aspect of the Beatles phenomenon. This has provided fans with biographies, song-by-song analyses, and biopics, many of which are terrible, but some of which are treasures. We now have access to every Beatles song ever recorded, in score form. We have access to the Abbey Road studio notes. Of course, we have access to the story, as told by the boys themselves, in Anthology.

So which generation of fans wins out? Of course, the possibility of seeing the group live is somewhat priceless. But in terms of a fan experience, I would not say that being a second-generation fan is unequivocally worse than being a first-generation fan. Access to information has allowed us to immerse ourselves much more deeply, and come out with a much more extensive knowledge of and engagement with the group's music and eternally fascinating backstory. And isn't that what being a fan is really all about?

And as for live performances, Paul McCartney just won an award for Best Live Act in the UK.

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

The Role of Humor in the Beatles Phenomenon

Right after the 1964 trip to America:

Ringo: "I just loved all of it. Miami - the sun, you know. I didn't know what it meant 'til I went over there."

Reporter: "Don't you get it up in Liverpool?"

Ringo: "No, they're finished up there, you know."


During the February 1964 press conference in New York City:

Reporter: "Will you sing a song for us?"

All of them (amazingly, in unison): "We need money first."


Right after the 1964 trip to America:

Reporter: "I hear that the four of you are going to be millionaires by the end of the year."
George: "Oh, that's nice."
Reporter: "Do you have time to actually spend this money?"
George and Ringo (amazingly, in unison): "What money?"


The Beatles's sense of humor is infamous. In fact, it's said that their personalities, even more than their music, are what motivated Brian Epstein to take time away from his successful business to manage the group. George Martin was initially skeptical of the group until George Harrison answered his inquiry about whether there was anything they didn't like about the recording session by saying, "Well first off, I don't like your tie."

Liverpudlians have a reputation for having very dry senses of humor; in that sense, we shouldn't be surprised that the Beatles, good Scousers that they were, would be pretty funny guys. However, I believe their humor played a very specific role in the entire Beatles phenomenon. Certainly, it provided fun soundbytes for fans; however, it was just as much for the boys' benefit as the fans'.

As my previous post about the individual members' experiences suggested, being part of the most successful group in the world was not always easy. Everyone, including even the security guards at the hotel, and the guy delivering room service, wanted a piece of the group. During the height of Beatlemania, the group would spend hours shut up in a room doing radio interviews that involved the same inane questions over and over again.

In that context, it makes sense that the boys would use humor as a way of not only keeping themselves from getting bored, but also keeping the rest of the world at a distance. Many people who have attempted to get close to the group observed that it was often very difficult to know whether the boys trusted them, since they'd often be the victim of inside jokes or just plain ridicule, meant to keep at bay anyone who seemed threatening to the group.

Perhaps the most sinister example of a Beatle using humor to deal with the negative side of fame is John's cripple impression. As you might or might not know, the boys were often met at shows by crippled youth whose parents believed that the Beatles could somehow heal their children. As a result, the front row of the audience would be filled with disabled children. As a way of dealing with this, John would do a cripple impression. Here's just one example:

Do you agree that the group used humor to keep the rest of the world at bay, or do you think I'm off-base? Let me know!

Monday, July 4, 2011

Video Break! And a preview of the next post!

Now I'd like to take a break from our regularly scheduled programming to share with you a few lovely home videos of the boys in 1963, when they were pretty famous in England, but in the last year before the storm broke out. Enjoy!

These videos are pretty funny, right? Stay tuned for a post in the near future, in which I analyze the role humor plays in the Beatles phenomenon!

PS: I couldn't figure out how to embed YouTube videos into this post. If you know how to do it, please let me know!

The Four Dimensions of the Beatles

As the title of this blog makes clear, the Beatles were, in many ways, the sum total of four individuals. After John was killed, when people used to ask George whether the remaining three would ever get together and do a reunion tour, he said "We won't get together as long as John Lennon remains dead. Without John, it wouldn't be the Beatles." That's certainly true; however, we can learn a lot about the group experience by taking a look at each member's experience. This exercise can teach us a lot about group dynamics, why the group broke up, and why each member's solo career followed the trajectory it did.

So let's take the boys one by one. I'll do it in the typical order:

John - John was the unequivocal leader of the group, at least at the beginning. That's not exactly denied. However, his insecurities--most of which stemmed from his sinking suspicion that he was never really wanted as a child--often made him an erratic leader. At the beginning, this was less of an issue, since the group's activity was largely dictated by tours and the pressures of keeping to their contract of releasing a certain number of albums and a certain number of singles each year. Moreover, Brian Epstein was around to keep everyone in line. However, after Brian died, John's experience changed significantly. He began to spend a lot of time at his home in the suburbs of London, watching TV in a drug-induced haze. Having lost him as a leader, Paul filled the void, and began to take an active role in getting the group together to record. John was very threatened by this move, and tensions began to build between John and Paul. Many people argue--and I'm inclined to agree--that John brought Yoko into the studio largely because he knew how much it would upset Paul. John then began to withdraw into another world, in which he and Yoko were the only inhabitants. You could say that they were in love--I'm sure they were--but I think it was also a reaction by John to the fact that Paul had taken control of the group.

John's solo career reveals his desire to exist in a world only with Yoko. He did limited live performances and recorded songs, many of which were intensely personal and involved Yoko to a significant extent.

Paul - Paul McCartney is the consummate performer. He lives to perform, and it would be fitting if he died (hopefully many years from now) performing. It's all he ever wanted to do. At the beginning, Paul played the role of almost vice president of the group, and full collaborator with John. However, once Brian died, Paul took control of the group, realizing (rightly, I think) that without his leadership, the group would dissolve. Some of Paul's ideas worked tremendously well (Sgt Pepper's) and some fell flat (Magical Mystery Tour). Although taking control of a group of musicians (well, really just John and George) who were entirely ambivalent about being in the group was incredibly frustrating for Paul, I've always thought that he would've gotten the group back together once they resolved their differences. He believed the group should end, but I think he would have been more than ok with a Beatles: Part Two.

Paul's solo career reveals his desire to remain the well-loved performer. He craved being a band, so he formed Wings. Even in the post-Wings era, he continues to tour fairly regularly, and includes a significant number of Beatles songs in his set. All he's ever wanted to do is please an audience, and I think Paul thinks of himself as the sole access point people have to the Beatles right now (realizing that Ringo just can't put on the same sort of show).

George - George's experience in the Beatles is perhaps the most complicated. In fact, it might merit its own post. For now, I'll say this: All George ever wanted to do was play guitar and be a successful musician. In that sense, he enjoyed being in the Beatles and never thought it was a 100% mistake. However, George's personality was not conducive to being happy as a celebrity. He was an intensely personal person, and not someone who enjoyed being at the front of a stage. That made being in the most successful group in the world an often-painful experience for him. George was highly skeptical that fame and fortune were worth being frightened that someone would attack or kill him, or even just losing his privacy and ability to live a normal life. This alone was enough to make him want to quit the group by 1966/67; however, his inability to develop his songwriting in the face of John and Paul's output made the experience that much harder. All of this means that George came across in the post-Beatles years as highly ambivalent about his experience. I think he eventually saw it as something good, but it took him quite a while to get there.

George's solo career reveals his desire to continue releasing music, but maintaining a private life at the same time. He did only one proper tour (North America in 1974) and one limited tour (Japan in 1991). The other live performances he did had other purposes (the Concert for Bangladesh, the Prince's Trust concert).

Ringo - Ringo's experience in the group is the simplest to pin down. He was grateful to be in the group, and had a wonderful time releasing music, playing shows, and being part of an intensely close band of brothers. Ringo has said that he didn't want the group to split up, and if John had lived, I have no doubt that he would've agreed to a reunion.

Ringo's solo career reveals his desire to simply keep performing for people and releasing happy pop music. Ringo is just incredibly happy to have been a part of the entire experience.

So there you have it! If you disagree with my mini personality profiles, please let me know in the comments.

Sunday, July 3, 2011

The Beatles & Celebrity

As some of you might know, the Beatles were the most photographed, interviewed, prodded, and sought-after group of musicians--or perhaps group of artists--in history. No matter how much time you spend watching interviews with them or doing google image searches for pictures, you will never see everything that's out there.

That makes for a great fan experience; we never get bored. However, what does it mean for the boys themselves? And perhaps more interestingly, what does it mean for our understanding of celebrity?

I'd like to argue that the combination of the unprecedented extent to which the Beatles were interviewed about their experience and their unabashed honesty about their experiences (particularly after the group split) means that the Beatles are the greatest insight we have into what it means to be a celebrity.

Having watched hundreds of interviews with the boys, both from the Beatles years and beyond, I think I can distill what I've learned about the celebrity experience into the following points:

1. It's much easier to deal with fame as a group than on your own. The boys repeatedly said that they felt as though they were the eye of the hurricane; within the group, everyone was calm, but the world around them was going crazy. The existence of the group made the calm easier to establish. They all felt sorry for Elvis because he had to deal with it alone.

2. Being a celebrity makes for both a highly social, but also highly isolating experience. You end up meeting just about everyone (because everyone demands to meet you), but you can never be certain of people's intentions (will they end up being your soulmate, like Yoko or Olivia? Or will they cut off a piece of your hair?). Being a celebrity is also isolating because you can't simply walk down the street; instead, you're shut in dressing rooms all day (in a car and a room, a room and a room ...).

3. Being a celebrity--especially due to excelling at a craft--creates tremendous pressure to continue performing at the same level. It takes tremendous courage, therefore, to continue reinventing yourself. The Beatles could have stuck with the early songwriting formula that worked; instead, they felt that they should continue evolving, not only for their own gratification, but also because they felt they owed it to their fans.

4. Being a celebrity can be frightening and not worth the emotional rollercoaster. George's experience is perhaps the most revealing on this point. He was certainly grateful for having had success in music, but I never got the impression that he felt it was worth having to fear being stalked, attacked, or even killed. Millions of people dream about being famous and loved, but George's honesty about his experience shows us how damaging it can be to sacrifice your nervous system for the sake of a band's success.

5. Becoming incredibly successful doesn't mean that your insecurities go away. The group never stopped being nervous before shows. Despite having performed thousands of times, George still had stage fright before beginning his 1991 Japan tour. John always thought his guitar work and singing was subpar. In fact, sometimes incredible success can exacerbate insecurities; the group was apparently somewhat relieved that not every one of their singles went straight to #1. It showed them that maybe they continued to be successful because their work was good, not because of their previous success.

6. True success is not an accident ... or at least not completely an accident. Sure, the boys were lucky in meeting Brian Epstein, and lucky in growing up in Liverpool. But they were also quite intentional in their decisions. For example, they wore suits because they knew it would help gain them legitimacy. John and Paul used pronouns in their lyrics because they knew it would help their female fans feel as though they were singing to them.

So there you have it! The psyche of a celebrity, as revealed to us by the Beatles. Have anything to add? Put it in the comments!