Like every other city in the world that rocks out to the old classic bands, Buffalo has always had a very strong relationship with The Beatles. Two of the local radio stations play Beatles songs at particular times every day, and one of them even plays a two-hour bloc of Beatles music every weekend. When that radio station recently created a list of the 100 great vinyl albums ever made, two Beatles albums – The White Album and Abbey Road – placed in the top five. It’s a pretty reverential way to treat a rock band that was so popular, it never got around to swinging by Buffalo. We know the songs, we can quote the lyrics, we argue over the quality of the albums.
And yet. To me, The Beatles were always a kind of the odd man out among the British invasion bands. It’s extremely important to note a few things right now: First, I am a Beatles fan. Although I never bought any of their music on CD, I own several of their albums; Revolver, Rubber Soul, and Abbey Road are all in my iPod, and I will soon be adding Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. And second, I understand why they have attained their status as the greatest rock band of all time. The barriers they broke down in their full realization of studio musicianship are inarguable in their importance and the role they played in the development of modern rock music.
I have, however, had a few problems with the band that many who know me don’t share. In conversation, I’ve often come off as someone who hates these four unlikely Liverpudlian scousers because I’m not capable of elevating them to the critical immunity they have apparently attained. First, John Lennon: My great respects to him for his talent as a songwriter and experimenter. However, in the later days of The Beatles, his songwriting comes off like he cared more about his public’s perception of him as a serious artiste than he did about making music he truly believed in. While he eventually came around again during his solo career, a lot of his later Beatles music just comes off as pretentious to me. Second, I hate the weird feud between the John and Paul factions because they act as if John and Paul were the only two songwriters in the band. They were prominent, but that contest is only a contest at all if you believe quantity means more than quality. Both of them paled in comparison to George, whose output was less because he wasn’t constantly teaming up with anyone. Hell, you could include Ringo if you like. He only wrote two songs for the band, but one of them was “Octopus’s Garden.” Third, no one – John or Paul people – appears to be giving Paul any of the credit he deserves as an experimenter. Everyone concentrates on his ability to write catchy pop tunes.
I didn’t automatically develop a taste for The Beatles, as most of my more artistically inclined friends did. It gradually evolved as I slowly came in later ages to appreciate lyrical and sonic depth. Even counting this, though, a ton of their work is still rather hit or miss. I can appreciate the beauty of the string instruments on “Eleanor Rigby,” but that song evokes a lot of old feelings I’ve had for extended periods in my life and would rather avoid remembering. I have that same complaint about “Yesterday.” I think the entire White Album is overrated, having lost any sense of passion or meaning in an array of competitive artistry and studio wizardry.
I faced a lot of put-downs because I tend to concentrate so much on what I don’t like about The Beatles in conversation. I’m a contrarian, so that’s instinctive. But there is one universal facet of Beatles music which I don’t believe even their most fervent supports can argue: They don’t have the sense of passion, anger, or fun that so many of the other bands of that era had, and for a blue-collar city like Buffalo, that should make them the odd band out. In my personal pantheon, it DOES make them the odd band out. Yes, John sang out for a world-changing revolution in the wonderful song “Revolution,” but as much as I love that song, it lulls and rings flat and hollow when compared to The Rolling Stones and the springy, urgent guitar rhythm in “Street Fighting Man” as Mick Jagger desperately ponders the situation of a restless poor boy in London. Yes, “Eleanor Rigby” is a soul-haunting song which captures the sorrow of loneliness, but it can’t compare to The Who playing “Behind Blue Eyes” as Roger Daltry’s monotonous, growling vocals capture not only the the sorrow, but the anger, resentment, and total mental alienation of loneliness as well. “Back in the USSR” was a cute, clever practical joke on global politics which missed because it was also a cute, clever knock at The Beach Boys as well. Cute, clever, and missed points are all applicable terms which aptly describe another great song about global politics by another great British band: The Clash and their song about unrest in the middle east, “Rock the Casbah,” which about 90 percent of people hearing it for the first time mistake for a sexual anthem.
The Beatles were born into the working class in Liverpool after the Luftwaffe bombings, but I never was able to get the feeling they’ve actually been there. Even at their angriest, most passionate, or most fun, The Beatles sound like they’re forcing themselves to emote. In Buffalo, I get the feeling they’re the local rock band of suburbanites; they look at the issues from afar, thinking they’ll never have to contend with them in their lives. They show concern, but that concern never goes beyond the occasional check for a private charity.
In the meantime, The Rolling Stones and The Who are the passionate fighters for justice, fighting the root causes of the problems with all their rage. They have been the more relatable of the great British bands to me. The Who in particular – although, ironically, I only own one of their albums (Who’s Next) – seem to have a song for everything that strikes a chord with me. They’ve captured my alienation (“Behind Blue Eyes”), my eventual empowerment and embrace of my outcast, rebel status (“Baba O’Riley”), my fascination and eventual disillusionment with populist movements (“Won’t Get Fooled Again”), and even the way I used video games as a means of escape when I was a kid (“Pinball Wizard”). The Rolling Stones captured my depression (“Paint it, Black”), and inspired me to keep fighting for my goals even when they don’t seem attainable (You Can’t Always Get What You Want”). Led Zeppelin captured my imagination in virtually every way. The Clash captured my frustration with corporations. The Police I just love to listen to.
As for The Beatles, they’re a truly fantastic band, and I love listening to their music. I cannot, however, revere them as invincible musical demigods.