Wait! A second opinion on The Beatles

[Ken Melville is an independent film maker and record producer—and boyhood buddy of mine from Arlington, Mass.—who's actually produced sessions at the hallowed Abbey Road Studios. After my last post, "Innovation or imitation," he emailed me a comment that I thought deserved its own post. Take it away, Ken.]


One of the biggest ironies or paradoxes of the Beatles was that they weren't TRYING to be innovative! They were just trying to be successful.

They were extremely conservative musically, just so good at it that they set trends and such. It wasn't until the press TOLD THEM that they were innovative that they strove to fulfill that non-intuitive direction and it became rather self-conscious after that.

But that was nothing they had ever conceived of themselves, they just did what came naturally. Never a thought to being "breakthrough" or "radical" or "musically innovative". Eventually that became a mantra they had to live up to, and the pressure to do that—which was not native to them—album after grinding album took its toll.

Paul of course just reverted to writing silly love songs on his own as soon as he got free of that "innovative" curse. And John just escaped back into a kind of self-absorbed bland and pretentious minimalism. None of it innovative at all. From guys to whom the word was always largely meaningless.

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  1. Heresy!

    (Truth is often heresy.)

    I've never thought of them as innovative, so this isn't a stretch for me. Since they were trying to become popular, I'd say they did a good job at meeting their goal, eh?

    Love me some heresy, especially when it's true.

  2. A fascinating if heterodox view, Ken. I agree (sadly) about Paul & John’s post-Beatles solo stuff, which so many of us have lamented over the years—and which I tried to make sense of in an early post. Some thoughts about the rest of your thesis…

    1. Innovative is probably not a word they would have used. I doubt they even thought in those terms (breakthrough, radical, innovative). But they DID care about being “different” and “original.” They used to talk about what it was like doing shows in the early days at the Cavern Club (1961-62) with other bands on the bill, who were ALL doing the same repertoire of Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Elvis, etc. Paul claimed they started to perform their own songs to be different, to be original. They instinctively understood — as EVERY business team and organization should — that to be successful they had to stand out from the pack.

    2. I’m not sure they were THAT conservative musically in the beginning. Yes, their early recordings (1962-1964) were a far cry from Sgt Pepper, but they were in the zone by summer 1963 — combining, connecting, synthesizing different elements of pop music. The key switches in the bridge of “From Me to You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” were impressively creative (for a rock band at the time) as was the “call-and-response” vocal technique in “It Won’t Be Long.” Augmented chords (“Ask Me Why,” “All My Loving”) and 6th chords (“She Loves You”) were also unusual for a rock band. The beautifully disguised modulation in the middle of the introduction to “If I Fell” is stunning and unorthodox. The opening to “I Won’t to Hold Your Hand” has a time signature that I STILL haven’t figured out in 49 years. The famously (and somewhat pretentiously) highbrow review of the Beatles’ music in The (London) Times — that spoke of the “pandiatonic clusters” and “flat submediant key switches” — came out in December 1963, not 1967, so their distinctiveness caught the eye of critics early in the game.

    3. Perhaps by the time of Revolver and Sgt Pepper (1966-1967) they were being deliberate and self-conscious about their creativity (and maybe they were feeling the pressure to live up to the impossibly high expectations of the public). They certainly disrupted the status quo with their engineering and production techniques in the recording studio by then. But their creativity in their compositions and arrangements were on display by summer 63 when they were performing “She Loves You” and “All My Loving” and were recording their second album, With the Beatles.

    4. You may have hit on the key with “they were just trying to be successful.” They were fiercely competitive and they recognized (rightly) that for them to be successful in the local club scene and later on the world stage they had to be look and sound different from the competition. (Out-innovate is the 2012 term for it.) Being hyper-creative MIGHT have been a means to an end. Once that got going I’m sure John and Paul were trying to out-do EACH OTHER in their inventiveness. They loved to blow each other’s mind with their latest song or song fragment. Maybe that has something to do with the decreased originality of their post-Beatles output — yet they were still competing even then.

    More later. Don’t want to use up all the oxygen here.

  3. Inglewood Joe: I confess that I loved the Dave Clark 5 — for about a month. They mixed the drums LOUD (hey, Dave was a drummer) which was cool. But they imitated The Beatles a little too closely (as much as The Monkees did) and didn't add enough other interesting ingredients to be a "recombinative" innovator IMHO.

    I saw them and the Rascals at the old Boston Garden in the 60s. A great show. The Rascals were in the zone then.

  4. Well we're kinda talking about the same thing: the Beatles were so naturally different and talented that for a long time they didn't even need to innovate, they WERE innovation. Then when you toss genius innovator George Martin into the mix when they had to start competing against the Beach Boys and the Stones and such it was a slam dunk.

    Harrison was the greatest contradiction ever. A stiff, passive, obsequious passenger who ended up such a critical component to the whole mix. The guy had no swing, no feel no hip licks. Couldn't play jazz or blues or funk to save his life. In short, a total square.

    But he practiced and studied like mad. He did his homework, he learned his chords and his extremely limited musical skills became kind of his trademark: he learned to be the best possible BEATLES lead guitarist. I doubt he would have gotten anywhere outside the Beatles and he knew it. That's why he took so much shit from Paul about how and what to play.

    But he really was the best possible BEATLES lead guitarist. I mean, I hated the lead on "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" precisely because it isn't HIM. His signature Beatles imprint. It became critical to the sound of the band.

    It wasn't good (Mike Bloomfield), it wasn't brilliant (Stevie Ray), it was never facile (Danny Gatton), it was something much better: it was pure vintage Beatles. Much finer and rarer than any of the above.

    Extraordinary lines and sounds that no "good" guitarist would ever come up with. Because he was coming from a unique place. He was grown in the Beatles hothouse and had that DNA.

    I'm a guitarist and his little minimalist fills and lines always kill me, especially the early stuff. No studio guitarist would have EVER come up with those incredible moves. They are stiff, a bit odd, don't swing, and always PERFECT for the song and the band.

    Like I said, the greatest contradiction ever.

    Now, you take Harrison and Ringo and Lennon away from McCartney (the guy who when asked what his dream was in '62 said "I want to write songs for Frank Sinatra") and you have generic, slick slop. Variation with psychologically-damaged Lennon: You get psychologically-damaged Lennon.

    The Beatles broke up because the band wasn't allowing the individuals to be themselves.

    Irony: They sucked as themselves.

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