I can remember the moment perfectly, it was the last day of sixth form and we were sat in the nearest dirty/expensive pub having a few, mostly illicit drinks, when suddenly I found myself accosted by several members of the English department. My crime was not the half-gone pint in my underage hands, but rather the fact that earlier that morning I had declared that The Beatles were both overrated and frankly rubbish. Forced to confront the hostile panel in the pub I started off with quite a balanced line of argument; firstly I argued that they were nowhere near as innovative as other bands and artists of the era. Dylan was a better lyricist, The Kinks and the Stones were edgier, The Who were louder and more musically powerful etc. To me the claim that The Beatles were great innovators seemed empty and hollow. Of course this all fell on deaf ears until eventually my reasoning and logic produced one less desperate gambit; “The Beatles are shit”. Strangely enough this failed to win them over and I received a lengthy explanation from Mr Herbage about how everyone eventually comes around to The Beatles. My response was to saunter over to the jukebox and put on ‘Motown Junk’ by the Manic Street Preachers, cheered by the chorus’s cry of “I laughed when Lennon got shot”, I walked back for my final lesson feeling smug and vindicated.
The thing about The Beatles is that they have taken on the role of totems of the musical establishment. The very fact that the middle aged members of the English department had taken me to task over expressing a disliking seemed proof enough. The Beatles had a sacred cow status that was only matched by the reverence reserved for Bob Dylan. For my seventeen year old self the dividing line was that whilst The Beatles had been singing ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ and ‘She Loves you’, Dylan was singing ‘Masters Of War’ and ‘A Hard Rains A Gonna Fall’. However for all the critical acclaim Dylan retained an edgy cultish appeal.
At seventeen it seemed that The Beatles music belonged to other people, middle aged English teachers, my parents and to people my age (with the exception of my best friendJohn) who were distinctly middle class and boring. In secondary school music classes we were taught to tap out melodies to ‘Yesterday’, ‘Yellow Submarine’ and ‘When I’m 64’ on xylophones and later keyboards. Most importantly the music I loved seemed to be in direct opposition to the hegemony of The Beatles.
As a 14 year old I fell for The Clash as soon as I heard Joe Strummer singing about “Phoney Beatlemania” in ‘London Calling’. The Clash not only seemed to reject the legacy of The Beatles but drew inspiration from an entirely different musical heritage. Because the music I listened to seemed so separate and apart from The Beatles, it is fair to say that throughout my musical self-education, that apart from my tribal prejudices, I was largely ignorant of The Beatles. It wasn’t until shortly after my argument in the pub that I actually sat and listened to the band at length. I had managed to inherit/pinch a bunch of vinyl that just so happened to include a lavish eight disc Beatles compilation. Out of sheer curiosity I set about dipping in and out of the records, curious to hear what the fuss was about.
Slowly but surely I was won over, not by the songs that everyone knew but rather by the more esoteric cuts, like the caustic multi segmented ‘Happiness is a Warm Gun’, the gentle floating Lennon ballad ‘Across The Universe’ and the mystic droning of ‘Within You Without You’.
At the same time I had an ever growing admiration of the songs that I used to dismiss as twee and lightweight. Maybe I had become more moderate and “establishment”, but with each listen I was realising just why these songs were so dear to people’s hearts. This period of listening also opened me up to the likes of ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ and ‘Day In The Life’, in the private of my bedroom and far from the people who had predicted that one day I would come around. Really it wasn’t until fairly recently that my best friend John forced me to listen to Abbey Road that I finally admitted to myself that I actually quite liked the band that I had spent so long slandering.
There is of course the argument that says that The Beatles are underrated, that the hype, the nostalgia and the pervasive myth of the swinging sixties has engulfed the band and made it impossible to assess the true impact of their music. I’m not sure I buy that part of the charm of The Beatles is that they are very much of their times. They could have only existed in that window between the end of national service and the grim economic climate of the early seventies. The Beatles’ reputation and legacy has so much to do with the carefree optimism of the era they worked in.
Their transition from pop idols to parent bothering lysergic album artists could only have happened in the sixties. It would be unthinkable now for a pop act like Girls Aloud to lock themselves away in a studio and produce something as left field as Revolver or Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles, despite having a formidable back catalogue full of stone cold classics, were neither the greatest band ever nor peerless musical innovators, but rather they were the band that (accidentally or not) wrote the blueprint for rock and pop as we now know it.
By the accidents of fate and history they were the first out of the blocks and the first to be put up on a pedestal, where it of course will always be easy to be knocked off by big mouthed Clash fans.