A Mind for Madness

Musings on art, philosophy, mathematics, and physics

On The Beatles


I think it is finally time to formalize my arguments and make them rigorous. Today I engaged in an argument that occurs periodically in my life. The Beatles were not a great band. In fact, I think it is hard to even make the case for them being a good band. This status that they have achieved that makes them beyond musical criticism needs to be torn down.

So I’ll do this in an argument/rebuttal format. My basic argument is that the main things I look for in music are originality, interesting chord progressions, interesting melody, technical proficiency, musicality, thought-provoking or interesting lyrics (quite reasonable things), and my basic argument is that not only are the Beatles lacking in some of these categories, they actually severely lack in every single one of them. So. The burden of proof is on Beatles lovers to find me songs that satisfy any of these criterion. Nevertheless, I will still go through and debunk the standard arguments in favor of The Beatles.

Argument 1: You have taken them out of context. In the context of the time period, the music they were creating actually was original.

Rebuttal: This is a lie. Both classical and rock musicians had been doing far far more original things before the Beatles came around (though it was very little known and certainly not “popular”). They were almost a set back in terms of musical progress. The I-IV-V progression has been around since Mozart (and earlier). Catchy melodies or “hooks” were certainly not new. And what was their music about? That’s right. The same exact thing that all pop music that came before it was about. Now I’m not making claims about their influence or popularity here. That is undeniable. But please don’t tell me they were doing anything original.

Argument 2: You are judging them unfairly. All bands have to make a public appeal to get their foot in the door before making serious music or else they will sink before they hit the water. Even bands that you think are original like Radiohead got public appeal before going the artistic route (as with Kid A). You should judge the greatness based on their later albums and not on the early ones.

Rebuttal: I partially agree. But I think the same criticism still applies to their later albums. I’m not claiming that every Beatles song ever was awful, but a significant majority (at least 80% but probably more like 90% or higher) do not fit in a single category of greatness that I listed. This is not merely ignoring a few bad songs. But even if it was just a few bad songs, I would still start to question a band’s greatness from that. A truly great band should be discerning and careful enough about what they release to make sure they aren’t tainting their albums. A few bad songs on an album indicates to me that a band may not be good enough musicians to realize those songs were bad. Even the most avid fans must admit that most of what The Beatles released was filler just to get another album out. There were few good and original ideas on any given album.

Argument 3: It isn’t the music that makes them great. You are missing the point. It is the time period and the statement and the look and the feel of the generation that they were portraying etc blah blah blah. You need to look at the whole picture and not just a piecewise analysis of the music.

Rebuttal: OK. That’s fine and all. But that doesn’t make them a great band. That makes them good public figures. They played the game well. In fact, they played so well, they’ve somehow convinced the public that they are a good band. Let’s not confuse these two things. They were great at capturing an era and sound of the era, but they were not a great band. This distinguishing feature is my point. I’m glad we agree.

Lastly, let’s talk about one of my favorite tests for a bad band. If I can listen to a song I’ve never heard and it is so cliche and unoriginal and boring that I can actually sing along with it on my first listen (yes, that means I caught on to the melody and lyrics so easily that I can predict what they are before I even hear them), then you are not writing interesting music. I just can’t understand how people can listen to things like that without being bored out of their minds.

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Author: hilbertthm90

I am a mathematics graduate student fascinated in how all my interests fit together.

19 thoughts on “On The Beatles

  1. Great post. I disagree, but I really like the debate.

    My brief response is that you picked the worst arguments for the Beatles being a great band to rebut. You’re shooting proverbially fish in a barrel. Anyone that thinks that to make a case for the Beatles they have to be judged in their time or context really doesn’t understand their impact.

    Certainly, their popularity isn’t a measure of greatness. Their almost universal respect and admiration, even among those more knowledgeable about music, is different than popularity. I think that’s a decent argument or basis to say they were at least really, really good.

    I don’t see in your rebuttals the names of any bands or artists, lesser known, that were doing more progressive things than them. Guys like Bob Dylan were doing amazing work while the Beatles were doing things like “She Loves You.” I get that. Tell me, though, who in 1966 made a more powerful music statement than the Beatles did with “Tomorrow Never Knows.” That song is amazing 43 years later. Tell me who in 1967 did anything that could even touch “A Day In the Life” in terms of stretching bounds and experimentation.

    If no one has ever heard of these “better” artists, those folks would be irrelevant in my view. It’s nice that some interesting music might have been done in jazz clubs or in the underground scene, but most musicians, let alone the public, don’t draw much inspiration from those types of artists. Sadly some of those lesser known artist, who may have tremendous talent, aren’t “discovered” until they’re dead.

    The Beatles, while alive and kicking, changed almost everything in popular music. Of course, they had their own influences. They stole plenty of ideas from others that came before them. But they built on and expanded those ideas. They also made artsy music more palatable, more accessible to the masses. How is that a bad thing?

    Again, I like this debate. Thanks for posting it.

  2. Thanks for the reply! Those arguments are just the ones that were presented to me by the people I was with. So I wasn’t intentionally picking bad arguments, and didn’t construct them myself.

    Well, you’ve picked two songs, and I said the Beatles did have a few individual great songs. I’ll even add in “Happiness is a Warm Gun” and “Revolution #9″ from The White Album. So now we are at 4. If we underestimate the number of songs they recorded to be 200, then we are at 2% of what they released. Of course, you weren’t going to make arguments for every great song they made, so presumably there are many, many more, but depending on how you count how many songs they recorded, there are many many more to throw into that number as well.

    I take into account that non-great bands can produce great individual songs. If we considered every band whose collection consists of at least 50% great songs to be a great band, then this would be almost every band that became well-known at some point. And I think even die hard fans would be hard pressed to come up with arguments for 50% (over 100 songs as “great”?).

    I think one of the true tests of greatness is the ability to recognize those great songs, and wait long enough before releasing an album so that you have enough of them to have a great album. I posted about John Ashbery a few posts ago, and at one point in his life he was writing poems every single day (presumably more than 1 a day), and he would only accept about 1 a month as actually good enough to publish.

    Alright. I’ve beat that longer than I should have. I disagree that we can’t consider small unknown bands. If the Beatles didn’t know about them, then that is no excuse. I think great artists are aware of the scene around them. It is part of their duty to actively seek it out. Plus, there were plenty of things going on that weren’t unknown. I’m pretty sure Miles Davis’ “Kind of Blue” had released by 1966 (if not, he certainly had achieved some fame before then). Frank Zappa was doing extremely interesting things. Though his fame probably didn’t come until into the ’70′s, he was still releasing things in the late ’60′s.

    If we want to go the classical route, then Cage, Varese, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, etc had completely changed what was allowed in music (and one of them died before 1966). Anyways, I think there were tons of really interesting and original things going on musically in that time period, and The Beatles were not one of the major ones. I find it hard to come up with more than a couple songs of theirs that I would consider “artsy.”

  3. If you wanna compare Zappa’s work with the Beatles’ work, that’s fair. I think it’s not fair — or perhaps not meaningful — to compare Miles Davis, Stravinsky, Schoenberg, etc. to the Beatles.

    The Beatles should be measured against other pop/rock bands, not jazz and classical artists. Sure, they incorporated bits and pieces of other music styles in their work but, ultimately, they were a 4 piece rock band.

    That said, I don’t think too many people in the pop rock world have ever, across an entire career, been as consistently good or original as the Beatles.

  4. I also think this is an interesting debate–your reevaluation of the Beatles synthesizes some refreshing ideas.

    I do, however, disagree with many of your claims. The foundations of your basic argument (originality, interesting chord progressions, interesting melody, technical proficiency, musicality, thought-provoking or interesting lyrics) are largely subjective.

    For instance, while you may find their music unoriginal, there are surely arguments that can be made to the contrary. The Beatles were unique because although they became popular for their catchy pop songs (those that you can sing along to during the first listen), they later ventured into new horizons; their music combined pop appeal with more harmonically complex progressions, including the use of chord extensions previously uncommon in rock music.
    This in itself is a feat that cannot be compared to music in the classical or jazz genre; the Beatles achieved unprecedented popularity among the masses despite their music’s progressive elements.

    In most songs, there are nuances that are sublime examples of musical innovation–guitar tracks played backwards, thick layering, unique instrumentation (including sitar and recorded bird calls), etc.

    Also, how many of the Beatles’ songs actually employ the I-IV-V progression? I think you may be over estimating the number of Beatles songs with progressions this typical. I would be surprised if more than a handful of their hundreds of songs actually use this as a melodic refrain. I’d be willing to bet that other contemporary music of the 1960s (Bob Dylan for instance) relied much more heavily on this popular rock/blues progression.

  5. Off-topic: have you heard the new Andrew Bird? Thoughts?

  6. I pre-ordered it on amazon. Unfortunately, it didn’t ship until two days ago. I’m hoping it will come today. I did listen to it once through on NPR’s first listen series, but didn’t really formulate any opinions just from that.

  7. The plural of ‘criterion’ is ‘criteria’. This may help you to formalize and make rigorous your future arguments.

  8. To say that the band that put out revolver and sergeant pepper on 4 track technology didnt do anything original is ridiculous and servers to delegitimize what is otherwise a good blog. Arguing that all they did was write I-IV-V songs is a fallicious conclusion based on consideration of only a subset of their works

  9. First off, I am very clear on the point that it isn’t all bad. In fact, I am the one that is not drawing conclusions on a subset of their works. They released something like 203 studio songs. So if you can name 20 very original and great, progressive songs, and then claim that they are a great band based off of that, then you have only considered 10% of their works. You could try for 100 songs, but even then you would be ignoring 50% of their works. I certainly don’t think they only used I-IV-V, but they very rarely strayed far from something similar to that.

  10. It’s pretty clear that you’re grasping at straws here. You offered no response to Knightdan, and you are now providing criteria for greatness that no single artisti/band in history could live up to (50% of an artist’s/band’s work must be “great” in order for the band to be great? You’re joking, right? Right??).

    The simple fact remains that the Beatles are a great band because proportionally, of their 200 some songs, the vast majority can be called very good, good, solid, etc., while a significant number of them (more than most other bands) can be called “great.”

  11. I sort of started ignoring this thread, because I lost interest. I actually think almost all artists can live up to that criteria. Look. There is nothing wrong with creating music that is fun and for a popular audience. We need that. I enjoy that at times. But I think one of the defining points between entertainers and artists is exactly this.

    Of course no one has the track record of 50% of what they create is great. But people who are true artists probably only release 1% or less of what they create. This significantly increases how much of what they actually put out there as great. It is very common that albums and artists that I listen to and consider to be great were being created over years with hard work being done every day on it. Probably 99% of what was originally constructed for it was trashed. This is one of the main differences between true artists and entertainers.

    I don’t understand why people are so caught up in this. You can love the Beatles and admit that it is entertainment and not great art and there is nothing wrong with that. But the fact is, they were not discerning artists. They were pop culture icons. Maybe they had a few great songs. Maybe even a large proportion of their songs were great, but certainly not a majority.

  12. I can understand why you’d start to ignore this thread. Then again, you did respond to a post fairly recently, despite having originally posted this topic in January. That’s why I even bothered to post my comment.

    From what I can tell, this disagreement arises from the fact that you’re casting your own idea of a true “artist” on to rock and roll/pop/blues (what I’ll call “rock,” for simplicity’s sake). When it comes to rock, virtually no one has released only 1% of their material. When it comes to rock, no one (with a few notable exceptions) is more of a a discerning artist(s) than the Beatles. When it comes to rock, a majority of Beatles songs were most definitely great (in fact, I flatly disagree with your statement that “[e]ven the most avid fans must admit that most of what The Beatles released was filler just to get another album out.” Anyone that truly knows the Beatles knows that that this is entirely B.S., and and I really have no idea where you’ve come up with that, though I’m happy to hear your explanation).

    Anyway, that’s really why people are so caught up in this. Can you point to any ROCK artist(s) that was clearly greater than the Beatles? Or do you simply think that rock is mostly an entertainment, rather than an art, genre?

  13. I guess it depends on what you mean by “rock.” Because we can continually narrow that genre down until it will exclude all great artists. Here are just a few though:

    1) I’ve already mentioned Frank Zappa.
    2) Radiohead (probably the only on this list that actually meets the more than 50% great songs criteria, and release a small set of what they come up with)
    3) Don Caballero
    4) Heck, if you want something more popular, I’d throw in Pink Floyd.
    5) Nine Inch Nails

    The list goes on. This may not be my top list, but I was trying to avoid anything that was too far tangent to “rock” to be arguable, or too current to know whether they will flounder after only a couple of great albums.

    (Recall that we may have different notions of “greater than”. I have already admitted that The Beatles are probably the most influential and popular band of all time. This is meaningless to an argument about how great you are.)

  14. Understood, and those are some good examples. But I still can’t point to a single artist on that list that releases, or ever released, only 1% of their material (the one exception might be Zappa, but I really don’t know enough about how much he recorded to say with any certainty)

    I agree that our notions of “greater than” are probably different. Then again, I also think all of those artists you listed deserve to be called great. I simply don’t see why the Beatles wouldn’t fit into that list, especially if you’re including bands like Radiohead and Pink Floyd.

  15. “Especially if you’re including bands like Radiohead”…really? I’m pretty sure Radiohead spends longer on any given song scraping and redo-ing and perfecting and adding details etc. than The Beatles spent on some whole albums. Radiohead songs are about as detailed and complicated as music comes. They definitely scrap most of what they write.

  16. Absolutely. As I’m positive you’re aware, there’s an approximate 30 year gap between the recording careers of the Beatles and that of Radiohead. And, just like the time spent on perfection and details has increased in some other areas of art as time has progressed (e.g. film), it’s done so with rock music as well.

    The Beatles recorded an album every six months to a year. Pink Floyd recorded an album every one to two years. Radiohead now records (with the obvious exception of Kid A and Amnesiac) an album every two to four years. When I referred to your inclusion of Radiohead, I wasn’t suggesting that the Beatles spent as much time on songs or an album as Radiohead does. I was suggesting that, within their time frame, they were acting similar to Radiohead in our own. In fact, I see the Beatles, Pink Floyd and Radiohead as part of a larger progression of brilliant, studio artists.

  17. Hello, here a response from Holland. It’s a little late, but what you wrote is simply so wrong, that I simply felt an answer had to be given.

    From your writings it is evident to me that you regard music in a very scientific way (and apparently you feel to need to make % of everything). To most people, fortunately, music is in the first place emotion. It’s not about doing something new and technically challenging in the first place. Let me begin with that.

    But, if I were to be pushed to see it from a technical point of view, you are simply completely wrong in virtually all respects. First of all, you deny that the Beatles were original. Which is a joke. The Beatles absorbed many influences, but, in pop music, created music that was absolutely new. Take Eleanor Rigby, Tomorrow Never Knows, A day in the life, Within you Without you, I’m the Walrus, to name a few. This was simply new music. Give me any examples of music sounding like that before The Beatles came along. Indeed, they used elements of other genres, artists. But what they created was something entirely new. To deny that is just crazy. One could simply go on and on listing the innovations The Beatles could be credited for.

    Then you tell The Beatles don’t have interesting chord progressions. I guess you never listened to their music, since you tell most of their songs are based on I-IV-V progressions. Never listened to Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, I’m the Walrus, Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite, Within you Without you (interesting inasmuch it doesn’t have chord progressions), Penny Lane, even Yesterday, to name just a few? The truth is that the Beatles were the greatest harmonists in the pop music. Here and there you find another harmonically interesting song by another writer (God only Knows by the Beach Boys is a good example), but unusual harmonies never have been used so effectively in pop music as The Beatles did. The argument of dull chord progressions applies for virtually every pop record, but The Beatles were now just that exception.

    You could argue that their chord progressions are very simple compared to 20th century classical music. That’s definitely true. But why were Stravinsky or Schoenberg so progressive? Not because they started out like that. They were influenced by what they heard, and when they controlled that, they took the musical language one step further. The Beatles did exactly the same, but just in pop music. Their examples were just much simple (simplistic if you want), which is the reason that their music is harmonically much more simple than Stravinsky’s or Schoenbergs music. But is that an argument against The Beatles? In that case one should reject Bach, Mozart and Beethoven as well. This is the old idea of music evolving and getting better all the time, which we fortunately abandonded in recent history. Music is simply well written or badly written, and The Beatles’ music is, like the music of the other names, well written, also in harmonical respect.

    Another argument of you is that you like to listen to interesting melodies. Later you admit the Beatles had catchy tunes. So what’s your point? I can tell you that Paul McCartney in The Beatles was simply one of the best melodists in our history. His best melodies have everything that typifies a good melody: large intervals, use of many different notes, no repitition. Take Hey Jude. It’s an incredibely difficult melody, as easy as it sounds. But it’s more difficult to analyse than many famous classical melodies.

    Than you ask for technical proficency. What do you mean with this? If you talk about technical mastery of their instruments, than indeed the Beatles were not very good. But this goes for the majority of pop bands. But after all, this is much less important than being able to write a good song. But in terms of composition, this doesn’t go.
    We talked about harmony, about melody. So, the third element would be rhythm. Well, The Beatles were definitely original in this respect, at least in pop terms. Take Happiness is a warm gun, with 6 different meters in one song, or sections in 5/4 in Goodmorning Goodmorning, Within you Without you, the “free verse” opening of Blackbird, the beat that’s left out in many measures in All you need is love… I could list much more. Also in this respect they stretched the possibilities of pop music.

    As I said before, music is NOT the same as mathematics, it is a part of it, but it’s also more than that. The Beatles were capable of expressing emotions that many recognized. But they were at the same time more than that. I spoke about innovation, harmony, rhythm, melody. But the most important thing is the quality of the song. And everyone who really knows something about composition, knows the Beatles were good composers. What does it matter that Frank Zappa or Varese or whoever was more complex? It doesn’t make them greater composers. The art of composition is NOT, and I repeat it again, because you will not understand it, it’s NOT to make something complex. No, it’s making something sound logical. It can be complex, it can be simple, it can be both at the same time, but a good composer creates a logical musical framework. This is something exceptionally difficult, and few are capable of doing it (your Radiohead isn’t even allowed to tie the shoe laces of The Beatles). The Beatles, amateurs in some respects as they were, were capable of that (your Radiohead isn’t even allowed to tie the shoe laces of The Beatles). I know much about classical music, and it’s my main listening, but I can tell you that The Beatles were more naturally gifted than many of them. By the way, even icons of classical music, like Leonard Bernstein and Pierre Boulez, recognized the quality of The Beatles’ music.

    But in the end, what was the most telling thing to me, was that you considered Revolution 9 one of their best songs. Actually it is one of their worst. It is pretentious, but everyone who is a little out of his mind and has access to a professional studio could make such nonsense. It´s not bad because it´s experimental or progressive: it’s simply bad because it is poorly conceived in a musical respect. As Stravinsky put it: we have all technical demands in our age, but we have no Bach. That you nevertheless consider this piece of music as one of their best, makes me believe you like to have an opinion that differs from others. So that you want to debunk the most popular band in pop music comes as no surprise.
    But even if the masses are almost always wrong in their tastes, this time they aren’t. The Beatles were a fantastic band, and they will still be seen as much when nobody even cares about bands like Radiohead anymore.

  18. Haha, you should probably delete this ridiculous thread, philosopher. For your own sake if nothing else.

  19. I ought to agree with the author, I find the Beatles to be overrated, I’m not sure if all the people that say The Beatles are the best band ever have been in contact with some prog, King Crimson is a great example of a influential yet relatively unknown band, I see The Beatles as a spark to the industry in terms of getting music done in a more marketable way, I believe Beatles are certainly responsible for the decisions that the big recording labels do in the present days, sacrificing art for something industrially produced, that is indeed not saying Beatles were a bad band, they are what they are and people should stop seeing them as gods, there are no gods in music, take it!

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