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.