The Beatles' music start streaming from Christmas Eve: why we should care
With the world's most famous band now available on tap, we ask: why listen?
The music of the Beatles, four music geeks from Liverpool who made it rather big in the Sixties, will appear on music streaming sites like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music for the first time on Christmas Eve. This comes five years after Apple Music and Apple Computer ended a decades-long rights dispute, the upshot of which was the Beatles' official output becoming available on iTunes.
The Beatles are big, like no other band has ever been big, or can ever be. The Cambridge Companion to the Beatles pinned down their singularity by noting that there's no serious body of academic literature about the Dave Clark Five. The Beatles are the yardstick to which other bands are compared, usually in terms of record sales, seldom in terms of cultural significance. The Beatles' very popularity has been used as a stick to beat them with: no band that popular can be good, so the 'argument' goes, because everybody knows, don't they, that the best music is the most original music, and original music is always unpopular (because people are idiots, or something). This particular chain of reasoning forces some unwelcome conclusions: for example, that JS Bach is the most overrated composer in musical history, and also that all traditional music is worthless. But we're getting sidetracked: everybody knows that the Beatles are popular and influential, but the real question is, are they worth listening to? In order to answer that, let's first remind ourselves what the Beatles were bad at.
They were not good at being Heavy. When they tried to emulate The Who on 'Helter Skelter', the result was entertaining but sonically weedy. Nor were they good at being Messy: you can't imagine the Beatles releasing something as exhaustingly ugly as the Velvet Underground's 17-minute fuzz-fest 'Sister Ray'. Anger and hostility fuel some of the greatest music ever made, but the Beatles' music has very little time for them. Lennon was the one with the most bottled-up rage, but his deepest and most disturbing Beatles songs, such as 'Strawberry Fields Forever' and 'She Said She Said', tend to be about confusion and panic. The angriest Beatles song is Lennon's 'I Am the Walrus', which most people mistake for pure gobbledegook. The Beatle with the most consistently bad-tempered songs was Harrison, and it's only when he cheered up that his stuff began to rise to Lennon and McCartney's level. So what were the Beatles good for?
People liked the Beatles at the time because their music made people feel happy, but not everyone likes to be made to feel happy. Sometimes, especially when you're a teenager, feeling unhappy is one of the main ways you have of convincing yourself that you're not boring. But the Beatles knew unhappiness very well indeed: both Lennon and McCartney's mothers died when the boys were teenagers, and little Richard Starkey spent literally years in hospital. For the Beatles, rock and roll wasn't a release from boredom but a cure for unhappiness. That's why the Beatles' early recordings tend to be a rush of uncut joy. One of their defining early moments is halfway through the first song on their first album, when Paul McCartney gets to the end of the chorus and suddenly lets out a demented laugh of excitement: 'WAAAAAA-HA-HA-HAAA!' Nobody, not even Little Richard, had communicated such warmth and enthusiasm in music as the Beatles were able to do from their second single onwards.
The reason why the Beatles fascinated people so much is that all that warmth was channelled through multiple layers of craftsmanship and style. By the time they were famous, they had already grown tired of the rock & roll rebel schtick, which they'd worked to death in the bars of Hamburg. Brian Epstein still gets blamed for 'taming' them, but he never told them how to play. (Well, he did once, but Lennon told him to piss off.) Epstein's stroke of genius was to leave their sound alone but change the way they looked, dressing them in sharp suits instead of sweaty leather and telling them not to jump about onstage. Watch a video of the early Beatles with the sound turned down, and they look like they're hardly trying. Turn the sound up and close your eyes, and they're singing their hearts out and playing their arses off. That tension between unruffled cool and what Lennon called 'wild abdomen' is at the heart of the Beatles; Epstein nailed it with the heartbreaking remark that their appeal lay in a blend of comedy and tragedy.
The Beatles kept that balance going with a sublime confidence that no other group has ever matched, but it only lasted as long as they felt that someone was looking out for them. Epstein's death in August 1967 was, with hindsight, the moment when their confidence faltered. From then on, a melancholy creeps into even their happiest music; tragedy gets the upper hand, in the forms of their increasing surrender to randomness and their growing inability to agree with each other. They fought it off as long as they could (the grisly Let It Be is the sound of them plastering a smirk onto their collective face) but, to their eternal credit, they faced the inevitable on Abbey Road and said a goodbye they could be proud of. (Even then, they managed to blemish it by including the awful 'Maxwell's Silver Hammer'.)
So now that the work of this baffling, protean band is going to be available on demand, how best to listen to it? Here are some suggestions.
1. Ignore the Anthology albums
These much-ballyhooed collections of live tracks, interview snippets and rejected songs got a lot of press at the time, but the only people who truly need to hear their Decca audition tapes or the demo version of George's mean-minded 'Piggies', so beloved of Charles Manson, are insane fans, and of course responsible scholars like the present writer.
2. Past Masters is their least-known compilation, but the only essential one
Past Masters gathered up all the Beatles songs that never appeared on albums during their lifetime, but EMI had a policy at the time that singles should if possible not appear on albums. This means that Past Masters includes songs such as 'She Loves You', 'I Want To Hold Your Hand', 'I Feel Fine', 'She's A Woman', 'Paperback Writer', 'Day Tripper', 'Hey Jude', 'Revolution' and the best versions of 'Get Back', 'Let It Be' and 'Across the Universe', making it more essential than some of the Beatles' actual albums (Beatles for Sale, Let It Be).
3. 'Revolution 9' is the reason why the White Album is brilliant
Nearly everybody skips this eight-minute sound collage, by turns impenetrable, sarcastic, ominous and silly, but without it, the Beatles' ninth studio album would just be a very long grab-bag of mostly second-rate songs. With it, The Beatles (to give it the name nobody dares calls it by – it's the Voldemort of Beatles albums) is a masterpiece, 'Revolution 9' pushing things beyond pretentiousness and into full-blown crazyland.
4. Make your own playlists
The biggest problem in listening to the Beatles is one of over-familiarity, but stick a cut from Abbey Road next to something from With the Beatles and hear what a difference six years make. Alternatively, drive yourself insane: a playlist consisting of nothing but cover versions of 'Yesterday', the second-most recorded song in history, would take between three and four days to play and might cause you to actually travel backwards in time.
5. If you want to hear the Beatles as they wanted you to hear them, listen in mono
One of the more annoying things about the Beatles' legacy is that the standard versions available, presumably the ones which will be appearing on the streaming sites, are the 2009 stereo remasters. But the only Beatles album that was originally mixed in stereo was Abbey Road. Up until their last album, the Beatles themselves presided over the mono mixes of their music, but left the stereo mixes up to their production team. The stereo mix of 'A Day in the Life' is crisp and clean, with each element isolated from everything else, while in the far more effective mono version, the orchestral noise emerges from the background like creeping fog. The stereo mixes of numerous Beatles songs suffer from idiotic separation, with the vocals in one ear and the instruments tucked away into the other, making headphone listening mildly nauseating. But whereas some labels release mono versions of their famous artists' music as part of the standard packaging of the albums, the only way to get the Beatles in Mono is to shell out £135 for the Mono boxed set (the vinyl version is twice as expensive.) For shame, EMI. At least make it available to stream.