Why the Beatles

I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico lately, and some of my younger friends there have asked why there is such a mystique surrounding the Beatles. So here are my thoughts, especially for my younger friends who know something big was happening at the time but crave more context on the Beatlemania that swept the world in the 1960s.

They only released 12 studio albums over 7 years, but in shaping the modern (post-Elvis) era of music, no other band comes close. 11 of those 12 albums reached #1 on the charts (and the 12th peaked at #2). Nearly every song on every album was a hit. When I look today at Rolling Stone magazine’s list of top 100 Beatles songs, I can sing at least 85 of them right now off the top of my head, and so can many people without even realizing it. No other band has seeped into the popular imagination in quite that way. As an indication of their dominance, even the last song on the Rolling Stone list, #100, reached #1 on the singles charts. During some years, they were releasing hit songs so fast that they were taking up all the spots (e.g., there was at least one week in the mid-1960s when three of the top five songs were all Beatles songs). Keith Richards, who was there at the 1960s epicenter as lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, once said that there would be no Rolling Stones without the Beatles, because “they kicked the door in” for the Stones and everyone else to follow. (You can see Keith, Mick Jagger, and others in a couple of the later Beatles clips below, as they were usually hanging around for the taping.)

Ozzy Osbourne, whose Satanic antics with his late 60s proto-metal band, Black Sabbath, earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” was once talking to one of the Sex Pistols in the mid-70s London punk scene. The Sex Pistol (I forget which one) said he didn’t like the Beatles. Ozzy’s response was typical Ozzy: “There’s something fucking wrong with you,” was all he said. But he later added: “For a musician in 1970s London, saying you don’t like the Beatles is like saying you don’t like oxygen.”

The revolutionary work of the Beatles – culturally and musically – is less clear now than it was then, partly (1) because they shaped the sound of music so much to their own image that they now sound like just “one of those 1960s bands,” and (2) their own evolution from beautiful pop love songs to psychedelic rock and experimental sounds, though rapid, was steady enough that no one point seems revolutionary (although some would focus on the 1967 release of the Sgt Pepper’s album as that point). So yes, there were many great bands in the mid-60s to mid-70s reshaping the sonic universe of music, and some of them you might like more than the Beatles, but most of them looked back at the Beatles as the groundbreakers.

Here are a few songs in historical order:

(If it helps measure historical impact, note that even what I’ve listed as “late” Beatles came before the emergence of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or the Woodstock festival.)

Early Beatles (1964) https://vimeo.com/241059239
Middle Beatles (1966) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYvkICbTZIQ
Late Beatles (1967): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usNsCeOV4GM

And bonus songs/videos from 1967-68:
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (1967) https://vimeo.com/249451145
All You Need Is Love (1967) https://vimeo.com/214047758
Revolution (1968) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFckPkukF7g

Click covers below for links.

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Led Zeppelin and Dr Freud

If one were to apply the Freudian schema of id, ego, and superego to the rock spectrum of the late 60s and 70s, Led Zeppelin would be an obvious candidate for the id. From the ominous chord progressions of Kashmir to the haunting Robert Plant vocals, Zeppelin’s sonic universe expresses in every nuance the power of the dark drives that animate the human psyche. By contrast, the Beatles symbolize the superego, crystallizing in song after song the ideals and aspirations of their generation. If one had to pick an exemplar of the ego in this schema, offering tales of everyday grit and grind where the rubber meets the road, Bob Dylan would cast fine in that role.

Led Zeppelin lacks both the street cynicism of Dylan and the idealism of the Beatles, but that vacuum is more than filled with the powerful rhythms of the id. Even when Zeppelin ventures into the zone of idealism, the zone of the superego, it is engulfed by the dominant passion of the id. “Going to California,” for example, presumably a paean to that icon of hippie ideals and author of the song “Woodstock,” Joni Mitchell, starts out with Jimmy Page’s gentle guitar notes, with Plant’s contemplative tone and lyrical “aching” for the ideal. But Plant cannot survive in these waters, and the vocals pitch from pensive to agonizing quite abruptly in the second stanza, like some irresistible return of the repressed. Plant is self-possessed enough to know he has crafted a song that takes him out of his element, and he cries out to anyone who can hear: “I think I might be sinking … throw me a line.” Zeppelin knows that if they wander too far from the land of the id into the land of sentiment, they will drown. And from that knowledge comes their musical power.

An even more pointed example of the resilience of the id as Zeppelin’s home key is the tortured love song, “Babe I’m Going to Leave You,” from their 1969 debut album. In the sonic universe of some other band, “I’m never, never, never gonna leave you” would be a sweet and soothing line, a meme of unconditional love. In “Babe I’m Going to Leave You” it launches perhaps the most chilling scream in Plant’s ample canon of chilling screams. If this is love, it is love manifest as a tormented addiction. The song ends with a vision of the two lovers walking in the park, but this park seems landscaped and maintained by the Recreation Department of Hell itself. Even Zeppelin’s less conflicted “Whole Lotta Love” remains impossibly distant from the tender love of Lennon/McCartney’s “Here, There, and Everywhere.”

The Beatles, in fact, work the opposite way, starting with a vast array of songs that partly capture and partly create the hippie zeitgeist, with “All You Need Is Love” and “Revolution” as perhaps twin pillars of this thematic layer. When they venture into the subject matter of the id, say via the amoral meaningless violence of “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,” the sonic universe keeps us in the idealized realm. Despite the lyrics, it remains playful, bouncy, rich in sheer aesthetic pleasure. We’re as upbeat about Maxwell’s murderous rampage as we are terrified by Led Zeppelin’s love song. The Beatles weave every dark thread into the visionary tapestry of the superego, and Zeppelin pulls everything back to the id.

A final conclusion of this schema is that the Beatles are the only real “hippie” band of the three. Bob Dylan is pure Beat Generation, as epitomized by the cynical, street-bound, gritty realism of “Tangled Up in Blue.” I suspect he was a little distrustful of hippie idealism, and would be more at home among the black-leathered coffee shop poets of North Beach. Donovan might take the same folk meters and acoustic-harmonica instrumentation as Dylan and transmute it into something like “Catch the Wind,” a beautiful, dreamy soundtrack for the motley-colored flower children of Golden Gate Park. (And Donovan brings a Jungian dimension to our schema, with songs like “Hurdy-Gurdy Man” and “Atlantis” rummaging through the collective unconscious for Messianic forces to usher in the Age of Aquarius.) One can even picture solid Beat icons like Lawrence Ferlinghetti and Allen Ginsberg roaming freely among those bell-bottomed waifs of Golden Gate Park. But not Dylan. He remains a creature of the ego. “When the Levee Breaks” for Led Zeppelin, on the other hand, all hell breaks loose from the depths of the id. “In the Evening,” one of the last songs before John Bonham’s death, echoes the hypnotic quality of Kashmir, dragging the listener into the rhythm of the band’s own compulsions, as the main riff continues to pound in the mind after the song is over. Even in the famous excesses of their touring lifestyle, Led Zeppelin was always something other than hippie, other than Beat, something dark and primal, something to which, for better or for worse, we can all relate.

Songs Cited

Led Zeppelin

Kashmir
YouTube
MP3
Going to California
YouTube
MP3
Babe I’m Gonna Leave You
YouTube
MP3
Whole Lotta Love
YouTube
MP3
When the Levee Breaks
YouTube
MP3
In the Evening
YouTube
MP3

Beatles

Here, There, and Everywhere
MP3
All You Need Is Love
MP3
Revolution
MP3
Maxwell’s Silver Hammer
MP3

Bob Dylan

Tangled Up in Blue
YouTube
MP3

Joni Mitchell, performed by Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young

Woodstock
YouTube
MP3

Donovan

Catch the Wind
YouTube
MP3
Hurdy-Gurdy Man
YouTube
MP3
Atlantis
YouTube
MP3