This week, the entertainment world is flush with excitement about a band that broke up nearly 40 years ago, whose songs are so familiar that many children first hear them as lullabies and whose influence is so pervasive that a basic pop music modifier has its name as a root: Beatlesque.
Just-minted sounds abound in the marketplace, including breakthroughs from young stars like Colbie Caillat and long-awaited returns by the likes of Phish and Jay-Z. But all this genuinely new music isn’t stimulating half as much talk as has greeted the launch of the remastered Beatles catalog and the group’s Rock Band game.
The buzz is that it doesn’t feel like nostalgia, though. Partly this is due to interest in the game, which offers a novel route into the Beatles. As reviews like the one Randy Lewis wrote for this paper have noted, The Beatles: Rock Band allows for a “visceral” experience of songs that most of us have long taken for granted.
The Beatles: Rock Band is innovative, though it’s also another step in the development of a gaming subgenre that’s united families thrashing away on plastic instruments to Van Halen and Nirvana. The box sets, however, are not at all undiscovered territory. They’re the opposite: exacting reconstructions meant to restore the original influence of the Beatles’ music. Top engineers, led by longtime Beatles associate Allan Rouse, labored for four years to return the feel that was lost in the flimsy-sounding 1987 compact disc reissues.
“It’s not smarter or more sophisticated,” Paul McCartney said in Billboard of the remastering effort. “It’s just more real -- it’s more true to the noise we were actually making.”
Time spent with the reissues is pure joy. McCartney’s bass playing sounds more powerful throughout, and it’s now possible to really hear Ringo Starr’s inventive drum work. And because those 1987 reissues offered all but the group’s first four albums only in stereo, despite the fact that the Beatles and producer George Martin focused on mono mixes for everything up to and including “The White Album,” those who invest in the limited-edition mono box can immerse in the details of these masterpieces as they were originally drawn.
But the real bolt of insight in this latest round with the Beatles goes beyond an appreciation of any one element of the music. It has to do with newness itself, as an idea, a sensation, even a way of life.
The band first embodied the quality of newness in the 1960s, when it seemed like novelty was everything. What’s interesting is that their harmonies and dissonances can so easily resurrect that mood of unexpectedness and possibility. Crack open the Bible-like black box of the stereo remasters (or the stone-tablet one that holds the mono mixes) and the music bursts out, rudely and gleefully, forcing a consideration of the very idea of the new.
All about mutation
How can this happen? Partly because the Beatles were, from the beginning, a next step. “The Beatles . . . were about mutation,” writes Devin McKinney in his evocative survey of the band’s career, “Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History.” “British into American; Liverpool into Hamburg; Buddy Holly into Motown; Beatles into audience.”
The musicologist Gordon Thompson puts it in plainer terms in his ethnography, “Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out.” "[T]his group brought a number of important elements together in their music,” he writes. " . . . Specifically, the Beatles enfolded girl group pop (e.g., the Shirelles) and Motown rhythm-and-blues (e.g., the Marvelettes) into an ensemble designed for country music (Carl Perkins) and country rock (Chuck Berry).”
Add in skiffle, show tunes and a little Latin loving and you get the point: The Beatles, four strong-headed guys with sensibilities whose edges overlapped but didn’t always align, put everything they heard into their songs and then smashed away at them until they no longer matched their sources. All artistic innovation works this way, but few artists keep at it, ripping and pulling at the stuff from which they borrow, the way the Beatles did.
The mutation McKinney describes continued through the rest of the band’s career. The foursome just kept slurping up stuff: Indian music, psychedelia, minimalism and sound collage; the righteous gospel of the civil rights movement and the flat brightness of Pop Art. Unlike the Rolling Stones, they never got obsessed with finding the roots of authenticity. Unlike the Who, they kept undercutting their own pretenses -- they made cartoons and children’s shows, not rock operas.
That innate restlessness posed a challenge for the Beatles’ peers, and continues to do so now. Interpreting the Beatles is a rite of passage for musicians, a necessary dip into pop’s repertoire. But for some, it’s more specific -- a challenge to the newness of the Beatles that ends up stretching everything and everyone involved.
One obvious way this happens is with African American stars who covered the Beatles while the band was still together. For these artists, the Fab Four were a threat as well as an inspiration. They represented a shift in the pop market that led to racial segregation on the charts and elevated white boys with guitars into the position of the artistic vanguard. At the same time, the Beatles adored African American music and cribbed from it constantly
Greats such as Al Green, Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald and Ray Charles interpreted the Beatles catalog; Green’s sexy version of “I Want to Hold Your Hand” might be the best Beatles cover of all time. A few went deeper, recording whole “answer” albums that took the Beatles back toward rhythm and blues, and forward toward jazz fusion.
The guitarist George Benson released “The Other Side of Abbey Road” in 1969, just a month after the Beatles’ final studio effort came out. On McCartney’s “Oh! Darling” he shows the most soulful Beatle how to wail like a grown man. In 1970, Booker T. and the MGs took the same material in a funkier direction on “McLemore Avenue,” which reworked “Abbey Road” to expose the Stax influence so important to the up-tempo Fab Four.
These efforts followed Ramsey Lewis’ “Mother Nature’s Son,” a suite of songs from “The White Album” in which the pianist and producer Charles Stepney expanded upon the connections between psychedelia and soul.
These musicians honored the Beatles but also reminded listeners that innovation doesn’t come in one color. More recently, musicians paying coin to the Beatles have sought the kind of legitimization that comes from passing a particularly arduous test.
Ditching a burden
In 1994, Phish covered “The White Album” virtually in its entirety live at the Glen Falls Civic Center in New York; this was the first of the band’s “musical costumes,” Halloween concerts in which it takes on a major work. In 2007, the Smithereens embarked upon a similar path, but in the studio: “Meet the Smithereens!” is an album-length recasting of 1964’s “Meet the Beatles!” Cheap Trick also released a CD/DVD of its live performance of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band,” which debuted at the Hollywood Bowl in 2007 and has traveled to Las Vegas, Chicago and New York.
Bands like Cheap Trick, the Smithereens and even Phish are direct inheritors of the Beatles. Performing their music note-for-note is like a rite of passage for such acts, a way to acknowledge a debt, but also to exorcise a ghost. As the remasters prove, the Beatles’ songs transformed the basic elements of pop. Reenacting these experiments helps rockers ditch the false burden of originality and find another way into the creative process.
In the hip-hop age, sampling and mash-ups have radically altered the idea of the cover version. The Beatles have been central to this shift too. In 2004, a kid named Brian Burton combined instrumental tracks from “The White Album” with a cappella versions of raps by Jay-Z to form “The Grey Album” -- a cornerstone of the mash-up movement that sent Burton, also known as Danger Mouse, on the path toward becoming a producer and pop star himself, as half of the duo Gnarls Barkley.
The Beatles’ own camp never endorsed “The Grey Album,” but made a powerful symbolic gesture by allowing Martin and his son, Giles, to rework and recombine the band’s catalog for the soundtrack to “Love,” the Cirque du Soleil fantasia on the Beatles that’s been playing in Las Vegas since 2006.
Julie Taymor’s 2007 musical “Across the Universe” travels similar territory, taking liberties with Beatles music and iconography that must seem horrific to purists, but resonating in a way that’s entirely appropriate for an era that’s adopted “reuse, recycle” as a mantra.
So it turns out that both artists and listeners have been rethinking the Beatles all along. The current flood of interest doesn’t belong to one target demographic or even one generation. It’s just another wave, to be followed by more, as long as lovers of beautiful pop music seek a familiar space in which to find something new.