There has been something burning in my soul like the Hindenburg for a very long time. It is a contentious issue, there is no doubt about that. I usually bring it up after a few beers or when I feel like arguing with a friend, but I think for my maiden voyage into the opinion genre it is as good a topic as any. My issue is with the Beatles. Or, more to the point, how overrated they are.
I realize that statement constitutes blasphemy in many, many circles, but I do not care. I also recognize that I'm not the first person to issue this statement (at least I hope not). Whenever I get into a debate with someone about the best or greatest band ever (which I recognize are two separate things, but they often get lumped together, so I'm going to proceed as if they are -- it's my column after all) it usually ends something like this:
Random friend: Dude, the Beatles are the greatest of all time! Haven't you heard "Hey Jude"?
Me: Of course, but one song doesn't make a band the "greatest ever."
Random friend: Oh I understand that, but that's the thing, isn't it? They have, like, 100 great songs.
Me: That's debatable. The songs are indicative of a certain time frame which . . .
Random friend (exasperated): It's not debatable! You're an idiot! They changed rock 'n' roll, man!
Almost without fail, the final line of reasoning they advance is the "they changed rock and roll" argument. And maybe that's true. But changing a genre of music doesn't automatically grant you the "numba one spot" (to quote Ludacris). It may make you important for a time and it may define your individual career, but altering your profession does not confer all-world status on you. At least not in my opinion. It's sort of like saying that GWAR is the greatest band of all time because they set the costume rock 'n' roll genre on its ear. I get the sense that for these people, the Beatles experience is due in large part to socialization and context, which is essentially the crux of my argument: the Beatles are regarded by so many people as the greatest of all time because they are brought up believing this is so.
I have a pretty unique experience with the Beatles and music in general. My old man is a music degenerate. My mom thought he was addicted to the tunes. He owns three 60 gigabite iPods: one for country, one for old rock and one for new music. He does not discriminate: one moment he might be listening to Eminem, the next he might be pumping Chumbawamba. I'd estimate he owns somewhere between 1,500 and 2,000 CDs and I'm pretty sure he owned a crap load of vinyl when he was younger. To my knowledge, the man has never lost at name-that-tune.
Because of his love of music, I was exposed to more music than I care to remember as a child. I recall him setting up a stereo in my room and getting me to pump R.E.M.'s Monster as a child. Later, in my teenage years, he would quiz me when a song came on the radio to see if I had learnt anything over the years. Incredibly (or perhaps thankfully) he never actively made me listen to the Beatles. I'm not sure why this is and I have never asked him. He owns their entire discography and I can remember him listening to them from time to time. What makes my situation unique is that I never seriously attempted listening to them until my senior year of high school, when I was 17. Contrary to what the movie Superbad would have you believe, hearing them for the first time was not like looking into a dreamy guy's eyes. I saw no outstanding musical merit in their work. I appreciate music, but I do not appreciate the full greatness of the Beatles.
What I am trying to illustrate is that the Beatles' alleged greatness relies mightily on context. Many of our parents grew up during the Beatles' heyday, when every girl wanted John and every guy wanted to pound the skins like Ringo. They lived through a cultural moment that deeply affected their lives-- but it was not all about the music. The times were changing and the Beatles, with their long hair and underlying sexuality, were part of it. When I make this argument I usually use the Calgary Flames 2004 playoff run as a parallel to illustrate my point. My friends and I often refer to that particular Flames team as the best edition ever, but we are misguided in our belief. That team was not the best (that distinction probably goes to either the team from '86 or '89) but the moment we were living in was. The city was going crazy, people were literally painting the town red and living for the next chance they would get to get boozed up and traverse 17th Ave. Experiencing that made the 2004 Flames seem like greatest team ever, but if you did not experience it, you would not call a squad that 1) did not win the Cup and 2) featured Shean Donovan on the second line, the greatest Flames team ever. Nonetheless, I will tell my kids one day about how great that team was and they will probably believe it. I believe the same thing has happened with the Beatles. Parents teach their kids their respective brand of reality (which is not necessarily wrong) and, in the case of my friends, this usually entails believing that the Beatles are the greatest band ever. The kids then believe it and start to point to all sorts of extraneous facts about a time they did not live through. It's all about context.
I do not disagree with people who say the Beatles are their favourite band. To each his own. Are the Beatles good? Sure. I'm not a fan and I don't think their music holds up particularly well over time, but they have some good material. Are they the best ever?
That distinction probably goes to R.E.M., but only because my old man told me so.