Yes, The Beatles were insanely popular. That doesn’t make them great musicians

This year marks the fiftieth anniversary of the release of The Beatle’s album ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’.
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Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ 50 years on sounds like a collection of nursery rhymes for hashish connoisseurs, writes Yolisa Mkele

Somewhere around a decade or two ago, The Backstreet Boys were arguably the most popular quintet in the world. Sporting colour- co-ordinated outfits and hair that would induce many a modern hairstylist to commit seppuku, they were chased around the globe by fans wanting nothing more than to pelt them with undergarments. The Backstreet Boys went on to sell a ridiculous number of records and, for better or worse, left an indelible mark on the music industry.

Despite all of this, no one is silly enough to consider them anything more than a passing fad. So, with 50 years of vision-correcting hindsight between us and Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, why do we not see The Beatles in the same way?

From a popularity perspective their legacy is unassailable. They have sold more records than the grains of sand in one’s orifices after a day at the beach, and wrecked the vocal cords of a generation of fans. They helped pioneer new recording techniques and pissed off Richard Nixon. The thing is though; their music wasn’t really THAT good.

LISTEN to The Beatle’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (Take 9 and Speech)

 

If one were to attempt the near impossible task of listening to their music without Nostalgia Inc’s rose-tinted earphones it becomes apparent that their music has aged about as well as Ronnie Wood. Take Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – seen as one of the best albums the band ever produced – as an example. It is not difficult to see how the biggest band in the world could put something like that out to widespread acclaim. Fast forward half a century, however, and it sounds more like a collection of nursery rhymes for hashish connoisseurs.

Perhaps that’s because the album was a product of the ’60s, when young people participated in orgies and took drugs because it annoyed their parents, which was the height of cool. But by the time that soundtrack to free love filters down to the grandchildren of those hippies, it just sounds like a jingle for a psychedelic children’s cartoon. Their previous album, Revolver, was significantly better, though it is difficult to forgive Yellow Submarine.

Perhaps their status as one of the greatest bands ever is because they were icons of the counterculture, though it seems a touch insincere to be fighting a system that is paying you enough money to buy a swimming pool full of weed and still be rich.

Jimi Hendrix was counterculture. The Beatles were marketing.

There is something to be said for their originality in the sense that they were the first to do what they did and be palatable. Much like Elvis Presley, who repeatedly admitted as much, The Beatles owed large aspects of their sound to African American acts. Did they steal black music? Probably not, but its fingerprints are all over their DNA.

Could we reasonably rank Ringo Starr as one of the top five drummers of all time? George Harrison as one of the five best guitarists ever? Could John Lennon ever out-write Leonard Cohen or Bob Dylan? Could the band as a whole ever outperform Michael Jackson? I think not.

For their time period, The Beatles were great, fantastic even. They were everything the zeitgeist needed them to be and as a result became the most successful band in history. But placing them among the greatest musicians ever is a bit like saying, “The Backstreet Boys are to pop what Mozart is to classical music”. Ambitious.

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