December 24, 2007

British Invasion

When that really bad 'Star Wars' prequel came out a few years ago... the one with Jar Jar Binks and all that horribleness... it caused people that weren't besotted completely with the brand nostalgia of George Lucas to hate not only the new piece of crap on the screen, but also to question whether their 'Star Wars' love of youth had really been because of some greatness inherent in the movies, as we had always assumed, or whether it was naive buying into hype in a more innocent time. Like LenBarker said in his musings on Macca, the later product inevitably went back and tarnished the long ago loved object of love and hope and excitement.

So the inevitable question is: were the Beatles great because of hype or because of their own genius? An examination of this question is done best when looking at their early material, when they burst on the scene.

What was it about the Beatles and this time - 1963/4 - when they took over the American imagination and launched themselves as icons of an era? Instead of looking at the Kennedy assassination and the needs of America for hope and all that nonsense, let's just look at what the Beatles offered in more musical/cultural terms.

First off, as has been noted, 'With the Beatles' and 'Meet the Beatles' are quite different: the former was the earlier UK release to a public already Beatle-crazy, featuring a lot more RnB covers, etc. 'Meet the Beatles' was a later release (Jan. 64) to the US market just getting its first real taste of the group, with more original songs. The titles are enough to tell you of the first major factor in the Beatles' stateside, rather than English, success. The English were already 'With the Beatles' but the Americans were meeting them for the first (real) time. This is important, a conscious part of their stateside marketing: the thing that the Fab 4 did so well was take that American love of personality and increase it by an order of 4. US rockstars had mostly been individuals, these great powerful figures that captured the imagination like Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis and such. Sure, there were groups like Phil Spector's groups and the Coasters and stuff, but they did not peddle the same cult of personality that the Elvi of the world did. The Beatles, in the public appearances and on the record itself, were 4 distinct personalities, and the Americans loved it, talking about who was the cutest, etc. Whereas before these rockstar comets of personality, like Elvis, represented an undeniably cool hoodlum renegade, the bad kid in the back of the classroom throwing spitballs they could be contained, extinguished by their own dangerous desires like James Dean, locked up for bullshit like Chuck Berry, tragically killed like Buddy Holly, sent off to the Army like Elvis, and so on. Here were 4 of them - not an isolate-able hoodlum presence but, in their number, a veritable movement, un-containable. 4 individuals, coming together as one. This was the lesson of the English, who always excelled, quite logically, in the group dynamic of rock n' roll. They always have the better groups and we have the better individual stars (exceptions, like Bowie, exist of course). This was the first element of the British Invasion, and they KEY to the British Invasion if you ask me, that would continue even up until Led Zeppelin stomped around the stage like rock gods... gosh, only 6 years after this album. The social, lads-quality of the Beatles a path for a communal merging of egos, a first 1960's lesson.

As I said, this is not only reflected in their public appearances full of joshing and cheekiness, but also in their songs. John sang John songs; Paul sang Paul songs, and they already have that different feel. Both are exuberant, exciting young singers, but Paul has that sweetness, John that edge, already.

Then there is the other thing about their image. People have commented in the past about how the 1963-4 Beatles offered this watered-down, innocent version of rock n' roll sexuality, with the tepid covers (yeah, that's right) of Chuck Berry and others on the 'With the Beatles' and their originals saying stuff like 'I Wanna Hold Your Hand' and shit like that, much more innocent than the clear-and-present danger of Elvis and Chuck Berry and Little Richard (for god's sake not him!) to the little girls and wannabe hoodlum boys of America. And, sure, that's there, these Beatles were a bit soft, palatable for the moms and pops watching Ed Sullivan. But at the same time you gotta remember that the seat cushions at a Beatles concert would be wet - such that they had to wiped off - from the adolescent pussy juice from the teenage girls screaming (and creaming) and bouncing in their seats as the boys sang about hand holding. "She was just 17... if you know what I mean..." Yeah, we know Paul, and so did the 17-year olds you were singing to. So the sexual power of rock music was there, in a different form, and the kids knew all about it even if their moms smiled and quietly thanked God Elvis and his hips weren't up there anymore. The sexual language of rock music had become so ingrained that the Beatles could send 2 messages at once: the innocent one to the world at large, and the sexual one to the kids craving it. This sort of double-voice message would be a feature of their music forever (Paul is a Gemini remember), they invited interpretation of their minds, their messages, there's always something going on. Paul's sweetness next to John's bullishness created a well-rounded artistic vision, making each of them much cooler than they would have been alone. How could they be so corny and yet so lovably sincere at the same time? How did it work?

And another key thing, more overlooked in the RnB-to-rock evolutionary history of rock n' roll that is over-emphasized. The Beatles took a lot of their energy not just from Elvis and Chuck Berry, but also from a different place. Look at that cover: 4 brooding, turtleneck-wearing beatniks! And that hair! If the Beatles were bringing a white-boy cultural quality to RnB, they weren't bringing a Ricky Nelson suburban thing, but a European-ish poet vibe as well. The Beats and the folk revivalists were also doing this, but hadn't plunged into the mainstream like the Beatles would with ease. This represented a new force in popular music, the voices of individual poets, subjectivities telling their piece to the listeners. Of course, previous rock music had had great, poetic lyrics (Chuck Berry was a master sound-smith), but this was different. This element would add a whole new dimension to rock music in the coming years, and the Beatles are making the world (relatively) safe for Beatniks and Freaks.

The Beatles, then, were particularly interesting because they plugged effortlessly into a marketing formula that worked. Safe, English, cult-of-personality rock for celebrity-consuming culture, but with enough integrity and real edge to pull it off without flaming out quickly. The hype was real, it came from a real sense of novelty and personality that the boys represented, and what was really interesting is that they didn't get crushed under the hype machine and the powerful brand identity that they knew they had cornered, they actually built off of it and got better as the years went on. Too bad George Lucas couldn't figure that one out.

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