Belle of Liberty

Letting Freedom Ring

Monday, May 24, 2010

The Who?

It’s official. The Beatles are history.

They are square. Passe. They’ve joined other Sixties rock groups like the Rolling Stones and the prophetically named The Who on the ash heap of musical history. They are yesterday’s news, according to yesterday’s edition of our local newspaper. And it couldn’t happen to a better group.

Their decline as a hip rock group began some years ago, when today’s older teens were still in their playpens. A friend happened to mention The Beatles to her then-teenaged daughter. My friend received the classic teenaged eye roll.

Never a big fan of the Fab Four, I was still surprised. After all, we were talking about the most famous and most successful rock group of all time. If they didn’t exactly invent the genre, they certainly defined it.

I asked the girl about Elvis Presley. She became serious for a moment. “Oh,” she faltered, with something like a hushed reverence, “he’s kind of old. But he’s okay. Grandpa told me about him. He and Grandma used to listen him.”

Her answer confirmed my theories about the musical Generation Gap. There’s true musical history. The Greeks and their lyres. The Romans and their rams’ horns. Gregorian chants. Beethoven’s Sonata. Strauss waltzes. Sousa marches. Ragtime.

Then, there’s ancient musical history. That is, the music your parents cut their teeth on. There’s always an overlap between the parental generation and the grandparental generation. As a very little girl, I loved Glenn Miller because my grandmother taught me to dance to him, but regarded Frank Sinatra (who was of the same era) as totally outdated and boring.

Once I got into my teens, though, I discovered how musically-bigoted and ignorant my peers truly were. As a budding musician and music-lover, I couldn’t bear to be confined to their narrow definitions of what good music was, and I became a musical anti-rebel, a musical counter counter-culture revolutionary, if that makes any sense.

That’s okay – nothing made sense in The Sixties. I didn’t care. I considered myself free to listen to and enjoy any music, from any period, that I chose. Personally, I couldn’t understand the swooning over The Beatles. I was a little young for the teeny-bopper squealing, but I remembered the long lines around the local theater for “The Yellow Submarine.”

The Beatles were okay. I liked some of their music. My parents bought me a record-player for my 6th birthday. The record I requested was “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” The group became too transcendentalist for me, though. Once they began screaming instead of singing, I was done with them.

Apparently, Paul McCartney had the same complaint, and it’s reported that that was one of the reasons the group broke up. That kind of singing is not only hard on the ears; it’s hard on the throat.

I didn’t get the hype, and I wasn’t surprised when The Beatles dissolved. They became more concerned with making headlines than making records, with making movies instead of music. They made records instead of playing concerts. Their electronic music, while making enormous profits for them, forever distanced musicians from the audiences for whom they were playing. They depended on ratings and profit margins to tell them whether they were playing what their listeners wanted to hear rather than applause.

Instead of deciding for themselves whether they liked what they were hearing, young people depended on deejays, musical middlemen, to tell them they liked what they were hearing. Groundbreaking, indeed. The Beatles were no longer making music; they were making noise.

Still, the profit margins, the Top 40 lists, declared that not only were The Beatles successful, but that they were a phenomenon. What was it John Lennon boasted? That they were bigger than Jesus? Something arrogant like that.

Sadly, the young people could no longer tell the difference. Even when the lead singer, Paul McCartney himself, declared that The Beatles were producing musical garbage, the young people could no longer hear. Other heavy metal bands picked up where The Beatles left off.

The theme of the times was “Trust No One Under 30.” That is to say, your parents. As many of our teachers were under 30, they didn’t count. The rest of the authority figures, though - tune them out, we were told. Drugs and alcohol helped enormously.

The next person to inform me of the demise of The Beatles was my nephew, now finishing his junior year of college. He had the same opinion of the group, and gave the same answer about Elvis Presley. Presley passed the Pop-Pop pop music test.

But The Beatles? Be serious, Dad! My brother was crushed. I was delighted. One had to wonder, though, what they're teaching the kids in school these days about modern music. Aren’t The Beatles supposed to be the icons of rock music?

You can’t blame the kids, though. The Beatles broke up in 1970, forty years ago. Two of them are dead. For some of the kids with young-ish parents, even their parents weren’t born yet when The Beatles broke up.

Now this, in the local paper. Our local paper has a section called “The Young People’s Page.” Local schools send in students’ poetry, essays, short stories, and art work. A young man, asked to depict something “archaic”, chose a phonograph of 1920s vintage.

Underneath, to give a modern comparison, he shows an I-Pod. Still, in order to illustrate an example of “archaic” music, the I-Pod display shows The Beatles’ “I Am the Walrus” (a song Lennon admitted he got all wrong. Let that be a lesson to the next generation. When you’re reading and writing verses about Lewis Carroll, don’t drop acid.)

“If something is archaic,” the young artist writes in the caption, “it is used in earlier times and not commonly found in modern times. It is something old and ancient.” The Beatles, for their times, advocated overthrowing the old generation in favor of the new.

Still, in their early days, when they were trying to make a name for themselves as recording artists, they did what many groups did – they recorded previously published songs to prove they had the musical chops to cut it. They could write their own material later.

I have a tape of one of The Beatles’ early records. One of the songs Lennon sings? “Ain’t She Sweet?” This 1961 re-recording is up-tempo and I guess it has their iconic back-beat. It’s quite good – for a song written in 1927, the year Lindbergh flew solo over the Atlantic. My mother was three at the time.

Ironically, it was written by Milton Ager for his daughter, Shana, who would grow up to become ultra-feminist political commentator Shana Alexander. Known for his irony, perhaps that’s why Lennon chose it. Personally, I prefer “Ain’t She Sweet?” to “Back in the U.S.S.R.”

And that is the news for today. If my theory holds true about grandparental influence over musical history, there may still be hope of resurrection for The Beatles.

But for now, it’s: R.I.P. - The Beatles.

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