Saturday, October 19, 2013

"A Day In The Life"

I read somewhere on this here internet how it's a shame and a crime that the Beatles are still widely regarded as the best/greatest/most influential popular music group of all time, and how they don't deserve the accolades any more.

Normally this sort of statement would generate some sort of polemic response. But I got to thinking about context (which is everything, as we know), and tried to put myself in the shoes of the popular music-consuming public of the era in which the Beatles plied their trade.

There was no internet. There was hardly any television (compared to today), and certainly no MTV. Popular music radio was either illegal, off-shore or just plain non-existent. Music was still consumed in analogue, vinyl-based format; it was bulky, somewhat fragile and you needed great big hulking pieces of machinery to enjoy it. In other words, the distribution of music then compared to now was as Native American smoke-signals are to wifi.

And when your distribution channels are so narrow and so slow, there is only so much material that can be delivered at any one time. It's a question of bandwidth. Nowadays, we have a million and one different channels through which music can be delivered, shared, enjoyed and even written about.

I could also go on at length about contracting attention spans, the increasingly restless search for the next new thing and the ease with which we can now hop from one song to another on a personal device. If I'm listening to my iPod and I'm not in the mood for a particular song, all it takes is a quick click and I'm on to the next one.

And equally, the ease with which we can access new music means that artists have a rapidly shrinking window of opportunity in which to attract our attention. Paul Simon wrote in Boy in the Bubble how "Every generation throws a hero up the pop charts", but it looks nowadays as if every YEAR does that. Where's Kate Nash gone? Where's Adele? Etcetera. By the time an artist gets around to making a second album, the train's already left the station.

Imagine a world where you get your fix of pop music perhaps once a week on grainy TV. You listen to Radio Luxembourg on a tinny transistor radio under the covers in bed. And one of your friends has a Dansette on which you play the one or two 45s you can buy each month. That's it. No iPod on the bus home from school, no iTunes, no downloading, no digital, no nothing. Even CDs and cassettes haven't arrived yet.

So in this environment, when a band comes along that really shakes things up, sets a new direction, writes catchy songs and looks good, the limited bandwidth that's available to distribute musical content gets completely clogged up with this one band. They become the dominant source, the leading influence and the act that every other musician looks to as the formula for success.

So it may be that on a purely theoretical, academic basis, on a objective level that we aren't capable of reaching, the Beatles weren't the greatest/best band of all time. There may be someone out there who was even greater (according to a completely impartial observer from another planet), but who just didn't manage to occupy enough of the limited bandwidth at the time.

If you're under 30, you don't even know what life was like without the internet, without digitisation, without MTV. But if you are, you may well be one of those who thinks the Beatles were "it", and who's a bit bewildered by the rapid-fire procession of latest, greatest artists we get each year.

And that's fine. As someone who's watched at least three generations grow up in my wake, each one has had to take the world as they found it, and their assumptions, decisions and judgements are as valid as they can be. You can't ask someone who's 18 today to put themselves in the shoes of someone who was 18 in 1965.

So that leaves us asking the question: given all the above, why are the Beatles *still* being put forward as the best ever?

This list on Wikipedia might go some way to providing the answer. If artists such as 10cc, Tori Amos, Bob Dylan, David Bowie, Foo Fighters, Little Richard and Pearl Jam feel the desire to perform Lennon/McCartney songs, then the songs themselves must be worth it. I read somewhere that the three most-covered artists are Dylan, Beatles and Neil Young. And you know, that makes sense; as artists that are known for the quality of their songwriting (apart from the quality of their performances), these three *do*, to me at least, seem to be important artists.

There may well be individual songs written by other artists that may be more influential than any single song written by the Beatles (or Dylan or Young for that matter), but when you put the entire body of work together, well.....