Friday, June 16, 2017

Rating the Beatles

I promise there will be a substantial post tomorrow, but in the meantime, here is one that just missed the Friday Miscellanea because I didn't see it in time: All 213 Beatles Songs, Ranked From Worst to Best. I only like these kinds of things if they aren't afraid to level some devastating criticism, or quips at least. Here are some excerpts that I enjoyed:
206. “Free As a Bird,” single (1995): This single enraged me, in 1995, when it was released to gin up interest in the first Anthology album. It was a Lennon song from long after he’d left the Beatles; he sounded so vulnerable, and the studio work that had gone into making this distant-sounding, crummily recorded demo sound presentable felt like too big a burden for the martyred star to bear.
204. “She’s Leaving Home,” Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967): A bathetic lugubrious mess, the nadir of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The call-and-response chorus is labored; the whole thing reeks of having come from a squaresville OffBroadway musical about kids these days. The instrumentation is unusual; there are no actual Beatles playing on the track, but no one cares because the song is so bad.
That was particularly enjoyable because the Wall Street Journal, who can be tone-deaf, just published a laudatory essay on the song by Alan Alda.
194. “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): The whimsy will continue until morale improves. Definitely in the top five of Most Irritating Songs Paul McCartney Ever Wrote. It took a long time for the band to get this right in the studio. No one liked it; but it was reportedly Lennon who finally sat down and banged the piano part out appropriately. This is a song that isn’t about anything in the first place; the last two verses are the same except for having Desmond and Molly’s names switched out, but McCartney’s vocal gets more and more excited. Newsflash: No one cares about Desmond and Molly Jones.
I would have put that one a LOT lower.
189. “I’ll Be Back,” A Hard Day’s Night (1964): The least of the lesser songs on the second non-soundtrack side of the A Hard Day’s Night album, and an anticlimactic album closer.
I totally disagree with that one. The major/minor alteration and the vocal harmonies make this one of my favourite early Beatles' songs.
164. “Good Night,” The Beatles (“The White Album”) (1968): Lennon’s attempt to write a lullaby for Ringo to sing as an envoi to “The White Album.” It’s lulling, and nothing wrong with that, but it’s also kinda boring.
I rather disagree with this too. In context, following Revolution #9, it is well beyond surreal.
117. “Don’t Let Me Down,” single (1969): Another of the so-so unadorned Lennon songs from the last days of the Beatles. Too many of his songs consist of the title words repeated over and over in the chorus. The case for it is that it’s a naked profession of his love for Ono and a new statement of vulnerability. The band played it on the famous rooftop concert in Let It Be, but it was left off the album. It turned up as the B sideB side of the “Get Back” single.
Maybe it's just me, but I have always loved this song. I captures a special kind of emotional desolation like no other song.

Well, I stopped there because as we work into the better songs, he doesn't have a lot to say.

Skipping to the top songs, numbers one and two are, as they should be A Day in the Life and Strawberry Fields.

Your milage may vary and if it does, tell me about it in the comments.


Craig said...

My favourite of their songs is #138. The sweet harmonies married to the goofy premise is unbeatably delightful. And, speaking quite soberly, I generally like to be in the shade, no matter where I am.

Bryan Townsend said...

Octopus's Garden is delightfully whimsical, isn't it?

Steven said...

I really don't get the Beatles -- maybe I'm just too young, and a lot of the more psychedelic studio-only stuff sounds horribly dated and silly to me. The earlier stuff largely seems trivial. I know this is basically sacrilegious to many... But I do like Eleanor Rigby. It has that lovely melody that switches between the major and minor sixth. And when I was young, Helter Skelter was a blast to play with the band. Don't think I could stand to here it now, though.

Will Wilkin said...

Yup, Strawberry Fields and Day In The Life --GREAT stuff!

Bryan Townsend said...

Hm, interesting. I was hoping for this kind of perspective. I feel pretty much the same about OK Computer by Radiohead. I just don't get it! On the other hand, I do think that there is an objective element to aesthetics. There are quite a few composers about whom there really isn't much disagreement, unless you hardly know the music. But with popular music, is it too idiosyncratic? Does none of it rise above the ordinary?

Steven, have you ever sat down and listened to all of, say, Revolver from beginning to end?

Bryan Townsend said...

Will, you were writing your comment as I was writing mine.

Steven said...

Ah well, on Radiohead we're in complete agreement. Someone said it perfectly to me recently: 'moroseness and obtuseness appearing as profundity'.

So I listened to Revolver all the way through on the bus this morning (admittedly not ideal, but good enough for basic impressions).

I think it probably is the idiosyncrasy of it. I don't like the kind of whiny vocals (for example in I'm Only Sleeping, which I think is Lennon?). Then the reverse guitar solo. Then the sitar -- in fact, the whole of Love to You is incredibly dull -- even the singer seems bored. Then the organ. I was just waiting for a mellotron!

By the time Tomorrow Never Knows came around, with the singers singing as if through their teeth and with sound effects that gave the sensation of a mouse gnawing through my skull, by then I'd had enough.

For No One was a track that worked much better as it striped away most of the then-fashionable stuff and was simply content to be a good pop song, albeit with a couple of interesting (and natural) instrument choices, and ending in a modest, melancholy way.

And there lies another problem with pop albums: a couple of tracks are always significantly better than the other 10 tracks.

I think the general problem with pop music is that it has to be connected to something non-musical for me to like it: either it tells a compelling story, or was written by someone incredibly interesting or under remarkable circumstances, or it has a particular memory for me, or performs a social function. That's why a song like Strange Fruit still gets me. And it's why I enjoy the Buffy theme: if you haven't watched the show, that piece probably seem at best mediocre. The same with the Sopranos theme, 'Woke Up This Morning'. But something like Also Sprach Zarathrustra is plenty enjoyable without having seen 2001. Revolution has no meaning for me.

Bryan Townsend said...

Yes! That really does capture OK Computer by Radiohead.

Thanks for performing the exercise of listening to the whole of perhaps the best Beatles album and for this excellent comment on it.

So our conclusion is that pop music is limited by its idiosyncrasy and it tends to be tied too closely to the time and context of its creation. The best classical music tends to transcend these things. (I enjoy the Buffy theme too!)