In case you hadn't heard, the Beatles blow. They're overrated lightweights who aren't as influential as certain pivotal punk bands, and they're to blame for all that soft rock commemorated in the latest Time Life Music infomercial. And those Sgt. Pepper costumes are, let's face it, cornier than any boy-band outfit of the '90s.
Of course, what you have heard and already know is that Beatle-bashing is as old as the Beatles' music itself: They've been derided by everyone from Lou Reed to incensed Christians. Lately, though, rampant Beatle-dissing has taken on an intensity and force it never had before. The impetus for much of it has been the fortieth anniversary of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, which produced not only the expected media nostalgia wave but a storm of revisionist thinking. And the backlash will only grow louder when Julie Taymor's eye roll-inducing movie musical Across the Universe arrives on September 14.
In a New York Times op-ed, no less a pop classicist than Aimee Mann admitted she loved the album as a child but now feels it's missing "emotional depth," that "John Lennon's melodies feel a bit underwritten while Paul McCartney's relentless cheerfulness is depressing." On Salon, rock writer Gina Arnold weighed in, "There's a number of current bands that you can say, 'These guys like Sgt. Pepper,' but they're oddballs, like the Polyphonic Spree." So the album's legacy amounts to a bunch of toga-clad, faux-cheery ironists: Ouch.
Simultaneously, the Internet burst with "Beatles are overrated" threads that went to the heart of the band itself. "When you really think about it, they were a good but not great pop band," wrote a Slate letter writer: "A little lite [sic] and fluffy, a bit quirky, but not much else," and certainly, the writer added, not nearly as good as the Stones, the Clash, Jeff Buckley, or Radiohead. On the same page, another reader argued that Beatle music "has not aged well" and that their influence "has been limited to soft pop acts and perhaps Oasis." Others called their music irritating--or, in the words of a 27-year-old writing to Salon, "a bore, a relic, and decidedly tame."
My first encounter with this mindset occurred not long ago, when I was working at a national entertainment magazine. During a group email exchange about which boxed sets to include in a roundup, our thirty-something editors explained that a Beatles collection could be excluded--not because it was a repackaging of old albums but because, as one said, "they're the worst band in history" and, the other added, "everybody knows they suck." They are, and we do?
Across the Universe won't help matters. The film exhumes every '60s cliché imaginable: Earnest kid gets drafted. Naïve suburban waif gets caught up with The Revolution and sees the error of the Man's ways. Greenwich Village blues mama becomes ersatz Janis. Greenwich Village blues guitar virtuoso becomes ersatz Jimi. Throughout, the characters, even the Jimi and Janis clones, break out into "Come Together," "All You Need Is Love," and other Fab songs. It's almost enough to make you wish John met Paul in school but decided he was a simp and couldn't be bothered forming a band with him.
The Beatles have long been a focal point for those who analyze All That Went Wrong with Our Culture, dating back to the record burnings that ensued when Lennon mused that his band commanded a larger fan base than the Son of the Almighty. In her new anti-boomer screed The Death of the Grown-Up, Washington Times columnist Diana West essentially accuses the Beatles of murder: Paul McCartney singing about "California grass" in "Get Back," she writes, was "downright dangerous, prefiguring the explosion in drug use that destroyed thousands of lives." A recent report on CNN about born-again teenagers quoted one saying he had to stop listening to the band because they "had a negative effect" on him due to the music's connection with "sex, drugs, and violence."
The idea that the Beatles, of all people, would embody debauchery is laughable; they weren't exactly the first gangsta rappers. But what's at work now is different. It's generational revolt. More than ever, the Beatles are the flashpoint for overbearing boomer culture. The post-boomers, namely Gen X, are sick of it, and perhaps rightly so; they have their own heroes to trumpet, like the Clash or the Police or, as the same Radiohead-loving Slate correspondent dared to bring up, Adam and the Ants.
Up to a point, the Beatle bashers make persuasive arguments. As more than one blogger has proclaimed, the Ramones feel a lot more influential these days; you can hear their aural footprints all over grunge, Green Day, and emo. The Beatles' influence amounts to ... Fountains of Wayne? Look at what melody has come down to in pop: the smarmy come-ons of Maroon 5. Sgt. Pepper itself is responsible for enough bad knockoffs to fill an iPod, from XTC to Madonna's "Dear Jessie", quite possibly the most cloying thing she's ever put on record.
While I'm no Gen Xer, I can relate. I tired of hearing the Beatles years ago, after my older sister, a proud boomer, played every single one of their LPs to death. The fact that my mother loved "Penny Lane" and would sing it around the house only added to the uncoolness of those four musical comics from England. It's no wonder that, at an early age, I gravitated toward my own music--copies of the Stones' Hot Rocks 1964-1971 and Sticky Fingers, my version of "alt rock."
Yet what's absurd about the current argument--what truly sucks, as my former editor would've put it--is that it amounts to an attempt to rewrite history based on a generational grudge. To be annoyed by the Beatles is one thing; it would be nice indeed if classic-rock radio wouldn't play "While My Guitar Gently Weeps" on a daily basis. But to dismiss them?
All the grousing made me dig back into records I hadn't heard since the CD came into play. The band's early covers, like "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Please Mister Postman," still sound insubstantial. To modern high-fidelity ears, albums like Help! and Revolver feel as crudely made as Dust Bowl ballads--or, in the case of the White Album, as disjointed as a latter-day Wu-Tang Clan disc. But an equal number of rediscoveries awaited me: the ominous, bad-day-coming vibe of Lennon's White Album songs, the unashamed (and glorious) sentimentality of "The Long and Winding Road" (the orchestrated Phil Spector take, incidentally, not the emaciated version on Let It Be ... Naked), the still-rousing "It's Getting Better," the exquisite melody of "She's Leaving Home," the snarl always tucked inside Harrison's songs. We can only hope OK Computer sounds so good in 2020.
Rehearing the music made me realize that what's suspect about the Beatles these days isn't their image, or even their ubiquity. It's what else I heard in those records: beauty, sincerity, earnestness. You can still hear that impulse in the indie balladeer wave that began with the late, Beatle-admiring Elliott Smith and has been carried on by the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, and Sufjan Stevens, among others. But in the culture at large, they all still feel fairly marginal, and in an age where everything cheesy is revered--where the likes of Bret Michaels and Scott Baio are faux-celebrated kitsch icons largely because they're associated with utter crap--the Beatles and everything they stand for can feel hopelessly outdated. Listening back to Sgt. Pepper, I was nostalgic not for the Summer of Love but for humanity and soul--music that didn't glorify hostility or rage but looked for a way to imagine it all getting better, all the time.
Correction: An earlier version of this article mistakenly referred to the song "Come Together" as "Get Together."
By David Browne