Using The Beatles for Ideas
Jerry Lucky Commentary November 2017
Copyright Jerry Lucky © 2017 All Rights Reserved
Without looking like I’m beating a “dead-horse” I want to pick up on some thoughts I put out there with last month’s commentary if only because I’ve had a chance to digest what I wrote and got a little feedback as well. Now as I explained I just re-read Ian MacDonald’s great book Revolution in the Head – The Beatles Records and the Sixties for the third (and probably last time) but I’m always reminded of what a wonderful comprehensive overview the book is to the music created by the Beatles throughout their career. So here we go with a few more thoughts that came to mind that I thought I’d share.
One of the key points from the book that I came away with was questioning the age old trope about the “tortured artist” syndrome. You know that’s the one that says something to the effect that the more pain endured by the artist the hire the quality of “art” produced. People point the “greatness” of a Kurt Kobain who took his own life or a Van Gogh who cut off an ear. Clearly there was a lot going on in the lives of these two and others who might be grouped together with them but when you dig deeper into their lives I believe you will find it had little to do with creating “better” art. Let me also clarify, this is something very different from the “creativity is born out of adversity” argument. Simply put, one has to deal with the situation we find ourselves in and the other involves more self-inflicted issues. I’ve never bought into the tortured-artist notion and in fact I think it’s totally false and simply used as a “red-herring” to try and win some esoteric or elitist argument. Furthermore the stats just don’t support the argument. Add up all the art created at any given time and I would surmise that very few of the artists involved were going through some form of pain to achieve it. They just happen to be the ones we hear about. They become the ones that perpetuate the myth. As exhibit “A” I would point to the musical output of the Beatles.
If you look at the entire history of the Beatles there is in fact very little “tortured artist” happening. In fact if anything the Beatles had it pretty good and yet look at the wonderful music they made over a ten year period of 1960 to 1969. They all came from relatively middle-class families and while each had incidents in their lives that caused them pain (i.e. loss of family members) there was nothing that happened to them that didn’t happen to millions of others. All in all the Fab-Four had it pretty good with ample opportunity to do what they loved and that was make music.
Nobody’s ear had to be cut off, no one had to lose a finger in fact in short order, within a few years of them performing together they had it pretty good with the world at their feet and plenty of money to buy and do the things their friends could probably only dream about. Oh and don’t give me the whole ; “yeah but they lost their freedom and were followed by fans everywhere.” That’s a small price to pay for what they got in exchange and you know what if they in fact hated it so much, you can always quit and go work in retail if it’s so bad. Sheesh! Fact is, when you follow the details of the fab-four’s lives they didn’t have a problem with any of that stuff. So save for getting into hot-water for behaving poorly in the Philippines and speaking extemporaneously and receiving flak from time to time, The Beatles lived in a world of rich rewards. We’re talking about guys living in the sixties while recording The White Album who when one got upset they could up and take their family on a vacation to the Bahamas. That’s not a tough life.
Yet in spite of all that prosperity, all those good times, all those happy moments, they made some absolutely brilliant music. No “tortured artist” need apply.
Now the other thing I feel I need to touch on, whenever one talks about the Beatles is respond to question: Were they a Progressive Rock band? Clearly they were not…in fact many books have been written that would argue quite effectively that the Beatles weren’t even a rock band. They were first and foremost a pop band who only slightly ventured into the burgeoning world of rock music. I’m reminded that even Paul McCartney who visited with Pink Floyd in Abbey Road recording their first album, pointed to them as a band more in keeping with a “progressive” mind-set.
And yet, Sargent Pepper certainly set the music world on its ear and while not a Prog record per see it did open musicians and producers eyes as to what could be accomplished in the studio. There were lots of things the Beatles did that betray a varying degree of prog influences. Take Strawberry Fields Forever and I am the Walrus for example; songs built on segments edited together featuring changes in time, tempo and musical dynamics. Interestingly one of the most complex song the Beatles ever created was Happiness is a Warm Gun and yet it’s less than three minutes. This was actually a song that all four of the Beatles liked. They spent fifteen hours on the song going through a total of 95 takes to get it right. That’s one of the highest takes for any of their songs perhaps pointing to it being one of the most metrically irregular compositions the Beatles ever recorded. And even at that there is an edit almost half way through. For a song that’s less than three minutes, that’s a pile of writing.
So again I would end on this point by saying, I’ve always considered The Beatles a legendary band, perhaps best described as an Art-Rock band most likely, but in no way, even by their own admission, are they a Progressive Rock band.
Lastly then I want to stir up a little more controversy and tie a bow on last month’s commentary regarding my comments on “pressure and creativity” Once again using a band like the Beatles as an example it’s worth noting that the most creative part of their output, and perhaps even the output of the Beach Boys was when they were UNDER pressure to produce. The pressure was good for their creative process. In fact it wasn’t until that pressure disappeared that their creativity started to suffer. It’s an interesting thing to contemplate and again seems almost contradictory and yet it’s easily traceable. Ian Macdonald’s book Revolution in the Head, goes through each song of each period in exacting detail and clearly shows both the increasing and the declining creativity in incredible detail.
Ultimately it begs the questions: can you run out of creativity? Is there a cap or a limit to a time of a person’s creativity? Do you reach a point where you say, you know what, I’m not going to try and reach the bar anymore. I’m happy just to kick back and write tunes. These are all subjective questions I realize, but if we look at what happens during the phases of the creative process, it strikes me there is something going on here. How often does the creative output of a person at the end of their career exceed what they created at the beginning? I suspect not very often. Consider this point as it pertains to our favorite genre, Progressive Rock. How many times have you read reviews where the reviewer/critic in reviewing a long-running band’s latest musical output, will reference the band’s “glory days” or call it what you like. They are talking of a time in the band’s lifespan where their musical output is or was deemed to be at the peak of creativity. I’ve read lots of those types of reviews over the years and it used to actually bother me quite a bit. Now however, and I admit that perhaps I’m just “late to the party” but I’m now starting to see what they mean.
I’m starting to think there is perhaps more than a “grain of truth” to this idea. All of which is not to suggest the new music is bad but simply perhaps, not quite up to the creative peak the band was way back then. Perhaps they’ve entered that “kick-Back” phase of their life and are simply content to keep making music, it’s just not music that sets the world on fire anymore. Any way…at least that’s what I think.