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What makes a great Beatles song
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23 November 2011
11.55pm
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Rat Salad
Washington DC USA
The Indra
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22 November 2011
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I doubt this can or should be a technical discussion
(musically or philosophically), but it’s an interesting question. Here are my two cents worth, if I may. 

Music is sounds organized intentionally to communicate a feeling. The artist intends this, and the audience expects it.  This communication is mostly devoid of semantic content, as I believe John and Paul would both agree since they often wrote their songs using gibberish words for place holders in the melody until the arrangement was approximately completed (“Yesterday” was about scrambled eggs, and John told George to sing about cauliflower in some melody until the exact lyrics came to him). 

The ability of music to express and instill emotions (communicate them) is, I believe, a mystery, but we all know it does. Its
effectiveness at doing this, and in effecting a pleasing emotion (be it happy, sad, sexy, fearful) in many people, would seem to be a criterion of “great.”  This is not a musicologist’s viewpoint, just a common sense one. 

What’s a “great” Beatles song? Depends on who you ask. Usually, it’s one you simply like a lot. Since my opinion isn’t the same as everyone else’s, I’d say a great Beatles song is one 1) most Beatles fans think is great if they have an opinion, and 2) other people think is great when they don’t usually listen to the Beatles or even rock music.  So, its popularity has much to do with its “greatness.” I see no way to avoid it. 

Thus, I’d think “Something” and “Hey Jude” and “Yesterday” are great Beatles songs (among some others) because most fans like these songs, and people outside of rock music also like them (there is some universal appeal to them).  They transcend the Beatles' audience and stand as great songs anywhere.  The Beatles (or the particular songwriter) seem to have most effectively communicated a pleasing emotion to the greatest number of people regardless of their musical taste or experience of the Beatles or rock music in general.  They effectively made a human-to-human contact outside most binding contexts. 

But that’s a kind of an analysis of what makes any song, by anyone, great. The above-mentioned songs might have been written by Burt Bacharach or Carole King; great, but perhaps only incidentally Beatles songs. 

So, what makes a Beatles song great?  Without analysis: energy, wit, complex but seemingly-easy harmony and counterpoint in vocals and instrumentation, raw but rich (and varied among the three) vocal qualities, the willingness to engage me in the story (something missing from more modern rock), and often something whimsical, a familiar novelty – a pleasing surprise. 

I can’t think of a lugubrious or opaque Beatles song.  With so many rock bands, even very famous and “great” ones, I get the feeling they’re playing for themselves or doing a recital, and I’m supposed to sit back and admire them (Pink Floyd, Led
Zeppelin, the Stones perhaps, even Hendrix, Clapton, etc.) or simply “experience” them. With the Beatles, and certainly when at their best, I get the feeling they are engaging me, that I’m somehow involved with them, that they know I’m
here and that their music isn’t music without my involvement. That may not be true when they write, but that’s how they seem to write.  I think all that comes down to their wit and intelligence. It’s extraordinary and transcends the genre as far as it can. 

There was never anything grandiose, pompous, or self-involved about them (unlike, say, Nirvana, Pearl Jam, Grateful Dead, etc.).  They didn’t mumble, and they hoped you’d listen. They didn’t create a wall of sound and hope you were impressed. They played right out in front of you, skillfully or not, and something they had came through to us. The horns and barnyard sounds and whatnot were whimsy, experimental, but always tacked on in the studio for fun.  They were honest musicians, never hid, none the best at what they did, but together the best we ever saw.

Come to think of it, George Martin may, indeed, have been the 5th Beatle. I also wonder if all this can be explained by Paul’s confession that the early-to-mid songs consciously included words like “I,” “We”, “She,” “He,” in order to involve us (the audience) in the song. He said that was very deliberate. If so, it was genius. And I’m grateful. 

Suddenly, I think of Sgt. Pepper. “It’s wonderful to be here, it’s certainly a thrill. You’re such a lovely audience . . . We hope you will enjoy the show!” 

How seldom we hear this in rock music today.  It's really very generous, and I think they were. That’s what made them great.

24 November 2011
2.43am
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mr. Sun king coming together
Nowhere Land
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If Ringo doesn't play, and Max Weinburg plays drums (in spite of the fact that Max Weinburg only got into drumming because his sister [I believe, can't verify] went to England and got With The Beatles)! That is the only thing that makes great Beatles songs!

Obviously, I'm not serious. To apply rigid criteria (if a and b are in this, it's great) is strange. A great song is a song that could be played for masses, and they'll walk away saying "Who was that? I better figure out." If I could walk into my classroom tomorrow, play the song and have a majority like it, then it's great. Or, it's the song that strikes you perfectly. If I may, I'm listening to Bruce Springsteen and The E-Street Band's Darkness on the Edge of Town. Now, I haven't listened to it in depth in a while. And when I heard Adam Raised A Cain, something went "wow. This is great." The Beatoes equivalence for me? Anna (Go To Him). I've always loved the song. Is it great, insofar as it has great lyrics or whatever. But to me it's great. There's an intangible that never ceases to amaze me. Defining great seems like an edgewise in futility, from which I'll further abstain. Good evening.

As if it matters how a man falls down.'

'When the fall's all that's left, it matters a great deal.

24 November 2011
3.12am
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Rat Salad
Washington DC USA
The Indra
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22 November 2011
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GniknuS said:

Anderson said:

"Right, and you could argue that this is what is wrong with music today, the lack of competition."

 

In the time of the Beatles, the outlets were the same -- an AM radio station or two. Playlists.  Now, there can be no competition, and by design. There is no "mass audience" to hear it or make decisions about what is popular, great, or good. This is "democracy" in action. We all hear just what we want to hear. There is no competition, and in the world of "social media," nobody wants competition. They want what they want and can get it.

Beatles used to compete with Beach Boys. McCartney used to compete with Lennon (by McCartney's own admission) and thought the competition valuable. Now, there is no competetition. There is only satisfaction. Everyone sits in their little social community and structures the world according to their whim, crying for "diversity" while living in a homogenized world of their own design.

24 November 2011
6.46am
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Rat Salad
Washington DC USA
The Indra
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22 November 2011
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Max Weinburg did play drums for the Beatles when Ringo was sick with salmonella poisoning and sitting things out in his retreat in Majorca for two weeks while the boys recorded "Sgt. Pepper" in London. Weinburg was there chasing some chick (as was mentioned in an earlier post) and simply happened upon a great opportunity. His tracks were never used in a final mix. He drummed along silently (never actually hitting the skins) while the others either sang their parts or played their overdubs.  But they watched him for the timing as he was the only one able to hear the "tick track," or "rhythm track" that had already been laid down by Ringo and Paul (and sometimes John) before the meal of shrimp and mussels of the night before laid Ringo down.  But none of this may have actually happened.

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