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The Music of the Beatles

No sooner does Susan Sontag explain that “the new sensibility takes a rather dim view of pleasure,” than we discover her “new” sensibility growing stale. Her allusion was to a breed of suspiciously articulate composers—suspicious because they spend more time in glib justification than in composition, and denigrate the liking of music, the bodily liking of it. Indeed, one doesn’t “like” Boulez, does one? To like is not their consideration; to comprehend is. But surely fun is the very core of the Beatles’ musically contagious expression: the Japanese, the Poles (who ignore the poetic subject matter of suicide and bombs) love them as much as do their English-speaking fans. The Beatles are an antidote to the new (read “old”) sensibility.

The Beatles are good even though everyone knows they’re good, i.e., in spite of the claims of people under thirty about their filling a new sociological need like Civil Rights and LSD. Our need for them is neither sociological nor new, but artistic and old, specifically a renewal, a renewal of pleasure.

WHY are the Beatles superior? It is easy to say that most of their competition (like most everything everywhere) is junk. More important, their superiority is consistent: each of the songs from their last three albums is memorable. The best of these memorable tunes—and the best is a large percentage (Here, There and Everywhere, Good Day Sunshine, Michelle, Norwegian Wood)—compare with those by composers from great eras of song: Monteverdi, Schumann, Poulenc.

Good melody—even perfect melody—can be both defined and taught, as indeed can the other three “dimensions” of music: rhythm, harmony, counterpoint (although rhythm is the only one that can exist alone). Melody may be described thus: a series of notes of varying pitch and length, which evolve into a recognizable musical shape. In the case of a melody (tune means the same thing) which is set to words, the musical line will flow in curves relating to the verse that propels it inevitably toward a “high” point, usually called climax, and thence to the moment of culmination. The inevitable element is what makes the melody good—or perfect. But perfection can be sterile, as witness the thousands of thirty-two-bar models turned out yesterday in Tin Pan Alley, or today by, say, The Jefferson Airplane. Can we really recall, such tunes when they are divorced from their words?

Superior melody results from the same recipe, with the exception that certain of the ingredients are blessed with distortion. The Beatles’ words often go against the music (the crushing poetry that opens A Day in the Life intoned to the blandest of tunes), even as Martha Graham’s music often contradicts her dance (she gyrates hysterically to utter silence, or stands motionless while all hell breaks loose in the pit). Because the Beatles pervert with naturalness they usually build solid structures, whereas their rivals pervert with affectation, aping the gargoyles but not the cathedral.

THE UNEXPECTED in itself, of course, is no virtue, though all great works seem to contain it. For instance, to cite as examples only the above four songs: Here, There and Everywhere would seem at mid-hearing to be no more than a charming college show ballad, but once concluded it has grown immediately memorable. Why? Because of the minute harmonic shift on the words “wave of her hand,” as surprising, yet as satisfyingly right as that in a Monteverdi madrigal like “A un giro sol.” The notation of the hyper-exuberant rhythms in Good Day Sunshine was as elusive to me as some by Charles Ives, until I realized it was made by triplets over the bar; the “surprise” here was that the Beatles had made so simple a process sound so complex to a professional ear, and yet (by a third convolution) be instantly imitable by any amateur “with a beat.” Michelle changes key on the very second measure (which is also the second word): in itself this is “allowed”—Poulenc often did it, and probably he was the most derivative and correct composer who ever lived; the point is that he chose to do it on just the second measure, and that the choice worked. Genius doesn’t lie in not being derivative, but in making right choices instead of wrong ones. As for Norwegian Wood, again it is the arch of the tune—a movement growing increasingly disjunct, an inverted pyramid formed by a zigzag—which proves the song unique and memorable, rather than merely original.

The Beatles’ superiority, of course, is finally as elusive as Mozart’s to Clementi: both spoke skillfully the same tonal language, but only Mozart spoke it with the added magic of genius. Who will define such magic? The public, in realizing this superiority, is right, though not for the wrong reason, as it was, say, ten years ago with Lolita. For while Lolita was accepted pretty much as just a naughty novel, the Beatles can legitimately be absorbed by all ages on all levels: one is allowed to dance or smoke or even have a funeral (play-wright Joe Orton’s in London) while listening to this music. I suspect that the same public when discussing the Beatles does not do so by relating them to others, but by relating them to aspects of themselves, as though they were the self-contained definition of an entire movement, or as though in their brief career they had, like Picasso or Stravinsky, already passed through and dispensed with several “periods” (which is true). For example, no sooner was the “Sgt. Pepper” album released than a quiver of argument was set off as to whether it was inferior to their previous album “Revolver,” or to “Rubber Soul.” A critic in the Village Voice disparaged She’s Leaving Home as an imitation of Eleanor Rigby. But if one must compare them—the songs are independent and incomparable—the point, as I wrote at the time, is that Eleanor Rigby, though set to a poem of touchingly original and quasi-surrealist winsomeness, is a tune as predictable and banal as the average Kentucky carol. She’s Leaving Home, while set to less interesting verse, is a mazurka equal in melancholy and melodic distinction to those of Chopin.

And what’s this one hears about their sound, those psychedelic effects produced from orchestration “break-through” presumably inspired by Paul McCartney’s leanings toward Stock-hausen and electronics? Well, as first demonstrated in Tomorrow Never Knows and Strawberry Fields, the sound proves less involved with content than with color, more with glamor than with construction. McCartney’s composition has not been affected by these “innovations” which are instrumental tricks glossily surrounding the composition. Nor is any aspect of that composition itself more “progressive” than that of the old Big Bands, or the Cool groups of yesterday. The harmony at its boldest, as with the insistent dissonances of I Want to Tell You, is basically Impressionist, not more advanced than Ravel’s Chansons Madécasses. The rhythm gets extremely fancy, as in Good Day Sunshine, but nearly always falls within a 4/4 measure simpler than that in Bartók fifty years ago. The melodies, such as Fixing A Hole or Michelle, are exquisitely etched, but evolve from standard modes—those with the lowered thirds and sevenths of the Blues. The counterpoint when strict, as in parts of She’s Leaving Home, is no more complex than Three Blind Mice, and when free, as in Got to Get You Into My Life, has the freedom of Hindemith (which is really Bach without working out the problems presented by the rigors of eighteenth-century part-writing). The Supremes, not to mention instrumentalists like Ornette Coleman, go much further out than the Beatles in this domain. As for their form, most of the songs of “Sgt. Pepper” are less complicated than those of previous albums which, themselves, seldom go beyond a basic verse/chorus structure. It is not in innovation that Paul McCartney’s originality lies, but in superiority. It remains to be seen how, if ever, he deals with more spacious forms. But of that miniature one, Song, he is a master. As such he is the Beatles’ most significant member.

THE LYRICS, or rather the poems, of John Lennon have been analyzed beyond recognition. They are indeed clever, touching, appropriately timely, and (which is most important) well mated to the tunes. Yet without the tunes, are they really all that much better than the words of, say, Cole Porter or Marc Blitzstein? Certainly Blitzstein’s music succeeds in spite of the dated commentary of his words, and Porter’s songs remain beautiful with no words at all. We are often told (for instance by Korall in Saturday Review) that the Beatles “are shouting about important things,” but are these things any more pertinent than Strange Fruit was yesterday, or than Miss Otis Regrets? And even if they are, could that be what makes the Beatles good? While the film Privilege portrays a rock singer so subversive he requires total control, the fact, as Gene Lees puts it, is that “thus far no rock group, not even the entire rock movement put together, has made a government nervous, as Gilbert and Sullivan did.” Even if, in a pinch, poems can be successfully political, no music can be proved to “signify” anything, neither protests, nor love, nor even bubbling fountains, nothing. John Lennon’s words do indeed expose not only current problems (A Day in the Life) but suggest solutions (Fixing A Hole); and the music—which is presumably set to the verse, not vice versa—works. But that music is stronger; and, like the slow and meterless Gregorian Chant which altered the “meaning” of the rapid and ribald street chanties it stemmed from, Lennon’s words do or don’t matter according to how they’re sung.

With Billie Holiday it was not so much the song as her way with the song; like Piaf she could make mediocre material seem masterly. With the Beatles it’s the song itself, not necessarily their way—like Schubert whom even a monster can’t destroy. Michelle, for example, remains as lovely but becomes more clearly projected when performed by a “real” singer like Cathy Berberian. Her diction (and the diction of nearly anyone) is better than theirs, at least to non-cockney ears. Even if the words did not come second, the Beatles oblige you to judge the music first, by virtue of their blurred diction.

As for George Harrison’s excursions into India, they seem the least persuasive aspect of the more recent Beatle language. Like McCartney with electronics, Harrison seems to have adapted only the frosting; but in pretending to have adapted also the structure his two big pieces, Love You Too and Within You Without You, end up not hypnotic, merely sprawling. Harrison’s orientalism is undoubtedly sincere but sounds as fake as the overdone pentatonicism of Country Joe & The Fish. Debussy, like all his colleagues, was profoundly influenced by the Balinese exhibits at the Paris World’s Fair of 1900 which inspired his Pagodes and Lindaraja. These pieces were as persuasive in the same genre as were the concert works many decades later by Henry Cowell or Harry Partch or even Peggy Glanville-Hicks. But whereas these sophisticated musicians without concern for “authenticity” translated Eastern sound effects into Western jargons and then spoke those jargons with controlled formality, Harrison still flounders for faithful meaning where it just won’t work: good will and “inspiration” will never provide him with the background—the birthright—which of necessity produced the music he would emulate.

Ringo Starr’s projects, when not involved with his comrades, are unknown, though he does seem to be learning to sing with what is quite literally an unutterable charm. Nor have I seen John Lennon’s war movie. Thus far, however, when the Beatles are creating their songs together (even more than as a performing unit) they are at their most interesting.

Just as today my own composition springs more from pristine necessity than from driving inspiration (I compose what I want to hear because no one else is doing it), so I listen—sifting and waiting—only to what I need. What I need now seems less embodied in newness than in nostalgia: how many thrilling experiences do we get per year anyway, after a certain age? Such nostalgia is most clearly engendered by the Beatles. There isn’t much more to say, since structurally they’re not interesting to analyze: they’ve added nothing new, simply brought back excitement. The excitement originates (apart, of course, from their talent) in their absolutely insolent—hence innocent—unification of music’s disparate components—that is, in using the most conservative devices of harmony, counterpoint, rhythm, melody, orchestration, and making them blend with a contagious freshness. (Parenthetically, their recent I Am A Walrus, seems a bit worrisome, more contrived, less “inspired” than anything hitherto. Though the texture may be Vaughan Williams with a Bebop super-imposition and all very pretty, the final effect becomes parody of self-parody, the artist’s real danger. Though probably even the holy Beatles must be permitted an occasional stillborn child.)

The Beatles, have so to speak, brought fiction back to music, supplanting criticism. No, they aren’t new, but as tuneful as the Thirties with the same exuberance of futility that Bessie Smith employed. They have removed sterile martyrdom from art, revived the sensual. Their sweetness lies in that they doubtless couldn’t care less about these pedantic explications.

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