The Music of the Beatles

I’m taking the time for a number of things
That weren’t important yesterday.
—from Fixing a Hole

I never go to classical concerts any more and I don’t know anyone who does. It’s hard still to care whether some virtuoso tonight will perform the Moonlight Sonata a bit better or a bit worse than another virtuoso performed it last night. But I do often attend what used to be called avant-garde recitals, though seldom with delight, and inevitably I look around and wonder: what am I doing here? Where are the poets and painters and even the composers themselves who used to flock to these things? Well, perhaps what I am doing here is a duty, keeping an ear on my profession so as to justify the joys of resentment, to steal an idea or two, or just to show charity toward some friend on the program. But I learn less and less. Meanwhile the absent artists are at home playing records; they are reacting again, finally, to something they no longer find at concerts.

The Beatles
The Beatles; drawing by David Levine

Reacting to what? Why, to the Beatles, of course, whose arrival I believe is one of the most healthy events in music since 1950. What occurred around 1950 will be the starting concern of this brief essay, an essay with a primarily musical approach. Most of the literary copy devoted to the Beatles extols the timely daring of the group’s lyrics while skirting the essential quality, the music. Poetry may be the egg from which the nightingale is hatched, though in the last analysis that nightingale must come first.

My “musical approach” will be that of what once was termed long-hair composer, somewhat disillusioned, nourished at the conservatory yet exposed all his life (as is any American, of necessity) to jazz. It will not pretend to a total appraisal, only to the fact that I and my colleagues have been happily torn from a long nap by the energy of rock, principally as embodied in the Beatles. Naturally I’ve grown curious about their energy. What are its origins? What need does it fill? Why should the Beatles—who seem to be the best of a good thing, who are, in my view, far superior to all the other groups who pretend to copy them, but who nevertheless are mostly American and perpetuating what once was an essentially American thing—why should the Beatles have erupted from Liverpool? Could it be true, as Nat Hentoff suggests, that they “turned millions of America adolescents on to what had been here hurting all the time…but the young here never did want it raw so they absorbed it through the British filter”? Do the Beatles hurt indeed? Are they really so new? Does their attraction, whether of pain or pleasure, stem from their words—or even from what’s called their sound—or from their tunes? Those are the questions, more or less…

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