When did the Beatles become the Best?
February 4, 2009 8:21 AM   Subscribe

At what point did our culture decide that the Beatles were the best band ever?

This isn't meant as snark — for what it's worth, I'm inclined to agree that the Beatles were the best band ever. And I realize that Music Isn't A Competition™, and there really isn't a way to be "best."

The point remains, though, that the Beatles have had more superlatives applied to them than any other band in (at least) the English-speaking world. More than that, these superlatives are applied across a range of cultures (young, old, high-brow, low-brow, a little bit country, a little bit rock and roll) that, if you take a step back, is frankly amazing. The Beatles are musical hegemons, and that's that.

So please take my question at face value: when did people start saying that the Beatles were the best band ever? When did this become an accepted tenet of Western culture? They were obviously a hugely popular band during their existence; did the idea that they were the best flow naturally from that while they were still together? Did, say, Sgt. Pepper immediately seal their legacy? Did it take some years after 1970 for the idea to really coalesce? Was it a product of the red and blue retrospectives, or music criticism's embrace of "top hundred" lists?
posted by electric_counterpoint to Society & Culture (24 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Considering how many hits they had and how many directions they took musically, you'd be hard pressed to find someone who doesn't like ANY Beatles song. It's one of the few things that pretty much everybody likes.

I'd say it started when the 13 year olds who saw the 1964 Ed Sullivan performance started to write music reviews and was cemented with Jon Lennon's death.
posted by The Whelk at 8:33 AM on February 4, 2009

There's a fine line between "best" (subjective) and "influential" (which does have some objective merit). I personally have never really liked The Beatles but to deny them as one of the most influential bands/musicians in modern history is just plain silly. I would not presume to dissect the musicology or history of the band, but I think that is largely where the confusion lies.
posted by elendil71 at 8:36 AM on February 4, 2009

There's a number of factors at play, and I'll avoid the landmine of calling them the "best band ever".

First, they came to prominence in a time and place (early 1960's, U.K.) with a very concentrated media. BBC ruled the airwaves (radio and TV), newspapers had a huge influence on the tastes and habits of the nation. They were cute, had interesting songs and personalities, and were very popular, very fast. This amazingly repeated itself in short order in the biggest market in the world, the USA. Now you have millions and millions of fans who retain this moment of being young and loving the Beatles for decades.

Second, because they were so big and also a step above the usual pop music fare, they started to get attention from "serious" critics and high-brow audiences, which let to legitimacy and a legacy of quality. Almost everthing they released up to Magical Mystery Tour in late 1967 was lavished with praise. From that point on they were fair game for criticism.

They were the musical trendsetters of the 60's, and increasingly cultural trendsetters as well. This then creates a lot of influence on other groups, artists, and the general public ("Let's all grow mustaches!" "Let's all grow beards" "Let's give Indian/Eastern religions a whirl" etc.).

To answer you specifically, I'd say that by the late 60's they were on the path to eternal notereity, and breaking up in '70 sealed the deal. Never having a reunion that lessened the perfection of what they did before 1970 helps too.
posted by Paid In Full at 8:43 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

When half the bands on earth started copying them and the other half started reacting against them.

Seriously, I'd say 1966 at the latest. Nobody sold as many records, so they were the greatest pretty quickly.
posted by Ironmouth at 8:48 AM on February 4, 2009

I think the fact that they broke up at their peak and didn't do the long slow slide into irrelevancy *cough* Stones! *cough* that some bands have done is probably a key factor. If they had stayed together we might have a bunch of albums that sound like a cross between Wings and the Plastic Ono Band.
posted by electroboy at 8:55 AM on February 4, 2009 [3 favorites]

I think by "best" people really mean equal parts most popular and most influential (with a splash of baby boomer "the generation that changed the world" rhetoric?). I think it carried over a lot, too because their music was introduced really early to the next generation. For example, my parents swear up and down they didn't name me after a popular Beatles song, but I have my doubts. Also, my mother would sing the Beatles' "Good Night" to me as a lullaby.
posted by piratebowling at 8:57 AM on February 4, 2009

I should say, even though my first comment sounds a bit sharp, I really do think they put out a tremendous amount of fantastic songs and was not meaning to knock them at all. I love the Beatles.
posted by piratebowling at 8:59 AM on February 4, 2009

Part of it had to do with the fact that they were publicly appreciated by people with classical credentials, notably the famous conductor/composer/lecturer Leonard Bernstein. He specifically praised Good Day Sunshine, from Revolver, which was released in 1966, though it's possible he praised it later on. (He was famous in the '60s but continued working through the '80s.)

Also, my mom had a poetry textbook in high school, which would have been the late '60s, that included the lyrics of 4 Beatles songs (one was Eleanor Rigby). The whole rest of the book was more conventional poetry. That suggests that they were considered serious and respectable and something above and beyond the rest of rock music. I don't particularly care that they were endorsed by Bernstein or a poetry textbook, but if what you're asking about is some kind of "serious" recognition, these are examples.

Bottom line: I don't have a specific date to give you, but (having read up on the era but not having lived through it) my general impression is that their greatness was recognized contemporaneously. I'm not aware of any time lag. In the absence of specific evidence that people were slow to appreciate them, and based on general evidence that albums like Sgt. Pepper's and others were immediately felt to have a revolutionary impact, I would simply assume that their greatness was recognized at the time.

Also, even in their early years they were far and away the most commercially successful band -- at one point all top 5 American singles were by the Beatles (though obviously commerical success isn't the same as artistic greatness).
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:00 AM on February 4, 2009 [4 favorites]

I think being the music of the boomer generation's youth is also part of it. As always, being good isn't enough - you also have to be at the right place at the right time.
posted by -harlequin- at 9:09 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Maybe when they became “more popular than Jesus”?
posted by Johnny Assay at 9:10 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I disagree with some these answers. They were certainly popular, and iconic, but by the mid-70s kids had moved on and rock and roll was thought of as intrinsically ephemeral music for teenagers so there wasn't a large critical effort to romanticize them and the late 60s yet. In fact there is a famous story (possibly an urban legend) about an interview with a Wings fan in the 70s asking "Paul McCartney was in another band before Wings?"

I'd say the comeback really began when Lennon was shot, and by the early 80s they were acknowledged to be not just a great pop band, but THE most influential band ever, as nostalgic boomers started to dominate the rock music discussion.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 9:13 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pretty vague question without getting chatty, since there's really no "people" you can ask to figure out when they were "accepted" as the best, but people had been calling them "the best" starting, oh, around 1962. You might be interested in a more academic take on the Beatles, if you're into reading books and stuff.

That said, I'm of the mind that while their mythology grew steadily while they were together, they were not made into what they are today until after they broke up. Not everybody liked The Beatles in the 60s, and the story that they brought together critics and teenyboppers into the same fold is not supported by history.
posted by rhizome at 9:13 AM on February 4, 2009

the story that they brought together critics and teenyboppers into the same fold is not supported by history

How so? That actually seems like a pretty accurate description of what happened.
posted by Jaltcoh at 9:39 AM on February 4, 2009

How so? That actually seems like a pretty accurate description of what happened.

Robert Christgau's review of Sgt. Pepper gives a decent overview of the schisms.
posted by rhizome at 9:57 AM on February 4, 2009

My dad always talks about the big debate in their household - who was better, the Beatles or the Dave Clark Five?
posted by tiburon at 10:02 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

This article has some info on The Beatles' recognition by serious music critics.
posted by ludwig_van at 10:38 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

March 2, 1964 - Filming begins on A Hard Day's Night. Its low budget and short filming schedule are meant to get the movie into theaters before the Beatles fad ends.

June 1, 1967 - Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band released in the UK. In The Times, prominent critic Kenneth Tynan describes it as "a decisive moment in the history of Western civilisation". Another reviewer called it "The closest Western civilization had come to unity since the Congress of Vienna in 1815".

So: sometime between those two dates.
posted by Joe Beese at 10:38 AM on February 4, 2009 [5 favorites]

You might want to read Malcolm Gladwell's new book, Outliers -- I think he has a bit on the popularity of the Beatles and why they became so big so fast.
posted by pised at 11:09 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

I think that it comes down to the amount of quality work that they did in the amount of time that they were together as the Beatles (with Ringo, not Pete Best)--Please Please Me came out in 1963 and Let It Be in 1970. Even if you think that, say, Sgt. Pepper was overrated, it was still pretty remarkable for its time. (I was thinking about this in relation to Chinese Democracy; imagine that Paul McCartney had split up with the other Fabs in 1966 and, after sequestering himself with only a handful of gigs in the meantime, released an all-McCartney version of Sgt. Pepper... in 1982. It probably would have gotten the same reception as Axl Rose's solo-album-in-all-but-name did.)
posted by Halloween Jack at 11:31 AM on February 4, 2009 [1 favorite]

Another example -- Ned Rorem wrote an essay called "The Music of the Beatles" in the ultra-respectable New York Review of Books in January 1968:
I and my colleagues have been happily torn from a long nap by the energy of rock, principally as embodied in the Beatles. ...

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."
That was from some quick internet searching ... There are probably tons more examples like that from the '60s.
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:33 AM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

I'm not aware of any decision being made by an entire culture / civilization, and I'm wary of such classifications.

But, if commercial success is any indicator, the Beatles have more #1 singles, more #1 albums, and have sold more albums than any other band or singer, ever. So, having reached those milestones, the Beatles are certainly the most popular / best from an economic standpoint; perhaps these metrics are why they can be considered the best band ever.
posted by jabberjaw at 12:01 PM on February 4, 2009

Definitely by 1967, and I think Jaltcoh is right that acceptance/awe by "serious" musicians and critics had a lot to do with it. Personally, I think the Stones were at least as good, but you didn't have people pontificating about their use of the Mixolydian mode.
posted by languagehat at 1:44 PM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

Specific to your question - what point did society/culture anoint the Beatles as best - is that the Beatles crashed Britain and America at a time when there was a lot of pent up energy ready to explode. In Britain there was a tough post war period of adjusting to lower expectations and ex-Empire, in America right after the Kennedy assassination. In context these cultural points in history after a staid 50's, which shouldn't be criticized since the 50's were a reaction and recovery from the upheavals of a very nasty World War and calm was nice. But the early 60's kids were not OF the war and by 63/64 were coming into different generational awareness.

The Beatles "sound" was fresh, loud, exciting, fast, and new for 1963/64. Their personalities refreshing, fun, NEW. They crashed the gate at a time the gate was waiting to be crashed. As Gladwell and hundreds of others have pointed out, they didn't just throw a song or two together. These guys had played over a THOUSAND live performances by 64, each for multiple hours, so they were musically tight, and I guess songwriting talent didn't hurt.

That alone and all, and probably we'd be talking about a good band we heard of that gets some oldie radio play. However, the Beatles constantly evolved their sound (listen to "Hard Day's Night" from about April 64 and then "No Reply" from Nov/Dec 64 and you get a sense of the evolution) and their studio engineering team pioneered many techniques never used before but common today to produce songs. (Aside: check engineer Geoff Emerick's book about techniques on microphone placement for drums and listen to the separation and crispness of Beatles recordings - versus say the drum track on 1969's "Ruby Tuesday" which while an awesome song sounds like it the drums were recorded in a parking garage.)

Anyway, they - as pointed out above - influenced almost every band to follow, either to mimic or react to them - for years. They influenced the bands that went on TO influence others. But more than the initial 63/64 breakthrough, they again in 67 hit the market with Sgt Pepper. Pepper is easy to dis now, to react to as overrated. But in context, in the time it was released and the honest opinion of all those who heard and were influenced by it, it was a huge landmark. So twice they Beatles rocked the pop world and they sustained their reputation between "She Loves You" and Sgt Pepper and after with solid songwriting.

There are better musicians in other bands, bands that approach the Beatles in influential legend (Led, Who) but the enormous talent of the Beatles happened to coincide with a moment in culture that amplified the Beatles influence.
posted by Kensational at 5:40 PM on February 4, 2009 [2 favorites]

1- Right after John Lennon told us they were.
2- The Beatles were the coming of age soundtrack of a HUGE cohort of people. Like, Nirvana, Smashing Pumpkins and Pearl Jam times 100.
posted by gjc at 8:02 PM on February 4, 2009

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