Exploring eight enduring Beatle myths
There are people who collect only Beatle records — to us, with our varied taste, listening to the same 275 songs over and over again seems boring, but to other people another copy of Rubber Soul or Revolver is a treasure. There’s a guy in New York who has an entire record shop filled with nothing but the “White Album” (here‘s a link to a story about him which one of our customers told us about). We’re guilty of hoarding a single album (have you seen our gigantic In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida collection in the shop?) so we shouldn’t be critical, besides what really matters is that collecting and listening to records should be fun.
While the Beatles are undeniably the most important rock and roll band of all time, fans oftentimes exaggerate their role in pop culture history, attributing to them innovations and creations that simply weren’t theirs. They may have popularized “Beatle boots” but the picture inside Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band did not inspire a mustache trend. The Beatles created the “hidden” track with the mysterious, originally uncredited coda on Abbey Road, but they did not create the concept album or the double album.Our personal collection includes all of the Beatle albums and a number of solo albums – Even George’s Electronic Sounds and Ringo’s Sentimental Journey – Laura’s favorite Beatle is John, Dave’s is George. We like the Beatles just fine, we just think there are some things fans like to say about them that just aren’t true. Here are eight enduring Beatle myths:
No. 1 – The Beatles saved popular music from the post-Elvis doldrums
One of the most pervasive elements of Beatles mythology is that they saved rock and roll from its early 60s malaise. Elvis had returned from Germany but had gone into the movies (and wouldn’t make another awesome record until after the “comeback” special in 1968). Buddy Holly had died and Little Richard struggled to leave rock and soul, as he called it, behind for a life in the ministry. The Beatles exploded out of radios in 1963, saving America from their woeful rock and roll doldrums.
This narrative overlooks a whole variety of great records, and a period in the history of American pop music that gave rise to some inspired and diverse music. For instance:
Surf music. Not only the Beach Boys’ first two albums, Surfin Safari and Surfin USA but the birth of instrument
al surf music, a genre that produces some of the funnest pop records of all time. Some great pre-Beatles surf records:
“Pipeline” by the Chantays (1962)
and of course
“Rumble” by Dick Dale (1958)
A rare rock and roll instrumental banned from the airwaves. The dawning of the power chord, and one of the most singularly explosive singles to ever come out of an RCA portable.
And then there’s rockabilly, which was still going strong in ’63. The Beatles loved this stuff. Click here for a look at the rockabilly Beatles. In England kids like this were Teddy Boys. Their heroes were guys like Gene Vincent and Buddy Holly.
A lot of these guys were still recording in the early 60s, and even getting into things that pushed the boundaries of their genre and suggested a different direction for rock and roll.
“All I Can Do is Cry” by Wayne Walker
Many rockabilly artists turned to country and western, which experienced a golden age with a variety of great artists at their best. In fact, the late 50s and early 60s were a period of immense creative diversity in American popular music. The year before Beatlemania began alone saw the release of: Ray Charles’ genre-melding Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, Dick Dale’s Surfer’s Choice and a debut album by a promising young folk singer named Bob Dylan. Also released in 1962 were John Coltrane’s first recording with what would come to be called the “classic quartet” (Live at the Village Vanguard) and Ravi Shankar’s collaboration with American jazz musicians Bud Shank and Gary Peacock (Improvisation). The top selling album of the year was the soundtrack to West Side Story.
It was probably a good thing that people were buying all different kinds of records in the early 60s. Maybe some of these diverse interests would have endured if rock and roll wouldn’t have driven them down the charts.
No. 2 – The Beatles introduced the double LP
Sorry folks, the first double LP just wasn’t the “White Album” – It was Benny Goodman’s Live at Carnegie Hall, released in 1950. The format allowed home listeners to enjoy extended jams, in particular the famous performance of “Sing, Sing, Sing” which culminates with Jess Stacy’s intricate piano solo. The original masters (made from aluminum) of the 1938 recording were discovered sixty years later and reissued – making Benny Goodman’s Live at Carnegie Hall a top-seller all over again.
The first double LP of new, studio recordings was Bob Dylan’s Blonde on Blonde. Another pre-Beatles double album was Freak Out by the Mothers of Invention.
No. 3 – The Beatles “discovered” feedback– Avant garde composer Robert Ashley explored the use of feedback in his 1964 composition The Wolfman but nobody can seriously claim to be a Robert Ashley fan. How about we give credit to Albert Collins, Johnny “Guitar” Watson and most of all to Guitar Slim?
While we’re at it, let’s credit Nashville session guitarist Grady Martin for introducing the “fuzz effect” on a 1961 Marty Robbins single:
No. 4 – The Beatles introduced the Moog synthesizer to pop music
“Stranger in a Strange Land” from Leon Russell and the Shelter People predated the Beatles’ use of the Moog on Abbey Road. No doubt the fab four introduced the instrument to a wider audience with those four Abbey Road tracks, but they were beat to it by a Supremes record, a Byrds record and even a fucking Monkees record. You’re never ahead of your time if you were beat to it by the Monkees (not even if you’re David Cassidy). Most remarkably, onetime Buckaroo Jeff Haskall recorded a Buck Owens tribute record featuring Moog arrangements of Buck’s songs called Switched on Buck – and oh Lord how we’d want to find a copy of that record, just to hear it!
In fact, the Beatles really didn’t bring any unique instrumentation into pop music although they are often regarded as expanding the pop music palate. The Beatles did use a 41-piece orchestra in “A Day in the Life”, an interesting variety of guitars and amplifiers, kazoos and harmonica, and of course keyboards ranging from celestes, harmoniums and harpsichords to Hammond organs and a Fender Rhodes suitcase unit, but all of these things were used in a variety of pop music settings before and after. Pet Sounds, with its theremin and bicycle bells, expanded the oeuvre far more than Sgt. Pepper’s did without creating the same cluttered landscape. And then there was…
No. 5 – The Beatles popularized the sitar The Beatles really deserve the credit they get for this one, because the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul” was not released with the sitar as originally recorded in 1965 (although the original take was issued years later). Jeff Beck didn’t like the sound and re-recorded it with a guitar, producing a sitar-like sound. This is sometimes miscredited to Eric Clapton. A single by the Kinks (“See my Friends”) achieved the same effect. Later that same year George played a sitar on John’s song “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)”.
But Indian classical music had been introduced to American listeners nearly a decade earlier when Ali Akbar Khan and Ravi Shankar first began performing and recording in the United States. Shankar had already released ten albums on American labels by the time the Beatles “discovered” his music.
No. 6 – The Beatles invented the “concept album” There are too many early concept albums from the sixties to name them all, including Face to Face by the Kinks, Freak Out! by the Mothers of Invention, Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys (all 1966). These all lack a narrative theme, as does Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The first LP to develop a cohesive narrative that we are familiar with was S.F. Sorrow by the Pretty Things, released in 1968.
Many pop, country and R&B singers had released albums which worked around central themes even earlier – Ray Charles’ Genius Hits the Road takes listeners around the United States in song and Marty Robbins’ fantastic Gunfighter Ballads and Trail Songs revives westerns, for instance.
We’d like to credit Woody Guthrie for creating the concept album with his 1940 Folkways record Dust Bowl Ballads.
“Tom Joad Blues” parts 1 and 2 by Woody Guthrie
No. 7 – The Beatles introduced the backwards tape loop effect
Seventeen year old Travis Wammack had a regional hit with “Scratchy” in 1965, a bizzare reworking of the Ben Tucker jazz standard “Comin’ Home Baby” (best known through Mel Torme’s recording and as an extended bass/flute vamp by Herbie Mann) One of the most unsual thing about the single is the vocal break in the middle, which features a backwards tape recording of Wammack’s voice.
Of course, musique concrète composers had been exploring similar effects in avant garde classical works since the introduction of magnetic tape in the late 40s and, more importantly, the more versatile three-headed tape recorder introduced around ten years later. Frank Zappa performed a piece for ensemble, bicycle and magnetic tape on the Steve Allen show in 1963, and it seems likely one of the “electronic things” he did to the tape, a recording of his wife playing the clarinet, was to reverse it (this was recently featured here on the Hymie’s blog in this post).
“Scratchy” by Travis Wammack
No 8 – Beatle records are rare and valuable
“I have a Beatles” record is something we hear on the phone or in the shop fairly often. And if you have browsed the records in antique malls and at the Unique Thrift Store and other places you have seen ordinary copies of Let it Be and Abbey Road absurdly overpriced.
Yes, “butcher cover” copies of Yesterday and Today are uncommon in any state, but for each genuine one we have seen here in the shop there have been dozens people with 70s and 80s reissues of the album insisting they have something incredibly valuable. There are hundreds of thousands – and usually millions – of every Beatle album and they are in nearly every collection that comes into every record shop in the world.
People are often surprised that the records for which we pay the big bucks aren’t their copies of Meet the Beatles or With the Beatles or Beatles for Sale, but their oddball record they assumed nobody would be interested in – some of the coolest and rarest things that have come into the shop in the past year were in collections that naturally included a few Beatle records too, and the owner was surprised we were more excited about their unusual local record than their Beatle record.
One recent collection included the C.A. Quintet’s Trip through Hell along with several Beatle records – in any shape it is one of the rarest Minnesota garage records. Another collection of loose 45s included the Shandell’s “Gorilla” (actually a Wisconsin band, but local enough), of which there are purportedly only 100 copies. Now that’s a rare record! “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on the other hand, well there were millions of them.
A conclusion The fun thing about Beatles trivia and all is that it’s a starting point in any fun discussion of rock and roll history. Ubiquitous as they are, Beatle record are really really awesome, and belong in any collection. We just hope they are not the only thing in your collection.