Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Too Flat a Pyramid

 I think the Beatles are underrated. That's not the subject of this post, but I say it in the interest of full disclosure. I was 6 years old when Please Please Me came out, and even a first-grader knew he'd never heard anything like that before. I got the 45 for my next birthday; but I can date my childhood by Beatle songs better than birthdays.

(I should mention my wife saw the Beatles live at Olympia Stadium in Detroit in 1964. Yes, she is older than me.) 

A few years ago I read Can't Buy Me Love, a Beatles bio that came out in 2007. Of particular interest were the bits on Hamburg, before they had made it big, but were preparing to make it big. Hamburg photos taken of them by Astrid Kircherr are my favorite Beatle images. Some examples:

Kids: George was 17 when they first went to Hamburg. Seventeen.

The book filled in a lot of detail about the Beatles in Hamburg, which had been treated in a 1994 movie called Backbeat. I liked the movie more than Paul and George did.

This summer, on our July Adriatic cruise, one of the shows featured a tribute band called the Backbeat Beatles. After the second song I told Janet they sounded more like the Beatles than the Beatles. They even talked like they were from Liverpool. Anyway, after the show, instead of taking it easy, the band changed clothes and headed up to the piano bar, where Janet and I are if we aren't in the jazz bar. For over an hour they sang songs they hadn't done in the show, with "Paul" on the piano. Just terrific. Then afterward they sat around with us and a few others 'til 2am talking about the Beatles, Liverpool, music, kids, travel, politics. They were all from Liverpool, had been raised on Beatles music; I'm guessing they were all late 30s-early 40s. At least one wife was with them. "Paul" seemed kind of familiar...turned out he played George in Backbeat, and later arranged to use the Backbeat name for the tribute band.

So I asked one of them (let's say it was "John") if they ever play Beatles songs their own way, or do they have to do them straight all the time? John said they perform them like the Beatles: audiences tend to think of Beatles music as kind of preserved, and not to be done except as how the Beatles did it. But when they practice, or do sound checks, they'll do their own thing. I asked if he'd ever listened to any Beatles covers on YouTube: one reason I like YouTube so much is that it shows thousands of people doing their own versions of well-known songs. I already know how the original artists did a song; when I listen to a cover, I want to hear what that individual brings to the music. I elaborated a bit, saying that I expect Beatles music will endure beyond their lifetimes: people two generations removed from the 60s cover their songs on YouTube, and make no pretense of doing the songs like the Beatles did; each person does them his or her way. I like that. It keeps the music from being embalmed. Plus unlike in the Beatles' day, no music industry executive or radio dj with a playlist can decide what music will or won't be available for me to hear. The bureaucratic-managerial pyramid had been bypassed, or at least flattened way down, thus allowing listeners to buy whatever 99-cent songs they like by anyone who made their music available on the net.

But John said he didn't think that flattened pyramid was such a good idea. Oh...why not? Well, he asked, what really great bands can you think of?  I rattled off a dozen. Yes, he said, but name some from the last 15 years or so, since the mp3 format became popular. Ehhh....Smashing Pumpkins maybe...no...I give up! John said right, there aren't any great new bands these days in part because the music industry can't perform the winnowing process as it used to do. New music is being made available faster than anyone can keep up with; and it's virtually impossible for a new talent to get any traction before they're washed over by even newer music. A band like U2 is still a big deal because they were huge before the mp3 era, and aren't likely to ever have any real competition. And John wasn't confident that those old great bands would have had the same success today: partly because the modern listener's attention is too diffuse due to the proliferation of inexpensive downloads, and sites such as YouTube; and the weakness of the music business model in which the promoters risk their paychecks and resources on correctly distinguishing great talent from good talent.

I hadn't thought of that. I'm not persuaded, either. But still, I've always assumed that flattening the pyramid was a good thing, and it hadn't occurred to me that it might not always be true.


A couple of Beatles covers I like; your mileage may vary:

Norwegian Wood

Here Comes the Sun