Commentary

Dare I say The Beatles weren't so fab

Updated: September 15, 2009, 5:18 PM ET
By Paul Shirley | Special to ESPN.com

It is a commonly held belief that the polite soul discusses neither politics nor religion with unfamiliar dinner companions. We should probably consider adding music to the list of topics considered out of bounds. I was reminded of music's polarizing nature when I was host to a late-summer barbecue. It was a small gathering that would later turn raucous enough to draw the interest of my 85-year-old next door neighbor, who appeared in her nightgown to request that we turn down the music so her husband could get some rest in preparation for his vitally important 9 a.m. tee time. But before intrusions by octogenarians, the scene was more tranquil. Until we started talking music.

[+] EnlargeThe Beatles
AP PhotoYesterday: The Beatles were very important in 1966, but many people they influenced have made better music since then.

A friend of mine had brought along three girls, two of whom I knew, and one of whom I didn't care to know, based on her exorbitant BMI and cigarette-parched voice. One of the girls with whom I'd previously been acquainted had attended the same Kansas City music festival I'd been to the day before. We talked about how impressive Weezer had been and agreed Blink-182 had been better than we'd expected.

Then she asked me if I'd heard of a band called Dirty Sweet. I replied that I'd seen them at Lollapalooza and that I'd even written about them. (In this space.) She asked if I liked them. I said yes, quite a lot. But, I said, my enthusiasm was dampened by my doubts about the band's authenticity. She asked me to explain. I told her that I was bothered by their attempts to affect a Southern rock vibe ... because the band is from San Diego. She was put off. Why did that matter, she wondered. I asked if she'd ever been to San Diego. She hadn't. I launched into an explanation of why I thought Dirty Sweet's schtick doesn't really match with their hometown, maintaining all the while that I liked the band anyway.

The girl was not happy. She couldn't understand my disconnect, which means either that I didn't do a good job of explaining it or that she's an idiot. Ten minutes later, another argument broke out -- this time about the Von Bondies. Ten minutes after that, BMI collected all the girls' purses, someone called a cab, and all three exited the premises. But not before telling my friend that they couldn't believe he hung out with jerks like me.

Admittedly, my dial has a setting labeled "Caustic." I can be intolerable in an argument. I contend, though, that if we're starting a fire, someone has to provide the spark and someone has to gather the wood. I always volunteer to bring the kerosene.

Today is no different.

The release of a remastered version of The Beatles' catalog, coupled with an entry by the Fab Four into the "Rock Band" franchise, has people talking about the world's favorite band.

If you're among the 90 percent of humanity that loves The Beatles unconditionally, the next 2,000 words are going to anger you. I understand that, and I realize that I'm probably not going to convince you to take my side. My only objective is to make you think about why -- if you're in that 90 percent -- you have such a high opinion of a band that is not nearly as good as you think.

My distrust for the world's affection for The Beatles, the band considered by many to be the most important in the world, can be traced to my belief that the mythology that surrounds the Beatles has overwhelmed rational humans' ability to judge the band by its music, music that doesn't stand the test of time nearly as well as music critics would have us think.

First of all, let me clarify: If you love The Beatles and were alive for their arrival on the world's scene, you can skip ahead to the part where I wantonly trash their music. Feel free to read the interim section with a jaunty eye, laughing at my misconceptions and generalizations. You can get mad later.

But if you're my age, slightly older, or any younger, you have to pay attention to the whole article. This is what I want you to pay attention to: We were not around for The Beatles. Therefore, we cannot judge their impact on popular music. This impact is the crux of most arguments for their importance.

If not for the mythology of The Beatles -- their explosive rise, their good looks, their hair, their Britishness, their experimentation with the East, their early breakup, the death of their misunderstood semi-genius -- they would not be held in such high musical esteem.

My perception of The Beatles is a little like my perception of my parents. I'm sure my parents had fascinating lives before I was born. My mother probably got into all sorts of trouble in college. I'm sure my father often caused friends to double over in laughter during his time in the Air Force. But my mother has never been controversial since I've been alive. And I can't remember a time that my father told me something so funny that I nearly fell down. That's because my parents are different people now. Any stories about them that take place before I was born will always be, at best, two-dimensional. I didn't know them then. Therefore, I can't claim to understand their lives or their stories.

I can respect them, I can know a lot about them, but I'll never completely understand my parents. I was introduced to them after the fact. "The fact" being my birth which, like it does anyone, pretty much defines a start point for my ability to perceive the world around me. I can't go back and understand what their lives were like before me. I can try, but inevitably, I will fail. I cannot perceive something that happened without me.

Opinion is, of course, a matter of perception. If a person is told over and over that something is important, or that something is relevant, or that something should be given the benefit of the doubt, his perception of that "thing" will be influenced. The above qualifiers are routinely and liberally applied to The Beatles' music. As long as a person is not raised in a bubble, he is taught by society that The Beatles are, in essence, above reproach.

But what if we tear away that shroud of mystique? What if a person examines The Beatles as he perceived them, which was as just another old rock band?

OK, I'll take the job.

[+] EnlargeU2
Anna Krajec/Michael Ochs/Getty ImagesIs it so wrong to think U2's "Achtung Baby" was better than "Abbey Road"?

I marched into the world as a semi-normal product of the 1980s and a Midwestern upbringing. When I started listening to music seriously as a teenager, I had no reason to think any more highly of The Beatles than I did of The Guess Who. In my mind, both were irrelevant. John Lennon had been dead for years, Paul McCartney was creating simplistic songs with a band called Wings, and George Harrison and Ringo Starr occupied the same mental real estate as my aspirations to one day be a concert pianist. That is to say: no mental real estate. I was the perfect juror for a murder case; I'd been in the figurative coma provided by my nonexistence while all the pro-Beatles mind-bending had been going on.

I heard The Beatles, thought, "What's the big deal?" and moved on to U2. Contrary to popular belief, I think mine is the more appropriate reaction. Any other would have had to have been coached. My parents could have said, "Paul, seriously, listen to 'The White Album' 15 times in a row and then you can make an informed decision." Afterward, I probably would have professed a love -- albeit a trained one -- for The Beatles. But they could have inspired the same reaction if they'd pushed Fleetwood Mac. Familiarity does not equal greatness.

I don't mean my flippancy toward The Beatles to imply that I think that no music made before I was born is good. Or that I don't like anything that came out prior to 1990. I routinely listen to The Rolling Stones and to Creedence Clearwater Revival. But any affection I hold for bands that were in their prime before I was around is a wary affection. I feel almost as if I would be stealing if I went around claiming that CCR is my favorite band. Plenty of good musicians have matured in my lifetime; there's no reason to take CCR from my uncle.

More importantly, I believe there will always be a disconnect between older music and my brain. I can't fully understand what was happening in the world in 1964, so I'll never completely comprehend why "A Hard Day's Night" is important. It's as if those songs and albums are being translated; it's similar to reading Dostoevsky's "Crime and Punishment" and his "Brothers Karamazov," something I undertook -- in back-to-back fashion -- a few years ago. Because the action was coming to me through the lens of a translator, I was never fully able to connect to the words, brilliant as they might be.

To me, The Beatles were -- and remain -- a band that created catchy tunes that were heard in ubiquitous fashion throughout my life. But they will always be a band with which I cannot connect.

As I grew older, I was confused by everyone's reverence for The Beatles. Curious, I listened, read and researched. Eventually, I had to admit that the band was important and influential. But that didn't make their music any better. It was predictable, fairly dull and seemed elementary. Because I thought "Achtung Baby" was better, I listened to "Achtung Baby."

A corollary can be found in my reaction to "Dracula" by Bram Stoker. When "Dracula" was released, it was a worldwide sensation. Reviews were overwhelmingly positive; Stoker was said by some to have surpassed even Edgar Allan Poe in creepiness.

I'm sure that for the time (1897), "Dracula" was scary, exciting, and disturbing. But when I read it several years ago, the only thing that came to my mind was, "This is so boring." I'm no connoisseur of the literary thriller; I prefer to spend my time reading Tom Wolfe and Richard Russo. But I do know that the Dean Koontz books that entertained my 14-year-old mind are infinitely more complex and frightening than "Dracula." And Dean Koontz could hardly be considered the standard-bearer for the horror-thriller genre. Artistically, he's a midlevel writer at best. Yet his books are still better than "Dracula."

That's not Bram Stoker's fault. Dean Koontz is better simply because he came later. You can resent that remark all you want. I resent that remark; I believe in reading the classics, and I hesitate to admit that I ever read Dean Koontz books, even as a teenager. But read "Dracula" and get back to me. When you do, don't say, "But Paul, it's important that you remember the time and place that it was written." Because I understand that.

The same could be said about The Beatles. I don't question their significance. I get it -- my mother has explained it to me.

My mother is the perfect Beatles test case. She was 11 when The Beatles performed on the "Ed Sullivan Show." Like every other preteen and teenaged American girl, she was smitten. Whenever I question how a band that wrote songs with lobotomized choruses like, "I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your hand, I want to hold your ha-a-and," could have captured the world's attention, she tells me, "It just hadn't been done before. It was like nothing we'd ever seen."

Grudgingly, I've come to terms with that explanation. And I can understand why The Beatles have a special place in my mother's heart. I cannot, however, understand why anyone my age would donate the same important section of his musical soul. There's almost no way that someone from my generation can listen to the primitive hackings of "Eleanor Rigby" finish, and then listen to "November Rain" and say, "Yeah, 'Eleanor Rigby' is the better piece of music." That person can say, "I respect this 'Eleanor Rigby' song" or "I understand this song's importance in the flow chart of music" or "This is a timeless melody." But to say that "Eleanor Rigby" is "better" seems disingenuous. It reminds me of a fourth-grader who tells his music teacher that his favorite song is something by Beethoven.

Or of the contemporary who tells me that The Beatles are his favorite band.

It happens. I've been told by many, many people my age that The Beatles -- The Beatles! -- are their favorite band. Every time, I say, "OK, that's cute, but you don't have to impress me. Tell me what your real favorite band is." Inevitably, they stick to their guns.

I feel the need to continue to reiterate: I understand that The Beatles are culturally significant and important in the historical progression of rock music. And I understand that they're talented. But unless you were locked in a time capsule like Brendan Fraser in "Blast From the Past," they cannot be your favorite band. If you're younger than 50 and you do make such a claim, you're either (A) trying to impress someone with what you think will be received as good taste, or (B) woefully behind in your consumption of music. If it's A, I'm disappointed in you. If it's B, there's hope -- we only have to help you find the good stuff.

[+] EnlargeOasis
Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty ImagesOasis took some great lessons from The Beatles and arguably improved upon the music.

I'd much rather listen to Oasis than The Beatles. Oasis, or any band that came after The Beatles, learned from The Beatles, improving on their work by listening to, building on and perfecting the styles pioneered by The Beatles. The result: The arrangements used by Oasis are more complex, the sound is denser, the production is better. Claims that Oasis is nothing more than a Beatles tribute band do little to disprove my theory. There is no question that Oasis was influenced by The Beatles -- most rock bands are. That influence was likely heavier with Oasis, but even Oasis -- brash as the band is -- understands the power of what came before. After all, Oasis named an album "Standing On the Shoulders of Giants."

All of these improvements can be chalked up to chronological order. Just as Dean Koontz came after Bram Stoker, Oasis came after The Beatles. Each had the advantage of superior technology, in addition to the natural advantage of the chance to learn from their forebears. The chance to, well, stand on someone's shoulders.

Now, is that to say that Oasis is more important than The Beatles? Am I implying that Dean Koontz is more vital to the development of literature? Absolutely not. I would be remiss in making such a claim.

It is important to understand the history of one's chosen art forms. Therefore, everyone should listen to The Beatles. And everyone should read "Dracula." But afterward, they should be able to separate importance from their own tastes.

And really, that's what this comes down to. I'd like people to make up their own minds. Too often, I find myself surrounded by people who spout opinions of politics or religion or music that are not their own. Much of the time, those opinions are a product of their parents, their upbringing and their inability to see two sides of an argument.

It's enough to know that The Beatles were an influential band that created music that was loved by the world. You don't have to claim that you love them, or that they're your favorite band. You don't have to go along when other people start listing off their top five Beatles' songs. It's OK to say, "That's not my scene, man." (If you're going to use that exact quote, it would be most effective to be wearing a beret.)

Cast off the cloak of mystique. Listen to The Beatles' music. Realize that it's important, but say you'd rather hear the new White Lies album because it came out in your lifetime and you can analyze its relevance. And because it rocks way harder than anything The Beatles ever did.

I can appreciate The Beatles' contribution to the world of music; I can recognize their influence on Oasis, on Guns 'N' Roses, on White Lies. But if I hold their records up to the records of those bands and listen to them -- listening only for musicality and entertainment value -- I will never come away saying, "OK, 'Abbey Road' is better." I might be able to say that it was ahead of its time, or that it was groundbreaking work. But because I wasn't there, and because I couldn't give a damn about the mythology of The Beatles, you'll never hear me say:

I really like The Beatles.

I will hear others say that, and I'll hear it for the rest of my life. That I've written the above treatise will save me from the desire to argue the point every time it comes up, but I'm confident I'll still be pulled into a discussion from time to time. Much like a novelist or musician, I'll learn which argument worked and which argument didn't. By the time I draw my last ragged breath, I'm sure I'll have figured out something more about the right way to argue about music. Until then, though, I'll keep angering dinner guests and trampling all over the world's favorite band.

On occasion, you should do the same.

Paul Shirley has played for 13 pro basketball teams, including three NBA teams: the Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns. His book "Can I Keep My Jersey?" -- which is available in paperback -- can be found here. He can be found at Twitter (Twitter.com/paulthenshirley) and you can e-mail him here.

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