Paul Shirley Doesn’t Like The Beatles

Et tu, Paul?

Listen Mr. Shirley, we like you here at NPI. We like sports. We like books. We like people who write good books about playing sports. You even tweeted at Tim. But if forced to choose between you and the Beatles, well, we’re gonna have to go with the Beatles.

Now, I have no problem with unconventional stances; in fact, I like them a lot. And I have no qualms with someone’s personal tastes. It’s also true that people who don’t like the Beatles are unfairly maligned (you guys should form a support group with people who don’t think The Godfather is that great and people who think Shakespeare is overrated).

 

Some of what you say is certainly true: “[T]he mythology that surrounds the Beatles has overwhelmed rational humans’ ability to judge the band by its music.” There is no denying that when you are brought up and essentially conditioned to think something is good, that is going to affect your judgment of that thing, whether your judgment is positive or negative.

But it’s one thing to say that a mythology as large as the one surrounding the Beatles makes judging them “objectively” difficult or impossible—a thesis I’ll accept—and another thing entirely to claim that “we were not around for The Beatles. Therefore, we cannot judge their impact on popular music.” This latter claim is patently untrue—as you seem to acknowledge later in the article, when you claim that you “understand that The Beatles are culturally significant and important in the historical progression of rock music.” You don’t have to be a contemporary of something to understand its impact. I wasn’t around for the Revolutionary War, but I get that it was a big deal.

Being influential and being good are, granted, two very different things. Just because Revolver and Sgt. Pepper changed the way albums were made doesn’t mean you necessarily have to like those albums. But lots of people do like The Beatles. Maybe you don’t like them, and maybe even a sizable portion of people who claim to like them are only doing it to seem like thy have the “right” musical taste, but the Beatles didn’t get to be the most popular band in the world by accident; some people, even some people born after the band broke up, sincerely like this music.

This brings me to the most troubling part of your argument: the implication that you can only really like music that comes out in your lifetime. As you put it, “[A]ny 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.”

This seems both untrue and inconsistent with your claim that music and mythology are two different things. If, after all, you claim to want to judge The Beatles based solely on their music, then why is it “stealing” to listen to older bands and songs? I wasn’t around for grunge, but I still think Nirvana songs sound good. I wasn’t even a glimmer in my parents’ eyes in the 1970s, but that doesn’t make Led Zeppelin IV any less awesome.

The reason you overvalue contemporary works (and I don’t mean to imply that all new music sucks; there are plenty of great bands working now) is your idea that works of art get better over time. This is the most disturbing paragraph of your argument:

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 these improvements can be chalked up to chronological order.

Excuse me when I say…Fuck the heck?! Chronological order is the best way to evaluate music? “Hollaback Girl” came out after “Idioteque.” Does that make it better? Is “Party in the USA” 22 years better than “Welcome to the Jungle”? I’m not saying that certain technological advances may make production values better, or allow newer things to be done, but that doesn’t automatically make better music. Oasis may be able to do a lot of things The Beatles never could, but that doesn’t mean their music sounds better. I, for one, think it does not.

(This is to say nothing of the fact that, in picking a band whose oeuvre you wanted to compare with The Beatles, to illustrate once and for all that The Beatles have been topped….you chose Oasis. Not, like, Radiohead, or Jay-Z, or Wilco…Oasis. The guys who did “Wonderwall.” Ugh.)

Art is not like technology, or the Scientific Method; it does not move linearly. This, again, doesn’t mean that the old stuff can never be topped, but it certainly isn’t true that everything new is better than everything old. Shakespeare was a better writer than Dan Brown, despite the fact that Brown has technological advances and the influence of Shakespeare himself at his disposal. Sometimes new bands try to develop and expand on the work of great predecessors, and very often these attempts fall flat. “More complex” and “denser” do not always translate to better, particularly in music. If it did, the most popular band in the world would be Rush or something.

Are The Beatles the best band ever? I don’t know. They’re not my favorite, but I like them a lot. And the fact that so many people do, in a way that no band since has come even close to replicating, helps their case. It certainly indicates people can still like their music, even if they were born after the Nixon Administration, and that not everyone who claims The Beatles are their favorite band is lying or not thinking for themselves. People sometimes agree on greatness.

And they’re certainly better than fucking Oasis.

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10 responses to this post.

  1. I just want everyone to know, as the only member of the blog (I think) that actually read Mr. Shirley’s book and doesn’t have a band-crush on The Beatles, that I would choose Shirley over McCartney and Co. any day.

    Reply

  2. Posted by John S on September 23, 2009 at 1:18 PM

    Wow, Tim, you really think I would say that without reading his book? I believe I read YOUR copy.

    Reply

  3. Posted by Paul Shirley on September 23, 2009 at 1:34 PM

    This was tweeted my way…

    First, I appreciate the healthy debate, and think you did a fairly good job of laying out your points. The only problem I have with your analysis is the extrapolation from one paragraph to an entire thesis. I do think that the chronological order gives bands a CHANCE to be better. It does not GUARANTEE that they are better; obviously, LMFAO is not superior to the Rolling Stones just because they came after. But I do think that, generally, artists that come after have an advantage.

    There comes a time, of course, when an art form reaches its peak. It could be surmised, I think, that classical music found that apex sometime in the 18th and 19th century. I would postulate that rock music has not yet found its Beethoven or its Mozart. To call the Beatles the best that ever was just because they’re popular (which is a dubious argument, by the way – the Black-Eyed Peas have the most popular song in the US right now) seems shortsighted.

    Perhaps I didn’t hammer home the idea that after does not necessarily lead to better well enough, but I think the entire piece does a better job of reflecting that thesis than does one paragraph lifted from the piece.

    Anyway, I’m glad you read, thought, and wrote. Because, after all, the real point of the Beatles piece was to provoke people into thinking about why they like the band’s music.

    Reply

    • Posted by John S on September 23, 2009 at 8:52 PM

      Fair enough. I may have been too reductive in seizing on one paragraph in the entire piece, but I think you do seem to slightly overvalue innovation and complexity in gauging the overall quality of music. The melodies and hooks employed by the Beatles may be “simpler” than, say, the music of TV on the Radio, but I still think they are better.

      Your point about Mozart/Beethoven is interesting, although I don’t really know anything about the history of classical music. But it seems fair to say that there is a difference between defining the archetypes of a certain art form and reaching the apex of that art form; I think the Beatles clearly did the former (largely by virtue of the fact that they came first), but it’s debatable whether or not they are the apex.

      I also didn’t mean to imply that popularity validates the Beatles; judging music by popularity would be way dumber than judging it by chronology.

      Anyway, we always appreciate unconventional stances, whether or not we agree with them. Thanks for stopping by to check out the response, and we remain big fans.

      Reply

  4. I am really trying to understand Mr. Shirley’s reasoning. So, when I went to see Muddy Waters at The Apple Pie in Georgetown in 1975, I could not really enjoy him as he was before my time (he was hot in the ’50s). The fact that he was “the blues” and represented the origins of rock and roll, and I thoroughly enjoyed him, is irrelevant. Oh, I guess the same holds true for BB King and Buddy Guy. Interesting – I must revise the impact that these folks had on my musical sensibilities.

    Here’s something ironic. I grew up with The Beatles, but never quite understood their impact on popular music or society until I got older. The problem was that I was kid who loved baseball from age 8 to 15 and The Beatles were background music in that time frame. But over time, I came to enjoy their music more than ever, and to this day I am amazed at the complexity of their arrangements and tunes. Their music includes old English music hall ditties, Chuck Berry rock and roll, blues, jazz, classical, you name it.. Talk to people who play rock music for a living. You will be shocked to learn how many artists are influenced by The Beatles to this day.

    It’s kind of like what Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart said about porn in 1964, “I know it when I see it.” People love The Beatles because they know good music when they hear it – no other reason. Paul, please do me a favor. Listen to “A Day in the Life” several times and realize that nothing sounded like that song back then and nothing has sounded like that song since.

    And what the hell is a “tweet”? Will there be a “Tweetles” some day?

    Reply

  5. Posted by douglas on September 24, 2009 at 2:57 AM

    Mr. Shirley’s arguments are, like those of most music “critics”, unnervingly pseudo-intellectual. One can’t just say that the music of Oasis is more “dense” or “complex” than anything else without backing it up with an argument from music theory*. And, as John S points out, one can’t argue that density or complexity makes music better. I understand that he was writing an off-the-cuff response to John S, but what is this about?

    “It could be surmised, I think, that classical music found that apex sometime in the 18th and 19th century.”

    If he’s trying to build credibility, identifying the best of classical music by naming as many as two centuries and as little as two composers is not a wise choice. It undermines his pretense of understanding the progression of music. And of course, if Mr. Shirley had been born 50 years after Beethoven, he would have postulated that classical music had not yet found its Guillaume Dufay, and that “Fur Elise” was more the kind of song that his uncle would like.

    I’m not saying that arguments about the cultural significance of music have no place, but that platform doesn’t give anyone license to pretend to know anything about how music actually functions or how it has evolved from an “objective”, i.e. theoretical lens.

    I also understand that Mr. Shirley is making an argument about a particular genre or at least a particular era of music, but if “density”, “complexity”, and “production” are the criteria for good music, I can’t think of too many modern bands that could compete with a performance by a world class symphony orchestra. If anything, music has probably become less complex. Not sure about that? Try to find a classical composer who uses as few chords as Green Day.

    If you don’t really know anything about music, fine. Most of us don’t. That’s why we talk about music in terms of how it makes us feel and what sounds good to us–and on that level of conversation, any conclusions can be only subjective. Well, except that Oasis definitely isn’t better than the Beatles.

    Reply

  6. Posted by James Schneider on September 24, 2009 at 6:28 PM

    You had to compare party in the u.s.a. to a song i couldnt say it is better than

    Reply

  7. […] you’re a Beatles fan (John S and I are), this book is awesome. Even if you’re not, it’s still interesting. Emerick was the […]

    Reply

  8. […] long since our last fiction link: Here’s “39 Minutes” from former NBA player and one-time NPI commenter Paul Shirley over at Flip Collective. And don’t worry, it is not tied to the Al Pacino movie. […]

    Reply

  9. Posted by Brian on July 25, 2010 at 4:55 AM

    Its a matter of personal taste. And Paul Shirley is wrong on this one.

    I do enjoy his writing, though.

    Reply

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