Jonathan Gould, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America
Periodically, there are bands I avoid simply because everyone else loves them. For example, Mumford & Sons (and before them Bon Iver, Arcade Fire, The Shins, Coldplay, etc.) may make great music, but can they really be that good? I imagine their catalog to include such titles as“Sheep Off a Cliff,” “Lemmings,” “Kool Aid,” and “We’re Big in Europe!”, but I wouldn’t really know for sure. I’ll hear Mumford’s hits in a doctor’s office soon enough. “Moon river!”
(When I was in tenth grade world religions class, Mrs. Robertson explained that there were four kinds of people in the world—builders, traditionalists, idealists, and individualists—and subsequently asked each of us to signify which we were. No one raised their hand for builder, no one for traditionalist, I was the only idealist, but then everyone else said they were individualists. My attempt to remark upon the irony of the whole situation failed to gain traction, as all the individualists resented my nonconformity. I consoled myself with the knowledge that there’s a difference between pridefulness and simple realism.)
The ur-band of my popularity aversion has been the Beatles. (But Jim, why the love for Elvis, you might ask? Answer: because he was so popular that everyone ended up hating him. This never happened with the Fab Four.) I’ve known some stone cold music lovers who worship the Beatles, but also plenty of buy-CD’s-at-Starbucks types too. 50,000,000 Beatles fans can’t be right, can they?
Add to all this that I grew up listening to “classic rock” radio in the 1990’s, where all the Beatles stations ever played was the soft stuff—“Let It Be,” “Strawberry Fields,” “Yellow Submarine,” and so on. Worst of all, “Hey Jude” seemed to taunt me harder with every false fade out, while my anti-Beatle desultory philippics became less and less brief. These guys were many things, but they weren’t rock and roll. And hey, there’s no “me” in “iconoclastic.”
Years later, I got pregnant with my fourth child. Rather, my wife got pregnant, but I was involved, and therefore I deserved a pick-me-up present to self. Looking around for something suitable, I realized that the Beatles mono boxed set, released a couple of years earlier, was just beginning to come down in price. I remembered the respect that I had for certain music afficionado friends who revered the Beatles, and I decided to sink my bid with them.
This fourth pregnancy was particularly difficult physically, however, and it included some particularly grueling backrubs I had to administer to others. My fingers were aching so badly that I bought an Amazon Kindle. Armed with one-click purchasing power, one of the first e-books I bought was Jonathan Gould’s Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America. Amazon reviews ushered me towards this one as the best of (a large) bunch. Thus I began to listen to every Beatles song one by one, with Gould’s book as a guide to each.
First the Beatles, then the book.
(I like Mumford & Sons, by the way. It would have ruined my intro to have admitted it earlier, though.)
For the band: they’re actually rock and roll. How could a secret this big have been kept underground for so long? For years I’ve amassed 1960’s garage rock collections (Nuggets, Nuggets II, Pebbles, Back from the Grave, band comps, label comps, regional comps), and about each one I’d say, “These guys blow the Beatles away!” The Beatles are better. Don’t you hate it when you’ve been wrong about something for years? Some groups may have rocked harder, but John, Paul, George, and Ringo rocked smarter, more melodically, and more consistently than any of them. (I could blame myself for making such an egregiously wrong call for so many years, but instead I’ll blame ‘90’s classic rock radio for mindlessly gravitating toward the flaccid.) One of the garage compilations I enjoy is called Garage Beat ‘66; all fine and good, except that the Beatles were garage beating as early as 1963, and earlier if you count Hamburg. Even their later albums contain tracks that need to be played loud. I’m a convert. Shuffling through songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “A Hard Day’s Night,” John’s “Twist and Shout,” “Tell Me Why,” “Ticket to Ride,” “The Word” would keep me happy for a long time. I’m still not ready to nuzzle up to some of the later, slower Beatles tunes, but at least I now understand them better—the Beatles went to schmaltz by the end because they were bored and had already exhausted the rock and roll idiom. (Alternatively, you might listen to “Hey Jude” not as an exercise in anthem but in exhaustion; it plays much better that way.)
Which leads me to say, I’m sure that for many Beatles fans that are roughly the same age as the band itself, listening to these albums brings a sad nostalgia that recalls an era that’s lost forever. I myself feel sadness in listening to the Beatles, but for a different reason. They were great fans of rock and roll but also synthesizers of the nascent tradition. None of the 1950’s American rockers really knew what they were doing, except maybe for Buddy Holly (who was, not coincidentally, the Beatles foremost ‘50’s influence). Bands contemporary to the Beatles tended to see themselves as carrying on the cause, whether the Stones or Kinks in Britain or garage bands stateside, but somehow the Beatles achieved a balance between a deep appreciation for rock and roll and also a certain critical distance that allowed them like no other to improve upon the form. 50’s Elvis was mannered but unknowing; the Beatles were mannered but the opposite, and the difference palpably registers. Consequently, the meat of the Beatles’ catalog play as songs of innocence and as songs of experience at the same time—the earlier sides more the former, and the later, the latter—the beauty and toughness of which together add a depth of melancholy to their recordings. (Dylan’s joke upon the world was that he was rarely serious, while the Beatles’ curse was that they were rarely joking, even when they were very seriously trying.)
Not surprisingly, their center could not hold. The Beatles gave us rock and roll’s apotheosis, and also (necessarily) its last will and testament. There were plenty of intra- and extra-band factors that caused the Beatles to crumble, and Gould catalogs them well in Can’t Buy Me Love, but what made their albums wonderful also sealed their demise. Even without the pressures and stresses, the Beatles would have fallen; the fruit itself would have weighed the bough to breaking eventually.
All of this makes me think of Jesus, but not because the Beatles are him (nor John the anti-Christ, for that matter, despite fundamentalist screeds to the contrary). Jesus was the only one whose experience didn’t taint his innocence, and that’s an innocence that he shares with us, the all-too-experienced. In him, innocence and experience no longer stand in tension anymore; the one enhances and deepens the other. With this in mind, I’m then able to listen to the Beatles not only with melancholy but with hope that the bough will become unbroken once more.
Now to Can’t Buy Me Love, the book. It’s my first Beatles tome, but hopefully I’ve read enough volumes about other artists to be able to identify the poser writers. Gould isn’t one of them. In fact, he writes the best kind of pop music history, which combines facts, bio, musical analysis, and cultural reflection into one. By and large, the worst offenders here skip the analysis and cultural significance and just go for the juicy personal bits. Gould instead takes the higher road. (Although if you wade into Can’t Buy Me Love seeking ammo against Paul on behalf of John, you’ll find it. But you’ll also find ammo against John, not to mention scads of unflattering stories about Yoko. Yoko, it’s hard to be a sympathetic character when you come across as completely the contrary. Perhaps she and Colonel Tom will share a hotel room in Dante’s inferno?)
Not only does Gould tell you exactly what power chord George Harrison strikes at the beginning of “A Hard Day’s Night”—plus oodles of other geek-out music factoids from the Beatles’ catalog—but he communicates why any of this mattered to us, and still does. When the Beatles’ broke in the States with “Please Please Me,” they didn’t sin into a vacuum: the previous fall, JFK had been killed, and TV enabled a generation of young people to mourn communally in a way never before possible. Against that shared anomie, the Beatles brought sunshine. One could do what-ifs forever, but Gould makes a plausible case that had not the knoll become grassy, the Beatles may not have been the Beatles. Fascinating stuff, and a music- or bio-only approach wouldn’t have turned it up.
Intriguing as well to me is Gould’s recounting of the cultural context of 1960’s hipsterism in Britain. It’s striking to me that even back then, the Mods, the Teds, and so on were already aping previous trends in ironic fashion. I don’t intend that statement as a knee-jerk “nothing new under the sun” type of thing; it’s only that between the older generation in England that wrote off the Beatles as pandering and/or prefabricated, younger Brits that went in for the Beatles nevertheless listened to them with some detachment and were mesmerized by their celebrity as much as their craft. Gould remarks,
“Even as significant numbers of readers, viewers, and listeners found themselves drawn to unexpectedly appealing qualities in the Beatles’ music and their public personalities, they assumed that somewhere, somehow, the group’s fame was being expertly manufactured, and that their principal talent lay not in their ability as musicians and performers, but rather in their ability as celebrities to command the attention of the press and the public. This explains why, from the moment it began, the question that dogged the Beatles and their phenomenon was the question that applies to all hoaxes, spells, and popular delusions: How long will it last?”
The tragic thing about living in a fallen world is that to ask the question, “How long will it last?”, is also to know the answer. Most of the Beatles’ audience was never able to listen to their music as John, Paul, George, and Ringo did to their heroes: as new. Something has made it bad.