A NOTE ON POP MUSIC AND THE BEATLES
The fact that so many books still name the Beatles “the greatest or most significant or most influential” rock band ever only tells you how far rock music still is from becoming a serious art.
This is the opening sentence to Piero Scaruffi’s famous rant about the Beatles– which can be read in its entirety here.
Scaruffi’s article has been endlessly cited, quoted, and referred to. The kicker is we can see from the very first sentence that he’s operating under a misconception of what rock music is, was, and was intended to be– likely because he looked at the phenomenon retrospectively, through layers of rock music criticism built up between the years of 1964 (the time of U.S. Beatlemania) and 1999, the year Scaruffi wrote his essay.
What he misses completely– like a baseball player striking out–
— is that rock n’ roll music from the start was a popular-not-“serious” art. Like its antecedents, rhythm and blues and country music, it was music of and from the lower classes. This includes the low-rent hustlers who recorded it, promoted it and popularized it, from the Chess brothers to Sam Phillips to Alan Freed to Colonel Parker to Dick Clark to Berry Gordy Jr. The only people who took it “seriously” were members of its audience.
One can use numerous examples to illustrate this. Among them are the movies made to capitalize on what nearly all critics and tastemakers believed to be a temporary fad. For instance, “The Girl Can’t Help It,” starring buxom Jayne Mansfield and featuring Little Richard and other rock n’ roll stars.
Or, notice this sequence from the Elvis movie “Jailhouse Rock,” when Presley encounters a group of academics.
The entire point of rock music in its formative stage was that it was not in any way intellectual. It stirred the emotions and senses, was beyond analysis.
This was the situation when Beatlemania broke upon England, the United States, and the world. The Beatles’ appeal was aural and visual, direct and immediate, including their unique look. “Well, but they’re not serious artists!” hopeless reactionaries upset at their enormous popularity cried at the time.
Was rock n’ roll widely heard on college campuses before the Beatles broke big?
NO! College kids listened to jazz, classical, Broadway show tunes, or, increasingly, folk music from the likes of Pete Seeger, the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and a fledgling songwriter named Bob Dylan.
As Scaruffi mentions, there was nascent activism at colleges in the early 1960s, but it centered musically around folk, not rock. The protest song became a cliche– “Where Have All the Flowers Gone,” “Little Boxes,” “Blowin in the Wind,” “What Did You Learn at School Today?” and so on. They were serious alright– but in no sense were they, or did they, rock.
A good way to judge the musical environment in the United States into which the Beatles arrived– to see what music was taken “seriously”– is to read the list of Grammy Award nominations for the year 1964. Interesting– or comical.
ROCK GOES MIDDLE CLASS
First, the massive popularity of the Beatles, which converted entire social classes and age groups to the rock music cause.
Second, on July 25th in 1965, Bob Dylan “went electric” at the Newport Folk Festival, which outraged a significant portion of the audience as well as fellow performers, including Pete Seeger. Dylan in essence converted from folk to rock– and brought intellectuals and pseudo-intellectuals along with him. (To be fair, the prod for this conversion was the April 1965 release of a rock cover version by the Byrds of Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man,” which became a monster hit, reaching #1 on the Billboard top singles list.)
It was only after bourgeois acceptance of rock n’ roll that rock criticism came into being– and “rock” displaced “rock and roll” as accepted terminology for the genre.
In sum, rock music was wholly the creation of the lower classes, first in America, then in Britain. The Beatles themselves were working class, from the rough seaport city of Liverpool. “Serious” intellectuals– not unlike Mr. Scaruffi– appropriated the genre, some ten-plus years after its birth in the U.S., and made it their own. In so doing, they made it more pretentious and overblown– rock musicians taking what had been quick entertainment all too seriously. Which in turn led to the creation of punk music in the 1970s to burst that bubble of snobby pomposity.
–Karl Wenclas for New Pop Lit News