In Search of Beatles Rock but not Pop

At least in part inspired by recent posts, I have been listening to more Beatles music and trying to learn more, but so far I seem to respect them more than I have grown to love them.

At the risk of being flamed by our Beatles fans, am I the only one who thinks that some of their music veers disappointingly in the direction of sappy, bubblegummy pop music?

I find when I listen, I want them to play louder, go darker, take more drugs, "shag" more girls, and wear their hair longer. I am the Walrus? I love it!! Blackbird? Superb. Come together? Terrific.

Maxwells Silver Hammer?? Silly. Octopus's Garden? No thank you. I want to hold your hand? Cute, but really just doesn't do it for me and I certainly don't want to listen over and over.

Can any Beatles gurus help me better understand their music and the evolution of their work? Could this be as simple as a Lennon vs McCartney preference? Maybe all of their music is much more complex and multi layered than I realise and I just need to spend more time with it. Or maybe I am trying to take the Beatles too seriously?

Is there something I just don't get here? Do any Beatles songs/albums really rock?

Thank you for your opinions.
CW-I think you need to put what The Beatles did in context.
However the big problem listening back to any music is that this can be difficult,consider that the music we are discussing is 30-40 years old!
But I do agree with your points,The Beatles at their worst were pretty ropey.
The big thing about The Beatles is actually their impact in a cultural sense,what happened tied in perfectly with the dawning of a so-called new era,it is an era and effect that popular music will be unlikely to see repeated.
Their standing as the most important popular music group is unchallenged because of the many levels they achieved success on,as a Dylan fan I could argue he was in fact a greater talent but I couldn't argue his impact in a popular sense was anywhere near as great.
Their genius to me is the progression that they made in a short period of time,the journey from Please Please Me to Strawberry Fields is quite a long one,they absorbed quite avant garde idea's and presented them in (mostly)a very palatable way without diluting the power of the message and well they just wrote outstanding melodic songs.
Also I guess they disbanded before they managed to decline artistically as inevitably happens to all groups.
As for the rock aspect,I remember being amazed seeing them perform Revolution live on TV(part of some TV special at the time) and how hard and how great a band they sounded since I'd missed them due to being too young I had thought of them as a pop band,they rocked believe me.
It's easy to forget they cut their teeth as a live act and that they were fantastic musicians,we tend to think of them as songwriters and of course they had retired from live work before the true rock era began.
I'm sure others have their own idea's to add but I would suggest you read Ian MacDonald's book A Revolution In The Head,it's a pretty serious work but puts their achievements in context,in terms of social and historical events as well as musical.
I like Revolver, Rubber Soul, Abbey Road and The White Album but, they all have a mixture of rock and softer songs. You just have to pick the ones you like and skip the others.
Cw-I suppose part of what I was trying to say is that in general the Beatles weren't a rock band.They could play heavy and they did ocassionaly but it was only a small aspect to what they did.
They were amongst the bands who pioneered the rock era but they were based more in 50's rock and roll,others followed and took the rock thing further................
Ben campbell has it right when he suggests that the Beatles music must be put in context. I was 18 when the first Beatles album "Meet the Beatles" came out -- to me it was a revelation! I had nothing like it before, and it blew me away! And then, in a short period of time, the artistic leap to Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sgt Peppers, Abbey Road! But, still to this day if I had to pick one beatles album for a desert island it would be "Meet the Beatles" Music, obviously, impacts each of differently and that is the real answer; i.e., todays music from grung to rap will never be my favorites although I certainly find selected groups and songs enjoyable. Perhaps music strikes us most deeply when it is associated with youth and/or significant events in our life! Happy listening.
Please understand that part of the Beatles genuis stems from the ability to mature with their audience. The market place at the time the Beatles first came to fame would probably prohibited their latter stuff to come first. And it couldn't happen any way. The Beatles were amongst the pioneers in the mature pop music of their era. They were a voice both reflecting and leading a radically new culture. If not for their early success we may never had the opportunity to hear their latter stuff. I think you will find in time that even their "sappy commercial pop lovey dovey" stuff is brilliant. There are exquiste harmonies and a unique for the time fusion of folk, rock, blues and other musical styles. Just because something is commercial doesn't mean it can't have artistic attributes. Think in terms of a beautifully illustrated comic book. While the early stuff may not be their best it certainly has merit and can be beautiful to listen too. Give it a chance.
I'm curious how old you are, CW. Rock fans who grew up on a diet of the "heavier" sounds that followed The Beatles may find that their music doesn't seem to "rock out" enough for them. In their day, The Beatles did often get represented as one side of a dichotomy, with The Rolling Stones on the other, as the "light" to The Stones' "dark". As a big fan of both, I can say there is some truth to this characterization, but that it really misses the point.

"Rock" music as the art form we know would have been inconceivable without The Beatles happening first. All other groups and artists, The Stones included, were in their day continually playing catch-up and second fiddle to The Beatles. The Beatles were, are, and forever will be, by far the most important single thing to come along in Rock & Roll after its beginnings with Elvis and Chuck Berry. They mark the divergence of what came to be known simply as "Rock" from Rock & Roll's roots in Rhythm & Blues, Country & Western, Pop, and Soul musics that came before, and with it Rock's establishment as an Art Form, no longer just a passing teenage fad.

They did this by integrating everything that had preceded them with a talent, flair, eclecticism, capacity for evolution, timeliness, and sheer songwriting originality and genius, totally unprecedented in the music before them and not matched since. The important thing to realize is that although they did not blaze every Rock path that formed in the 60's (and every path taken since, BTW, does have its roots in this seminal decade), the ones they did not, such as those pioneered by The Velvet Underground, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and even their British Invasion mates like The Stones and The Who, would not have come to be without The Beatles' inspiration and example.

Just as songwriters, Lennon and McCartney wrote so many high-quality, notable, and well-known tunes, and with such incredible variety, that casually interested listeners like yourself will frequently complain that although they like a lot of Beatles songs, there are a lot they can't seem to get into. Contrast this with most other groups or artists, where folks tend either like the bag that they work in and therefore dig them, or don't (but for maybe a song or two).

Yes, it is also true that, contrary to what some have thought, not every single Beatles song is an uncontestable masterpiece. But their batting average is orders of magnitude beyond most other prolific artists nonetheless. And though they were not the first Rock & Roll performers to write their own songs (Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, and Brian Wilson all had success at this before The Beatles arrived on the scene), they did set the standard, observed ever since, for the self-contained group which both writes and performs all its own material.

Now me saying this, or even its being true, is not going to - and is not supposed to - make you "like" The Beatles more than you presently do. I, for instance, generally like a lot of 20th century classical music much better than I do Mozart, even though I realize that one could not have come to be without the other. I acknowledge his genius even as I admit that it affects me less than it does others. When it comes to The Beatles, there is no "escaping" the Pop aspect of their work - either in the Tin Pan Alley sense of the word as it applies to song-craft, or in their literal popularity worldwide and their attitude towards fame and success. They were trying to be liked by as many people as they could and still touch them all artistically and emotionally. The Beatles did not engage, for the most part, in the willfull obtuseness that so many lesser-talented groups or artists have cultivated in their quests for "exclusivity" among their audiences. The Beatles didn't want a narrow, self-conscious, self-congratulatory audience, separate from other audiences by age or preference. They had what it took to have the whole world as an audience - and they knew it.

So you get songs old people can like, and songs kids can like (many of which, BTW, display a sense of humor that's almost entirely missing in today's simultaneously pretentious and sophomoric Rock). Musically, you get Rock both hard and soft, along with everything from good old Rock & Roll, to Folk Rock, to Experimental Rock, to Psychedelic Rock, to an amazing collection of what can only be described as Original Standards Rock, and all featuring a combination of singing, playing, arranging, and production that is without equal.

But perhaps more importantly, especially from the post-Beatlemania middle period onward, you get genuine, personal, intelligent, wise, and challenging artistic communication in almost every piece, that combined with the musical innovation, creates an impressionistic whole which makes most other artists' output seem disappointingly literal, posturing, and earthbound by comparision. Whereas other groups may have stood for more for rebellion, or sex, or fun, or violence, or drugs, or jamming, or dancing, or simply a fad of the moment, The Beatles always, first and foremost, stood for - and successfully embodied in their art - love. All of those things were representations of freedom, which defined the era - but only love is completely universal for everyone all the time. That is why The Beatles legacy still to this day towers over everything else in Rock.
To Cwlondon's original request ... the understanding of the Beales' music & evolution ...

Some good insight can be found in two books written by Walter Everett ... "The Beatles as Musicians." These two volumes are not always as easy read, but they help put the music into perspective.
Thank you everyone for so many thoughtful replies. Zaikesman -- superb post!

Your point about every song being an uncontestable masterpiece is exactly what I was talking about and why I was wondering if I was missing something, so your comments were a bit of a relief. Perhaps some people take Beatlemania a bit too far which I am sure was also fueled by John Lennons death.

But like your nod to Mozart, I am happy to "acknowledge (their) genius" and do want to spend more time with them and will try to take all of these comments on board.

FYI, I was born in 1964, high school 82, college 86, which ,to my mind, makes me somewhat musically homeless. The Beatles, Hendrix, Led Zeppelin were a bit before my time.

I thought I was pretty cool listening to Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin in 3rd grade on my Soundesign "stereo" with plastic speakers but probably didn't get it as much as I thought I did at the time.

In Junior High and High school, "new wave" was gaining in popularity -- bands like Devo, the B-52s, Talking Heads, Joe Jackson, Elvis Costello were popular where I grew up in Virginia Beach -- a wannabe California with a strong surfing pop cultural vibe despite the tiny waves and with suburban "old school" skateboard ramps made with stolen plywood.

Further to musical homelessness, my taste seemed to be stuck in between these two genres of pop/rock. I wasn't quite old enough to be versed in Hendrix, but a lot of the pop/new wave stuff that was considered so cool by my peers I found pretentious and lacking in legs.

So I was also listening to a bit of jazz, a bit of classical and curiously exploring some dreadful "audiophile" recordings and performances which I nonetheless loved for their "ear candy" qualities. (By that time, I had upgraded the Soundesign system -- a Technics receiver with Infinity Qa's was quickly replaced with Hafler amps and Maggie MG-1b's.) I also really loved Stevie Wonder who was certainly on the pop charts but by no means considered "cool" at the time.

If anyone has any opinions on the darker, more psychadelic Beatles albums/songs to focus on, I will continue my tour there. I would also be curious -- with no disrespect to the songwriting genius that was involved, what songs/albums would Beatles fans agree are the sappiest/poppiest?
Cw-you were born the same year as me,I can understand your comments totally,I didn't really seriously listen to the Beatles till about 6 years ago.......................
You could just pick up any Oasis LPs who for the past 6 years have been trying to replicate/honour their love of the Beatles. They just released a record on 07/02/2002 called "Heathen Chemistry". I would rate "Whats the Story Morning Glory" and their 1st LP "Definately Maybe" and "the Masterplan" which compiles some of their very good B Sides as good places to start.

Swaggering, pompous and in your face modern renditions of Beatles inspired tunes which ROK.
Some superb posts here, particularly Zaikesman, and a great thread. One aspect of the evolution of the Beatles' music which doesn't seem to be mentioned above is the emergence of "Album Rock" from the top 40 AM-based radio that took place starting in 1967-68 or so. Remember, most songs, to get any airplay on AM, had to be 3 minutes long or less, and the Beatles' earlier work was tailored to meet that restriction. It wasn't till Dylan's "Like a Rolling Stone" (which initially was played without the last two verses) that some of the longer, more complex work came to be played on AM radio, and then FM album rock stations started to spring up (WNEW FM here in NY, for example) which would play full album cuts, thereby freeing up the artists from the restrictions pop radio put on them. The Beatles' earliest work was geared for airplay; their later work was not all masterworks by any means, but clearly involved more complex music and lyrics and longer cuts. To some extent, I think you can probably attribute album rock and FM stations to the emerging maturity of the Beatles and their progeny; who knows, maybe you can draw an analogy to classical music, with the evolution from the Classical to the Romantic periods, as composers broke from the strictures of form to put more and more emotion into their music. Food for thought, anyway.
Hey CW,

I do agree with all of the above. To answer one of your questions...

Yes. In general, you can say that John Lennon's songs tend to lean towards rock and Paul McCartney's towards pop. That line blurred at times, but John's poppiest songs still tend to be a lot less bubblegum than Paul's. John was more heavily influenced by 50s rock and blues-based R&B. Paul was equally influenced by those styles, but I think he enjoyed the poppier elements where John seemed to prefer the grittier, more raw sound. "Come Together" and "I Am The Walrus" where John..."Blackbird" was Paul. I think "Blackbird" worked so well because it was simple, beautiful, and it's Paul's take on the civil rights struggle. I do like Paul's songs very much, but I do have issues with some of Paul's songs being "style over substance" (especially his solo stuff from the mid-70s on...), but "Blackbird" isn't one of them...I really think that was one of his songs with a lot of feeling and sincerity.

Overall, I think the best thing about the Beatles was that they did everything and they did it perfectly...sometimes all on one album. That approach does make them very hard to pin down. There really are no albums where they flat out rock, or any that are all pop. There is a huge amount of variety on all of their albums...less pronounced on the earlier records (and maybe "Let It Be"), and extrememly pronounced on records like "Revolver" and "The White Album". Both main writers were influenced by many different styles of songwriters, and they continued to remain open to various influences as they progressed...most of which were introduced directly, or indirectly, into their songs. I really do think that their amazing scope is one of the things that made them the influential, important band that they became. The leaps between albums were unpredictable and were the leaps between songs on a single album...yet they still managed to tie those disparate styles together and make them part of a cohesive whole. They weren't following trends as much as they were setting them, and I really think that helps to make them sound fresh today while so many of their contemporaries' work sounds extremely dated.

Like I said earlier...all of the above makes it hard to label one album as the "sappiest/poppiest". I'm looking through all of my Beatles albums and I think you might enjoy a lot of the songs on the "Past Masters Volume 2" CD. It's a collection of their singles...definitely some of their best, and not many ultra poppy Paul songs at all. As far as psychedelic goes...that's easy. "Revolver" features some of the earliest psychedelic songs ever, but there manys styles on the record, including plenty of Paul's poppiest numbers. "Sgt. Pepper's" is the obvious choice, but it does tend to represent the sunnier side of psychedelia. It was mostly Paul's project. There are some great John songs too, but they are some of his poppiest and most heavily arranged (though still interesting and great). The songs may not be your favorites, but I highly recommend checking it out for the excellent production and arrangements. It affected everything that was made after it. I think of "Magical Mystery Tour" as its evil twin. The songs aren't as strong overall, but the production and arrangements are equally inventive...darker and more avant garde than Sgt. Peppers. The songs strike me as darker too...even if that's not necessarily true, subject-wise. John was doing lots of psychedelics and Paul was doing lots of cocaine, and I do think that manifests itself in both interesting and not so interesting ways. The sense of the band members going in different directions begins with this album. The so-called "White Album" may be one of the best for you to begin checking out. The mood is a little less sunny and more melancholy overall, and the stylistic range is huge. They woke from the beautiful hippie dream and there was a lot of selfish, internal tension brewing. The split between John and Pauls' writing was drastic, and they often worked on their own songs in neighboring studios at Abbey Road, simultaneously (with George or Ringo, but not each other). It includes some of Paul's most rocking songs, three excellent George Harrison songs (and one great one), and some of John's most honest songs up to this point. It also includes John's experimental tape piece, "Revolution #9", which isn't for everyone and it's certainly not sappy pop. "Let It Be" was meant to be a return to basic, traditional guitar rock so you might like that one. It includes Paul's "The Long And Winding Road", but the rest does stick to the idea of them playing as a band once again, and the songs tend to be much less experimental than the preceeding albums. It sounds like you already heard "Abbey Road". That was the last album they recorded and it is generally divided into two distinct being John's and one being Paul's (and both featuring songs by George). I think it's great, but it does lack some of the sense of inspiration and comraderie that was so appealing on their earlier albums.'s amazing that they managed to forget some of their differences and create such an impressive record. I do think it sounds a little more dated than some of their others (maybe the use of the early synthesizer??), but I still enjoy it quite a bit.

I recommend trying all of their albums (especially those starting with "Beatles For Sale" and later) and see what you think. It sounds like you're bound to dislike much of Paul's output. That may be true, but I bet you'll still end up loving a minimum of 1/4 to 1/2 of every album. You can always buy them, listen to each, make your own CDs with all of your favorite songs, and re-sell the originals. Beatles CDs always sell on the used market. That's about the only way you'll ever be able to get a Beatles album with the mix if songs you prefer.

P.S. If you do find yourself preferring John's songwriting, you may want to check out his solo albums " The Plastic Ono Band" and "Imagine"...they're two of his best, and they go back to more of a basic style and leave most of the Beatles-like arrangements behind. Have fun!
Good points all - we could obviously go on talking Beatles 'til the walruses come home! I do find it interesting about CW's and Ben's ages, since I was also born in that providential year of 1964 (a little too late, if you're into the stuff I am), but was given my first Beatles records around the tender age of 6 or so (Rubber Soul first, then the Blue and Red 2-LP collections in that order).

In fact, permit me to tell a story about my first conscious exposure not only to The Beatles, but also to stereo equipment. Although my father was a classical and jazz record collector who frequently played music in the house during the evenings after dinner, when I was still young enough to go to bed before he started listening, his system and music never made much of an impression on me that I can remember, other than waking me up from time to time.

Back when I still had yet to receive the first little portable record player of my own, at a time when I would have been only 3 years old, my family (with me still as the only child) took the longest trip I had yet been on to see old friends of my father's. This couple had a son, who was probably in his late teens or early twenties at the time (my Dad remarried late) - the Summer of Love. He listened to headphones in their living room, and the sight of him with this contraption over his ears and long hair (remember how large 'phones were then? The coiled stretch cords?) apparently fascinated me.

He indicated he would put them on me and let me try them, and in one of my earliest memories at all of any kind, he got up and removed them from his head and placed them over mine, adjusting them as small as they would go. I didn't hear anything yet, but he went over to the record player and cued up something, which turned out to be the thing I had overheard him talking about with the assembled adults, and I recall hearing the phrase "Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and not knowing what that meant. Apparently it - whatever it was - was something worthy of discussion however, and seemed be known (at least in name - my folks didn't listen to Rock) to everyone there but me.

Having cued the turntable, he walked back past me where I was on the middle of the floor, telling me that the music would begin in a moment, and turned to sit down and face me on the couch, in between his mother and my parents as they all watched and waited to see my reaction. Not knowing exactly what to expect, I was awestruck when sound so loud I could see the adults laughing but not hear them, filled my head to what seemed like the extent of the whole world.

It was a kind of music I had never experienced before, and it affected me greatly. "Picture yourself in a boat on a river...Marmalade skies...Kaliedescope eyes...Boom! Boom! Boom!" He had cued up "Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds", and I was being thoroughly psychedelicized! I thought it was just the most incredible thing I had ever heard.

I have no memory myself of the next part of the story. I just remember listening, enraptured, until the headphones were removed and I could hear once again the adults for whom I was such a source of amusement. But my parents told me in later years that after the music began, and my eyes grew wide and my mouth went open, that I became so excited that I went and totally astonished them by literally turning a cartwheel right there on the carpet in front of the sofa, with the headphones still on me!

Now, understand - I do not know how to turn a cartwheel. I have never turned a cartwheel in my life, before or since that day. But I guess that there in that moment, hearing The Beatles for the first time, I was just moved so intensely by the spirit of the music that details like actually being able to perform this kind of stunt were rendered completely irrelevant. Anyway, it was, as they say, a very auspicious beginning to my future relationship with The Beatles and their music, and they have always been my favorite musical group ever since, and I'm sure always will be.

P.S. - The best book that I know of to read about the phenomenom the was The Beatles is called "Shout! The Beatles In Their Own Time", written by a journalist from an older generation who covered the group for a British newspaper during their heyday, and which was published in the 80's.
Zaikesman: Great story! Reminds me of when I was in grammar school and would curl up and go to sleep with my trusty transistor radio playing top-40. One night (mid-1960's) I woke up in the wee-hours and the strangest sounds were coming from under my blanket -never heard anything like it! Turned out to be Ravi Shankar. And I never heard surf-music again...
Hey, I like Ravi - and Jimi - as much as the next guy, but I loves me some surf music!! (And Dick Dale could be the bastard son of those two anyway...)
You may want to rent 'I am Sam' movie. It has wonderful Beatles sound tracks and the lyrics blend perfectly with the movie. It's hard to believe these songs are almost 30-40 years old. That's what makes the Beatles great.

My first Beatles song was 'Yesterday'. I heard it when I was 10 years old. I didn't understand the lyric yet but the song somehow just got me. Since then, I've been a Beatles fan. Their lyrics got more matured as its members got older and they never stop experimenting new sounds so they were ahead of their time. Now, most of the bands find a formula for top hits and they stick with it. Current bands sound pretty much similar to each other.