Saturday, May 12, 2012

The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World, Part II

by Derek Wildstar

[Editor's note: For those readers new to this blog, the below represents a response of sorts to the prior post, "The Greatest Rock and Roll Band in the World," which ran on September 29, 2011 and can be viewed here.]

The 'Stones? Really? They are perhaps the greatest purveyors of rock imagery ever. Fine. But to say that Rock and Roll is an attitude frames the question so as to beg the answer. We are talking about music, not behaviors. Music is art. Rock and Roll is a genre of music. Rock and Roll is thus art. In music as in life, God is in the details. Imitation may be the highest form of flattery, but some don't seek to dole compliments. The greatest musicians have something More in mind. They are driven not to refine, but to reprogram; to take the old mold, smash it to pieces, and set it out with the Monday evening trash. We didn't put a Man on the Moon by putting a larger engine and sleeker fins on a 1963 Chevrolet. No, getting there took something More. Rock will always be about something borrowed, but most importantly, it's about something new.

Once the question is properly framed, the answer becomes clear. The Beatles were the Greatest Rock and Roll band that ever was and ever will be. Why? [Deep breath.] It's not a simple matter. Their brilliance is so multi-faceted, so dense with so many overlapping layers, it would take an army of much smarter men than your writer a very long time to deconstruct it; assuming that is even possible. But we can try. Let's break what sets the Beatles apart from the 'Stones (and every other band in history), down into three discrete parts: Imagination, Ability, and Instinct.

Imagination. It all starts here. Like the greatest artists in our history, they did not innovate, they re-imagined. Never has a band so thoroughly created its own plane, it's own mode of existence, as did the Beatles. While outrageousness was sometimes present, it was always focused and employed for the sake of the music, not in the public creation of a marketable brand. While the band forged an eternal image in the popular consciousness and became icons among icons, they were much more concerned with the sound that resulted when they picked up their instruments.

Their creative implements were crude. Harnessing the voices inside their heads was a challenge unto itself. Per Wikipedia, the first practical sound recording and reproduction device was the phonographic cylinder, patented by Thomas Edison in 1878. So, when the Beatles first entered the studio in earnest in 1962, the World was just over four score into the reliable recording of sound. It was like Michelangelo trying to paint the roof of the Sistine Chapel with a only a five-gallon bucket and a six-inch wide horse hair brush. The Beatles grasped the challenge and used it as inspiration.

Their evolution was stunning. Within the first 12 months of their recording career, the they came up with this. By late 1966 (that's roughly 48 months later), they made it here using techniques such as "bouncing down," "varispeeding" combined with wah pedals and fuzzboxes (now common, then unknown), all on a four-track recording system that was designed to record a singer, guitar, bass, and drums. Just a year later, they were able to produce this. If the Wright Brothers had gone from flying 120 feet to circling the globe non-stop in the time it took them to finish high school, their advancement would have been no more remarkable. To make such a swift progression, the Beatles had to think in grandiose, but very well-defined, terms. What they sought to create was so massive, yet they could see it so clearly. It's like they could see the forest, and every single leaf on every single tree simultaneously. Even today, over 40 years later, their imagination is staggering. Perfectly realized art never fades into obscurity.

Ability. As a species, we are anxious to ascribe greatness to a person or thing. We overuse superlatives. Anyone who comes up with a good technological idea is "brilliant." Such brevets must be used more sparingly. True brilliance is much more rare than we try to make it. It is most clearly demonstrated in art. You can see it and Hear it, and know that you've never experienced anything like it before and never will again. (Don't believe me? Go the Museum of Modern Art in New York and stand in front of Starry Night for 10 minutes.) It wraps itself around you and drenches your thoughts. Such brilliance cannot be learned. It is 99.99% nature. It will emerge from the artist whether he is born to a seaman in Liverpool or a landed nobleman in Venice. I refer to such artists as "Supernatural." Their ability is so far beyond that of the mortals that surround them (even the merely great artists of their peer group; Eric Clapton is a great guitarist, Jimi Hendrix was Supernatural) that it cannot be explained by any Law of Nature.

To a man, the Beatles were not just good or great. They were Supernatural. Their talent ran so fantastically deep that, when it was unleashed, it did nothing less than change the entire world. It shone from them like summer sun off a windshield. Like William Shakespeare picking up a quill, its emergence was inevitable. They had that Look in their eyes; that singular focus that tells you that a person was put on this earth by some power that we cannot comprehend to do a very specific thing. There is no other way you can describe the response they generated from those that saw them at peak vitality. There was no luck to what they did. It was programmed in them at some sub-microscopic level that we will never understand. Ability.

Instinct. Nothing lasts forever. Art evolves. The masters can see around the next corner before the world gets there. They create what lies around the bend. As good as the Beatles were as musicians, they were equally astute at knowing what to do and when. First, they hooked the world with smiles, short hair, innocence, teen hijinks, and kinetic energy. Then, perfectly on cue, they reached out past the edges of the world as they knew it. They expanded their minds and mode of thinking, soaking up something very foreign and weaving it perfectly into an evolutionary musical fireball. This fearless departure from the path that made them famous is a badge of their instinct. In hindsight it seems like a natural and foreseeable progression. At the time, it was the boldest of strokes. (What if the world had tuned out?) Then, as the energy of psychedelia ebbed, they stripped down and moved back towards their roots, with avant-garde embellishments that laid a creative foundation for genres and sub-genres to follow. It was a exhilarating and dynamic process.

At every step, their timing was perfect. There was never a misfire. It always felt not just fresh or new, but revolutionary. Never once, did they pause too long in a movement. They were always just up around the bend from the mortals who chased them. The brief arc of their career was marked by sustained, intense brilliance. They never let addictions drive wedges between them or adulterate the music; substances were used, but as a propellant. They knew that where a concert was a brief moment in time for the fortunate few who saw it, albums live forever. There wasn't time for everything. Thus, in 1966, they played their last proper concert just 30 months after their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. Energy staved not running around stages in loud dress was funneled into recorded excellence. (Does the Beatles' relative lack of stage performance legacy detract one iota from their place in history? Of course not!) The result was beyond criticism.

Alas. Nothing lasts forever. Viciously strong forces tore at them. They could never have been the exception to the rule. But the last resounding mark of their brilliance was how they responded when they felt their Light threaten to dim. There could only be those four. They had to be perfect. They had  to evolve. When that became impossible, when the path that led to the End became visible, there was only one solution. It was the impossible choice. The world would have loved them forever. The fortunes they could have amassed (on top of the ones they did) by simply continuing to exist defy the imagination. New personnel could have replaced the disgruntled. But at some very near point, the music would have suffered, and they knew it. The scholars and critics would have tuned out, replaced by nostalgists buying the music because of the name attached to it, and nothing more. No way. They could never let the perfection of what they created be spoiled by their own obsolescence. So, in a final, masterful stroke of brilliance driven by their unfailing instinct, they pulled the Plug. Just eight short years after they became the Four, the Greatest Rock and Roll Band that ever was or will be resigned to the Ages. Could it have been any other way?

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