Infernal Ramblings
A Malaysian Perspective on Politics, Society and Economics

Analysing the Beatles' Success

Written by johnleemk on 12:18:22 pm Jun 9, 2005.

As anybody who knows me well is aware of, I'm a fan of the Beatles (or at least their music). So, for fun, I've decided to analyse the Beatles' astounding success. After all, there's never been a band like them, and there never will be another one like them, in all probability. To date, they're the only musicians ever to occupy every spot in Billboard's Top 5 in the charts. They're also the only ones to have had back-to-back-to-back (taking over from themselves twice) number ones in the Billboard charts. Not to mention that they (or their estates) are still making oodles of money off everything to do with them. But why is this?

Of course, the Beatles got themselves off the ground in Hamburg, to begin with, where they performed near brothels. (In their offstage time, they occupied themselves with, among other things, peeing on nuns and burning condoms. The latter got them deported.) They sound like a pretty hardcore band, don't they? After all, any musical act admitting that today would probably be in serious hot soup. Yet, somehow, this band evolved into that group which gave us syrupy renderings of songs like "A Taste of Honey", "Love Me Do" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand".

How? Simple — marketing. They were marketed as a boy band, through and through, when their records came out. As one fan has put it, they were smiling "like fags" and wearing roses on their hearts to appeal to fans. Although they differed from modern day boy bands in numerous aspects — to name a few, they wrote their own music and played their own instruments — they still made themselves out to be these sweet young men who would love nothing more than to dance with you ("I Saw Her Standing There").

Of course, did this change their personalities? I can safely answer in the negative. The Beatles were still the same old rebels (anyone remember the "Christianity will die out" comment?). Nevertheless, their marketing was for young pre-teen to early teen girls. This was what was behind their incredible success in the early days; the songs behind the records I mentioned in the opening paragraph were all catering to the tween audience: "I Want To Hold Your Hand", "Can't Buy Me Love", etc.

Then, things changed. Naturally, we ask, how? Again, it's simple — money. By 1965, the Beatles had made enough money to retire comfortably and do whatever they felt like doing (as they all did). Thus, their music began to head into uncharted waters. The process had already begun earlier; can you imagine a boy band singing "A Hard Day's Night" or "Things We Said Today" now, let alone writing and performing it on the guitar?

I think it can be safely said that the first album to fully shed the boy band image was Rubber Soul in 1965. The Beatles had already released an album earlier that year, Help! that featured unconventional songs but still had a cover version or two and a couple of tracks such as "It's Only Love" thrown in to appease the fangirls. However, by then, the Beatles were beginning to develop a more unique image; for example, the Beatles were so annoyed at Paul McCartney's "Yesterday" because they felt it clashed with their image. The song may have been syrupy, but the numbers speak for themselves: this song is the most covered song in the world, according to the Guinness Book of World Records, and was the third-most often played song of the 20th century in America, according to BMI. (You can read all about "Yesterday" here; I wrote most of it myself).

Anyhow, Rubber Soul was the first album to feature only original songs. No cover versions to be found here. Rubber Soul brought out new facets of the Beatles' personalities; one example can be found in "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" which features George Harrison's love for the sitar, and John Lennon's pessimism (although ironically, the cynical twist in the song was added by Paul McCartney; you can read about it here, which I also wrote). Indeed, Rubber Soul is one of the most depressing albums in the Beatles' collection; other than "Norwegian Wood", you have the "Girl" who always puts you down, "Run For Your Life" with its death threat, "You Won't See Me" with an immature girlfriend, and "I'm Looking Through You", which depicts yet another ill-fated romance; all these contrast deeply with the sugary, optimistic "let's hold hands" love of the earlier years.

This hard-coreness perhaps reached its peak on the Beatles' self-titled album, also commonly referred to as The White Album. Although this album did have a few catchy, light songs, such as "Honey Pie" and "Ob-la-di, Ob-la-da", it mostly features rockers like "Back in the USSR", "Helter Skelter", "Happiness Is A Warm Gun" and "Why Don't We Do It In the Road?".

And then, suddenly, the Beatles broke up, in 1969. They did release an album and a movie the following year (both were titled Let It Be), but these were essentially made in the editing booth; the Beatles had dumped the album project for a failure and handed the tapes to Phil Spector, and the movie was supposed to document the aforementioned album's production.

It is due to this sudden break-up, I believe, that the iconic popularity of the Beatles has never waned. Of course, few people really know the Beatles' music, and indeed, most still associate it with their biggest hits or only think of them as outmoded losers from the 60s. Nevertheless, that their name can still appear on everyone's lips whenever rock music is mentioned indicates how embedded in popular culture the Beatles are. It's as though they've ceased being just musicians and become something beyond that. Compare this with their contemporaries, The Rolling Stones, who never stopped performing. How many even know who these guys are?

Of course, it's probably due to more than just that. I mean, Queen broke up too, as did The Eagles. And what about Badfinger, or The Police? Yet, mention any of these names to young music fans and all you'll get is a "Huh?". These names mean nothing to almost everyone. Even The Stones haven't sunk that low. How did this happen?

I certainly can't explain why The Rolling Stones still have a shred of popularity left, but I think another big factor in the Beatles' (and John Lennon's) immortalisation was John Lennon's murder in 1980. Hundreds of anguished fans committed suicide. It was a huge, gigantic news, and totally wrecked everyone's dreams of reuniting the Beatles someday. That shock in itself, of realising that a reunion was now impossible, probably did the whole thing in.

But then, to cement things even more, Lennon was an iconic figure in himself. While McCartney dawdled with his pop songs (thanks to this, more people can only think of his failures than his great solo songs, like "Let Me Roll It" or "My Love"), Lennon was campaigning for peace (actually, so did Harrison, but somehow that received less coverage) and generally making a whole lot of noise. Lennon's popularity and name-recognition in itself assured that the Beatles would be remembered for several more generations.

And yet, this doesn't fully explain the picture. After all, Freddie Mercury of Queen died early, yet Queen aren't as looked up to. Mercury himself was no less of a controversial figure; he was homosexual, after all, and died of AIDS. How can you explain the astounding popularity and success of the Beatles?

Can it actually be? Yes, I think it just might be...the boy band image! "How?" you may ask (for the umpteenth time). Well, let's see...the boy band image sold records, which set records (pun unintended)...records that stand to this day. The boy band image immortalised them as these handsome young men out to hold your hand. That is an immortal theme in itself. After all, who doesn't want to hold hands with four nice-looking, friendly guys in suits? So I guess it's a combination of factors. The Beatles' phenomenal success can't be chalked up to either their boy band image or their later hard core rocker depiction. Instead, it's probably both.

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