The Beatles’ start off just wanting to be popular. Their songs are structured around singable melodies, appealing vocals, appropriate lyrics, catchy hooks. So the first few albums are trying to showcase these songs - production is genius in terms of how it pares back any sort of “noise” and just puts those elements front and centre.
I could quote a Beatles lyric and you’ll be singing the whole verse right back to me, instantly, easily, from memory. How many bands can you do that for? (“If there’s anything that you want” and away you go, right?)
That’s the first few albums, Please Please Me to Help!. Which is the essential among them? Well they’re all pretty similar - all geared toward the same purpose - but my vote would go to A Hard Day’s Night, just because it’s the first album without any covers on it.
Now if the Beatles had been a typical group, the pressures that led them to quit touring would’ve been the same pressures that saw them call it a day then and there. But instead - for a million possible reasons (their innate personalities, an increased social awareness, drug exposure, who can say) - they start experimenting and going beyond what they’d been up to before then.
So Rubber Soul and Revolver are best understood as a sort of creative awakening: “Hey, hold on a sec. Why don’t we replace the guitar here with a sitar? Why don’t we have a string quartet as the backing band? Why don’t we write a song depicting love through memory? Why don’t we write a song that’s not a love-song?”
The experiments yield fruit: the music made is fascinating. The aim is still, at heart, to write pop songs - songs that instantly delightfully stand out to your ears, but oh boy do they way extend the vocabulary of the music. For that reason, Revolver is almost universally considered one of the best pop albums ever recorded - it is so damn listenable! Everything is geared toward giving you the listener as direct a connection with the core song as possible, but also to excite, interest, delight you. It’s perfect.
So what makes Sgt. Pepper’s such a game changer is its expression of a new epiphany regards music, and specifically toward music production. What if production were not only a tool for the sake of the song, but an end unto itself? What if that was placed front and centre?
I think if they hadn’t appreciated this, the Beatles would’ve run out of steam immediately post-Revolver and it’d have been the high-water mark of their career. But this insight changes things entirely, and what comes out is a huge, detailed, psychedelic universe of sound that gives a new lease to their career and changes everything in popular music.
Then the problems start entering the story. Differences of interest, personal conflicts, the fragmentation of a cohesive goal. Sgt Pepper’s was such a revolution, but where do you go after that?
So the albums following, The Beatles, Abbey Road, Let It Be, are frustrating as well as brilliant. By now these guys are absolute masters at every aspect of pop songwriting/producing. There’s not a moment where the listener would be bored or turned off in those albums. And there’re so many new ideas to be found in each album, from lyrical focusses to song structures to production experiments. It’s stellar material. But.
But they lack the unity of the earlier work, and the difference of attitudes between the various band members express themselves as flaws in what they produce. In terms of individual songs, these albums are as good, sometimes better, as anything that came before. But as albums, they’re a little discordant. This works to The Beatles’ advantage - it comes across like a toy chest filled with all sorts of unique parcels - but the other albums, ah not so much.
So essential Beatles?
Revolver. Pop music at its finest.
Sgt. Pepper’s. The revolution of production.
The Beatles. Masterful songwriting, amazing variety of attention.
Fashion works because rich people try to look richer than middle class people and middle class people try to look like rich people. Everyone is trying to look high-class. Rich people try to avoid being mistaken for middle-class people, and middle-class people do their best to be mistaken for rich people. That’s what causes the cycles: the rich have the money to buy new wardrobes, but the moment the middle class save up and buy a similar wardrobe the middle class have to change.
Imagine all the rich people are wearing purple. Then all the middle class people change their entire wardrobe to purple because rich people are wearing it. That takes a few months. Then rich people realize this. They now look just like middle class people! They have to change colors again. So they change colors to red. A few months later, all the middle class people are wearing read and the cycle repeats.
It used to be that an easy way to make everyone know you’re rich is to wear exorbitantly expensive clothes. Clothes draped with jewels are an example. Middle class people used to be unable to look like that due to there being no cheap substitute. Another example is the perception of body weight. It used to be that only rich people could get enough food and work little enough to be fat. In the middle ages, being fat was a sign a person is part of the rich elite.
The problem is that food quickly became plentiful and physical labor decreased. Being fat was no longer something only rich people could do. It changed to something it takes conscious effort to avoid. Being fat then meant that a person is too poor to eat a balanced diet or take time out of their day to exercise. Soon enough, the relationship inverted: poor people are fat and rich people are thin. Being fat stopped being the height of fashion. Same with jewels: when a middle-class person can buy clothes with giant fake gems that look the same as real gems from a distance, rich people look like middle-class people.
Rich people are running away from middle-class fashion and middle-class people are chasing after high-class fashion. The problem is that now production of clothes that mimic high-class fashion is cheap. A middle-class person can mirror it closely. Rich people still wear noticeably higher-quality clothing, but it is possible to mistake a Hollywood celebrity for a middle-class person at a glance. There isn’t really a fashion so extravagant that a middle-class person cannot do a reasonable impression of it.
So what do rich people do? They mimic poor people. A rich person wearing torn clothing doesn’t look poor. The clothing is obviously expensive and high-quality. A rich person wearing $1,000 torn jeans looks like a rich person wearing $1,000 torn jeans, not a person too poor to afford jeans. However, a middle-class person cannot afford the $1,000 pair. A middle-class person wearing this style could actually look like a bum. My torn jeans don’t look like high fashion. They look like I’ve been doing yard work.
Middle-class people cannot risk those fashions. They might end up looking poor, which is far worse than looking middle-class. But the rich are so obviously not poor that they can pull of those styles and not have anyone think they’re poor.
It’s all about looking rich.
Fun video: Rosana by Wax
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