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Beatlemania: What accounts for Fab Four’s staying power?

Beatlemania: What accounts for Fab Four’s staying power?

Beatlemania: What accounts for Fab Four’s staying power?
December 06
09:02 2018
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Giles Martin, the son of legendary Beatles producer George Martin, has returned to the original recording sessions for the “White Album” for a box set that includes demos, 50 studio outtakes and remixes. The new set coincides with the album’s 50th birthday. (Nov. 7) AP

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A recent Monmouth University poll found that the Beatles were far and away the most popular rock band of all time. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, and Ken Womack, a noted Beatles scholar and dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at Monmouth University, discussed the findings in a Q&A with Press Editorial Page Editor Randy Bergmann. 

The Beatles performed together for only about seven years. And it’s been 48 years since they broke up.  How remarkable is that The Beatles remain the most popular rock band of all time?  And that 86 percent of those polled said they like the band?

Womack: Their longevity underscores just how special they are in this regard. As John Lennon pointed out during the 1970s, the records are their most important artifacts. It is the high quality of the recordings — in particular, the songwriting and musicianship that went into them — that accounts for their staying power.

Three times as many people named The Beatles their favorite band as the runnerup, The Rolling Stones. And only five other bands were named by 2 percent or more as their favorite — AC/DC, Led Zeppelin, The Eagles, Aerosmith and Queen. How do you account for that huge gap between The Beatles and pretty much everyone else?

Womack: To my mind, this gap demonstrates just how far above the field the Beatles exist — both then and now. They outclass their peers in every possible way, earning them this very kind of extreme outlier status.

It seemed somewhat surprising that Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band was only named people’s favorite group by 1 percent of those polled. Given Springsteen’s enormous popularity as a concert draw, and one whose success has spanned four decades, why do you think he didn’t capture a larger share of the vote?

Murray: That’s a very Jersey-centric question.  If you were from Seattle, you might ask the same about Nirvana. And let’s not forget the Grateful Dead’s avid fan base.  In many of these cases you will find that a large number of people are big fans of each of these groups but will still acknowledge the Beatles as a cut above in terms of their impact on the trajectory of rock music.

Perhaps even more surprising than Springsteen not capturing more of the vote was the relatively small percentage that named Elvis Presley their favorite rock act — also just 1 percent. I would have thought the older demographic at least would have put him in the top tier.  Wasn’t he considered a bona fide rock act?

Womack: He certainly was — and is. I’ve long argued that Elvis should enjoy a much larger platform at this point in time. Many of the errors in maintaining the longevity of his reputation occurred very early after his death at the behest of his estate, which clamped down on the usage of his image and music. Precious years were lost in which Elvis simply disappeared from the larger music marketplace, and hence millennials, in particular, have neglected to register his presence as a compelling and influential act.

Murray: You need to remember that the question in our poll asked people to name their favorite rock “band or group.”  Elvis was a single act.  However, it’s worth noting that a Pew poll in 2009 individually asked about nearly 30 different music acts. The Beatles easily surpassed every single one of them in popularity, including timeless classics like Elvis, Sinatra and Aretha.

The poll found that nearly 25 percent considered the Beatles to be politically liberal. What accounts for that view? John Lennon (and Yoko Ono)?  Is there a perception out there that Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and George Harrison leaned (or lean) one way or the other?  

Womack: The only surprise for me is that the percentage is not higher. At the height of their influence, the Beatles existed as one of the most progressive artistic fusions of all time. Their songs asked challenging questions about the place of women (“Lady Madonna”) and civil rights (“Blackbird”) in our culture, while grappling with religion (“Eleanor Rigby”) and unabashedly calling for a universal peace (“All You Need Is Love”). In recent years, McCartney has demonstrated his political leanings with the march against gun violence in New York City just last year and his latest LP Egypt Station, which includes a blistering critique of President Trump.

The poll found that the Beatles had remarkably broad, consistent appeal among every age, racial and political group. How do you account for that?

Murray: No matter your musical taste, there is always a Beatles song you can slip into a streaming playlist and it won’t sound out of place.  Blues, classical, metal, pop, funk, country rap, children’s tunes — you name it.  Plus no musical act has had more cover versions of their songs than the Beatles. That’s a testament to how fresh and universal they are.

Despite The Beatles’ relatively short run, their music evolved greatly during that time. Have you, or any other researchers, ever analyzed their popularity at various periods, or with their various albums, along demographic lines? For instance, do people who liked some of their simpler, happier songs more than the music from their later period differ in any substantial way?

Womack: The signal moment for Beatles demographics occurs, to my reasoning, in 1965 with the release of “Yesterday,” “In My Life” and “Michele,” which grew the band’s fan base considerably. Prior to that period, they were a teen act, mostly appreciated by girls and young women. But with more adult-oriented songs and George Martin’s deployment of orchestral arrangements, their demographic exploded. In 1966, the double A-sided “Eleanor Rigby” b/w “Yellow Submarine” topped the charts, drawing in classical music listeners and children in virtually the same instant.

What is your favorite Beatles’ song?

Womack: My favorite is the multipart “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” from The White Album. But when it comes to their most important song, that honor belongs to “A Day in the Life,” hands down. It was a bravura artistic statement that has passed the test of time and then some.

Murray: I can’t pick just one.  “I Should Have Known Better,” “Nowhere Man,” “Eleanor Rigby,” and “Here Comes the Sun” seem to make the most appearances on my playlist.

Who is your favorite rock band?   

Womack: For pure onstage energy, that vaunted space belongs to the Who. For high-octane rock ’n’ roll, I go with Led Zeppelin. But the Beatles were the total package. They were virtuosic singers and musicians representing one of the finest songwriting effusions of their time. They were at home in nearly any style, challenging themselves with each successive album to try out new sounds and musical textures. They are music’s black swan — the rarest bird among the flock.

Murray: Let’s cut to the chase: it’s the Beatles. When I was 6 my older sister got “Abbey Road” for Christmas.  I think I listened to it more than she did. At the same time, I had also been playing the soundtrack from “A Hard Day’s Night” on our hi-fi. I don’t know how long it took before I finally realized that these two albums were made by the same band, but when I did, my mind was blown. No other band has ever come close.

Source: Beatlemania: What accounts for Fab Four’s staying power?

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Martin Nethercutt

Martin Nethercutt

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