A is for Art part II: “You look so fancy I can tell”
Popular music has evolved across the centuries of its existence from what is now known as “classical” (with the lowercase “c”) to its current “it’s not just awful… it’s god-awful” state. Nevertheless, “pop” music as it stands came into being at the end of the nineteenth century. The songwriters of Tin Pan Alley dominated the pop landscape while simultaneously inspiring songwriters around the world to expand the scope of pop songcraft for decades, until the radio overtook live performances of standards as the key method of dissemination of pop music.
With this change, pop took its next major step. The word “pop” came to mean (and is used here in reference to) every genre of music that received radio airplay and wasn’t classical. This change also meant that the artist became as important (or more so) than the song. Elvis Presley embodied this ideal, introducing rock and roll music to the average American in the 1950s and bringing the sexuality of black performers from that time to the (openly or otherwise) racist population. In the late ’50s, Elvis engendered so much controversy that he was notoriously filmed only from the waist up during an appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, so as not to advance the “moral corruption of America’s youth”.
Elvis was undeniably the first rock star, and his success as an artist is rivaled by only one other band in the history of modern pop. And really, if you don’t know which band it was, you probably ought not be reading this.
The Beatles are the most influential band of all time. The movements and trends that they started or popularized are innumerable, among them musicians writing their own material, the concept of a band “exploring their sound”, and even a large degree of the rock star/drug mythology.
The Beatles were also the first band to craft “albums” as an entity in and of itself rather than a collection of singles padded with filler. Their penchant for having “all killer, no filler” records famously led The Beach Boys‘ Brian Wilson to scrap the band’s next scheduled project and record Pet Sounds. (Unfortunately for Wilson, this is not the only time the Beatles irrevocably altered the course of his life. We’ll get to that.) The Beatles’ records altered the music landscape, making the album rather than the single the key selling point for any band for several decades, until digital downloading and falling record sales caused a listener-led reversion to the single format in the early twenty-first century.
None of these things are the real keys to the Beatles’ continuing influence, however. The band grew throughout their existence, reaching a turning point with the release of Revolver in 1966. The experience of recording and the end product led the band to do something previously unthinkable. After a show at Candlestick Park in San Francisco on August 29, 1966, the band retreated to the studio, never to tour again.
The reason for this is simple: the band’s ideas could no longer be replicated live. Paul McCartney and John Lennon’s songwriting had evolved beyond the instruments that made up their touring band, and soon George Harrison’s own skills became evident. There was simply no way for the band to play in concert what they had recorded.
The first result of this studio-exile is also (as pointed out by Richie Unterberger) the first capital-A Art album in the history of pop music.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band is the most influential record in the whole of pop music. Whether it is the best Beatles album is totally irrelevant; in fact, most of the band’s fans will name another of their records when asked which is their favorite. However, none of the other records accomplished what Sgt. Pepper did.
After 1967, pop musicians no longer had rules to follow. The Beatles destroyed the concept that a record had to be anything other than what the band felt like crafting in the studio. For better or and often for worse, a band’s ambition is the only limit on what they can create.
Just ask Brian Wilson. The Beach Boys had been working on their follow-up to Pet Sounds, entitled SMiLE. The project ran into trouble as Wilson attempted greater and greater feats of recording ninjutsu in order to surpass the Beatles. After he heard “Strawberry Fields Forever” (not part of Sgt. Pepper’s, I know, but still recorded in those sessions), Wilson commented that the British band had “got there first”. This was one of the final nails in the coffin for SMiLE, which would go on to gain significant fame as a great lost work and did not see an official release for 37 years after it was supposed to have come out, and even then only after some significant reworking.
It’s safe to say the Beatles had a profound effect on Brian Wilson.
Do the other considerations (read: money) still factor into the major-label musicians’ decisions? Of course. But the fact is that a band can still do what they wish if it comes to that, perhaps most famously illustrated by Wilco‘s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. After the album was recorded, Reprise Records dropped the band from the label, calling the album “too unconventional to market”. After several months in limbo, Wilco signed with Nonesuch Records, which released the album to overwhelmingly positive reviews and the band’s greatest commercial success to that point.
(There are two lessons about the music business in this anecdote: first, many music executives are total idiots, although this is true of executives in any industry. Second, Reprise and Nonesuch are both subsidiaries of the same media conglomerate; this means that not only did Time Warner give up on a highly successful album, they gave it up for free and then bought it back. And these are the people who are trying to regulate music purchasing.)
It’s blatantly obvious that nearly every English-singing pop band of the past forty years bears the mark of the Beatles. It’s possible, even probable, that some other musician or group would have led pop’s evolution, but as Brian Wilson said, the Beatles got there first. There have been more than a few classic albums that have been elevated to the status of “Art”; none of them would exist as they do if the Beatles had not made Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.