50 Years On: The Truth Beneath the Blather

50 beatles small

Beatlefan Executive Editor Al Sussman takes on all those whiners from Beatles fandom making so much noise on social media of late …

Well, it certainly has been an interesting few months in the Beatleworld. There was the run of 50th anniversaries of the historic events that culminated in The Beatles’ breakthrough in America, the release of important new books by Mark Lewisohn and Kevin Howlett, a second official set of Beatles BBC recordings, followed in December by the release of a 50-plus track package of studio outtakes and more Beeb material via iTunes to keep said material in copyright in Europe.

In the new year, there was the release (for the second time, in most cases) of CDs of The Beatles’ U.S. albums and the appearance on the Grammy Awards of Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney (who, during this same period, had racked up another Top 5 album with “New” and five Grammy wins).

The next night, a Grammy-driven CBS-TV special saluting The Beatles was taped, with performances by McCartney and Starr (separately and together), but also a number of contemporary or semi-contemporary acts.

It all climaxed two weeks later with a very exciting weekend-plus for the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ arrival in America and their historic live debut on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” New York City alone had a series of concerts and events under the umbrella heading Fab50NYC while the Fest For Beatles Fans very successfully returned to NYC even as the marquee on the Ed Sullivan Theatre was made to look as it did 50 years before.

A casual observer would probably think that this might have been the best time to be a Beatles fan since the rollout of the “Anthology” project in November 1995. But that same casual observer would have gotten quite a different impression through a perusal of social media outlets and blogs over those last months of 2013 and early 2014. Indeed, the chief impression would have been of a terminally cranky fandom prone to premature overreaction, minute overanalysis, and a good deal of musical elitism.

The fact that some 8,000 turned out for the NYC Fest and that the Grammy salute attracted such a large (for 2014 network TV) audience that an encore telecast was shown just three nights later was almost beside the point, given the volume of noise coming from at least a portion of Beatles fandom.

What sort of noise? Well, when advance word of the package of 1963 recordings being released in mid-December leaked out, but nothing had happened shortly after midnight on the date of presumed release, there were online cries of a “public relations disaster for Apple,” despite the fact that Apple has never addressed the recordings and the European copyright issue. Some nine hours later, of course, the package went up on U.S. iTunes and was greeted with complaints about the compressed sound on the half-century-old BBC performances.

That was nothing, though, compared with the caterwauling that went on after the announcement of the release of the set of The Beatles’ U.S. albums and a subsequent statement that indicated certain tracks that had been released in the U.S. in reverb-slathered form in 1964-65 would be replaced by the best available sources from the 2009 remasters. Despite the fact that no one had heard as much as a note from even the sampler that preceded the set, one would have thought that the “Mona Lisa” had been defaced.

There were days of social media squalling that the albums with which people grew up (in the U.S., that is) were not being faithfully re-created for this set of reissues. Of course, the complainers conveniently overlooked the fact most of these albums were being made available separately in physical form and all the tracks would be available separately via iTunes and the other digital music platforms, so it was necessary to represent these albums and especially the individual tracks with the best-sounding versions, while still keeping the spirit of the American releases. Besides, these complainers very likely already had CDs of most of the Capitol Beatles albums, with the 1964-65 U.S. mixes via the widely praised 2004 and 2006 “Capitol Albums” sets.

Predictably, when the “U.S. Albums” set was released in January and turned out to be a very listenable commercial product with only a handful of tracks that didn’t conform to the ’60s mixes and superior packaging to the 2004-06 sets, the level of noise coming from social media dropped precipitously. Yes, Doug Sulpy devoted an entire issue of The 910 to a pretty negative dissection of the set, but Jeff Slate’s more evenhanded (and far shorter) take in Beatlefan #206 is closer to reality.

And then there was the reaction to both the Grammy Awards telecast and the CBS-TV salute to The Beatles two weeks later. First, on Grammy night, there was the whining about why Ringo played with McCartney’s band on “Queenie Eye” and not a Beatles song, despite the common knowledge that both would be performing on the Grammy Beatles salute that would be taped the next night.

Then, after the Feb. 9 telecast of the salute special, the elitists came out of the woodwork to complain about the acts who performed on the show, particularly the more contemporary ones like Katy Perry and Pharrell, as if they weren’t worthy of performing Beatles songs. Obviously, these are people who have never seen the abysmal “Beatles nights” on the alleged “talent” shows on network TV. The only way to make Beatles songs boring is to put them in the hands of the mediocrities that emerge from shows like “American Idol,” not proven 21st century hitmakers.

Witnessing all of this blather, the aforementioned casual observer probably wonders how there could be so much excitement over The Beatles 50 years on if their fandom is so relentlessly negative. Well, the truth is that all of those bloviators in Facebookland and the Twitterverse and various and sundry blogs and podcasts make up a very loud but decidedly minor segment of the real Beatles fandom, a 21st century echo of the media naysayers who pooh-poohed The Beatles 50 years ago.

In “Changin’ Times: 101 Days That Shaped a Generation,” I examine how the nearly all-male and middle-aged U.S. media of 1964 rejected The Beatles as nothing but a teen fad that was greatly helped by the alleged emotional fallout among the young from the assassination of President Kennedy, completely ignoring the group’s music or its members.

In the book and in previous pieces I’ve done on The Beatles’ breakthrough in America, I’ve noted that the crucial elements that made them arguably the greatest of all pop culture phenomena was the group’s very new, high-quality music and the unique personalities that emerged from each member.

Fifty years on, those are still the elements most important in the ongoing Beatles phenomenon. No other act — especially one that basically ceased to exist 44 years ago and two members of which are gone from this life — could have produced the kind of palpable excitement that was very much a part of the mid-winter scene in New York in the first week of February 2014.

And a crucial reason for that excitement is the multi-generational appeal of The Beatles. Looking at the audiences at the Fab50NYC events and the attendees at the Fest, one would have seen several generations, ranging from toddlers to white-haired baby boomers, who, as writer/NYC Beatles tour guide Susan Ryan put it in a fan-shot video, “like The Beatles and like their songs.” And those are the people who make up the largest segment of Beatles fandom.

I’ve come to realize this in recent years, in my various roles with the Fest, particularly trivia and “Name That Tune” competitions, participating in chat room discussions with the Beatle Brunch Club, and hearing fan requests and messages to the various weekend Beatles radio shows, on terrestrial and Internet radio.

1 album cover

But the most tangible manifestation of this is the ongoing success of the biggest-selling album of the 21st century’s first decade and the only real competition for Adele’s “21” for this decade’s sales leader, the 27-track collection of Beatles No. 1 singles called “1.”

As I’ve pointed out numerous times before, “1” is an album that, over some 13 ½ years, has been mainly bought by or for young Beatles fans or casual consumers of their music. In that time frame, every time there has been the kind of spurt in sales of Beatles albums that we saw in the weeks immediately after the 50th anniversary hoopla, “1” has been the sales leader. And, by a wide margin, “1” has been the biggest-selling and most commercially successful of ALL of the 44 years’ worth of post-breakup Beatles releases.

Yet, many of the hardcore “fans” who spent so much of this winter whining about the iTunes package or the “U.S. Albums” set or Maroon 5 performing “All My Loving” on the CBS special don’t own “1,” or bought it only as a completist and look down their noses at it as some needless collection that only “nonserious” fans would want.

And that’s how the hardcore begin to sound as cynical as the media of 1964. In obsessing over mixes and in which channel the guitar is placed and whether Take 17 of a given song sounds superior to Take 9, they’ve stopped enjoying the music and are never happy or satisfied with anything.

It’s as if they now live just to criticize this or that aspect of new releases, as if Beatles music is now just something to be analyzed and criticized, rather than really listened to and enjoyed for its considerable musical merits.

They’re all wrapped up in why the mix isn’t “the one I grew up with.” Or McCartney singing “Queenie Eye” in his “old man voice” on the Grammy show. And how dare Katy Perry deign to sing “Yesterday,” and in such a torchy, overly dramatic way, even though female vocalists, in particular, have been singing it that way for five decades! And on and on …

Hopefully, our casual observer will back away from social media land, pick up “1” or the reissued “Meet The Beatles!” or the “On Air” BBC collection and let the still nearly irresistible music of the entertainment phenomenon of two centuries drown out the blather.

— Al Sussman

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12 Responses to 50 Years On: The Truth Beneath the Blather

  1. kitotoole says:

    Some things never change. Remember all the insane mail we got at Beatlefan during Anthology? People whined about the sound quality, selections, etc. of the accompanying CDS. When the catalog was finally remastered in 2009, some complained about the precise techniques. And yes, I too get sick of the “1” backlash. Many from my age group bought it, and I’m glad. It provides as great an overview of their music as any other collection. If it inspires then to delve further into the albums, even better!

  2. Karen Dyson says:

    Well said Al!

  3. Quid says:

    So Al, did you purchase a copy of Doug’s newsletter from him? If not, how do you know what’s in it? From where did you get your copy?

    • Al Sussman says:

      Reliable sources gave me the sordid details, thoughI pretty much expected that Doug would torch the U.S. box.

      • Frank Miranda says:

        Pointing out differences between the songs on the original Capitol U.S. albums and those on the U.S. Albums box does not constitute “torching the U.S. box”. To me, Doug’s dissection was not “negative” at all; it provided the truth in advertising that should have preceded the box’s release. A listenable product? Certainly. An accurately advertised product? No.

  4. Woody Lifton says:

    Quid…Al is one of the foremost authorities on the Beatles and you can be quite sure that if he mentioned that he read something in Doug’s newsletter…HE DID READ IT…or maybe he wrote it…LOL!!!

    • Frank Miranda says:

      I don’t question that he read it…I DO question that he fully understood Doug’s intent in writing it.

  5. Dave Parry says:

    Great article and many valid points. I used to visit some of the well known Beatles forums and to say that some of the regulars on those forums were ‘anal’ would be understating the case. I have been a Beatles fan since 1963 and personally believe that their music deserves to be heard in the best possible quality and if that means ruffling the feathers of the online anoraks then Tango Sierra. And as for Mr. Sulpy, age has not withered him but it certainly has made him even more cranky.

  6. Howie Edelson says:

    I gotta say I haven’t met one person who’s even mentioned the new Capitol album mixes. Not one.
    Who cares? Nobody. 80 people care, maybe. (Trekkies.)
    Doesn’t everybody already have the real U.S. mixes???
    And the BBC stuff faded quickly too, because it’s old — even the new shit is ancient. And it faded so quickly because it’s all happened already. It doesn’t matter.

    The babies born when the Anthology premiered are now sophomores in college.
    Flowers In The Dirt is a quarter century ago.
    That anybody is even still thinking about, let alone mentioning ANY of this — positively or negatively — is amazing.

    The people I knew who watched the special tuned in because there was going to be a Beatles reunion. That’s the only reason, that’s why it got the numbers it did. Because people are in love with The Beatles — and the show (as expected) was lousy — but no more lousy than anything else. Great songs. But most of us watched because (as Stephen Bard said so eloquently during our panel at the Fest) we’re in love with it. It brings us closer to what makes us whole, right? That’s what it is. That’s why ANYBODY is still listening to and talking about “it.” And what the people I knew were saying about the special was that Ringo looked and sounded great with an amazing top shelf band, and McCartney sounded awful — as usual — and looked like Susan St. James with new teeth. And that’s not “whining” — that’s just not calling someone “Champ” who’s not a champ. If that ruffles feathers, well, the truth has been known to do that.

    And when people comment disparaging on other performers on a “Beatles” bill, it will undoubtedly turn negative because The Beatles are a spiritual beautiful thing that people are in love with. It’s beyond “music” — or what do you always call it — an “entertainment phenomenon” (what are you Roger Grimsby???)

    “The Twist” and Atari were “entertainment phenomenons” — The Beatles is something much more, which is why it deserves strong and true opinions and honest reporting.

    One of the head bartenders at the Hyatt randomly polled customers at the bar and restaurant and asked them what made them attend the Fest this year. Something like 9 out of 10 said it was because they could take a subway in and didn’t have to waste half a day schlepping to Jersey.

    They said it all had to do with Manhattan and nothing to do with any anniversary from 100 years ago.

    Imagine.

  7. Mike Sacchetti says:

    You know people need to get a life! Debate this. Debate that. I am so so sick of it all. Year after year. McCartney sucks. Mc Cartney is great. Lennon this. Lennon that. Just think of your world without the Beatles and their music. I for one can’t and don’t want to. So people, just listen and love the music for God’s sake!!!

  8. Danny Clark says:

    Very well said!!! I’m very proud to call myself a “Beatlefan”.

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