There’s nothing to gain by criticizing The Beatles. There’s nothing to lose, either, because the Fab Four are so solidly entrenched in the cultural canon that pretty much nothing anyone ever says is going to change the way people feel about them. But veneration does have a way of turning into idol worship, and the Fab Four are one of those acts that’ve become deified into some image of The Greatest Band For All Time, forever destined to rank number 1 on lists of best artists and albums and songs and so forth.
It can be a bit difficult to work around this if one is simply a fan of the music, which is what former Pulp frontman Jarvis Cocker gets at in this review for The Guardian of The John Lennon Letters, a collection of — you guessed it — letters John Lennon wrote over his lifetime. The crux of his argument is such: The Beatles were just normal folks, and so to elevate them over relatable humanity is to remove something crucial from their art. (This involves publishing a hardcover book comprised of what would seem to be fairly normal letter-writing, an activity at least 28% of the people in the world have engaged in.) The whole review is fairly thoughtful, if one has ever had a similar thought; here’s a chunk that comes on the heels of dismissing the book as wholly unnecessary:
Am I being too harsh? Let me get one thing straight: I love the Beatles. I haven’t named any kids after them but I still really love them. They were the first group that I was ever properly aware of. In my early teens I would sometimes stay in and listen to the radio all day in the hope that I would catch a song by them that I’d never heard before and be able to tape it on my radio-cassette player. When I bought a new turntable last week, I took along my copy of Abbey Road to do a listening test. It was essential to me that that record would sound good on whatever I bought.
But the whole point of the Beatles is that they were ordinary. Four working-class boys from Liverpool who showed that not only could they create art that stood comparison with that produced by “the establishment” – they could create art that pissed all over it. From the ranks of the supposedly uncouth, unwashed barbarians came the greatest creative force of the 20th century. It wasn’t meant to be that way. It wasn’t officially sanctioned. But it happened – and that gave countless others from similar backgrounds the nerve to try it themselves. Their effect on music and society at large is incalculable. I am so the target-audience for this book that it hurts – but something feels wrong.
Amen to that.