Last night I saw Love, the Cirque du Soleil show set to the music of The Beatles. As you might imagine, it was great. But then again, I think basically anything featuring the music of The Beatles would be great. Even the San Francisco 49ers excrutiating loss to the Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Championship Game tonight would have been great set to the music of The Beatles. 1
While seemingly every band in the world has their share of detractors, The Beatles don’t seem to. Everyone loves The Beatles. Is it because they only had a fairly short (though extremely prolific) amount of time recording music together? Maybe. But they’re obviously ubiquitous enough even after all these decades that plenty of people should have gotten sick of them.
Instead, I think the key to The Beatles music — and you’ll forgive me if this is a completely unoriginal thought — is that it was so varied. This is what mainly stuck out to me last night at the Cirque show as they jumped from one hit song to another, seemingly in random order. The Beatles have very few songs that actually sound the same.
Go listen to the catalog of any other artist you love. There are undoubtedly several great songs, but there are also undoubtedly a ton of songs that sound the exact same. I love Pearl Jam, but a bunch of Pearl Jam songs sound the exact same. 2
Early on, this can help bands if their music is distinctive enough. This repetition becomes their “signature sound.” But over time, this very thing probably hurts those same bands.
This is why I think bands like Nickelback attract so much hatred. Every song sounds the exact same. They rose to popularity on the back of one or two songs. Then every subsequent song has sounded the same. The fact that radio overplays all these songs only accentuates the point, hastening the hatred.
The same thing is going to happen to Mumford & Sons soon as well, if it hasn’t already. 3
Anyway, The Beatles rose to fame riding on the back of what was essentially teen pop music. Just a couple years later, they sounded absolutely nothing like that original band. And that’s not easy to do when all the band members remain constant — especially the members responsible for vocals, since it’s much more difficult for someone to change their voice versus, say, the way they play an instrument. 4
U2’s Bono once had a great quote (which I oddly can’t seem to find anywhere on the Google) about how most rock bands have two songs: their fast song and their slow song. Some great bands are able to add a third variation into the mix and they can ride that for decades (something which U2 has obviously done quite well).
The Beatles have like a dozen different types of songs. At least. And they’re all good.
That last point is key, obviously. Any band can go out of their way to try to not sound like themselves. But the end result is usually going to be crap. The Beatles were so talented that any combination of them could write and perform a wide variety of different types of songs — some of which they invented seemingly out of thin air. 5
I suppose it’s a bit like the best pitchers in baseball. All pitchers capable of pitching in the major leagues have one great pitch. Those who are stars have two great pitches. Those who are the best have three great pitches. The Beatles are like a pitcher who has a dozen great pitches.
The takeaway, at least for me, is to keep experimenting outside the bounds of what makes us great — outside of our comfort zones. To not get complacent. Maybe we don’t have the talent to master that next pitch or write that next song. But would anyone have thought the 1963 Beatles would have? Did they even see it in themselves?
Though oddly, nothing ever seems to sound like Ten, their first and greatest success, which is perhaps why it stands the test of time so well. ↩
Actually, I’m sure it has. ↩
Perhaps The Beatles were at a bit of an advantage since they had two people more than capable of carrying primary vocal duties whereas many bands only have one. ↩
Yes, even Ringo. ↩