Anti-Beatles Prejudice

It can be hard to disentangle judgement and prejudice at times (actually it’s always impossible, but you can do a fairly decent job most of the time). I occasionally wonder whether my dislike for and low opinion of the Beatles is merely a reaction to what I perceive as insane and unquestioning overvaluing in so many quarters – I certainly do react against it when someone is given an apparently unassailable status way above everyone else in their area; I’m aware of it also with Elvis, for instance, and since visiting Jamaica with Bob Marley too, both terrific stars within their territories, but I resent their being placed so far above Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, Jimmy Cliff, Culture and so on. But the Beatles are the biggest, still guaranteed a place at the top of any all-time musical lists, and I know I have a knee-jerk anti reaction. Were they really the great songwriters everyone says (I can’t imagine I’ll ever think they were especially good performers), and is it just my prejudices preventing me seeing this? Fortunately the HMV sale always seems to sort me out.

I bought another pile of Trojan box sets this time (among other things), and I am presently listening to the Reggae Sisters one (i.e. all female singers), and enjoying it greatly. On the subject of Elvis, track 17 was maybe the best cover of ‘In The Ghetto’ I’ve heard, by Susan Cadogan; then the next track is a good version of ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’. Then the next started, and I was playing pinball on my PC and thinking ‘what is this clumsy drivel?’ Marcia Griffiths’ singing was fine, but the song was clearly terrible, hamfisted nonsense. Then I realised it was ‘Don’t Let Me Down’. Marcia had managed perfectly well with a gender-switched cover of the Impressions’ ‘Gypsy Woman’, despite the ‘man’ replacement losing a syllable, but she couldn’t make this flow at all.

It occurred to me the last time I had that same “this is rubbish – oh, it’s a Beatles song” moment. It was when I had bought Aretha’s first several Atlantic albums in a previous HMV sale. This Girl’s In Love With You starts magnificently – ‘Son Of A Preacher Man’ again, as it happens, ‘Share Your Love With Me’ then one of my all-time favourite songs, ‘Dark End Of The Street’. Then there is ‘Let It Be’ and ‘Eleanor Rigby’*, and it feels to me that the standard drops hugely. She did ‘The Long And Winding Road’ on a later album, and that feels like its lowest point too. It’s not because she’s choosing material from outside her style/genre either, in that she makes a much better fist of ‘Satisfaction’ and even the highly unlikely ’96 Tears’. I could go on to rant about Beatles covers by other singers among my all-time favourites (Otis, Al Green, Tammy Wynette, the Temptations), which strike me the same way. I have learnt that I regularly find that Beatles songs, performed by the singers I rate the highest, singers who are magnificent interpreters of so much material, almost without exception shock me, feel awkward and third-rate, before I recognise that they are songs by the most revered songwriters in popular music’s history.

* the Four Tops or Ray Charles couldn’t make this sound anything but amateurish and clumsy either. Given how well Levi Stubbs, for instance, sells an awful, mawkish song like Bobby Goldsboro’s ‘Honey’, we know he isn’t easily defeated.

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