Toppermost of the poppermost<BR>

Toppermost of the poppermost

Sender: news@math.ucla.edu

In article <1993Apr7.215255.480@news.acns.nwu.edu> fjordan@casbah.acns.nwu.edu (Felicia Jordan) writes:

>But it seems that lately, the best music is being made by bands
>who rarely, if ever, see the light of day on the Top 40. Contrast
>this with the situation when the Beatles were recording. I'm sure that
>a lot of weak music made its way onto the charts then, too. But it seems
>as though creativity and innovation were much more rewarded back then....

As was mediocrity, alas. The charts served their purpose for years to map *some* popular musical opinion. Often, spikes of creativity melded with marketable harmonies, with rewarding results for the artist/singer and music industry alike. But there are those pesky aberrations, even prior to and during the Fabs' heyday. And sometimes chart action fails entirely to catch a newly-developing wave.

Now, one *may* have a soft spot in one's heart for Pat Boone's "Moody River", which came out the same year as such acknowledged classics as Dion's "Runaround Sue" or the Shirelles' "Will You Love Me Tomorrow?"; they peaked in 1961 and they all hit number one on the charts. But how in blazes did a year which played host to chart-toppers like "We Can Work It Out", "Paint It Black", "Paperback Writer", "Summer in the City", and "Sunshine Superman" allow "The Ballad of the Green Berets" to *also* reach number one? My stars. Somebody's critical faculties deserted them on that one. I will spare this esteemed newsgroup most of my rant against mysterious inequities that allowed "Hey Jude" and Bobby Goldsboro's egregious "Honey" to both reach number 1 in the same year. Edward Chen has already noted some equally appalling machinations in chart action for the seventies and nineties.

The fact is that pop chart action was, for years, a primary source of evaluation for any one pop song. It wasn't accurate for *all* musical genres, though, and this often obscures noteworthy musical innovation which was going on with great fervor just out of Billboard's limited vision. "Race" music, as it was called---rhythm 'n' blues---caused a a localized ripple of sales in various urban markets in the mid-fifties. AM radio stations sprang up in response, to capitalize on the phenomenon, either with shows or entire formats dedicated to such music. Discs sold hot and heavy...but couldn't cross over to paler shores of establishment charts without their "soul" being excised and becalmed by cover artists. Luckily the nascent Beatles were able to get hold of the real goods; their developing genius depended on it.

Mainstream stations were burbling benignly with the likes of Perez Prado, The McGuire Sisters, Les Baxter, Mitch Miller; hardly reflective, in 1955, of the revolution that was shortly to change the face of pop. Lest our British contingent feel left behind, I can report the same soporific chart action in their own neighborhood, with artists like Dickie Valentine and "Wonderful Winnie" Atwell. But in the veins of every neophyte rocker was the warmthening intoxication of Presley, Berry, Holly. And those who knew this real avenue of musical passion were having none of Andy Williams' pallid "Lonely Street" (which reached number 5 in 1959!).

>...But today, at least in my view, those who practice the same types
>of creativity and innovation that the Beatles did aren't rewarded with
>chart success or record sales, or they take a much longer time to catch
>on before the general public finally recognizes them (it took R.E.M.
>about 8 years to really hit it big.) Meanwhile, those who manufacture
>formula pop are the ones who are rewarded with multi-platinum
>record sales. I just can't understand it.

But the same thing happened in the past.

Even in the mid- to late-sixties the charts were in flux, failing for the most part to track artists whose backroads to success were via FM broadcasts. The Doors had two number-one hits; Cream none; Traffic none; Pink Floyd none (though their album "Dark Side of the Moon" spent an inordinate amount of time hovering around without producing hit records). All this while "bubblegum" music began to break into the top ten!

Album-oriented artists found little indication of their talents from singles-oriented chart listings. And other rock movements were seen in fragmented form; hints of punk's first-wave were glimpsed in brief flashes of chart action (The Standells et al); likewise West Coast psychedelia (Jefferson Airplane and associates). Yet these movements shook rock's floor as soundly as any quake, and provided the basis for British New Wave in the late seventies (Elvis Costello, Nick Lowe, Mickey Jupp) and for popular retro-tribute bands like R.E.M., Guadalcanal Diary, and XTC in the eighties.

Even the boys at the top of the heap---to wit, our Fabs---were subject to passive censorship or suppression when their own musical experiments wandered too far afield. "Revolver" so puzzled some radio program directors that its few mystical (or mysterious) offerings were never broadcast at the time, much less pressed into singles. Imagine trying to get the crowds in "American Bandstand" or "Ready, Steady, Go!" to dance in step with "Tomorrow Never Knows". Here was one prominent hallmark of a continuing rock revolution: a song you had to *sit down to hear*. Within a few years bacchantic footwork would give way to hazily sensate analysis, made from positions either seated or supine. No matter how you heard it with your ears or felt it with your body, the best songs of the sixties were revealing more intricate facets than the pop charts could reflect.

>I've just been trying to figure out why it was that, in the case of the
>Beatles, phenomenal success and superior musical creativity went hand in hand,
>when that is so often not the case today. I guess the music business has
>just gotten unjust.

Who promised justice?

The Beatles were toppermost of the poppermost for various reasons, the least of which, one could argue, was their creativity. Musicologists who heard and saw them with prescient wonder, and described their talent in vivid terms beyond most of us ("To this day I don't have *any* idea what Aeolian cadences are", said John in 1980. "They sound like exotic birds".) But this meant nothing to teens who bought their records with rare abandon. Neither did the opposite side of the coin, wherein British critic Paul Johnson described Fabs' afficionados who come "not to hear but to participate in a ritual, a collective grovelling to gods who are themselves blind and empty". What the wordsmiths missed was one simple fact: this was new music forged from old, instantly familiar yet hauntingly unique. Music buyers had heard it all before...but never quite like this! It made the Beatles' music irrepressibly magnetic.

In the Beatles was one hell of a conglomeration. Nothing like them has happened since. Maybe that's one reason those of us who absorbed their music and message into our bloodstream---so that we live on and breathe in the essence of their genius with every heartbeat---have no choice but to demand that traditional measurements of pop still reflect their singular talent. Alas, it doesn't always happen. The charts stopped accurately judging the Beatles' talents long ago. *We're* the ones who need to realize that none of it matters.

Some people must always pay attention to raw numbers. Record execs eat numbers for breakfast. Sometimes that influences the principals themselves. You can't tell me that Paul didn't whither slightly when "HofD" dropped out of the running without breaking the top forty. It can't be a minor concern when George's compositional proliferation is challenged by the need to write a hit record. Perhaps even the compulsion to absorb a modicum of musical change---Beatles rap?---may be at work in their creative psyches. Whatever sounds they make from here on out, there'll be no justice for them in the charts. But there doesn't need to be.

There was almost none at all. So profoundly depressed were the Fabs at one point, on their return to Liverpool from Hamburg in 1960, that they almost ceased to be a group. Had they written songs merely for their own amusement and private enjoyment, from then on, no sales charts would ever have borne their names. As it was, the Boys' propensity for harmonic and lyrical mellifluousness, their remarkable ability to synthesize many forms of pop music, their tenacious desire for success, and the beneficent circumstance of their place in history made them destined to top the charts. But unlike the Paul Ankas and Olivia Newton-Johns and Whitney Houstons of music history, the Beatles will be gauged by some finer, brighter, and unutterably more profound measurement than mere silver coins.
--
"Lovely lads...and so natural."
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