Tuesday, October 2, 2007

John, Paul, George and Joey

A couple of weeks ago, critic David Browne wrote in The New Republic Online about the waning influence of the Beatles, lamenting that their spiritual heirs have lately been confined to the odd corners of the pop music world: Fountains of Wayne, the Shins, Death Cab for Cutie, the late Elliott Smith. Leaving aside for the moment the point that all of these acts are excellent, Browne seems to be missing several key elements in the story.

For one thing, the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan forty-three years ago. That's the same distance from today as the Beatles were from the likes of Rudy Vallee. We shouldn't be looking so much for the Beatles' musical sons and daughters as for their great-grandsons and great-granddaughters. Drew Barrymore doesn't look a whole lot like Old Man Potter, you know?

Browne writes: "As more than one blogger has proclaimed, the Ramones feel a lot more influential these days; you can hear their aural footprints all over grunge, Green Day, and emo." This has the virtue of being both true and wildly inaccurate at the same time. Yes, Green Day sounds an awful lot like the Ramones if the last Green Day song you ever heard was "When I Come Around." "The Time of Your Life" was downright Beatlesque, and American Idiot is the kind of ambitious, album-length pop experimentation that would have been impossible without -- dare I say it? -- Sgt. Pepper's Lonely.

But that's not Browne's worst mistake. Where exactly does he think the Ramones came from? The biggest difference between the Beatles and the Ramones is that one of those bands made its bones wearing leather jackets in dingy clubs, playing fast, danceable, tightly constructed, guitar-centered pop tunes, and the other was all guys named "Ramone."

"We decided to start our own group because we were bored with everything we heard," the late Joey Ramone once said. "Everything was tenth-generation Led Zeppelin, tenth-generation Elton John, or overproduced, or just junk... We missed music like it used to be before it got 'progressive.' We missed hearing songs that were short, and exciting, and . . . good!"

So when the Ramones first got together, what did they try to play? Beatles songs! (As well as the Kinks, Eddie Cochran, the Stooges, the Beach Boys, etc.) The problem was, they weren't good enough to figure out those songs, so they went and wrote their own.

Of course, the Ramones probably weren't trying to cover "Dear Prudence" or "Magical Mystery Tour," but that's the thing about the Beatles: Their footprint is immense, big enough so that you might not notice it. They were great at the Cavern Club, and they were great on side two of Abbey Road. Any reasonable assessment of the influence the Beatles needs to consider the entire breadth of their work, and if you can't see the whole thing, it's time to go back to rock 'n' roll high school.

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