Argument of the movie Yesterday: Beatles songs would wow everyone regardless of who performs them or when they are performed

The movie Yesterday takes away all knowledge of the Beatles and their music and puts the songs into the mouth and guitar of regular musician Jack Malik. And the music previously unknown becomes massively popular.

Ignoring the other parts of the plot, this is an interesting basic argument: the songs of the Beatles, their music, is so good that it can be put it a different time period and with a solo singer-songwriter and they can create a stir. Is this true? What made the Beatles such a phenomena? A few of the popular theories that have been debated for nearly six decades:

  1. They came at the right time and right place. Rock music already existed (see Elvis) but the Beatles energized people in a different way. The broader cultural milieu was open to them in a new way: from Britain needed a cheeky group in a period of still trying to dig out of the aftermath of World War Two to Americans wanting a diversion from the Kennedy assassination to a postwar adolescent generation looking for heroes.
  2. The sum of the parts – some talent among the individual members of the Beatles – added up to something spectacular. This is a good analogy to what sociologists would say about social groups or social networks: these collectives can do things that individuals on their own cannot. The Beatles together, the combination of their skills and thoughts, made something magical.
  3. The Beatles made multiple advances in music, ranging from original songwriting to psychedelic sounds to innovations in the recording studio to excellent songs. They started with songs like “Please, Please Me” and “From Me To You” and made numerous changes along the way.
  4. The songs themselves are simply good. The combined songwriting talents of Lennon and McCartney plus the development of Harrison made music that has stood the test of time.

All together, few bands or musical acts have made music where such a film could be made. It is hard to imagine a world without the music of any number of major musical acts but the reach and influence and staying power of the Beatles is hard to match.

The one Beatles song that mentions suburbs

“Penny Lane” was released in 1967 as a double A side single with “Strawberry Fields Forever.” The chorus for the song included these lines:

Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes
There beneath the blue suburban skies
I sit, and meanwhile back

See the official promo video featuring the Beatles here:

While the Beatles did not grow up in a prototypical American suburb, they did grow up outside the city center of Liverpool. Here is how Paul McCartney described it:

A lot of our formative years were spent walking around those places. Penny Lane was the depot I had to change buses at to get from my house to John’s and to a lot of my friends. It was a big bus terminal which we all knew very well. I sang in the choir at St Barnabas Church opposite.

John Lennon made a similar statement:

The bank was there, and that was where the tram sheds were and people waiting and the inspector stood there, the fire engines were down there. It was just reliving childhood.

The Beatles were not immune from writing about everyday subjects: on their previous album Revolver, the first three songs revolved around mundane topics like paying taxes, lonely women, and sleeping too much. This song combines mundane life – a place with a bus terminus – with childhood nostalgia. This location is far from the Beatles’ urban (Liverpool, Hamburg, London, New York City, other major cities) and country (estates, getaways) lives with which they would become associated.

While they probably did not intend to do so, the song hints at the postwar existence of many in the English speaking world: suburban-like neighborhoods with single-family homes, relatively safe streets, working class to upper-middle class residents, and a steady life revolving around family drama, school, and happenings in the neighborhood. Including the forming of bands with kids around your age who share some of your interests and are also trying to be cool.

Will Beatles songs eventually become as well known as nursery rhymes?

Scientist and musician Daniel Levitin wrote about the ubiquity of Beatles songs a while back:

One hundred years from now Beatles songs may be so well known that every child will learn them as nursery rhymes, and most people will have forgotten who wrote them. They will have become sufficiently entrenched in popular culture that it will seem as if they’ve always existed, like Oh Susannah, This Land Is Your Land, and Frère Jacques.

Why can we listen to certain songs across a lifetime and still find pleasure in them? Great songs activate deep-rooted neural networks in our brains that encode the rules and syntax of our culture’s music. Through a lifetime of listening, we have learned what is essentially a complex calculation of statistical probabilities of what chord is likely to follow what, and how melodies are formed. Skilful composers play with these expectations, meeting and violating them in interesting ways. In my laboratory we’ve found that listening to a familiar song that you like activates the same parts of the brain as sex or opiates do. But there is no one song that does this for everyone; musical taste is both variable and subjective…

On the bus to my office, the radio played And I Love Her and a Portuguese immigrant my grandmother’s age sang along. How many people can hum even two bars of Beethoven’s Fourth, or Mozart’s 30th? I recently played one minute of these to an audience of 700 people – professional musicians included – but not one recognised these pieces. Then I played a half-second of two Beatles songs – a fraction of the first “aah” of Eleanor Rigby and the guitar chord that opens A Hard Day’s Night – and virtually everyone shouted out the song names, more than could recognise the Mona Lisa.

To a neuroscientist, the Beatles’ longevity can be explained by the fact that their music creates subtle and rewarding schematic violations of popular musical forms, causing a symphony of neural firings from the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex. To a musician, each listening showcases subtle nuances not heard before, details of arrangement and intricacy that slowly reveal themselves across hundreds or thousands of listenings. I have to admit, they’re getting better all the time.

While the neuroscience piece is interesting in its own right, a sociologist might be more interested in thinking about what songs make it to this level of common knowledge or become part of cultural narratives across societies. How many times does a song have to be played? Does it matter in what venues the song is performed? I could imagine a mega radio hit vs. a lesser known song that gets licensed dozens of times in the coming decades in commercials. Does the relative importance of the musical artist matter? Some of this has to do with diffusion and the various gatekeepers at play. The Beatles likely have all these factors (except the commercials) in their favor as they were a cultural phenomenon, produced numerous #1 singles around the world, changed the music industry (from recording to stopping touring), and were generally liked by critics.

Just thinking back, I feel like I only tend to hear this argument about what songs will last into the future when people are worried about their idea of bad music (maybe boy bands of the late 1990s, Brittany Spears, Lady Gaga, etc.) becoming the equivalent nursery rhymes.

No “musical ensemble that was more sociological” than the Beatles

Looking back at the Beatles playing Shea Stadium in 1965, one radio personality the group was a sociological phenomena:

Fifty years ago, the Beatles changed the way America witnessed live music by performing the first stadium show of its size and scope. On Aug. 15, 1965, the boys from Liverpool played a record-shattering concert at New York’s Shea Stadium, which would be televised on BBC and ABC, immortalized in a documentary, and further the massive reach of Beatlemania in the ’60s. Legendary radio personality Cousin Brucie served as the announcer, and now, 50 years later, he says it still stands as the tipping point for turning concerts into must-see live spectacles…

The Shea Stadium show broke records in terms of profits and attendance; promoter Sid Bernstein said the event made $304,000, and 55,000 fans were at the stadium. Ed Sullivan’s iconic documentary about the event, The Beatles at Shea Stadium, culled footage from 12 cameras that documented the day, and captures the band at their peak of fame…

1965 was a pivotal year in both music history and American history, and Brucie remembers the Shea Stadium performance being one of biggest events that brought young people together for something that was pure enjoyment. “At that time in our nation, we needed something desperately to get our minds off some of the tragedy that was happening, the assassinations, racial strife and political problems,” he said. “Anybody who was at Shea Stadium, it’s like someone who was at Woodstock. You have to have been there.”

Experiencing live music has changed nearly completely since the Beatles took over Shea Stadium, and Brucie attests today’s music festivals and arena tours would not have existed without that one day in New York. “The [show] was really the beginning of major events that we we have today at stadiums. It was a precursor of everything. It was an experiment that worked very, very well. Today when people go to concerts, they go to listen to the music. There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological and garnered the emotion than this particular group, the Beatles,” he said.

Similar arguments have been made by many: the Beatles came about at the right time, the group was more than the sum of their parts and was able to amplify the hoopla (which also burned them out as they stopped touring one summer after the Shea Stadium concerts), and concerts in the 1960s were the place to be (from Shea Stadium to Woodstock).

But, the statement that “There has never been a musical ensemble that was more sociological” is interesting. What exactly does it mean? That they shaped broader society more than any other group? They are more fascinating to study and ponder than other groups? Everywhere they went was an interesting social scene? Their innovations were way ahead of other artists? Not too many groups could claim similar things and perhaps the time is past when a single music act or musical/social experience could truly get the attention of the world.

Listen to the full Shea Stadium concert here.

Preserving the Beatles modest post-World War II childhood homes

The Beatles grew up in modest homes outside of Liverpool but because of the stature of their former residents, the U.K. National Trust has preserved the dwellings:

A recent feature in the Liverpool Echo details how the U.K.’s National Trust restored the dwellings where Beatles songs like “Please Please Me” and “I Saw Her Standing There” were written. The childhood homes of John Lennon and Paul McCartney have been warped back to the ’50s, using “photographs and eyewitness accounts” as a guide to restoring fixtures and sourcing identical furniture.

Both homes are located in Liverpool, and are currently owned by the National Trust, which operates public tours four times a day. Lennon’s house, called Mendips, was purchased by Yoko Ono in 2002, who donated it to the Trust, requesting they “restore the house to what it once was, and tell John’s story.” (Paul’s has been owned by the Trust for 16 years.) Today, Mendips still has the creaky floorboards that Lennon once had to tiptoe around when returning from late night gigs. There’s also a replica of his bike leaning by the side of the house.

Notable details in McCartney’s former home include a replica of his first guitar and a stack of eggs tray in the kitchen, which his father used for noise insulation when the boys rehearsed in the dining room.

From what I have gathered in reading over the years, these homes aren’t terribly different from many homes in Britain after World War II. The Beatles came from working-class to middle-class families who cast normal aspirations for their sons. Of course, the Beatles moved beyond those aspirations though there was an interesting period between the start of their musical careers and before they hit it big when it wasn’t clear whether they were going to be stuck in normal lives. While it is hard to imagine a Paul McCartney or John Lennon living mundane lives in office jobs or manual labor or hustling to get by, this could have happened.

I suspect one question that people would ask when walking through these homes is how such music could have been developed in such settings. Perhaps it even helps drive home the point about the unusual success of the Beatles compared to many others.

Flawed pie chart with too many categories, unhelpful colors

AllMusic had a recent poll asking readers about their favorite Beatles album. Interesting topic but the pie chart used to display the results didn’t work out so well:

 

http://infogr.am/beatles-poll-results?src=web

Two main complaints:

1. There are a lot of categories to represent here:14 different albums. While it is relatively easy to see some of the larger categories, it gets more difficult to judge the proportions of the smaller categories.

2. There are some categories clearly bigger than others but the color scene seems to have little to do with the actual album title. The palette runs from black to light gray but it does not appear to be in any order. For example, they might have used the same palette but light gray would have been Please Please Me while the darkest color could have been Past Masters. As it currently stands, the reader has to pick out the category and then try to figure out where it is in the key.

Given this comes from an app intended to help create infographics, this one isn’t so great as it suffers from two issues – lots of categories and a limited color design – that I often warn my statistics students about when using pie charts.

Sociologist explains how the Beatles really did change the world

In a new book, a female sociologist argues that the Beatles “actually did change everything…It’s not just hyperbole.”

In addition to the fan voice being missing from 50 years of Beatles scholarship, Leonard said, the female voice is absent. Most of the books about The Beatles are written by men.“As a lifelong female fan and sociologist, I knew I had a fresh perspective that would be an important contribution to the conversation.”

The intense six-year Beatles immersion created a fan-performer relationship that had never existed before, she said: “Demographics, technology, marketing, the political moment and of course quality of the music, all converged to make it a historically unique event.”

From the very beginning, fans had a sense that The Beatles were talking to them directly…

Young people, she said, had the sense all along that The Beatles “were on their side, encouraging and empowering them. Looking at it in this way, fans’ strong emotional attachment, 50 years later, makes perfect sense.”

Add these generational changes (could the Beatles emerged in the same way without the Baby Boomers?) to a band that came right at the peak of mass media (by the end of the 1960s, more narratives and media outlets were emerging), was able to do everything themselves as a cohesive group (write, sing, and play) compared to single performers (like Elvis) or made bands (like the Monkees), had a personality that was both somewhat traditional (see the clear contrast The Rolling Stones made with them) as well as cheeky and somewhat rebellious, pushed the boundaries of pop music as well as recording techniques, and sold a ridiculous number of albums. Is all of this on the scale of the Cold War or landing on the moon or the ongoing struggles in the Middle East? Probably not but it helped develop and ingrain the importance of popular culture for American society…

It is interesting that most of the major Beatles books have been written by men. Come to think of it, rock music still is dominated by men whether it comes to performers, behind the scenes operators (producers, record label executives, etc.), and journalists.