I’ve been hesitant to ever write anything about the Beatles. I figure they’ve far exceeded their deserved allotment of critical ink. At this point, the Beatles’ overwhelming significance is a cyclical proposition: they are overwhelmingly significant, and thus they are much discussed, and thus they are overwhelmingly significant.
But they can be useful to have around. Beatles albums have become part of the critical vernacular, each one signifying a specific creative intention, or point in a band’s career. Most readers will know what you mean when you refer to an album as a given band’s “Sgt. Pepper.” Ditto for “White Album,” as this review attests to. Some would refer to these as critical clichés. I prefer “archetypes.” These albums are so ubiquitous that you can use them as shorthand without the fear of alienating anyone.
I’ve always thought that most of the Beatles’ albums are somehow archetypal. So much so, that my thinking about any other band’s body of work tends to be mediated by the Beatles’ discography. I’ll give an example of that later. First, here’s my attempt to codify what some of the Beatles’ albums signify, at least for me.
(Note: Below, I am referring to the UK versions of these albums, as standardized on the 1987 CD releases.)
A Hard Day’s Night – Some bands don’t have an “early period:” they arrive fully formed. This archetype belongs to the bands that aren’t like that. Seen in retrospect, early periods are interesting because of their promise of things to come. During their early period, a band may produce innovative music, and even great music, but their superlative masterpieces are still ahead of them. The archetypal “Hard Day’s Night” is the best album of a given artists’s early period. Some of the traits that will come to define their best work are first observed on this album.
Examples: Pink Floyd’s Meddle, Rush’s Fly By Night, The Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads
Beatles For Sale – Sometimes, a band makes an album that demonstrates a substantial refinement of their skills both as songwriters and instrumentalists, but fails nonetheless to live up to the standards of their previous work. This could occur because of a single creative misstep, or because of any number of mitigating circumstances, such as lack of time, or interpersonal tensions.
Examples: Yes’s Time and a Word, Genesis’s Nursery Cryme
Revolver – The archetypal “Revolver” is the album where a band is straining against the constraints of the idiom they have established for themselves. It is a masterpiece, but it is characterized less by effortless mastery than by a sort of hardy frontier spirit. Usually, it directly precedes the archetypal “Sgt. Pepper,” but there are exceptions to this.
Examples: Radiohead’s The Bends, Jethro Tull’s Aqualung, Wilco’s Summerteeth
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – There’s more to this archetype than simply being a band’s best or most acclaimed album. (Besides, the internet seems to prefer Revolver nowadays, anyhow.) A given band’s “Sgt. Pepper” is a meticulously constructed demonstration of utter confidence in their idiom. It may be groundbreaking, but it does not feel experimental in retrospect, because its construction is such that it does not call attention to its innovation.
Examples: Radiohead’s OK Computer, Jethro Tull’s Thick as a Brick, Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot
The Beatles (“The White Album”) – This archetype usually marks a point in a band’s career when they have produced a masterpiece that will make it difficult for them to best themselves. Having reached the apex of their established idiom, and having found themselves at the risk of creative stagnation, the band sees no option but to revert to an extreme form of the experimentalism that defines the “Revolver.” The result is always diverse and usually unwieldy. But, at the best of times, it attains a sort of cohesiveness from its compulsive heterogeneity. It usually directly succeeds the archetypal “Sgt. Pepper.” There are very few exceptions to this, as this archetype derives its identity from its precedents. (In the case of the original “White Album,” the album Magical Mystery Tour separates the two. However, the original UK release of Magical Mystery Tour was not a proper album, but an EP. So, The Beatles was the band’s first album-length statement since Sgt. Pepper.)
Examples: Radiohead’s Kid A, Jethro Tull’s A Passion Play, Wilco’s A Ghost is Born
Let It Be – Much in the same way that the archetypal “White Album” comes about because of a conscious attempt not to stagnate, the archetypal “Let It Be” is the product of a band’s anxieties about going too far afield, or becoming a caricature of their more successful incarnation. Sometimes, it acts as a sort of damage control when a band has already reached that point. The “Let It Be” represents a conscious effort to make music that is simpler in any number of ways than the music that immediately precedes it.
Examples: The Moody Blues’ A Question of Balance, The Rolling Stones’ Beggars Banquet
Looking at Beatles albums as archetypes allows us to look at non-Beatles albums as mirrors of Beatles albums. Whether it is critically profitable or not is beside the point: this game of equivalences is great fun. It is particularly entertaining when it doesn’t really work, so you’re forced to justify your choices in outlandish ways. To demonstrate, here’s how I have come to think about the classic albums of the Beatles’ eternal rivals, the Rolling Stones:
The Stones’ early period ended with Aftermath and Between the Buttons. On these records, R&B gave way to art pop, and then to psychedelia, in a perfect reflection of the Beatles’ Rubber Soul and Revolver. To clarify: Between the Buttons is a “Revolver.” And indeed, the variety of timbres and styles on Between the Buttons represents the most profitable experimentalism of the Stones’ career. What happens next is a little complicated.
Their Satanic Majesties Request is the most problematic album the Stones released until the mid-seventies. Critics deride it as a fashion-conscious knock-off, cashing in on the success of Sgt. Pepper. Putting aside the fact that Satanic Majesties has much more to do with the jangly psychedelia of Pink Floyd’s recent debut, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn than with the meticulously composed Sgt. Pepper, mere imitation is not sufficient for an album to constitute an archetypal “Sgt. Pepper.” For the Stones, mastery of their idiom was a long way off at this juncture.
So, the band had their first genuine failure on their hands. Time to go into damage control mode. The rootsy country-rock of Beggars Banquet, together with the hard rock single “Jumpin’ Jack Flash,” represents a return to form, in terms of critical reception as well as style. The Stones will likely never be remembered as masters of psychedelia or art pop. Their idiom is fundamentally based in American styles of popular music, poured into British Invasion-shaped bottles. Beggars Banquet returns to this model of music making, and is thus a textbook “Let It Be.”
This realignment allowed the Stones to once again begin working towards their own “Sgt. Pepper.” In Let It Bleed, punning title aside, they produced a second “Revolver.” Not since Between the Buttons had there been a Stones album with this level of stylistic variety. And having experimented once again, the Stones finally made their “Sgt. Pepper” with Sticky Fingers: the most seemingly effortless collection of satisfying songs the Stones would ever make. For instance, a track with the epic sweep of “Moonlight Mile” is fairly unprecedented in the Stones’ catalogue. But, it succeeds so completely that it fails to call attention to the innovation, much like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” and perhaps more so. Only a “Sgt. Pepper” could contain such a track.
Having made Sticky Fingers, there was only one direction for the Stones to go in, and that was every direction conceivable, all at once. Thus, Exile on Main St. Every rootsy style that the band had assimilated is accounted for here: blues, country, gospel, soul, and rock ‘n’ roll, maybe even with a bit of folk thrown in. Exile is an unwieldy double album, including tracks in barely releasable states of completion. The only more archetypal “White Album” is the original one.
So, to recap:
Between the Buttons = a “Revolver”
Their Satanic Majesties Request = a would-be “Sgt. Pepper”
Beggars Banquet = a premature “Let It Be”
Let it Bleed = a second “Revolver”
Sticky Fingers = a deferred “Sgt. Pepper.”
Exile on Main St. = a “White Album”
Convincing? Probably not. Whatever. I had fun.