Terry Teachout on The Beatles

It’s probably bad luck to start a Monday morning blog with a complaint, but the stately, measured, academic superficiality of this Commentary essay on the Beatles’ music makes me wonder if I really did live through decades of intense, involving popular music only to land somewhere back in 1960 with Chuck Berry in jail, Elvis in the Army, and Fabian ruling the charts. It’s difficult to point to any one thing that’s particularly dissatisfying about Teachout’s piece. It’s all just 25 degrees off the azimuth. Hailing “Yesterday” as the Beatles’ lyrical breakthrough seems utterly wrongheaded to me. Comparing Lennon/McCartney to Irving Berlin is not too bad, but where’s the Brill Building connection? The staid parenthetical note that The Beatles is “popularly known as the ‘white album'” appears to have been written by Mel Brooks’ 10,000 year old man. The implication that the “classically trained” George Martin alone was responsible for their increasing sophistication in the studio betrays a writer who’s apparently never seen or read a single interview with Martin, who insists that while his training was of tremendous use to the Beatles, it was they who pushed him in the studio. Martin has also noted, as have all the Beatles, that the sheer theatricality of much of the music (one of the reasons it still sounds so fresh today, in my view) has as much to do with Martin’s Goon Show heritage as with anything he learned at the Royal Academy of Music.

In short, Teachout’s essay seems to have been written in a vacuum, aside from his obligatory self-referentiality:

As I have written elsewhere:

Such famous albums as Glenn Gould’s 1955 recording of the Bach Goldberg Variations, Frank Sinatra’s Only the Lonely, Miles Davis’s Kind of Blue, or the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band are not attempts to simulate live performances. They are, rather, unique experiences existing only on record, and the record itself, not the music or the performance, is the art object.8

If those words had been written in 1971, I’d have thought them competent but obvious (set aside for a moment the ontological slippage in making “the record itself” so discrete). That they were first published in 2002 is astonishing. For whom, exactly, is this news, or even an interesting observation? Commentary? The Yale University Press?

Now for the larger question: aside from the pain Teachout’s essay causes me as a longtime devotee, even a scholar of this music, why am I so bothered by it?

Because it’s yet another example of the disconnect between a thriving and important culture and the dessicated culture that mediates it to the industry of education. There is indeed a freeze-dried quality to Teachout’s analysis that, coupled with its gobsmacking superficiality, simply betrays the energy and value of its subject. Can this cycle be broken? Will Web 2.0 undergo a similar dessication once our colleges and universities have retooled themselves into engagement factories? Obviously the subject matter does not necessarily transform the approach. What’s especially ironic is that the true sophistication of the Beatles’ music proves elusive for the one-size-fits-all sophistication of a critic like Teachout.

I don’t know what the answer is, but I don’t think the answer is to dismantle the curriculum. Perhaps one answer is to cast a wider rhetorical net that will raise to visibility the rich world of analysis and persuasion that surrounds us, even if it doesn’t originate within the academy.

Or not? Perhaps I’m simply putting too much weight on this example. Monday, Monday. Can’t trust that day.

8 thoughts on “Terry Teachout on The Beatles

  1. Hey Dr. Campbell,

    What do you think of the new Bob Spitz Beatles biography? It was given to me for Christmas and, being a hefty project, I’m unsure if I should devote serious time to it. I figured you would know if there was a definitive Beatles biography I should look to instead.

  2. Hey Ryan,

    I haven’t read it yet. Reviews have been mixed, but apparently it’s more complete and candid than the authorized Hunter Davies biography. Davies had some cool access, though, during the Magical Mystery Tour era.

    I’ve enjoyed the massive Anthology book, and most recently I’ve also enjoyed the McCartney bio “Many Years Ago” (I think that was the title).

  3. “Shout: the Beatles in Their Generation” is also very good. It doesn’t have the fan-focused immediacy of the Davies bio, but what it lacks in access it makes up for in perspective: written in the late 70’s, I think, it was revised after John’s murder and again after 9.11. The latter update is a thoughtful take on the place of pop culture in an increasingly perilous landscape.

  4. Yep, “Shout” is required reading. I didn’t know about the updates–very good tip, there, Mr. Goodfellow. A tip of the Hatlo hat!

    The McCartney bio is “Many Years From Now,” by the bye. Sorry, Ryan.

    I’ve never read “Revolution in the Head,” but it comes highly recommended from many folks.

  5. I will hunt down “Shout” and “Revolution.” Thanks! I’m sad to say the first paragraph of the Spitz bio answered my initial question:

    “They had begun to pour into the village of Litherland as they always did, half an hour before the doors opened. Nightcrawlers: their bodies young and liquid, legs spidering along the sidewalks, exaggerated by the blue gare of the streetlamps. This time of year, Sefton Road at 6:30 was already dark; evening pressed down early from the desolate sky, raked by gunmetal gray clouds drifting east across the river toward the stagnating city of Liverpool.”

    Spidering? Gunmetal? I can’t stomach this after Peter Guralnick.

  6. Umm, not good. Looks like a candidate for the Bulwer-Lytton award. Dark and stormy night, indeed. Thanks for the warning!

  7. Terry Teachout is a NYC drama critic, a very good and entertaining one, but shouldn’t be expected to have much of a rock sensibility. I like him, but Lester Bangs he ain’t.

  8. Thanks for stopping by!

    I don’t blame him for not having much of a rock sensibility. I blame him for writing authoritatively about rock without having much of a rock sensibility. To be fair, I did like his blog a lot better. It’s much better written, for one thing.

    I love Lester Bangs, but he’s only one kind of rock writer. Greil Marcus, Steve Simels, Peter Guralnick: all those grand guys write with a rock sensibility, but they write very differently.

    Finally, I have to say that I think the Beatles were a virtuoso *band*. They were just about the best at being a band that there ever was. Even at the time, folks commented on the eerie way the four personalities fit together. I’d extend that to include four musical sensibilities that found a massive synergy in their playing together. The songwriting is amazing, of course, but over time it’s become apparent that no one can find all the magic in the songs the way they could when they played them.

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