Tuesday, September 22, 2009

A look at The Beatles through the lens of The Beatles: Rock Band

Last week, when I bestowed lavish praise on The Beatles: Rock Band, I talked about many different aspects of the game. These aspects included streamlined and engaging gameplay, captivating artistic direction, the possibility for increased appreciation of the music, and a hands-on, interactive lesson in Beatles history. For this post, I would like to focus on the fourth and final aspect, and embark on a brief celebration of the Beatles' music using the mechanics of Beatles: Rock Band as parameters.

I consider myself a dabbler in Beatles history, but I have never before indulged in any formal study or even any serious organized thought on the subject; the knowledge I have is mostly in the form of random trivia or very general historical context. I haven't attempted to go more in depth because of an intense feeling of intimidation, both by the 300+ songs in the Beatles' catalog (including the newer Anthology material) and by the sheer amount of historical perspective necessary to truly understand a band/cultural phenomenon like The Beatles.

But, lo and behold, The Beatles: Rock Band comes on the scene and tempers both these sources of intimidation! The list of 45 playable songs provides an overview of the most emblematic, popular, and historically significant songs spanning the course of The Beatles' career. And the separation of these songs into venue (read: era) helps place each song in their own historical context. What follows is a close examination of the songs included in The Beatles: Rock Band and some brief musings on what they, taken as a group, can tell us about the unique musical and personal history of The Beatles.

The first "venue" (read: level) of the game is a live show taking place in The Cavern Club, where The Beatles first gained popularity in their home country, and where they were first viewed by their future manager Brian Epstein. With a little careful viewing, one can deduce that this particular show occurs after The Beatles had already signed with Epstein (circa 1962), as the coordinated suits (replacing blue jeans and leather jackets) and the famous synchronized bow were both ideas presented by their manager. (There's also the matter of Ringo sitting behind the drums, who replaced Pete Best early at this time.) There are four songs in the set, all taken from their first album, Please Please Me, which is itself structured to replicate the Beatles' live sound. Only two of the songs were written by Lennon/McCartney, but each Beatle gets a chance to sing in the set, emphasizing the camaraderie of the group's live shows.

The next group of four songs takes you to February 1964 and the Beatles' first trip to the U.S. The set is meant to commemorate the Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, although only one song from the game's set was actually performed on the show in real life (the single "I Want to Hold Your Hand," which had sold 2.6 million copies in the U.S. just in the two weeks prior to the band's visit). Throwing historical accuracy to the wind, the Ed Sullivan venue includes two songs from 1964's A Hard Day's Night (film and album), using the Sullivan Show set to represent the period of growing popularity in the United States rather than a representation of an actual concert.

The next two "actual concerts" portrayed in the game - the opener to the Beatles' 1965 North American Tour in Shea Stadium and a (heavily protested) three day stint at Tokyo's Nippon Budokan in the summer of 1966 - don't accurately represent the setlists for those real life shows. Some of the songs at the Ed Sullivan venue were actually played at Shea Stadium, some of the songs from Shea Stadium were actually at Budokan, and some of the songs from Budokan were never even played live at all . These two stadium concerts are supposed to track the Beatles' explosion of popularity and their transformation into international superstars during the mid-196os.

I cannot fault the game for straying from historical accuracy at this point. I'm sure there are people out there who feel that the jumbling of the setlists takes away from the overall historical message of the game. That's certainly a valid viewpoint, and I won't attempt to argue against it, but I feel that giving themselves some freedom in the song selection allowed the game's designers to explore, in as much depth as possible, the process of evolution happening in the Beatles' music. And setting some of the new songs at live concert venues only serves to remind us, the players, of the band's immense popularity at the time.

While this popularity was due partly to appreciative listeners who could recognize the quality of their music, the biggest fans of the Beatles were star-struck teenage girls who would populate these shows more to lambaste their heroes with deafening screams than to enjoy the subtleties of their music. This same popularity eventually led to the Beatles' decision to stop playing live shows altogether: how many of these hysterical teenyboppers could truly appreciate the flighty psychadelia of "And Your Bird Can Sing" or show any interest in the biting political message sent by "Taxman"?

These were girls who fantasized about the Fab Four singing about them ("I Saw Her Standing There") or even directly to them ("I Want to Hold Your Hand"). They wanted to idealize Paul as the perfect lover ("Can't Buy Me Love") - they could care less about his frustrations with his current girlfriend ("I'm Looking Through You") or his fictionalized attempts at employment ("Paperback Writer"). They wanted John to sing about buying his girl presents ("I Feel Fine") or spending time with them in the bedroom ("A Hard Day's Night"), not bemoaning the one that got away ("Ticket to Ride"). They wanted George to sing songs of acceptance ("Do You Want to Know a Secret"), not songs of rejection ("If I Needed Someone").

It also appeared as if the touring life had begun to affect the Beatles' nerves, as they made several public image gaffes during this period: they snubbed royalty, took part in a controversial photo shoot, and insulted our lord and saviour (8th paragraph). But these lapses in presentability had little to no detrimental effect on the Beatles' status in the public eye (at least not in their home country. There were some instances of Bible Belt residences burning Beatles records in protest). I think the group ultimately decided to stop touring because they wanted to get into music that was more about in-studio tweaking and complex production rather than its ability to be reproduced live. Not to mention that all the hysterical screaming that went on during these live shows made it practically impossible for either the performers or the audience to actually hear much of the music.

So after one final concert at San Francisco's Candlestick Park, less than a month after the release of Revolver, the Beatles announced an end to their touring schedule, along with a three month hiatus, and began the period of intellectual/spiritual growth, self-reference, healthy competition spiraling into outright divisiveness, and unparalleled creativity that was The Beatles' studio years. But, as I've rambled on enough for one post, you'll have to wait until next time for the second half of the illustrious history of the Beatles' illustrious career. At least this saves me the trouble of thinking up a whole new idea for next week...