First thought: even if you go back pre-Beatlemania to their time as a cover band, their potential for greatness is already evident. Live at the BBC and several other compilation albums feature their early material - mostly covers with very little rearrangement of the source material but it's really good. Even before they developed their signature sound (and then treated us to the evolution of said sound over seven years), they were just damn fine musicians. They made simple 50s/60s rock and roll staples sound so good!
It ought to be criminal that four lads from Liverpool could do such excellent renditions of American rock and roll spanning a significant range - from Motown to Memphis Soul, from high/smooth Smokey to abrasive Little Richard, from guitar-driven Chuck Berry to vocal harmony-driven Everly Brothers. Their covers are fathful-ish to the source material but with little flourishes that put their own decided stamp on it. There's just a certain je ne sais quoi they add that takes - with rare exception - each song to 11.
To be that awesome as a cover band across so many styles and then on top of that to be such prolific and innovative songwriters - how can that even be possible? I guess that the two are sort of part and parcel to each other, but still, it just seems like an unbelievable confluence of awesomeness. If they had been athletes, they would have been accused of performance-enhancing drugs - oh, wait, maybe that's a more apt comparison than I intended. ;-)
Another thought: who else has matched the Beatles' productivity in any other endeavor? The Beatles set themselves apart in several ways:
- quantity of good songs (128 alone in the tournament and there were many missing songs that were cited as snubs.)
- over a short period of time (> 1 album per year + lost of singles)
- ratio of good songs to bad (depending on your taste, at least a 1:1 ratio and, for many, much higher)
- innovation within their art (So much stylistic evolution during their short career - not to mention the birth of / inspiration for many sub-genres of rock!)
Trying to draw comparisons yields many results that hit some of those achievements but not all. Has anyone else in contemporary popular music matched or exceeded them? The Rolling Stones, for example, have probably hit a similar number of good songs - but over a much greater period of time.
What about in other eras of music? Mozart?
What about other arts? Picasso? Several of the Renaissance masters might fit the bill - especially da Vinci given his impact on the arts and the sciences. Like the Beatles, some of them had a group dynamic force multiplier effect. They weren't in a group together per se, but they worked in close proximity to one another, saw the works of their peers, and adapted/competed with their subsequent oevres.
One member responded:
"It can also be argued that the vast majority of his influence on Science Fiction, in particular, in the first 10 years of his output - maybe '42-'52 - were the most prolific and groundbreaking. And I think, really, a novel is pretty directly comparable to an album, whereas a short story is like a song. In that case, Asimov BEATS the Beatles in terms - not only in output and inventiveness - but in Longevity of concentrated output. And he'd probably still have been going through the 2000's if he hadn't gotten an AIDS-infected blood transfusion."
The Apollo space program was held up as an example in discussion. Clearly there were thousands of people working on it, not just four, but what they accomplished, not only in the end goal but also in all the intermediate innovations that were necessary to achieve that goal, is something we hadn't seen before and haven't seen since. Interesting that it took place during the same exact time period as the Beatles!
We also discussed examples from the world of sports. Athletes are a tough comparison to make since they're limited by seasonality but I think there are definitely analogies to be made. Michael Jordan? Wayne Gretzky? Federer/Nadal? One member offered up Esther Vergeer, who was #1 in her sport (wheelchair tennis) for 14 years and retired on a 470-match winning streak!
Some of these analogies may be more apt than others but one thing is clear: the Beatles were very special. I don't know if we'll see their likeness again in my lifetime or if the time and place that brought them together was unique. Either way, we're all the better for them having been together, however briefly.