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Why Did the Beatles Get So Many Bad Reviews?
An inquiry into how critics stumble
When I was in my twenties, I embarked on writing an in-depth history of West Coast jazz. At that juncture in my life, it was the biggest project I’d ever tackled. Just gathering the research materials took several years.
There was no Internet back then, and so I had to spend weeks and months in various libraries going through old newspapers and magazines—sometimes on microfilm (a cursed format I hope has disappeared from the face of the earth), and occasionally with physical copies.
At one juncture, I went page-by-page through hundreds of old issues of Downbeat magazine, the leading American jazz periodical founded back in 1934. And I couldn’t believe what I was reading. Again and again, the most important jazz recordings—cherished classics nowadays—were savagely attacked or smugly dismissed at the time of their initial release.
The opinions not only were wrong-headed, but they repeatedly served up exactly the opposite opinion of posterity.
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Back in my twenties, I was dumbfounded by this.
I considered music critics as experts, and hoped to learn from them. But now I saw how often they got things wrong—and not just by a wee bit. They were completely off the mark.
Nowadays, this doesn’t surprise me at all. I’m painfully aware of all the compromised agendas at work in reviews—writers trying to please an editor, or impress other critics, or take a fashionable pose, or curry favor with the tenure committee, or whatever. But there is also something deeper at play in these huge historical mistakes in critical judgments, and I want to get to the bottom of it.
Let’s consider the case of the Beatles.
On the 50th anniversary of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the New York Times bravely reprinted the original review that ran in the newspaper on June 18, 1967. I commend the courage of the decision-makers who were willing to make Gray Lady look so silly. But it was a wise move—if only because readers deserve a reminder of how wrong critics can be.
“Like an over-attended child, ‘Sergeant Pepper’ is spoiled,” critic Richard Goldstein announced. And he had a long list of complaints. The album was just a pastiche, and “reeks of horns and harps, harmonica quartets, assorted animal noises and a 91-piece orchestra.” He mocks the lyrics as “dismal and dull.” Above all the album fails due to an “obsession with production, coupled with a surprising shoddiness in composition.” This flaw doesn’t just destroy the occasional song, but “permeates the entire album.”
Goldstein has many other criticisms—he gripes about dissonance, reverb, echo, electronic meandering, etc. He concludes by branding the entire record as an “undistinguished collection of work,” and even attacks the famous Sgt. Pepper’s cover—lauded today as one of the most creative album designs of all time—as “busy, hip, and cluttered.”
The bottom line, according to the newspaper of record: “There is nothing beautiful on ‘Sergeant Pepper.’ Nothing is real and there is nothing to get hung about.”
How could he get it so wrong?
But this is hardly an isolated case. If you look at other reviews of Beatles albums from the era, you find these attacks everywhere, and not just among the older generation—expected to be clueless—but even from knowledgeable rock music critics.
Richard Goldstein was just 22 years old when he wrote that review. He was one of the first legit rock critics, and not some antiquated curmudgeon from the big band era. As hard as it is to believe, an older music critic might have been even less open-minded.
Two years later, the New York Times reviewed Abbey Road, nowadays a beloved classic, and found it wanting in every way. Nik Cohn, another young critic, denounced the album as an “unmitigated disaster,” and although he wants to exempt the medley on side two, even here the individual songs “are nothing special.”
At one point, Cohn actually suggests that the Beatles stole the music—which is “partly pinched from other people and partly from other Beatles albums.” But the words to the songs are even worse than the music: “There was a time when the Beatle’s lyrics were one of their greatest attractions. Not any more. On ‘Abbey Road,’ you get only marshmallow. . . . On ‘Abbey Road’ the words are limp-wristed, pompous and fake.”
And it goes on and on.
So much for the NY Times, but let’s look elsewhere. Here’s how Newsweek assessed the Beatles in 1964:
Visually they are a nightmare, tight, dandified Edwardian-Beatnik suits and great pudding bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of "yeah, yeah, yeah") are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.
Four years later, Newsweek had a chance to rectify this error when The White Album came out. But when confronted with this masterpiece, the magazine stumbled badly, very badly.
The reviewer admits that the Beatles were once good in the past—an unusual, albeit revealing claim, because this same periodical had ridiculed them in those early days—but not anymore. The Less-Than-Fab Four have been reduced to creating music with an empty cover, and the same emptiness inside. “The blankness extends into the records within,” the reviewer scornfully declares; the music is “uptight” and “dull.” Although these musicians “could have turned out a real fine album” somehow they couldn’t come close in 1968.
I could give numerous other examples. And it’s fun to laugh at such wrong-headed opinions. But I think it’s more valuable to ask how these critics, specialists in their field, not only missed the mark, but in such an absurd way. They literally were handed the greatest recordings of their era to review, and blew them off. Every classic song on these albums was not only attacked, but actually mocked.
I now realize that the Beatles were getting punished for how quickly they were pushing rock music ahead. If you read enough of these hit pieces, you keep hearing the frustration that the new Beatles album doesn’t sound like the previous one.
In other words, the critics misunderstood the lads from Liverpool for the worst possible reason—namely, that they were constantly learning, growing more ambitious, and absolutely willing to take risks.
By the way, I’ve made a study of the reviews Beethoven received more than two hundred years ago, and it’s the same story.
Here’s what I wrote about his beloved Third Symphony in my book Music: A Subversive History:
Music criticism was flourishing during Beethoven’s formative years, so we know exactly how opinion leaders viewed his innovations. What did they say at the time? The first review of the Eroica Symphony—now revered as a milestone in music history and a monument to German Romanticism—arrived on the newsstand even before the official premiere, dismissing the music as “strident and bizarre.” Another journalist, covering the debut, admitted that the work had some defenders, but for the average person “the symphony was too difficult, too long and [Beethoven] himself was too impolite.” This assessment was no exaggeration. Carl Czerny, who attended the concert, reported that one listener rose up in the middle of the performance and shouted: “I’ll give another kreutzer* if the thing will only stop!”
*Ted’s footnote: The correct term for the coin in question is, of course, the kreuzer, according to Beethoven scholar Barry Cooper—but you knew that already, didn’t you? I nonetheless stick with kreutzer because that’s how it’s spelled in traditional accounts of the concert. I really need to specify this here, or numismatists will flay me in the comments.
The sad truth is the critics typically operate by looking in the rearview mirror. Like generals, they fail on the battlefield because their strategy is built on the last war.
And that’s the same reason why jazz critics attacked Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Thelonious Monk in the 1940s. Or Coltrane in the 1960s. Etc. etc. And are probably making similar missteps in the current day.*
*Another bloody footnote (why won’t they stop): I don’t exempt myself from this verdict. I’ve served up judgments I later regretted. Mea culpa. But at least I eventually stopped writing hit pieces on new music. You may have noticed that I now only review the albums I love, which perhaps detracts from the entertainment value at The Honest Broker—takedowns are so readable and quotable—but that’s how I roll at this point in my life.
I raise all this primarily to give the Beatles full credit for their achievement. No musicians in history, by my measure, ever worked so courageously to disrupt the very same formulas that they themselves created. Perhaps Miles Davis comes close, but even Miles would only make a major change in his style every two or three years. The Beatles reinvented themselves with every album.
Just look at all those who faltered trying to imitate the Beatles sound, only to watch their role models leave them far behind. In 1964, a whole bunch of British bands mimicked the new Beatles sound, but within months groups such as Herman’s Hermits and the Dave Clark Five were already old-fashioned—and simply because the Beatles were racing so far ahead.
Then the same thing happened to the Monkees, who did an exceptional job of emulating the sound of the Beatles in early 1966, but they already were struggling to keep up in 1967. Finally, a thousand bands arrived on the scene in 1967 and 1968, imitating the latest Beatles sound—you could even claim that the extraordinary singer-songwriter movement of the 1970s was still grappling with the implications of The White Album.
But the Beatles themselves immediately moved on, letting others till that fertile soil. Back in the late 1960s, none of the peace-and-love wannabes sounded anything like what the Beatles now did with Abbey Road. Other, lesser artists made entire careers on the scraps from this bounteous table, but inside Abbey Road studio these four oft-criticized performers (with the help of their intrepid producer) kept rewriting the rulebook until the day they disbanded.
Of course, they got criticized in the press for that too. How dare they deprive us of the next new thing—but by then everyone had forgotten how much the Beatles had been attacked for all those other new things.
And consider this: Not only were the Beatles breaking their own rules, but each time they left behind the biggest money-making formula in commercial music. They would develop a new concept, unleash it, sell tens of millions of albums, and. . . then they would walk away from it.
There really is no equivalent—not then, not now, not anytime.
So I have some sympathy for those befuddled critics, and you should too. Sure, they got it wrong. But they were also experiencing a time-compressed innovation cycle that even the greatest high tech companies have never matched. That’s not so much a failing of music journalists—although, heaven knows, I’m not letting them off the hook for those reviews—as testimony to the towering achievements of the most amazing quartet in 20th century music.