This was on Mad Men last week, which led to a few days of periodic listening to the Beatles and their legacy. A few thoughts:

1. "Tomorrow Never Knows" is a great song, but it confirms the opinion I've had for awhile: there was one real genius in that group, and his name was George Martin. It's not much of a song without the production flourishes, which were of his design.

2. The Beatles are supposed to be a fundamental and universal feature of the musical landscape, but I had a surprisingly hard time naming any currently working band that owes them an obvious and substantial debt (i.e. not one attenuated through other sources). The only one I could come up with was Spoon. Whatever their relative standing at the time, it seems clear to me that the Rolling Stones have far outpaced the Beatles in influence, and produced a higher quality of followers. The same also probably applies now to the Kinks and the Beach Boys.

2a. Some of this is no doubt because it is notoriously difficult to get clearance for Beatles songs. The Stones will sell themselves out for the right price, and that Beach Boys SMiLE box set will be appearing in hip-hop tracks for the foreseeable future.

2b. It's also remarkably difficult to get the songs, period: they weren't available on iTunes for the longest time, and it took the Beatles approximately ten years longer than it took everyone else to get in on the wave of remastering.

2c. The length of time between that Beatles miniseries documentary on ABC in the mid-90s and the widespread availability of good copies of their albums was about 15 years, good enough to build most of a generation that associates them with Oldies radio or nothing in particular. There's been no band who's done a worse job of acclimating to the new media world.

3. It does not help their case that the aesthetic of our time is alternatively gritty or polished. The Beatles did sad very well, but nothing harder than that: "Yer Blues" demonstrates mostly that there were ten or so working bands at the time of the White Album who did blues better than the Beatles*; I can't imagine anyone thinks "Helter Skelter" is more imposing than "I Can See for Miles," the song to which it was a response: the former is as heavy as Paul McCartney can get, but that's not very heavy at all. On the flip-side, Pet Sounds is more polished, better constructed, and does a better job of maintaining thematic consistency over the length of the album (one thing at which the Beatles were undoubtedly terrible). And then there's the "Octopus' Garden"/"Good Day Sunshine" problem: too many relentlessly upbeat and silly tracks even in the middle of their best material.

4. Their hope, such as it is, rests in the gradually shifting consensus about where their best work happened. As a whippersnap in the early-mid 90s, it was generally assumed that Sgt. Pepper's was their best album; that belief is fatal to their cause because it certainly is not. Re-centering on Rubber Soul, Revolver, and The White Album are their best bet, since these are the ones that come closest to exploiting their strengths without indulging their weaknesses (i.e. too many drugs).

*If you bet me that there were a hundred better bands than them in 1967, there's no way I'd take that bet.

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