Sirius XM features channels dedicated to the music of Neil Diamond, Springsteen, Elvis Presley, the Grateful Dead, Pearl Jam and Tom Petty. It also has curated channels for Jimmy Buffett and Ozzy Osbourne, and of course there’s Little Steven’s Underground Garage, Which Plays a Helluva Lot of Southside Johnny and Omigod By the Time I Was in 10th Grade in 1977 I Had Heard All the Southside Johnny I Ever Wanted to Hear (that’s the actual name of the channel, you can look it up).
Which is all to say that the Beatles Channel on Sirius XM, which launched in May, is a welcome and overdue addition to the satellite radio universe. I have spent a great deal of time listening to the Beatles Channel, and I have some observations and critiques inspired by this experience. These are presented in no meaningful order:
1. I miss DJs.
Like many of the Sirius music channels, the Beatles Channel is largely automated, i.e., any DJ’s annotation or commentary has been removed. But without a live DJ, one gets the sense that some uncaring algorithm is selecting these songs. This is the music of our lives and memories; doesn’t it merit human narration? I feel the station is vastly more attractive when the human touch is evident, so I'm glad it at least features excellent weekly specialty shows presented by Bill Flanagan and Chris Carter. I even like it when it includes the occasional awkward fan request, because at least we get a sense that a Beatle lover is sharing his time with us, and not a computer programmed to act like a Beatle lover.
2. Is the Beatles Channel allergic to The Fireman?
The three albums Paul McCartney and Youth recorded as The Fireman comprise some of the most remarkable music of McCartney's post-Beatles career (and the most recent of these releases, 2008’s Electric Arguments, may be McCartney’s most interesting album-length work outside of The Beatles). I do understand that the bulk of The Fireman’s music — shifting voyages over astral highways paved with colored gravel, sort of like Revolver via Hans-Joachim Roedelius — would sound somewhat odd between Ringo cheerfully mewling “You’re Sixteen” and April Wine’s version of “Tell Me Why.” But that’s exactly what this channel should be doing: reminding listeners of the diverse magic of the Beatlemind.
Beyond just The Fireman, the Beatles Channel has chosen to virtually ignore the fascinating experimental side of The Beatles’ solo work. Where the hell is George’s Wonderwall, Paul’s Thrillington, Lennon/Ono’s Life With Lions and Two Virgins? The latter two records, in particular, document an absolutely crucial time in the story of The Beatles and Lennon/Ono, and are a powerful reflection of Lennon’s extraordinary search for his emotional core and artistic self as The Beatles came to an end.
3. “Free As a Bird” is not a Beatles song, and please stop pretending it is.
With its treacle-thick Jeff Lynne production and its obligatory checklist of Beatlesque elements, “Free As a Bird” is a tombstone where there should be a butterfly house, and that over-processed, way-too-prominent snare is literally the hand slamming the coffin shut. Please let this Frankenstein’s monster of a track, released as a "new" Beatles song as part of the Anthology series in 1995 but in fact just the three other members jamming on top of an unreleased Lennon demo, die in the river under the castle, undisturbed by villagers.
4. You can play Ringo’s “Goodnight Vienna” all you want, but it’s still not a very good song.
There is not parity among The Beatles' solo careers. I understand Ringo is still alive (and his breath-drawing self is a factor in promoting the channel), but you cannot assume that Ringo’s LPs are the artistic equal to the albums of John, Paul and George. That simply isn’t true. It feels like (at least) one-fourth of The Beatles solo stuff the channel plays is by Ringo; certainly, some of is quite good (the Ringo album from 1973 is essential), but you can’t merely add up all the Beatles solo albums, throw out the really weird ones (note above), and divide by four.
5. If “What Goes On” isn’t the worst Beatles song, it is very, very close.
See, we learn things from listening to the Beatles Channel! On the upside, it is an absolute joy to stumble on treasures in places where you would have never thought to look. For example, there’s Paul’s bobbing, bubbling bass part on “Hey Bulldog,” Ringo’s atypical yet vastly effective Bobby Graham–ish drums on “For You Blue,” and the nearly Cramps-ish proto-punk of Lennon’s “Well Well Well,” from Plastic Ono Band. Sitting around at home, I would never have thought to seek out these great treats, but the very nature of an all-Beatles radio channel alerted me to them.
6. When I think of all those women the band pledged undying love to on all those early Beatles songs, it gets really depressing.
So very many of the early songs seem to be sincere assertions of love, desire and devotion; it is a testimony to the genius of Lennon and McCartney that I actually believe that each of these songs was about a real person. But then I wonder, where is this real person now? Inevitably, I picture some old woman lying on the floor of some awful bedsit in a soggy and rat-colored northern English town hoarsely saying, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up. Where did you go, Paul?” This makes me terribly sad.
7. Every single time I hear “Sun King,” I think to myself, how did these guys get away with such a clear and obvious ripoff of “Albatross” by Fleetwood Mac?
This always stuns me: The Beatles borrowed bits and pieces from many artists, usually concealing their appropriations quite well. But for some reason, they decided, late in their career, to rip off another artist's song, lock, stock and barrel.
8. The Beatles Channel should work a little harder on its “influences” selections.
The songs played as “influences” are generally pallid and sometimes irrelevant — and seem to be drawn, almost randomly, from the playlists of the admittedly excellent Sirius XM '50s on 5 channel. Because of this, there are some major omissions: I have only once ever heard The Shadows, perhaps the fundamental instrumental influence on the Fabs, and I’ve never heard Vic Flick, from whom George borrowed prodigiously in the early days. It would also be nice to hear some of George Martin’s pre-Beatles productions. The channel has also ignored the fact that many of The Beatles’ influences were contemporary; for instance, I’ve never heard the Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band on the channel, despite the fact that their Goonish, Dada-influenced psychedelia was a significant influence on many things The Beatles recorded between Sgt. Pepper and the White Album (and Paul’s 1920s and '30s pastiches are virtually a direct response to his love for the Bonzos).
9. Repetition is not kind to some of the early tracks.
In the pre–Rubber Soul era, George Harrison’s greatest skill was his rather inventive (and nearly revolutionary) rhythm parts — that mixture of up-stroke rhythm, fluid bar chords, fascinating accents and quick arpeggios, used almost as punctuation; he is completely rewriting the rules of standard Holly/Everly/Berry/Cochran rhythm guitar. But on the early stuff, his lead guitar playing frequently stinks; you can virtually see him sweat as he plucks out the deliberate, graceless, clunky leads on songs like “Don’t Bother Me,” “Roll Over Beethoven,” “I Should Have Known Better” and “Can’t Buy Me Love.” And when it doesn’t stink, it’s remarkably unoriginal (his early soloing is profoundly influenced by the aforementioned Vic Flick and Hank Marvin of The Shadows). After 1965, Harrison began to discover a fresh and original vocabulary for his playing, and he became an exquisite listener, using his parts to create atmosphere, ambiance and mood. By 1968, he had integrated the influence of Eric Clapton and (especially) Peter Green, married this to an Eastern sense of grace and fluidity, and emerged as the melodic, emotive player he would remain for the rest of his life.
Other facets of The Beatles’ instrumental deficiencies (most notably Ringo’s almost cruel use of the crash cymbal) either complement the ensemble or were brilliantly masked by George Martin and Geoff Emerick; but Harrison’s struggling and deeply derivative lead playing in the early years is out there for everyone to see, like a turd on a diving board.
10. The Beatles Channel has made me recognize that I was wrong when I was a 12-year-old: The "raw" Beatles were not the definitive rock & roll band.
Since it had been a long time since I had listened to the early Beatles, in my mind and heart I had exaggerated their power as a pure, primitive rock band. I suspect we have a soft spot for the early rock & roll of The Beatles because, for so very many of us, it was our first exposure to the primitive boogie on which Church of White Rock is built. But since then we have learned about, oh, the early Kinks, The Pretty Things, The Sonics, The Raiders, or even The Dave Clark Five, and that Beatles stuff that sounded frantic when we were children sounds like plastic ukuleles played by your auntie now. With the possible exception of “Long Tall Sally,” I dare anyone to listen to any early cover by The Beatles alongside, say, “Beautiful Delilah” by The Kinks or “Roadrunner” by The Pretty Things and think that The Beatles don’t sound positively watery in comparison.
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11. The Beatles Channel doesn’t play enough Kraftwerk, Mott the Hoople, Hawkwind or Sham 69.
OK, fine, none of these acts belongs on a Beatles channel. What actually pisses me off that I virtually never hear any of these artists on any Sirius XM station. Kraftwerk are only the second most influential pop band of all time, and they certainly deserve a channel of their own; I mention Mott the Hoople and Hawkwind because they underline the fact that, for all its theoretical expansion of our radio universe, Sirius XM is still a fairly predictable operation that generally only pretends to push boundaries or look under stones; and I bring up Sham 69 because, for all Sirius XM's lip service to punk and metal, it doesn't have a single goddamn channel devoted to classic punk or classic hardcore, and I absolutely hate the fact that Sirius perpetuates the Hot Topic version of punk.
But, yeah, yay Beatles.