Advance warning: Grumpy Old Man at large…
In reporting the news on the BBC last night that a member of One Direction was leaving the group, newscaster Emily Maitlis (born 1970) invoked the time-honoured phrase “biggest boy band since The Beatles”. Leaving aside for a moment the despicable inference that The Beatles were a “boy band”, a term not in general usage during their career, I couldn’t help but think “aren’t they all”. Aren’t they all, “the biggest boy band since The Beatles”? Weren’t The Osmonds “the biggest boy band since The Beatles”, then the Bay City Rollers, then New Kids On The Block, then Take That, then NSYNC, then Backstreet Boys, then Westlife and now One Direction, and apologies to those I’ve missed including, laughably, The Spice Girls though they, of course, were a “girl band”.
It is reassuring to me, of course, that The Beatles remain the benchmark by which the success of any group is measured, but there have been a few suggestions along the way that some of these groups actually became the “new Beatles” or even, heaven forbid, “bigger than The Beatles”. This, I humbly suggest, is complete rubbish because becoming “bigger than The Beatles” is simply unattainable. The Beatles’ achievements will forever remain unique because of the context in which they were accomplished.
“Bigger than The Beatles”, of course, is the kind of emotive phrase that helps to sell newspapers, and its perpetual use as a yardstick simply adds to The Beatles’ impregnable status. Nowadays, “boy bands” compared briefly to The Beatles come pre-packaged by corporate interests, but many of them don’t even play musical instruments, let alone write their own material, and their stage shows are often limited to displays of athletic formation dancing while they sing or mime to pre-recorded backing tracks. After a few years, when their audiences have matured and recognised their limitations, the careers of most boy bands are over and their back catalogues stagnate, only to be reactivated briefly as a ‘Greatest Hits’ collection a few years down the line when they reform for commercial motives. A few, like some members of Take That, establish ongoing careers.
The departing member of One Direction, Zayn Malik, has quit because of “stress” and wants to lead a life similar to any normal 22-year-old, or so the papers report, which suggests he might sign on the dole, move back in with his parents and lie in bed until lunchtime. However, this business of stress made me laugh, again in relation to The Beatles. In the four years since they formed in 2010 One Direction have released four albums. This compares to eight from The Beatles in a similar time period, not to mention sufficient non-album singles, B-sides and EP tracks to create at least two more. Most of The Beatles’ recorded work was written by them and, barring the odd contribution from George Martin, they played all the key instruments on their recordings themselves. One Direction’s oeuvre is created by a vast army of songwriters, including - some of the time - members of the group, producers and session musicians. In the same four-year span The Beatles toured the world, made two feature films and scores of radio and TV appearances, a work rate unimaginable by today’s standards. On tour they had two roadies who doubled as security men. I have no idea how many personnel accompany One Direction on tour to cushion the “stress” but I suspect it’s many many more than what The Beatles had.
And talking of stress, John didn’t quit The Beatles when, on August 11, 1966, after a long transatlantic flight he was hauled before the American media and forced to apologise on live TV for suggesting that The Beatles were bigger than Jesus, this to avoid a gathering storm of abuse, potentially physical, from thousands of violent self-righteous American religionists.
That must have been pretty stressful Zayn.
(Parts of this post paraphrase some text from A Beatles Diary by Barry Miles, specifically the epilogue titled ‘The Aftermath’ which we wrote together.)