Editor’s Note: In “The Verdict,” two writers with opposing viewpoints on a topic will face off, each defending his or her side of the argument. A third writer will moderate the argument and make a final Verdict on the winning argument. The opinions of each writer are distinguished by text font, with a key at the bottom of the page.
Order, order! No more hip-shaking Hey-Jude-ing in the courtroom, please!
Today, we are faced with an impossible task – in the battle for rock supremacy, who reigns supreme – Elvis, or the Beatles? While the trial has been long and arduous, with the advantage switching from one side to another and back again, today we hear the closing arguments and determine once and for all, who wins the day. Counselors, the floor is yours.
Your honor, I suspect my opponent will argue that Elvis is greater than the Beatles due to his title as the King of Rock n’ Roll and everything that title suggests. To a certain extent he is right; Elvis Presley is rightly styled the King. However, I will argue that the Beatles are even greater due to their unparalleled innovation and impact on the music world.
Over a career that produced multiple hit singles, a few albums and several movies, Elvis introduced a swagger and a sound that changed the landscape of music. When he recorded a cover of Arthur Crudup’s “That’s All Right” on July 5, 1954, he changed everything.
The Beatles changed everything with every album and single they put out. Forever.
Their 1963 debut album, Please Please Me pioneered the concept of rock bands writing their own songs and playing their own instruments. 1963’s A Hard Day’s Night features electric guitar licks from George Harrison that forever altered the pop sound.
They introduced mature, thematically deep folk pop with Rubber Soul of 1965; invented psychedelic rock with 1966’s Revolver; pioneered the use of alter egos in the production of 1967’s Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band that incorporates lush orchestral movements, hall music, folk pop, carnival music, ethnic Indian music and surrealism in a cohesive 13 track record totally unlike anything anyone had ever heard. Then the sprawling, meditative, melancholy tension of their final three albums moved them away from the positivity of their earlier work into the strained realm that hearkened their end, but retained all their creativity and energy.
No other band or musician has come close to what they did from 1963 to 1970. Their seven-year creative burst dismantled all of pop music and built it back up from nothing, and every single musician from then on has been in their debt. That’s not to say that the Beatles didn’t have their own influences. They certainly did, Elvis among them. But they took what others had done before them and changed it in ways no one else had done or has done since, and we’re still feeling the direct effects.
The idea that musicians should write complete, original albums as opposed to simply releasing singles is due entirely to the Beatles. Modern pop ballads come from their early songs (“8 Days A Week,” “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “Love Me Do,” etc). Melancholy break up songs find their zenith with “Yesterday” and “Girl.” The folk rock and world music of today find their origin in Rubber Soul. Psych rock was invented during the recording sessions that led to Revolver and Sgt. Pepper. The first heavy metal song is a little tune called “Helter Skelter.” Revolver introduced reverse guitar, loops and processed vocals to the world. Stadium-sized sing-alongs find their blueprint in “Hey Jude.” Punk rock comes, I think, from the opening guitar riff of “Revolution.” I could go on and on, but you get the idea. Almost every aspect of pop sound comes from four boys from Liverpool. Without the Beatles there would be no Led Zeppelin, no Sex Pistols, no Pink Floyd, no U2, no Prince, no Nirvana, no Radiohead, no Bruce Springsteen, no anything.
And it’s not just the influence on sound that sets them apart. Even as they experimented with new techniques (and drugs) they never lost the melody. All of their songs are so damn good. From the simple “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to the politically charged “Revolution” to the deliciously absurd “I Am The Walrus,” every Beatles song is eternally listenable thanks to their otherworldly song-writing talent.
Rolling Stone was right to rank the Beatles as the greatest rock band of all time, and to put 11 of the Fab Four’s albums on their 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list.
I think it’s clear. Elvis may be the King of Rock n’ Roll, but, if he is, then the Beatles are its Gods. I rest my case.
Mr. Anderson, the floor is yours.
It is entirely useless to use conventional metrics in comparing Elvis and The Beatles. Asking who has received more critical acclaim is like asking what’s more red, a firetruck or an apple? They’re not exactly the same color, but both are red. Sales and chart position are similar. Hard numbers are difficult to come by, but both have sold somewhere in the range of one billion records, far surpassing every other act around. Strangely enough, Elvis has more #1 hits in the UK, while The Beatles have more in the US. And while everyone has a preference in the songs themselves, trying to make objective comparison between musical output is a task worthy of Sisyphus himself. How, then, do I contend that Elvis is greater than The Beatles? Elvis has a greater impact, both in music and in the wider culture, as well as a set of intangibles without peer.
Before I get to that, I am compelled to address Elvis’s considerable weaknesses. There are two major areas: his work under the management of Colonel Parker and his lack of a well-known, signature album. With Colonel Parker guiding his hand, Elvis starred in a multitude of bad movies and recorded the associated bad soundtracks. It was a period of fast money and artistic bankruptcy. It did, however, lead directly to his comeback in ’68, which more than makes up for his years lost in the cultural desert. As for an album, Elvis existed in a music industry far removed from The Beatles. While they were successfully making albums, Elvis made his living and excelled in the release of singles. Faulting Elvis for this would be like faulting The Beatles for not making great ring tones.
It is impossible to overstate Elvis’s cultural impact. At a time when being black kept many from voting, Elvis became the most famous man in the world by performing music largely influenced by black music, paving the way for mainstream acceptance of the style along with its black performers. While he’s often accused of stealing the music, he widely acknowledged his debt to the black community. His purchases of music from black songwriters were an early and significant step in desegregation.
It is also impossible to deny that rock and roll’s modern form is still largely derived from Elvis. A similar statement can also be made about The Beatles. However, there’s an entire realm of music where Elvis far surpasses The Beatles: the art of the live show. While The Beatles put on a fine concert, Elvis truly knew how to work a crowd. The hip shaking, snarling, scarf throwing, and closing line are all instantly recognizable today, but his talent wasn’t limited to high-energy shows in front of screaming fans. His comeback special in ’68 practically serves as a prototype for MTV’s Unplugged and showed his ability to entertain with nothing more than an acoustic guitar, a couple backing musicians, and a few well-placed jokes among a career spanning set.
Elvis’s status as an icon is unapproachable. Just about everyone you know has a hacky impression, and there’s a whole industry based around impersonation. His voice is an instant callback to the early birth of rock and roll, but still relevant enough to chart a song in the past ten years. In the first years of his career, there was an incredible level of cool and teenage rebellion, and his later white-jumpsuited years imprinted images upon the popular consciousness which rock stars today still try to imitate.
Perhaps John Lennon said it best, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
There can be no argument made against either The Beatles’ or Elvis’ contributions to the world of music that came after them. While Elvis will always be the “King of Rock,” Mr. Thornton’s analysis of the lasting impact of The Beatles proves their indelible role in defining contemporary music. Elvis won the hearts of many through single after successful single and a performance presence that had parents and politicos up in arms for fear of their childrens’ morality. The Beatles, though, pushed the boundaries of music as it was then known and crafted complex albums that were always true to their sound but never redundant. No disrespect to Mr. Presley, but Paul, John, George, and Ringo win this round.
Jack Thornton, Guest Writer
Nick Anderson, Co-Editor-in-Chief
Maija Gustin, Editor
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