Weekend Playlist: Beatlesque '80s


“Beatlemania in 1981 is sick. Beatlemania is just like Happy Days.” - Lester Bangs

By the end of '70s, the Beatles were as square as any pop-culture phenomenon a decade after its peak. Their music was still ubiquitous and lots of people loved it, of course. But the trails they’d blazed had petered out into parodies, both intentional (the Rutles) and unintentional (the Beatlemania stage show, the ludicrously terrible Sgt. Pepper movie). As a source of inspiration for anything new, they seemed tapped out.

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The Pleasers, not the Beatles, although I’m sure they wouldn’t mind the mistake

That didn’t last long. A new crop of power-poppers and psychedelic heads, inspired by punk but looking back further into its roots, soon rediscovered the virtues of the Beatles’ concise but mind-expanding pop. Some of these songs are virtual soundalikes, others just mold the melodic inspiration and rhythmic snap of the Beatles into something more original. But they all have that Beatlesque spark, even during the least Beatley of decades.

This playlist is a little different than the ones I used to do. For one thing, it’s longer: 33 songs on Spotify, 35 on YouTube. So I’m not going to post each individual video with commentary. Instead, I’ll put my “liner notes” for the whole playlist below…



I’ve arranged these roughly in order of what Beatles period they draw from, like a fake greatest hits. So we open with the moptop delirium of “Please Please Girl” by the Flamin’ Groovies, original San Francisco psychedelic punks who revived their careers with a British Invasion turn during the late '70s. Then come the Spongetones with maybe my favorite song on this list, the exquisite “Have You Ever Been Torn Apart?” This North Carolina band created some of the best guitar pop of the 1980s, and they’re the only act with three songs on this playlist.

More highlights inspired by the suits-and-“woo!” era include the La’s skiffly “Feelin’”, the dead-ringer ballad “This Love is True” by NRBQ, and the woozy “Getting Out of Hand” by The Bangs, an all-female LA quartet soon to become…

The Bangles! They also contribute “Live”, which would fit right in on Rubber Soul. Funny thing is, it’s a cover of a '60s original by the Merry-Go-Round, written and sung by Emitt Rhodes, who released several Beatlesque solo records himself.

Middle-period Beatles was a huge influence on the Bangles’ LA scene: the Plimsouls, the Knack, and Rain Parade all pop up here with different twists on the Revolver-era sound. Out east, The Smithereens were rummaging through the same closet, as were Shoes in the Midwest.

Our first two bands return here with very different sounds. The Spongetones prove they can do that crunchy “Paperback Writer” thing with the superb “Better Take It Easy”. And the Flamin’ Groovies kick in a spooky Baroque ballad, “I Saw Her”.

As we get into the kaleidoscopic Victorian psychedelia of the Sgt. Pepper/Magical Mystery period, the names start to get bigger and the songs more sophisticated. Tears for Fears’ “Sowing the Seeds of Love” was the biggest hit on this list (here in its shorter 45 version). Elvis Costello showed his mastery of the Beatlesque brass sound with “And In Every Home”, and Squeeze (whose songwriting team of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook were often compared to Lennon/McCartney) pull off a perfect McCartney-style symphonic vignette with “Vanity Fair”, not coincidentally produced by Costello just the year before.

I won’t take it personally if you bail before you get this far. From the White Album onward is my least favorite Beatles period. But that means it’s only moderately great as opposed to staggeringly incredible. Cheap Trick captures some of that Abbey Road majesty on the epic “Voices”. Robyn Hitchcock goes ranting-Lennon on “Somewhere Apart” and mystic-Lennon on “Cathedral”, while Crowded House show their teeth with the skelter-meets-walrus snarl “Kill Eye”.

And sure, what the hell, I threw Julian Lennon in there, too. “Valotte” is no cheesier than his dad’s Let It Be-age ballads. And bringing up the rear of the tribute parade is World Party, the Irish band often compared to the Beatles. I don’t really get it, other than mainman Karl Wallinger’s physical resemblance to Lennon, but “Thank You World” is a reasonable facsimile of what the Beatles might have sounded like had they stuck around another few years.

Hope this helps the next time you’re in a Beatle mood, but don’t want to hear the same songs you’ve heard a million times. I don’t necessarily consider “derivative” a dirty word: all art is at least partially imitating something. When done with a fresh inflection, it can not only be great on its own terms, but throw facets of the original into sharper relief.

In the '90s, a whole new crop of bands would pick up these threads and run with them, all the way to the very top of the global charts. But that’s a story for another playlist…

What do you think? Got any other Beatlesque gems from the Reagan era? Think this whole idea is contrary to the spirit of the Beatles in the first place? Let’s shoot the shit!