The Beatles, Eclecticism & the BBC
The Beatles. Strictly before my time, but with recordings you can get some of the vibe. When you place them in the context of what other bands were doing at the same time, it's like looking at the 5-foot tall kid in the Year 2 class photo.
No need to re-hash any slobbering praise for what they did. YouTube loves that sort of thing, some yokel playing the spoons is apparently an incredible genius, but not for Joe Bloggs who rolls up barracking for some other spoon player, and a couple of comments later fuck you and your grandmother. (Mailing lists and forums usually degenerate into pissing contests too.)
They did great music, but this isn't about that. What more than anything makes them sound so different to their contemporaries (at least amongst well known bands - chances are somebody was churning out great stuff in a shed somewhere we never heard about) was the vast eclectic range of what they were doing. It's become a sort of truism that they were eclectic. Just a few years later Queen took that even further.
But I'm not sure eclectic really describes what these two bands in particular were doing. They weren't dilettantes, superficially dabbling in a whole variety of styles. When you think back to the era in which they both lived, it was dominated by radio. So members of both groups grew up listening to a huge variety of musical styles and acts, mostly (I'm guessing) via the BBC. They may have been the first generation to be so throughly immersed in such a enormous diversity of styles.
Now you can still maintain the whole eclecticism thesis by assuming that they took all of the styles they were hearing and just emulated them in different ways. But to my ear something very specifically different was going on, and it's not widely understood even to this day. (Even the bands themselves don't necessarily describe themselves in the way I'm about to, but then artists aren't always reflecting on their work in this sort of way - they're just doing it.) I think what the Beatles and Queen both did better than anybody else, in the process inventing an entirely new era in music, was to produce a unified, consistent sound from this diversity everyone was living. Their music is less a mix of styles, than a single style of mixture.
Take the best example, something like Bohemian Rhapsody. Is it opera, or rock? Or a bit of opera mixed with rock? I'd argue it's none of those things. It's a hybrid, a new musical form that blends the experience of listening of opera and rock into a new, unified musical experience that is neither of them. Not the completely pretentious "rock opera" that The Who and others engaged in - not a marrying of two pure forms - but a genuine hybrid, new thing. And yes very tongue-in-cheek in its own way, but people always misunderstood Mercury in particular as a flippant artist, when in fact he was a deeply serious, thinking artist. Most great artists have an exquisite sense of humour, which doesn't stop their work being 'serious'.
[The proof is the attempt others make to play Bohemian Rhapsody, as either a rock song or as an opera song, with a rock band and choir for example. It never works, it always sounds artificial, forced and just plain silly.]
Alas in rock and pop 'serious' artists are deemed to be those who bleat on about 'social issues' in some variety, as if what you sing about is what determines your seriousness as an artist. As if what a song is 'about' is what makes it worthwhile. So we get truly appalling musicians held up as demigods because they talk about poverty and oppression and everything else they read about while busy failing first year sociology.
If you then follow the subsequent development of music post The Beatles and Queen, into sampling and rap and other forms of electronic music in particular, you can see this theme of hybrid blending coming even more strongly to the fore. Because of that I see The Beatles and Queen as pioneers in this 'sampling' genre, something not often noticed.