Leadership over Eisenhower’s America, a land in which a cheery facade of orderliness and drowsy post-war peace had reigned for eight years, was handed over to a young, handsome, somewhat brash Irish Bostonian named John Kennedy. His eloquence rivaled Lincoln’s. His enthusiasm for change and for challenge woke a sleepy nation up from its contented, carefully coiffed American dream. There were, of course, vast numbers of Americans not allowed to freely participate in that dream – blacks and other minorities, women, homosexuals, free thinking young people – all were marginalized, held back, corralled, and kept in place by the acknowledged ruling elite – white men.
The picket fences began to strain, however, under the new push for freedom, encouraged in part by this youthful president, in part by a charismatic young Southern Baptist minister named Martin Luther King, and finally by the swelling turbulence of the time itself. What the time demanded was expansion, new ideas, and a casting off the old.
Then, in a single, startling moment, the pure light of this new hope was pierced, stained, rent with gaping holes. John Kennedy had been shot and the entire nation, stunned – stopped, wept, questioned, and lived past it, but were forever changed.
Hope, nonetheless, had begun.
Meanwhile, over in England, a scruffy band of leather clad musical lads had finished a grueling tour of Germany’s clubs, playing six or seven hours a day, fueled on ‘prellies’ (uppers), and alcohol. They’d returned to Liverpool, triumphant in their small home port. What emerged from their time spent in the Hamburg trenches was a musical group as tight, polished, cocksure, and wildly exuberant as anyone had ever seen. Their fame spread, their manager cleaned up the band’s appearance to prepare them for a wider audience. They sported a so-called mop-top hair style, which, to the day’s standards, was radically uncoiffed. Beatlemania sprouted in England. Soon enough, it would engulf the entire world.
John, Paul, George, and Ringo. It’s the only way you can say those four names together. And that was the key – together. All together now. The principal message of the Beatles, which they demonstrated in their wit and banter along with their music, was one of unity – the whole is greater than the parts, perfect alchemy creates gold, when minds are interconnected and working for the same outcome, magic happens.
So, in February of 1964, they arrived in the US, on the strength of the single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” certified number one by Cashbox Magazine in January. Three appearances on the Ed Sullivan show later, the floodgates had burst open. Boston songwriter Bart Caruso, years later recalled the time, in the following lyrics :
all the signs predicted doom, for the post war baby boom,
but in the black and white living room, four figures of salvation loomed…
In the shadow of the nuclear bomb, Kennedy’s death, and civil rights upheavals, the Beatles music blew a crazy whirlwind of optimism, youth and giddy bedlam over America. The screams of young girls were deafening, the number one records began stacking up, they became overnight millionaires, which made the adults take notice. You couldn’t look anywhere in the media without coming across something or other about the Beatles. Serious music critics carefully analyzed the songs, in pedantic elucidation like “the major tonic sevenths and ninths built into their tunes, the flat-submediant key-switches… the Aeolian cadence at the end of 'Not a Second Time’…” designed to give them some form of old school legitimacy. Such statements bewildered the Beatles themselves, who were musically unschooled. Today, those distinctive chords, progressions, and harmonies are generally referred to by musicians as “Beatle chords,” or “Beatlesque.”
Paul McCartney would soon write and record “Yesterday,” which erased any doubt that the Beatles were creating enduring classics. A teacher at Boston’s Berklee School of Music told students at the time that he was convinced that McCartney could never have written the song by himself, implying that Paul must have sought ‘professional’ help, from someone like, for instance, a Berklee teacher, in its composition. Frank Sinatra initially slagged them mercilessly in press interviews. Several years later he recorded “Yesterday,” and would come to call Harrison’s “Something,” the best love song ever written, mistakenly referring to it as a Lennon-McCartney tune.
That was how it was. The old regime was revealing itself to be addled and in the way. It was time to be given the boot. The Beatles ushered in the changing of the guard.
I was twelve at the time of their arrival, and I’d been waiting. I loved Chuck Berry, he was an early hero. His songs spoke of kids at school, cars, girls, American tales of clean-cut, everyday life. I was entranced by the raw guitar, the intelligent lyrics, the plain-spoken wisdom, and humor in clever wordplay. My older brother had initiated me into his music, a year or so before the Beatles arrival, since I’d missed it when it first was on the radio. He explained the car chase in "Maybelline," the humor in "Too Much Monkey Business."
We had a vinyl record in my house called Chuck Berry Twist, which was a rehash collection of his hits, put out to go along with the Twist dance phase. There was no picture on the cover, and I assumed he was white. I finally saw what he looked like – older, another color, oddly handsome, charismatic, sporting a leer and a wink. I was bewildered, captivated, didn’t know exactly what to make of him. He seemed impossibly worldly, exotic, he couldn’t fit the part of a personal hero – too different, and there was the matter of his prison sentence for taking an underage girl into Mexico, which I of course couldn’t relate to or understand at all.
Elvis swiveled right past me. I was too young to know what the sexuality of the hips meant. It just seemed silly, Elvis the Pelvis, almost like it was a schoolyard taunt. He looked like a greaser, a tough guy, too good looking, too much like older boys in my town who were high school heroes and secret bullies. I liked some of Elvis’ songs, I remember listening to "Return to Sender" endlessly, but his image was all wrong for me. He went into the army and made stupid movies. Some kids in my neighborhood liked him – my best friend Danny, who had loved King Creole, mostly for the boxing. Me, I kept Elvis at arms length. In later years I’d come to love and recognize his musical mastery, the magical Sun recordings, the flawless voice, but then, I was in need of a hero, and he wasn’t it.
Instead I got four. They arrived, impossibly new and nothing like anything before them, like they’d come at this time to speak to me directly, telling me that life was full of possibility, exuberance, cheer. The message was, as "She Loves You" told, you could get the girl and help your friend get his girl too. The lyrics of “I Should Have Known Better” shouted “This could only happen to me! Cant you see?!” Life was a revelation, unique to the individual.
My friend Alan Shelton and I used to ‘play’ Beatles, down in his cellar, in a little blocked-off room that was his private area. We pretended to be The Beatles the way we used to pretend to be army soldiers or cowboy gunfighters. A significant paradigm shift, no imaginary guns anymore, now it was imaginary guitars. We would adopt the persona of one of the Beatles – I usually got to choose who I wanted to be first – it would always be either John or Paul. We would act out scenarios which generally involved running away from screaming girls, getting ready to play a concert, talking about writing new songs, (since we weren’t going to actually try to write one) and relaxing with all our well earned money, having food sent in, having someone change the strings on our guitars for us.
An odd adult form of a related sort of role play exists unto today, in the phenomena known as Beatle fan fiction, where fans write about themselves entering into the lives of one of more than one of the Beatles. It is often women fans, and they don’t write themselves into the current time – they don’t imagine themselves in a relationship with the 64 year old Paul – they write themselves into the lives of the Beatles from 1963 to 1967 thereabouts, at The Beatles height. The stories often take the form of something like a romance novel, some sexually explicit, with one of the Beatles as the love interest.
This strange effect they had on us all seemed to also be changing everything else. Hair styles, of course. The Beatles brought with them a cheerful Marxist anarchy (initially, Groucho – later, Karl) that infused itself into American youth, George brought The Beatles to the Maharishi, which singlehandedly popularized Eastern philosophy in America. Though never explicitly, The Beatles encouraged drug experimentation. They created controversy, were bigger than Jesus, became another band with "Sgt. Pepper," began to fray at the edges, got married, turned dysfunctional, and after the very short musical recording life span of eight years, broke up. The world shook at the news, but continued to turn.
Beyond all of this, beyond sociological discussions of their historical importance, there is the music. The music of the Beatles continues to be as vibrant today as when it first vibrated over airspace and touched eardrums. I told a friend I was writing this and he sent an email with a few of his thoughts.
“The Beatles cut across landscapes,” he said, “both then and now. My 80-year-old mom and my 16 year-old son know songs from the same group that I listen to – a group that actually stopped producing new music before I turned ten. Does Picasso hold that same appeal? Or Melville or Sinatra?” This is a very good point. No one denies Beethoven’s greatness, Mozart’s brilliance, but the vast reach of the Beatles to touch billions of people through their music – intimately, currently, daily – is unparalleled in human history. And after all, for music to have value, it must be heard. Their music stands comfortably beside the best ever created, the most timeless compositions, popular and classical, in invention and musical sophistication. On some scale, they would have to weigh in as the greatest musicians who have yet lived. I can already hear the stately, isolated classicalists groaning, the phalanxes of disgruntled jazzers grumbling, in between saxophone honks, while aping Parker Be-Bop.
Despite that and them, I believe the statement is, by any number of criteria, self evident.
I’ve been listening to their music all this week as I’ve been writing this, and as I’ve heard, for the thousandth time, again, this enormous quilt of sound that comprises their catalogue, I’m struck mostly by one common characteristic – this stuff sounds like it was recorded yesterday. It leaps up out of the speakers in 3-D, everywhere in it is this immediacy, this infectious throb of life, boundless joy and humor, unbridled creativity and irrepressible spirit. It would take a whole book to go into all the songs, what makes them each great. I don’t have the space for that here.
We know now that some recordings were done without all of the Beatles working on them, but for the majority of the songs, each Beatles’ contribution melds with the others to make an organic, musical whole, nothing removable or replacable – the rasp of John’s voice, old and wise beyond its years, Paul’s infectious delight in his singing, miraculous harmonies, which make your hair stand on end, melodies as instantly familiar on first hearing as they are now, George’s intricate, perfectly sculpted guitar parts, Paul’s rolling, melodic bass, John’s often unnoticed but indispensable second guitar, the heart beat thump of Ringo’s drums, as well as the contributions of the fifth Beatle, George Martin, who helped shape arrangements, whose incorporated musical suggestions are forever part of the Beatles tapestry. The tapestry of those incomparable songs – of pathos, humor, good will, social commentary, anger, joy, sadness, compassion and love. Love Love Love.
You know them. If you haven’t lately, go listen to the songs again, see if I’m lying, see if they don’t make you feel like when you first heard them. See if your heart doesn’t swell. Again. See if your mouth doesn’t turn upward, despite yourself. See if you don’t feel a decade, or two, or three, or four, younger.
I’d call that magic. I’d call that music. I’d call that The Beatles.