On the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, perhaps it’s time to clarify what we mean when we say “The Beatles…”
Tonight will be the 50th anniversary of the advent of what most people think of as “The Sixties.” The avalanche of commentary that has accompanied this anniversary ranges from the hagiographic to the asinine, much of it driven by the political ethos that infuses every aspect of our lives these days. “If only these white guys hadn’t spoiled everything, other artists (implied: more worthwhile) would be more appreciated and influential”; “Without The Beatles no other artists (implied: no matter how clearly brilliant and innovative they were/are) could have accomplished the task of changing the culture.”
None of them spend much time on trying to discover and understand the simple truths of The Beatles as part of the American experience….
No other band has generated the amount of writing – good, bad, indifferent – as The Fabs, especially in the form of biographical examination. From Hunter Davies’ fascinating, if highly flawed The Beatles to the in-progress exhaustively detailed three volume biography by Mark Lewisohn, journalists and scholars have dedicated themselves to trying to expose John, Paul, George, and Ringo as a synergistic entity, as individuals, as reflections of where our culture was at the time they exploded onto the cultural scene. Probably the best, at least in terms of trying to explain the meaning of The Beatles is Philip Norman’s excellent Shout: The Beatles in Their Generation. What Norman does better than other, more exhaustive biographers, is attempt to give a cultural studies interpretation of the phenomenon they were and its meaning in the context of the historical era they belonged to. Norman makes two points that, while seemingly obvious and explored by others, probably offer us as good a route to discovering and understanding the why of The Beatles as we may ever have.
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The Great Synthesizers…
Other writers have discussed this aspect of The Beatles’ achievement, but Norman, I think, does the best job of conveying the uncanny ability Lennon, McCartney, and Harrison had for recognizing and incorporating other musical trends into their work. Their acquaintance with Dylan (who was, in turn, influenced by their success to go electric) led first to one of their most enduring early songs, Lennon’s “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away,” and eventually to what most critics consider their first “serious” album, Rubber Soul, which is sonically, if not entirely in subject matter, a folk rock album. That album validated the folk rock movement pioneered by The Byrds, The Lovin’ Spoonful, and just after them, by Buffalo Springfield. At around the same time Harrison discovered Indian music, began learning the sitar, and incorporated the instrument for the first time into “Norwegian Wood” from that same album, fomenting interest in merging rock with what were (at the time) exotic musical genres. McCartney’s (at the suggestion of Sir George Martin) integration of a string quartet into “Yesterday” helped popularize the genre of chamber pop (best represented by groups like The Left Banke). Revolver gave the general public its introduction to psychedelia (followed by singles such as “Strawberry Fields” and “I Am the Walrus”). And of course the triumph of the album mentioned below brought wide acceptance to the musical construct we know as the concept album:
The album The Beatles, better known as “The White Album,” covers all these genres and more while the final “real” Beatle album, Abbey Road, gave wide exposure to a rock version of the song cycle.
Arguments abound, of course, disputing whether The Beatles innovated or merely trend hopped, using their formidable songwriting skills to ape more authentic artists. That’s not really the point, Norman would say: what The Beatles were able to do through their incredible popularity was expose vast numbers of young listeners to the subgenres of rock and pop mentioned above (and, in a way, legitimize those genres) – thus interesting listeners who then found other, often more serious, practitioners of the genres. Their own wide ranging interest in musical styles was thus transferred to their fans – a cohort large enough to sustain careers for those whom the snark set love to call “truer artists.”
The other area in which The Beatles succeeded as cultural models was in offering fans choice. Coming as they did some 70 years into what we know as The Age of Advertising, they were a marketer’s dream: a single entity composed of four separate and identifiable elements so that fans could have a favorite and love the band as a unit. It started early: Paul was the “cute Beatle”; John was the “smart/clever/witty Beatle”; George was the “quiet Beatle”; and Ringo, sweet Ringo, who was actually the most popular Beatle overall because he was many fans’ second favorite in addition to having his own considerable cohort of admirers, was the “loveable Beatle.” Previous popular idols, whether movie stars like Clark Gable or musical stars such as Frank Sinatra were individuals – fans either found the single commodity attractive or not. Even the early pop stars such as Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly (for white America of the period, it was fine to like the music of Chuck Berry or Little Richard but mortal sin to find the person attractive) the individual model remained the norm.
The Beatles changed that. There were four of them – distinctly different and differing persons who somehow, as a group, achieved (for fans, at least) a synergy that both transcended and validated their individual personae. One could both love “The Beatles” – and love John/Paul/George/Ringo. The message was perfect for individualism obsessed America: you could be in the group – but you could also be an individual.
The Individual, the Group, the Idea Implanted…
Ultimately, this anniversary is about the conquest of a generation by a group of musicians. Extraordinarily talented songwriters, well above average musicians, engaging individuals, a cohesive group – what kids across this country saw on Sunday, February 9, 1964, was an alternative to previous role models, good or bad. The lone gunman (John Dillinger), the lonely leader (John Kennedy), the solo hero (John Glenn) – these models became passé between 8:03 and 8:10 PM on that night. Being in the group was what mattered.
If one stops and considers the subsequent individual and group behaviors of both Boomers and their Millenial offspring, especially if one takes the long view, that model of behavior can easily be said to have influenced whole generations’ self-concepts.
In other words, one might say of these generations we have met The Beatles. They are us.