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Why We Mark the Beatles’ Golden Anniversary in America

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

McCartney and Starr last week in LA (Photo: Reuters)

Today, CBS will be broadcasting a rare reunion of Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr, on the occasion of their 50th anniversary in America.  The concert was filmed the day after the Grammies, just a couple of miles from me here in LA.  The occasion is also marked by several magazine cover stories this month.

The Beatles were a phenomenon that will not happen again, a band that was both the most popular and the best.  They made their US debut in 1964, when TV was still a relatively new medium and the number of channels was very limited.  The national dialogue was narrowly focused.  Today, we enjoy much greater diversity in entertainment options, but at the cost of being fragmented.  There is no turning back to a time when one band can catch the attention of children and adults in one monolithic nationwide audience.

The Beatles are usually remembered for their popularity and timeliness.  They wrote catchy songs, and they were right there at the leading edge of baby-boomer youth culture.  The 1960s was a decade of enormous social changes, and will probably merit a section all its own when I write Chapter 2.  It was really the beginning of of what we would identify with as “today’s world.”  As a cultural phenomenon, The Beatles were indelibly impressed on the social fabric of the times.  Beatlemania is a necessary ingredient of nostalgia for that period of time.  Even I have always felt oddly retro-nostalgic for the decade before I was born, when I hear the Beatles songs that still dominated the airwaves in my first few years.  And to think, the Beatles almost didn’t make it onto the Ed Sullivan show.  Management had trouble finding a sponsor.  Bayer aspirin came through at the last minute.  Isn’t it interesting how entertainment and pragmatic economics are intertwined.  Ultimately, the Beatles got on TV in February, 1964 because Bayer needed to sell aspirins.

Even aside from their cultural signficance, all music nerds will agree that The Beatles were a game-changer in the art.  It’s a little ironic that they started out as a cover band, and actually came to the game kind of late for rock-and-roll.  Many music agents at the time felt convinced that “guitar based bands” were already on their way out in 1962, as the Beatles sought their first record deals.  Their catalog from 1962 – 1964 is usually played on the same radio stations that play the “oldies” of the 1950s.

The Beatles' US debut, 50 years ago today

The Beatles’ US debut, 50 years ago today

From the start, though, one thing was unique:  The Beatles synthesized all of the rock-n-roll roles into one band.  Before that time, the industry had specialists.  There were songwriters (Willy Dixon, Neal Sedaka).  There were great vocalists (Roy Orbison) and vocal groups (The 4 Seasons).  There were instrumentalists (Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis).  There were stars (Elvis).  Very few had it all in one package.  With a few concurrent exceptions like the Rolling Stones and The Beach Boys, the Beatles were the first self-contained rock band.  Their Ed Sullivan appearance set the new industry standard.  After that, it was commonly understood that bands should be able to write their own songs and perform them with panache.  It was an extremely high bar.  Honestly, in the whole history of rock music, only maybe a few hundred bands have ever been capable of pulling it off well.

But it was the next year, 1965, that the Beatles started to metamorphose and to take the art of music in new directions.  That was the year that the Beatles became the first progressive rock band, with a focus on studio production.  They launched two albums, “Help” and “Rubber Soul.”  These included songs the likes of which had not been heard before, such as “Ticket to Ride,” “Yesterday,” “Michelle,” “Norwegian Wood,” and “In My Life.”  1965 was a watershed year for the Beatles and other artists.  The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me” brought distortion to the electric guitar while McCartney introduced fuzz bass.  It was the year of “Satisfaction” and “California Dreaming.”  Then the scene exploded.  Psychedelia appeared in 1966, again with Beatles contributions.  Hard rock / heavy metal was appearing by the late ’60s, influenced by Beatles songs like “Helter Skelter” (1968) and “She’s So Heavy” (1969, the year before Black Sabbath’s first album).  Even the bands that are usually given credit for inventing progressive rock, such as Pink Floyd and King Crimson, made their debuts only after the Beatles mid-career mark.  The Beatles continued to adapt their sound and be at the forefront of songwriting and production until their last album, “Let It Be,” in 1970.  They went out on top.

It is no exaggeration to say that the entire era of classic rock music was just three decades of Beatlemania.  The scene remained rich until the early ’90s.  I regard Dream Theater’s 1992 “Images and Words” as the last significant classic rock album.  It was preceded in 1991 by the sudden explosion of modern rock, a scene that produced great albums for only about two years before going stagnant.  The golden era of rock music is long gone and will never stage a comeback.  Today’s scene is too fragmented.  Audiophilism has given way to iPod miniaturization, live bands have given way to DJ’s.  At bottom, there’s not enough money in the industry anymore to cull talent and foster rock music communities.

I admire all the Beatles, with a special appreciation for Paul McCartney.  Half of the energy that you hear in early Beatles songs comes from his voice.  He drove the band in their late years.  I especially respect the way he has kept an active career all these years.   You remember his Christmas song and his collaborations with Michael Jackson and Stevie Wonder in the ’80s.  His song “Freedom” was an immediate response to the attacks of 9/11/01.  I saw him live in 2006, when he was touring for his great “Chaos and Creation in the Backyard” album.  The crowd was riveted by “Jenny Wren” just as much as “Yesterday.”  He likes to stay up-to-the-minute on hot new bands.  He has released some orchestral albums that are really good.  He even did some anonymous albums under the band name “Fireman,” which I enjoy as much as any electronica.

Ringo Starr has distanced himself from the Beatles legacy in recent years, so I was glad to see him join Paul at this event.  It seems that he was very excited by it.  Wish I could have been there!  I’m sure tickets were hard to come by.  😛

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