Imagine there’s no Beatles. It’s impossible, even if you try. Their music is too well known and too deeply loved. When Paul McCartney sang “Hey Jude” at the opening of the London Olympics two weeks ago, people around the world sang along — they all knew the melody and the words. What other band in history ever inspired such universal and ardent response?
This year is being celebrated as their 50th anniversary. According to Beatles lore, 50 years ago in August, drummer Ringo Starr played for the first time with the other three members, John Lennon, who was tragically shot and killed in 1980, Paul McCartney and George Harrison, who died of cancer in 2001. The rest, as is said about so many events with less global impact, is history.
The Beatles are perhaps the single most popular musical group, and by most accounts, The Beatles remain the best-selling band, ever. Though they played together for less than a decade, they changed the direction of popular music with some 300 moving, memorable songs that transformed how we think and feel about music. Music company executives might see them as the first globally marketed pop group, but it would be more accurate to say Beatlemania swept the world on its own.
Their concerts drove listeners wild, frightening some critics with the intensity of devotion from young fans. Their integrity, and innocence, though, won over most early naysayers. It was hard to resist the catchy joyfulness and thoughtful intensity of their music.
The Beatles did more than thrill fans. They brought music to the forefront of cultural change. They were the first group to break through the confines of national cultures and free young people to feel closer to other young people, instead of to the traditions of their parents. John, Paul, George and Ringo’s ever-changing hairstyles, satirical press interviews, and political pronouncements marked the borders of the counterculture.
Communist governments and dictatorships banned their music, which only turned it into a beacon of aspiration. There were protests, too, in many countries, at their perceived anti-Christian comments and supposedly threatening radical politics. But young people around the world revered the freedom of expression and the youthful energy The Beatles embodied.
The Beatles revolutionized the structure of pop music by combining 1950s American rock ‘n’ roll, British music hall sing-alongs, and chord patterns from classical European music, with a dash of Indian sitar music.
With the help of producer George Martin, they experimented with orchestral arrangements and studio techniques, especially on their groundbreaking 1967 album, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” That concept album became a flowing sequence of interrelated stories, symbols and images, rather than just a collection of recent songs.
What The Beatles wrote about felt fresh and new. They wrote about the eternal theme of love, of course, but with more nuance and subtlety than most groups at the time.
By 1970, their lyrics were abstract, psychedelic and full of protest, especially against the Vietnam War. Their songs ranged from intense (“Come Together”) and buoyant (“Here Comes the Sun”) to surreal (“I Am the Walrus”).
Their honest, heartfelt lyrics covered a lot of territory. They ironized politics (“Back in the USSR”), sympathized with the dispossessed (“Eleanor Rigby”), and reassured the alienated (“Nowhere Man”). They included new kinds of characters: single mothers (“Lady Madonna”), strange lovers (“Norwegian Wood”) and wise outcasts (“The Fool on the Hill”).
Their universal appeal, though, rests on their universal themes. They reminded the world that money “Can’t Buy Me Love,” that “Yesterday” was a simpler, easier time, that everyone hopes their love will still be strong “When I’m Sixty-Four.” They also reminded us that just singing, “Na na na” over and over at the end of a song like “Hey, Jude” is a heck of a lot of fun.
The Beatles had a special connection to Japan, as they did to most countries. The Beatles performed five concerts in Tokyo in 1966, the first musical group to play in the Budokan. Because that hall was formerly reserved for traditional Japanese martial arts, police feared attacks from rightwing extremists, as well as teenage street riots, so The Beatles were kept under strict guard. Thousands of policemen lined the route from the airport and surrounded their hotel. Short as the tour was, it inspired young Japanese dramatically.
When John Lennon fell in love with the Japanese artist, Yoko Ono, Japan’s passion for The Beatles deepened further. A tribute band at a Roppongi club still plays their music, pretty much like the originals, almost every night, and of course, every karaoke parlor in Japan stores an entire section of Beatles songs.
The Beatles were unique in that they inspired lovers, musicians, poets and revolutionaries in equal measures. They transformed themselves from bar band rock and rollers to respected artists with a permanent place on the world stage. Their music was devoted to the most important human concerns and to the hope for a more peaceful, caring and feeling world.
Let’s hope their dreams come true in the next 50 years. Happy Birthday, Beatles!
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