It was 1964. People were still reeling from the shock of seeing their young President struck down. Vietnam was just warming up. And relations between black and white Americans were not the best.
Into this land came four English lads from modest backgrounds, who for a while stunned the country as the world's first great Boy Band… four youngsters with their European haircuts and conservative suits turned out to look cute and cuddly. They were embraced, at first, as the ultimate distraction. Surely they were a passing fad.
Some fad! They quickly evolved from interchangable "mop tops" into four distinct creative geniuses, young men who would lead the way through many of the social changes to come over the turbulent 1960s. Their first appearence in American TV (on The Ed Sullivan Show) was just commemorated in The Night That Changed America. But Ed Sullivan was only the beginning.
Fifty years later, what really is the legacy of John, Paul, George, and Ringo?
The haircuts turned out to be the shortest-lived legacy of the Beatles, which is ironic, because at first it was all people talked about. Men's hair styles were uniform in those days: they were short. Perhaps in a desire to capitalize on the shock factor, the Beatles grew their hair ever longer (it had only been modestly long in 1964), until they became the model for an entire generation of "hippies" and "Yippies." And for decades to come, men's hairstyles were noticeably longer than they had been in the 1950s. Yes, the Beatles did that.
But every generation defines itself by rebelling against the generation before it, so by the turn of the millenium, the pendullum had swung the other way, and short hair was in again. What, then, is the styllistic legacy of the Beatles? Perhaps a certain freedom. We live in a world in which you can wear hair long or short. Of the surviving Beatles, Ringo's is now short, Paul's is long.
There were singing performances on screen long before — all those Hollywood muscials and Elvis films. But a musical number in an Elvis film sought to re-create the experience of hearing him in a nightclub. (Except for this scene of Elvis singing to a bunch of dogs while flying a helicopter… it has to be seen to be believed!)
The Fab Four invented music videos out of necessity. Being by far the most popular band in the world in the 1960s, they found it difficult to appear on every television show to which they were invited. But they realized they could film themselves performing a song and build a mini-movie around it. Then they'd send this "movie" out. The effect would be to introduce a new song and make it entertaining enough so that Ed Sullivan, Merv Griffin, and so on, would play it on air.
They were influenced by the work they'd done with director Richard Lester on Hard Day's Night and Help!. To watch those films is to see the earliest versions of what would become the music video of today: a three-to-five-minute episode, telling a little story, featuring members of the band doing much more than just standing around singing. The following clip from Hard's Day Night still stands as one of the greatest music videos ever. Wait for the final line: "Sorry we hurt your field, Mister," which spoke for an entire generation questioning why its elders were so uptight:
To be fair, the Beatles did not do this alone. English philosopher Alan Watts was into Buddhism and Hinduism years before the Beatles were. But when the Fab Four went to see the Maharishi (so that this Indian guru might "bring peace of mind to the Beatles") the attention of not thousands, but many millions, of Westerners turned to Asian philosophies for the first time. Soon millions of young people were following the Beatles not by dropping acid but by meditating.
How this came about is interesting. The movie Help! features a melodramatic/comic plot in which followers of a Hindu cult seek to ritually sacrifice Ringo… because (why else?) he wears a sacred ring he can't get off his finger. The plot has little to do with real Hinduism — a religion that considers life to be sacred. But as a result of this exposure to Indian culture, George Harrison grew fascinated with the music and then learned about Hindu concepts of enlightenment. He aquired a sitar, recruited Ravi Shankar to perform on Beatles records, and finally met the Maharishi.
The legacy all these years later? Traditional church attendance is down from fifty years ago, but striving for a more general spirituality — one combining something of both Western and Eastern religion — is stronger than ever. Something of this Eastern influence can even be seen in Star Wars.
The immediate effect of the Beatles was to open the flood gates to many other famous bands: The Who, Herman's Hermits, and The Rolling Stones, to name just a few. But the overall cultural effect was bigger than that. For close to two centuries, Great Britain had represented everything America was against. Brits were regarded as slow, stodgy, stuck in old ways of thinking, and anyway, didn't we dump all their tea in the harbor back in 1775 to show we didn't like them?
The Beatles changed all that. Americans finally looked back to the Mother Country as a source of what was young, exciting, and… cool. Suddenly we were aware of something called Mod London. And that was just the beginning. In 1967, the Beatles were widely panned for creating an hour-long musical film called Magical Mystery Tour. But if you watch that film today, you'll see that it fully anticipates the comic style of Monty Python.
There was only one cool Brit before the Beatles, and that of course was James Bond. He had a complicated relationship with the Fab Four. In Goldfinger (1964), Bond disparages them with the line: "There are two things one just doesn't do. One is to serve champagne at room temperature. The other is to play Beatles records without wearing ear muffs." But in the 1970s, Paul McCartney wrote one of the most famous of Bond theme songs, Live and Let Die. There was also the Bond-like introductory rift to the Beatle's own film, Help!
But James Bond was the exception. It took the Beatles to really start America's fascination with all things British. And we haven't been the same since.
One of John Lennon's best-remembered songs had an innocent enough origin. His little son, Julian, had drawn a picture and described it by saying, "That's Lucy in the sky… with diamonds!" But if you listen to the wonderful, psychodelic lyrics of the song that John wrote as a result, it's hard to dismiss the initials L.S.D. as altogehter a coincidence. It was in any case a coincidence that fit the song.
The Beatles never told people to use drugs. Nonetheless, they felt the need to expand their own consciousness in response to ever-mounting pressure to stay ahead of all the rival bands. Anything that jump-started their creativity, they felt, was good.
But by the 1970s, all four Beatles had — to one extent or another — gotten clean and moved away from drugs. Ringo Starr famously sang "No, no, no, I don't smoke it no more, I'm tired of waking up in the floor. No thank you, please, it only makes me sneeze…" The second line is a reference to turning away from cocaine.
In the mid-1960s, Bob Dylan alienated his fans by moving from folk music to rock. This is because folk music had a deep social conscience, while rock and roll was mainly about having a good time.
In 1964, the Beatles sang "She loves you" and "I want to hold your hand." But they evolved quickly. Within a few years — thanks to the influence of philosopher Bertrand Russell meeting Paul McCartney — they were all against the Vietnam War, although those feelings took a while to manifest themselves in lyrics. But finally, John Lennon wrote great anti-war songs: All You Need is Love, Give Peace a Chance, and Imagine. John and Yoko's famous "Bed-In" for peace was mocked by the press, but John had a point. The press was going to follow him around and quote him no matter what he did. So why not say something useful?
The legacy of the Beatles is evident many years later in the careers of people like Bruce Springstein and Bono. They understood John Lennon's point: If you're lucky enough to be that successful, shouldn't you want to do more than just sit around and be another rich bastard?
And few people could ever top what George Harrison did in the 1970s (after the break up of the Beatles) with the Concert for Bangladesh. No one had ever done anything quite like this before. Suddenly people in the West knew about Bangladesh for the first time (a poor, crowded country that had formerly been East Pakistan). The event was a cultural milestone, and it inspired generations of musicians to do likewise, with Farm-Aid, Band-Aid, and so on. Benefit concerts may seem almost routine now, but George Harrison was the great pioneer, just as the Beatles as a group were pioneers in the areas of music videos and counter-cultural style.
Interestingly, the Beatles could occasionally be counter-revolutionaries too, embraced by conservatives or at least moderates. John's Revolution is about how not to change the world: "If you want money for people with minds that hate, all I can tell you is brother, you'll have to wait!" And yet this was consistent. John and the other Beatles favored a revolution based on peace, non-violence, and love. It's a message that still resonates.
It's ironic that in the mid-1960s John got into big trouble saying "We're bigger than Jesus now," which admitteldy was a brash thing to say and for which he had to apologize. But it's ironic considering: (1) Lennon's appearence took on an eerie similarity to Jesus, except with spectacles; and (2) the Beatles' message was often like that of Jesus' preachings of loving acceptance of the world and non-violence. George Harrison added the Hindu angle, and his hit single My Sweet Lord alternated the background verses "Hare Krishna" and "Halleluah," bringing East and West together.
It seems like a stretch to say that the music of the Beatles led to the opening of the Soviet Union and the eventual downfall of Communism, but this is what author Leslie Woodhead suggests in How the Beatles Rocked the Kremlin.
Changing the world in this way could hardly have been what John Lennon intended when, in the earliest days of what would become the Beatles, he told his band-mates they were going "to the toppermost of the poppermost!" And yet it must be said that they came along at the right time in history. Smuggling in bootlegs of Fab Four records became a form of hidden rebellion for young Russians in the 1960s, the very people who would someday go on to lead Russia.
The message of the Beatles — even if, at first, it seemed limited to "Love Me Do" — was that Youth could not be contained by the dictates of a People's Artistic Committee. The Beatles celebrated energy, vitality, and life that were their own reason for being.
It's easy to focus so much on the other aspects of the Beatle story — the haircuts, the mania, the politics — that one forgets what it was about for the Beatles themselves: it was always about the music. Their love for what they did showed up in many ways. Most obviously, out of hundreds of songs they wrote and performed, it's difficult to find a tune which is not memorable. This is a stunning achievement in a field in which songwriters are lucky to get one or two lasting hits in an entire career. For John Lennon and Paul McCartney — and their younger partner, George Harrison — it was almost impossible to turn out anything that was not a hit. Picking the top 10, or top 20, or even top 100, Beatles songs is an excruciatingly difficult task. That fact by itself is astounding.
To this extent, they rivaled the greatest songwriters who ever lived: Mozart, Puccini, Gershwin, Cole Porter, and Rogers and Hammerstein.
Beyond that, they changed the landscape of popular music. I remember that in the 1970s, the Music department at Yale taught "composition" that was devoted to what most people might call avant-garde, or expermental, music… that is, music no one ever listens to. But the Beatles, on records heard by tens of millions, introduced experimental music quite successfully, music that was on the edge and violated traditional rules. They also demonstrated mastery of every musical style, from Broadway and Classical to R&B and Country-Western. They brought in Ravi Shankar from India, something no one else would have dreamed of doing — as well as Billy Preston, making the "fifth Beatle" a talented black man.
Far from being behind the times, the Beatles anticipated grunge music decades ahead of time with Helter Skelter.
Equally important was what they did in the recording studio. Collaborating with classically-trained music producer George Martin, they concocted new sounds in the studio that went beyond what was possible in live performance. In doing so, they changed the industry. They led other musicians (including Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys) to create new musical sounds and concept albums. No one had done this in popular music before, with the possible exception of Phil Spector and his "wall of sound." The raw materials for creation were there, and soon became greater, so maybe someone would have stumbled upon the creative possiblities eventually. But the Beatles led the way.
About the last song they performed, The Long and Winding Road, was given a lush studio enhancement by producer Phil Spector. But it's beautiful here in this original version — the last time the four of them ever made a record together. Even without bringing in technical tricks, they were so very, very good!