This past week marked the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” There were TV specials and nostalgic articles. And if I were in my teens today, I might ask, “What’s the big deal?”
It’s a fair question. To you, young person, this must seem like your parents (more likely your grandparents) waxing on about something that is totally outdated, like rotary phones or customer service.
So let me explain why the Beatles actually are worth commemorating. Let’s start with this: Fifty years later, their music is still better than today’s.
Yep. I said it. I won’t take it back. If Katy Perry wants to argue, bring it on. If Lady Gaga takes exception, I’ll raise it. If Justin Bieber wants to…
Forget it. That’s not even fair.
The Beatles were better. Their song construction, their melody lines, their harmonies, their lyrics, their inventiveness, their breakthrough use of symphonic instruments – all done at a time when if you got it wrong, you had to record the whole thing again, you couldn’t just fix it with a computer key – combine to make the seven years the Beatles recorded together the richest production of pop music ever created by a group.
The Sullivan show was a landmark, but it was really about hysteria. You barely could hear the Beatles for all the screaming girls. And, let’s admit it, there has been hysteria since then. Heck, the Monkees had it at their concerts. So did the Osmonds, Jackson 5, David Cassidy, Menudo, Hanson, Boyz II Men and Bieber.
None of their music resonates the same way.
Never standing pat
You see, young person, what the Beatles did was take their influences – Chuck Berry, Muddy Waters, Elvis – and morph them all into their own early sound. Songs like “From Me to You” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” were bright, tight and catchy rock ‘n’ roll, but they were wholly different from other songs coming out. When mimic bands began popping up, the Beatles quickly moved into more significant and signature work, songs you really couldn’t imagine anyone else doing. “Here, There and Everywhere.” “Norwegian Wood.” “Drive My Car.”
Three years after the suits, ties and mop-top haircuts of the Sullivan show, they were exploring corners of pop music no one had ever tried, creating thematic albums like “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Magical Mystery Tour” that featured French horns and trumpets and timpani drums. Later, they would bring in sitar music. Cellos. Violas. Listen to “Eleanor Rigby” – released in 1966! – and tell me, what other artist of their time could have done that? It is complex, hardly rock ‘n’ roll, yet it is catchy and memorable and people around the world still sing the line, “Ahhh, look at all the lonely people,” which is probably more poetic than anything Kanye West ever has written.
By ’68 and ’69, the Beatles were on warp drive. Their progression through psychedelic to experimental has been well-documented, yet they never stopped creating rock ‘n’ roll (“Back in the USSR”) or folk song satire (“Piggies”) or cabaret-like melodies (“When I’m Sixty-Four,” “Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”) or achingly beautiful ballads like “Blackbird” or “Something” or “Let It Be.”
Honestly, if a band just recorded those last three songs, couldn’t it retire?
Simply superb songwriting
The Beatles did all this in the seven years they recorded together. And while they never played as a foursome after 1970, people know their songs 44 years later, they can sing along with dozens – not one – and they are remade as often as someone gets up the courage.
I can tell you as a former musician who played in countless cover bands, you always shied away from doing Beatles tunes, because their sound was so unique, the audience inevitably found fault with your version. But the fact that so many big artists have recorded “Yesterday,” “Michelle” or “And I Love Her” – to name a few – shows the timelessness of John Lennon’s and Paul McCartney’s songwriting.
How many other artists will record a Lady Gaga, Kanye West or Katy Perry hit? They won’t, because those are often great records, not great songs. Technology today can make a record memorable. But it can’t make it musical. Play the single notes of “Yesterday” on a piano or a guitar, it’s still beautiful. Play the single notes from “Lose Yourself” by Eminem, it sounds like torture.
So we’re not crazy, young person, not foolishly nostalgic, nor lost in the past. We were just blessed to have a truly great musical band to soundtrack our younger years, one that is not embarrassing to listen to today. Is that worth a small fuss 50 years later? As the Beatles might answer, yeah, yeah, yeah.