THIS IS HOW WE FIRST SAW THEM: as four British lads bounding from a Boeing 707 at Kennedy International Airport, just past lunchtime on a blustery February day in 1964. The fresh-faced visitors were impossibly neat and charming, all toothy grins. They clutched their blue Pan Am bags as if they were the bloodiest best gifts ever. Press photographers snapped away amid the din of 3,000 teenage fans shouting their brains out.
And this is how we remember them today: as a masterful, ever-morphing rock band that dazzled us for eight years; a band that composed and recorded some 200 songs unlike any we’d heard before; a band whose arrival on these shores less than three months after President Kennedy’s assassination afforded Americans an excuse to hold hands, to love, and to imagine happier times during a profoundly turbulent era in our political evolution.
Day Tripper. In My Life. Eleanor Rigby. The Long and Winding Road. Ah, and Sgt. Pepper—of course. It was a ticket to ride, all right. These fellas were nothing if not revolutionaries.
Then … they were no more. Except, that is, for the poetry and the melodies and the iconic marketing images they bequeathed to us—millions of psychedelic/quixotic/ambiguous/shocking images. Like Bob Dylan, whom the Beatles greatly admired, they created a template for the ways musicians could entertain an audience while simultaneously, if gently, rejecting its wars.
Five decades after the Beatles touched down in New York—aboard a jet aptly nicknamed Clipper Defiance—there are those who regard them still as quasi-spiritual figures who came to heal us Yanks at the exact moment we most needed a liniment for our broken spirit. Are they, then, somehow sacred? To some, the answer is an unequivocal yes. (Others do not share in this exalted view, but more on that later.)
America was simultaneously confused and frolicsome during the early ’60s–a “hot mess,” to use the current vernacular. The Vietnam conflict, delivered to us in crude TV video, split the country apart. Everyone owned a small transistor radio–for listening not to news, but music; among the top-charting songs the day the Beatles arrived was the raucous Louie Louie by the Kingsmen. The Ford Mustang, which would go on to become the most iconically cool American ride, rolled into dealerships just nine weeks after the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show. NASA was getting its Saturn rocket engines ready to propel men to the moon. Air pollution? There was none. Climate change? What’s that? In some ways, all our troubles–even the war–seemed so far away.
But in the aftermath of the November 1963 killing of the president, ours was suddenly a less innocent nation. Perhaps a more emotionally vulnerable one. As history would record, we were more than ready for a quartet of young rule-breakers who could provide a bright new beat for the times.
And so on February 7 came the Beatles, aboard Pan American Flight 101 from London, to begin their odyssey in the colonies.
From the start, the band sang to us–occasionally at us–in unforgettable and often discordant harmonies. It Won’t Be Long. Here Comes the Sun. Get Back. Remember? Help! All My Loving. Eight Days a Week. A remarkable canon by any account. With these extraordinary songs–ballads, tales of love, protests against normality–they gave us, among other things, permission to finally move past the idle brainlessness of surfer-think.
There had been other big pop acts before them, but these guys reset the cultural clock in an instant. Where once we could draw a squiggly line between Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra and Buddy Holly and Elvis, now we had…well, a near obliteration of everything pre-1964. It’s no surprise that Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, one of very few others of the past half-century to make the planet wobble, often cited the Beatles’ singular influence on his life.
As 2014 dawns — ironically, with a man in the White House who does a pretty good impression of soul singer Al Green–the musical landscape is once again confused and splintered, with no dominant voice. The glory of Beatlemania has long since faded. Yet in scores of ways, the band plays on.
A small army of scholars, American and British, continues to research the meaning of the lads’ midcentury moment. Read all of it if you wish. Or you can take heed of Cher, who recently turned to David Letterman while a guest on his show, and perfectly summarized the fabulousness of John, Paul, George, and Ringo: “The Beatles,” she said nasally, “changed everything.”
JOHN LENNON AND YOKO ONO’S APARTMENT atop the Dakota looks exactly as it did the day John was murdered outside the building’s main entrance.
A longtime friend of Yoko’s, who visited with her not long ago, tells me that “in the living room there is a white piano. On the top of the piano are photographs of Yoko and John. There are no pictures of the Beatles. There are no awards, no trophy case. There never was. John didn’t need to be reminded.”
From the windows of the apartment, across Central Park West, one can just about see Strawberry Fields, the parklet dedicated by the City of New York to the life of John Lennon. Over time, the little triangle of land has transformed into the physical place one visits to pay homage not only to John, but to the memory of the rock band he created back in Liverpool. Each day, thousands of tourists stroll through.
On the afternoon I stop by, a guitarist named Baron Sydney is sitting on a bench, singing a medley of Beatles’ numbers as acolytes mill about and genuflect on the famous “Imagine” mosaic. Sydney performs here almost daily, he says, observing the never-ending parade. Sometimes he mixes in a little Bob Marley or the Police, just to keep things unpredictable. “People bring mementoes here–teddy bears and stuff. I see people cry,” he tells me.
I approach a stylishly dressed 30-something couple from Rome and ask why they have come to Strawberry Fields. “Because the Beatles represented the feeling of the masses against political power,” they say, struggling for the right words in their heavily broken English.
A 25-year-old French tourist is about to climb aboard a bike and exit the park. Why had she made the pilgrimage? “Back home,” she says, “in the evenings, at every party, we listen to Come Together. To us, the music is not old.”
Finally, a boomer from Cincinnati, on vacation. “Well, the Beatles are just part of America,” he replies tartly, as if to suggest, “Why would anyone even ask such a stupid question?”
After a while, I leave the park, walk uptown, and make a couple of calls to help me appreciate the Beatles from the perspective of those whose livelihood is dependent on their continuing popularity. First, I ring up Joe Johnson, host of an all-Beatles radio show. There are dozens of such programs around the country. His, called Beatle Brunch, has aired for 22 years and is currently heard on about 100 stations. He quickly recites several Beatles “firsts”: the first band to print lyrics on their album sleeves; George Harrison was the first rock star to front a fundraising concert (for Bangladesh, in 1971); they were the first rock band to feature four completely distinct and likable personalities.
But mainly they are still so warmly embraced, Johnson tells me, because “more than half their songs were about love. When they strayed from that, they always tried to get back to it.”
Afterward, while still just blocks from the tiny memorial park, I dial up Joe Stefanelli, who for 20 years has “been” John Lennon in a touring tribute band called the MopTops. (Stefanelli, who views himself more as an actor than a singer, also played the part of Lennon in the movie Forrest Gump.) “There’s an optimism in those songs,” he says. “When you go onstage and bring those characters to life, you should see the look on the people’s faces. They want to buy into all of it.”
THERE’S SOMETHING IN THE WAY THEY MOVED that moved us. From the very first time we heard them, or watched them toss their smartly cropped hair on our black-and-white TV screens (oh, how the young girls swooned!), it was totally clear: These guys had it. “Their music is so mysteriously engaging that musicians still want to make that sound,” says Matt Hurwitz, a well-known Beatles historian. “For many people, looking back, they will say the one happy thing they had going in their lives was the Beatles.”
In those days, Ben Stein was but an ambitious young man who piloted a red Corvette and admired pretty girls. He would grow up to serve presidents Nixon and Ford as a top-tier speechwriter, and he subsequently discovered a second career as an actor (“Bueller…Bueller…”). “I became aware of the Beatles,” he tells me, “because in their early songs they had a fantastically good beat to dance to, the best ever in songs like I Want to Hold Your Hand and Love Me Do.” And let’s be clear, it wasn’t just about dancing. “In their psychedelic phase, listening to their music became a merit badge of hipness and a membership card for the cool kids’ table,” Stein says. “Trying to decode their drug and sex messages was a guaranteed good means of seduction.” Indeed, no rock ’n’ rollers have ever risen to stardom without nailing the element of seduction.
“They set the standard in so many ways,” observes David Browne, a veteran music writer whose latest book, Fire and Rain: The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, James Taylor, CSNY, and the Lost Story of 1970, was recently reissued in paperback. “To this day, new bands record pop songs that recall the early Beatles — tight, crisp, harmony-driven, hooky tunes.” However, Browne says, it’s possible that in the distant future the Beatles may be remembered as much for their “basic, simple songs like I Want to Hold Your Hand” as for their more mature work, including Sgt. Pepper, Yesterday, Hey Jude, and Let It Be. He’s half concerned that those catchier tunes could “become the Oh! Susannas” to generations yet unborn.
Less worried about this prospect is Jeff Ressner, a former senior writer at Rolling Stone, who thinks the Beatles’ legacy is assured because of the simple, unambiguous lyrics of their formative years. “The whole ‘Love is all you need thing’ has worked for other prophets even before these guys came along,” Ressner says to me one afternoon. Plus they had, to quote Ressner, “exuberance and determination,” as demonstrated on their memorable Sullivan Show appearance eight days after arriving in the U.S.
Well, they indisputably had that–a showy, almost robotic energy–in ample amounts.
Also in abundance–although some fans prefer not to linger on this aspect of the Beatles’ legacy–were recreational pharmaceuticals. “They were salesmen for it, they gave it their blessing,” Ressner says. “The message was: If you smoke pot, it’ll give you a twinkly view of the world.”
There’s no gainsaying that drugs played a significant role in the Fab Four’s creative output–and in their lifestyle as well. While it’s been many years since she hosted John, Paul, George, and Ringo at a fundraiser in her Beverly Hills house, Monica Lewis, who was labeled “America’s Singing Sweetheart” in the ’40s and ’50s, recalls hours of heroic-level partying. The Beatles, she tells me, camped out in one room much of the night. At some point the morning after, as she surveyed the condition of her home, Lewis discovered that part of a “$100,000 Joan Miró sculpture was filled to the top with marijuana butts.” Oh, those crazy musicians, she thought. And by then the Brits were gone, presumably twinkly-eyed.
THEY HAD BEEN NOWHERE MEN FROM A small city in the United Kingdom. Then suddenly, it seemed, they were everywhere. Today, their cultural fingerprints survive across the pop-culture continuum.
For example, a few months ago I opened my mailbox and found that the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek was a total visual parody of the Sgt. Pepper album. Do the modern-day industrialists who read Businessweek connect with the band’s period of triumphal psychedelics? Obviously, the magazine’s editors believe they do.
In fashion, too, the Beatles made a lasting impression. Their fashion-forward (or was it backward?) statements, and what that all meant, remains an area of dispute to this day. Some cultural anthropologists claim that the group, by their choices of apparel, feminized American society, or at least rejiggered our ideas about gender appropriateness. At the very least, their sartorial splendor (one year they wore body-hugging suits, the next it was embroidered Edwardian uniforms!) did wonders for the garment trade.
Although technically not actors, the Beatles had a strong influence on moviemaking, too. Most of us have since forgotten, but the success of the Beatles’ 1964 film, A Hard Day’s Night, was a huge influence on musicians and filmmakers, who found in its groundbreaking structure a fresh way to tell stories. “Everyone went to see it,” says Browne, author of Fire and Rain. “Almost overnight, the folk musicians forgot the coffee houses.” He mentions David Stills, the Byrds, and the Springfields. “They responded on so many levels–the hairstyles, the electric guitars.”
Perhaps even more paradigm-shifting, in terms of how we view the world in this age of high-def celebritydom, was the way the Beatles changed photography. “They were to rock and roll photography what John F. Kennedy was to political imagery,” I am told by David Hume Kennerly, the Pulitzer Prize-winning shooter later handpicked by Gerald Ford to document his White House years. “The Beatles, very much like JFK, seemed to know how they came across in pictures, and it was part of their success. They understood the value of the still photo.”
Kennerly, widely regarded as one of the world’s leading news photographers, specializes in the political realm. He’s forever rubbing shoulders with heads of state. Somehow, though, he never got to meet the Beatles, which for him remains a deep regret. What if he had? “I’ve always wondered,” he muses, “would I have said ‘Screw the news biz’ and thrown in with the Fab Four, hitched onto their Mad Hatter’s ride?”
Another area where the Beatles may have made a mark is tourism, unlikely as that sounds. CBS News travel editor Peter Greenberg insists that those iconic images of the Beatles emerging onto the Pan Am stairway at JFK actually “ushered in the jet age. They sent a message to the world that it was OK to jump on a plane and travel.” A stretch? Greenberg has devoted his career to studying such matters, so we’ll take his word for it.
In any event, it’s almost as if the band had decided from their start that in every way possible they would, with apologies to Steve Jobs, “think different.”
THE BEATLES ARE NOT UNIVERSALLY ADMIRED
It didn’t help that Charles Manson credited Paul McCartney’s Helter Skelter as an inspiration. There are holdouts. Many of them are Gen Xers, born between 1960 and 1980. By the time they heard the Beatles, their recordings sounded a bit like cheapjack hand-me-downs. Jeff Gordinier, author of X Saves the World (and currently a New York Times writer on the food beat), stated it to me this way: “They recorded a lot of stupid shit. It hasn’t aged well. They were basically children’s songs: Octopus’s Garden, Maxwell’s Silver Hammer,Rocky Raccoon. Quirky and cutesy, but they grate on you.” Gordinier is 47. “It just doesn’t seem suitable for someone my age to listen to those songs,” he tells me.
Having made that point, he wants it known that “I am not immune to the Beatles’ charms.” He adds this as if to inoculate himself against the predictable blowback from unregenerate Beatles nuts. “My reservations,” he explains, “have more to do with generational exposure.”
A couple of days later, Gordinier sends me a camera-phone picture of a New York billboard promoting some sort of commercial tie-up between Bloomingdale’s and the Beatles brand. “Here is another reason some of us have grown weary of the mythologizing of the Beatles,” he writes in an attached message. “You can’t help but think, Seriously? We’re going back there again? It’s so monotonous and repetitive.”
NO MATTER WHAT, THEIR MUSIC KEEPS SELLING
“It’s exponentially bigger than ever, astronomical,” says music journalist Ressner. The profits are in the licensing and publishing of the group’s digital archives. Even their vinyl is hot. Abbey Road was the second best-selling vinyl album of 2012. Moreover, every year we learn of additional Beatles’ music that’s been held in storage. Apparently there is lots and lots. A second edition of On Air–Live at the BBC, featuring a trove of previously unheard material, including in-studio banter, has just shipped. “There’s still a half dozen to a dozen albums to be released,” Ressner tells me.
However, let it be acknowledged that some aspects of 1960s Beatledom fails to excite modern-day audiences. While Love, a Cirque du Soleil Beatles production, has had a long run in Las Vegas, the Broadway show Let It Be closed early last year, and several movies based on the Beatles have experienced disappointing box office numbers. Not everything translates; America is currently in the grip of a Gaga and a Bieber. Those who cannot abide the realization that the actual Beatles will never again record a song can file under “Very Long-Odds Possibilities” the prospect that John Lennon might one day return to the stage. How so? A Canadian dentist who spent $31,000 for one of Lennon’s teeth is hoping he can extract enough DNA to clone the musician. Seriously. “I am nervous and excited at the possibility,” the dentist told a reporter several months ago. There’s been no word on this since.
I GET ON THE PHONE WITH MARTHA QUINN
now a radio host, who became famous as one of the original MTV VJs–the cute one. To this day, she says, she has a “very deep commitment to the Beatles.” As a young New Yorker, she stood at the gate to the Dakota the night Lennon was shot, weeping “with a mass of other heartbroken fans.”
“Why do the Beatles still matter?” I ask Quinn.
“They transcended music,” she says. “They were about fashion; they were about movies; they were about trends. The term ‘rock star’ wasn’t even around” until the band burst onto the scene. “They became what it was to be rock stars.”
Sure, but we already know all that. “What else?” I prompt. What separates them from, say, the Rolling Stones? She ponders for a moment. OK, she says, this is the correct answer: “The Beatles brought social consciousness to pop culture, and that’s something that has never gone away. When you had a cause and the Beatles endorsed it, that was the ultimate.”
A day or so later, about midnight, I find myself talking to Elliot Mintz, a one-time broadcast personality in L.A. who had befriended John Lennon and went on to host a radio series called The Lost Lennon Tapes, based on his many conversations with the Beatles founder. Mintz speaks eloquently, as if doing voice-overs for earnest documentaries. When he discusses the Beatles, he brings a great sense of deliberateness.
I put to him the very same question I had earlier put to Martha Quinn. What made the Beatles the Beatles?
“I think it’s about the cultural, sociological, anthropological impact they had over our hearts and minds. They electrified us,” he says.
Yeah, yeah, but what exactly does that mean? It’s really not that difficult to understand, Mintz explains in a halting half-whisper befitting the hour: “They made us come alive. They altered our mind frame of how it felt to be in love. ‘I want to hold your hand’ is a prophetic statement that’s eternal.” A long radio-host-style pause. “They were the lovers we never met.”
I pull up the lyrics of the band’s first song to hit number one in the States:
Yeah, you got that something
I think you’ll understand
When I feel that something
I wanna hold your hand
Might it be that the Beatles’ magical mystery code was hidden in plain sight almost from the moment of their creation? Really, all they ever wanted to do was touch us.