It Was Fifty Years Ago Today*: Why the Beatles Still Matter
*give or take a few weeks…
October 1962. The Beatles, then a relatively unknown band from Liverpool, have just released their first major label single, “Love Me Do,” recorded at Abbey Road Studios, and later make their first TV appearance. History would never be the same.
But wait, isn’t this We Ball Harder, the home of the cutting-edge, underground, and hip? Yes it fucking well is. It’s not all Light Cycles, Madeon, and desert rock round here – anything hard-balling is saluted, and musically and culturally, nobody had a bigger, harder-balling, longer-lasting impact than the Beatles.
So what happened after 1962? Well, Beatlemania started shortly afterwards in the UK, then in the US and globally. Why were they such an instant hit? They were among the first groups to have the complete package – singers, songwriters, and instrumentalists, looking sharp, polished, and professional. It didn’t hurt that their first singles were intensely catchy – and – not to be taken for granted, “guitar groups” were far from established as the de facto standard in pop at the time, and that further set the Beatles apart. In that era, no musician or band of note offered that combination. Some played guitars and wrote their songs, but looked scruffy, or couldn’t write a catchy tune, while some, especially the chart-slaying Motown artists, while shiny and catchy, had a team of songwriters holed away in Detroit.
Without reviewing a history of the Beatles or of Beatlemania, suffice it to say that through whatever factor, the band became immensely popular nearly instantly. By remaining on the cutting edge of music, fashion, and culture, and releasing roughly two albums per year, they managed to sustain that popularity until their breakup 8 years later, an unfathomably long period at that the time. This popularity meant that whatever the Beatles did, be it how they sounded, dressed, wore their hair, believed in, or anything – became the epitome of cool and copied en masse. While the Beatles certainly were influenced by existing strains in 1960s culture, they processed these influences and turned them around to their untold millions of fans.
Among the things the Beatles either pioneered or popularized were:
- The electric guitar-electric bass-drums format for rock bands. It seems obvious, but in the 1950s, many rock ‘n roll bands featured pianos, saxophones, upright basses, and other instruments that out of place today.
- Rock music itself (admittedly, they didn’t pioneer or popularize, but rather they revitalized it, but they also cemented it as the music of choice for youth worldwide [until hip-hop, but that's another story] and caused it to transcend simply the music scene)
- Arena/stadium concerts. Sort of a follow-on from the previous point, but the Beatles were the first band ever to play and fill stadiums, something we take for granted now. Want to see Metallica, U2, Madonna, or Lady Gaga? It’ll be in a stadium or arena.
- Musical evolution in a rock/pop band. Eric Clapton ditched his blues band the Yardbirds because he thought they were getting too poppy. All four Beatles had no such qualms about changing their sound, and by 64/65 their sound was in constant evolution.
- The album as a credible release. All pop music prior had been singles-based, with albums an afterthought. The Beatles paid equal, if not more attention to their albums -without this, a good chunk of rock today would be different.
- Subgenres within rock music. When they started, there was rock ‘n roll. By the time of breakup, there was folk-rock, psychedelic rock, blues-rock, hard rock, heavy metal, and other styles. As the Beatles evolved they went through these various styles (if only for a song or two in some cases), reinforcing their popularity and credibility.
- World music, specifically Indian, and an interest in Eastern spirituality. George Harrison was by no means the first Westerner to delve deep into the musical and spiritual traditions of India, but he was the first to bring it into the mainstream. After the Beatles began to feature sitars in their songs, many others followed. Indian influences became great in the late 60s counterculture, and the Beatles were a prime catalyst for that, as well as the continued interest in Hinduism, Buddhism, yoga, etc.
- The internationalization of pop music. Needless to say, the Beatles kicked off the British invasion, which brought many other legendary bands international exposure, but they also paved the way for bands from anywhere to top the charts around the globe – cases in point: U2
and Phoenix, to name just two, as well as the whole phenomenon of being “huge in Japan.”/li>
- The studio as an instrument. The Beatles truly pushed the envelope of exploring what could be done with analog recording technology, from sampling to artificial double tracking, which studio wizardry become a major feature of their later music and much music since then.
- The music video. Predating MTV by well over a decade, the Beatles, through their feature films and TV segments, largely pioneered today’s music videos.
- Long hair for men. King Charles aside, the acceptance (such as it may be) of long hair on men in our era dates to the Beatles’ first appearing with long-for-the-time coiffures, which only got longer as the decade progressed.
- Facial hair. For most of the 20th century prior, moustaches and beards were out. When Paul McCartney injured his lip in a crash, he grew a moustache. To present a unified look and a “military band” air, the other three joined him in the ‘stached look for the cover of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. From then on, at least one of the four had some kind of facial hair. While they weren’t the first of their era, they certainly took it into the mainstream (which then abused it – look at the 1970s!).
- Casual, individual fashion. This was definitely a hippie thing, but when the Beatles began to lose the suits and wear jeans, t-shirts, and other less formal clothing, it became acceptable in normal society. Very few men now wear a jacket and tie when not at work, and the Beatles had a part in that.
So, if it’s not already quite obvious, objectively speaking, all of the above are still highly relevant today. If you listen to rock music, you can thank the Beatles for not only keeping it from vanishing, but greatly shaping it and propelling it to an unimaginable place in modern culture. An IMMENSE number of successful musicians since them, across a panoply of genres, have openly acknowledged their influence, many citing them as a prime influence in their own decision to take up music. It’s unlikely they would exist as musicians without the Beatles.
Subjectively speaking, they remain the greatest band that ever was or will be – partially because following their breakup, the rock/pop scene split into numerous genres and movements not easily reconciled with one another, even though the Beatles could switch back and forth with ease. This meant that no one musician or band could command the same level of influence or fans as they had.
Their work, both within its own context and in universal terms, is unparalleled, reaching greatness no later than 1964/65 and sustaining it until their breakup in 1970. Very, very few bands have pulled that off – but then nobody releases 8 or 9 albums in just 5 years, either. While the Beatles certainly didn’t invent rock ‘n roll, or even singlehandedly invent folk-rock, or psychedelic, or other styles, they were masters of them, doing them consistently better than their peers – undoubtedly this was helped by their free reign over Abbey Road Studios and endless tinkering, but their sheer talent and skill at crafting perfect songs must not be underestimated. As an aside, I personally think they invented metal back in 1968, with “Helter Skelter,” still one of the heaviest songs of all time, though John Lennon (whose birthday I share, incidentally), claims the Beatles created the heavy metal riff in early 1965, with “Ticket to Ride.” I respectfully disagree, while the latter is in fairness a great song, this
is HEAVY SHIT!!
So, if everything they made was excellent, where to begin with recommendations? Time to choose the best of the best:
A Hard Day’s Night – 1964. The most mature of the “early Beatles” albums, with the title track and “Can’t Buy Me Love” standing out. It was also the name of their rather enjoyable first feature film, one of, if not the first, to star a rock band, and a forerunner of the now-established mockumentary genre.
Help! - 1965. A transition era of sorts (and also a movie). Superb songs on here, much of the old Beatles sound remains, but it was clearly changing, verging into folk rock and the merest inkling of psychedelia, to be fully fleshed out on:
Rubber Soul - 1965. Brilliant, brilliant songwriting on here. Nearly every song on is gold: “Norwegian Wood,” Nowhere Man,” “Think for Yourself,” “I’m Looking Through You,” among others. Incidentally, this was the Beatles’ reefer record, with the Fab Four gettin’ Fab fucked up throughout the recording sessions. From this point on, the Beatles were basically untouchable in terms of quality and influence.
Revolver – 1966. A no-brainer, this makes every music magazine’s “best album of all time” list (really). Consistently superb songs from start to finish, from George Harrison’s stinging emergence as a proper songwriter in “Taxman” to John Lennon’s psychedelic trip-fest on “Tomorrow Never Knows,” which open and close the album. Incredible depth, breadth, and variety on here. By this time the Beatles had taken LSD, and the psychedelic influences are more than a mere hint here, preparing us for this:
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band – 1967. Wow. If any album competes on critics’ lists for number 1 with Revolver, it’s this one, written and recorded after the Beatles stopped touring. A pop culture magnum opus, this album is tasteful psychedelia at full tilt. Another start to finish masterpiece, and probably the album for which they’re best known – upon its release it was instantly recognized as an immensely significant work, and a few days afterwards, Jimi Hendrix was performing major segments of it live in his London club shows. It’s arguably the world’s first concept album, contained more sonic experimentation than anything else at the time, and in terms of sheer successful ambition is unrivalled. It’s also by FAR the most “1960s” of their albums. At a stretch, most of their albums could have been recorded at any time since the 60s, but not Sgt Pepper – the spirit of 67 courses through it strongly.
The Beatles [aka the White Album] – 1968. Famous for a few reasons: the totally blank album cover, the sprawling nature of the work (it’s a double album), the abandonment of psychedelia, and the fact that a great bulk of the songs were written during the Beatles’ infamous spiritual retreat in India. Despite having a more stripped sound than its predecessors, there’s still great variety on here, from acoustic classics such as “Blackbird” to the previously praised doomy goodness of “Helter Skelter,” and the uptempo rock of “Birthday”. It’s also one of the least unified Beatles albums, with an obvious separation in the contributions of the individual members. Maybe not consistently as spectacular as Revolver or Sgt. Pepper, this is still one of their best works.
Abbey Road – 1969. Probably the most famous, or at least most imitated, album cover of all time, and despite what pedants say, the Beatles’ true last album (it was not the last released, but it was the last recorded). There’s a mood of the band cooperating and reuniting after internal conflict pushed them apart over the previous few albums, and the calibre of the work is superb. The real joy here, however, is found on side 2 (if you have a record of it), in the famous medley of “You Never Give Me Your Money,” “Sun King,” “Mean Mr Mustard,” Polythene Pam” “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window,” “Golden Slumbers,” “Carry That Weight,” and “The End” – probably the finest multi-song moment ever recorded, and one that gives the album and the band an oddly comforting sense of finality – as if to say “we’re falling apart, this is our last effort, but we’re gonna go out in splendor.” A few months later, the band officially broke up.
It must be said, in a way it’s good they broke up. Many bands of their era have lumbered on, outliving their relevance by decades, changing members, replacing dead ones, and just generally tarnishing their reputation. The Beatles quit while they were ahead and thus ensured and protected their legacy until the end of time.