Monday, February 10, 2014

Yeah Yeah Yeah

Another fiftieth anniversary has come and gone. In case you've been living in a cave, you no doubt know that exactly fifty years ago yesterday, the Beatles made their first American appearance. Over seventy million people watched that performance live on the Ed Sullivan Show, making it the most viewed American television program at the time. This past Super Bowl set a new record of 111 million viewers, but when you consider the population in 1964 was about sixty percent of what it is today, a slightly greater percentage of Americans watched the Fab Four on the telly that Sunday evening than watched last week's Super Bowl.

Like the 50th anniversary of JFK's assassination, I managed to stay clear of much of the hoopla, not because I'm not interested, but because as anyone who knows me well can tell you, I've simply spent way too much of my life devoted to the subject. I was five in February of 1964 and since I didn't have older siblings, the greatest influence in my life at the time was my father. He thought the Beatles and the whole fuss surrounding them were silly, and naturally at the time, so did I.

Years later as I moved away from my father's strong sphere of influence, I more than made up for lost time and became obsessed with the Beatles. As a pre-teen and teen, I barely listened to anything else. I can honestly say that I know way more about John Paul George and Ringo than anybody outside their family and small circle of friends has business to, and wish that at least some of my brain cells devoted them were trained upon something else.

That's precisely why I avoided the TV special devoted to them that aired on the same network at the exact time as the original. The other reason is that my two favorite Beatles were not likely to appear live on the show, which is beside the point.

Well it so happened that I spent a ridiculous amount of time in the car yesterday, and I did listen to a local radio show devoted to the Beatles and the anniversary. The radio host spent not a small amount of time sharing his opinion that nothing in our world today would be as it is without the Beatles. Even this long time Beatles fan(atic) had to take exception.

I argued in my post written on the anniversary of JFK's assassination last November that we have perhaps over-stated that event's importance regarding subsequent history, (beyond of course the human tragedy). I suppose the same question can be asked of the Beatles' influence. The fact is, the world in 1963 and 1964 was already on the verge of tremendous change, even revolution. The two coincidental events that took place just a little more than two months apart, the assassination of the president and the introduction of the Beatles, just happened to take place at a pivotal moment in history.

The big difference is that the assassination was a unique event, far from inevitable. On the other hand, had it not been for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, other people would have no doubt stepped in to fill the void. Eventually men would have still grown their hair long, women still would have cut their hair short, burned their bras, and demanded their rightful place in society. There still would have been dissatisfaction with the establishment, its rules and restrictions. Teenagers would still have become the majority consumers of popular culture and pop-culture would still have become overwhelmingly centered around the young. Our cities would have still burned because of the inequality and injustice in our society, and the war in Vietnam would have still become a quagmire.

And people still would have longed for more love in the world and made the plea to give peace a chance.

The only difference I believe is that without the Beatles, we wouldn't have had nearly as much fun along the way.


Michael said...

I'm not so sure the Beatles weren't pivotal in many ways regarding the cultural renaissance that was the sixties. You are probably right in that had it not been the Beatles it would have been someone else but had it been, the music world would have been just a little bit different. If you recall, right on the heels of the Fab Four were the Rolling Stones who were considered the bad boys of the British invasion. Whereas the Beatles were (except for their devilishly long hair) very clean cut, funny, and polite, the Stones were after the daughters of America. (The Stones couldn't get any satisfaction while the Beatles only wanted to hold hands.) As such the Beatles were accepted by the adults of the era as much more benign than even Elvis was in his prime. Had it been the Stones, I suspect there would have been an enormous backlash from many, including the media. I think the Beatles were the perfect group for the times. There were other "clean cut" groups such as Herman's Hermits, but they didn't have near the artistic impact of the Beatles and likely wouldn't have opened the door quite as wide for the others that followed. I think too, that to the adults of the time, the Beatles were more acceptable than many of the American born teen idols of the era. Frankly, I didn't like them much when I first heard them because I thought they were imitating the Everly Brothers who were among my favorites at the time. My opinion changed drastically though as I grew from 16 into adulthood smack dab in the middle of the Beatles reign at the top.

James Iska said...

The Beatles/Rolling Stones comparison is an interesting one. Despite their sweeter image, the Beatles came from rough and tumble, working class Liverpool, while the Stones, Keith and Mick anyway, came from solidly middle class backgrounds. John, Paul, George, Pete Best (Ringo came along later) and other members of the early band who got the heave-ho, cut their teeth musically speaking on the Reeperbahn, Hamburg's red light district, leading wild, X rated lives while Mick was off studying economics in London.

Brian Epstein transformed the Fabs from their much tougher early image. He jettisoned the leather jackets and slicked back pompadours in favor of the goody goody suits and haircuts which if I'm not mistaken, were already popular in GB and Europe by the early sixties. My mother already had me wearing that hairstyle in kindergarten, before the Beatles appeared on the Sullivan show.

The Stones were influenced by the Chicago Blues, I suppose living vicariously through the music. Clearly they were neither black nor did they live the blues, except perhaps by their own choosing.

It's funny how nothing is ever quite as it seems.

You're right, the Hermits and the Stones would probably not have been the breakthrough bands for opposite reasons, but I can think of a few others who could have. The Kinks, The Yardbirds, The Who all may have been candidates. None of those bands came close to the tremendous depth and breadth of the Beatles' catalog but of course none of them enjoyed the tremendous success that afforded the Beatles the opportunity to freely experiment, especially after they stopped touring in 1966.

George Martin was directly influential in the shaping of their music. If you believe Paul, his and John's musical influences were extremely varied, from the straight up rock and roll of Little Richard, Buddy Holly, to American Country music, Rhythm and Blues, and the old standards. That would explain why their work is far more complex, structurally, harmonically, rhythmically, you name it, than that of most of their contemporaries, especially the Stones.

It's all academic to contemplate what if. Certainly if the Beatles didn't exist, not even considering anything else, there would be the tremendous void of their music. Thinking about it today, had it not been for John, Paul, George, Ringo, and all the other people who helped create the Beatles, the sixties would have been a far bleaker time in which to live.