Still Fab

Why we keep listening to the Beatles

Is anything more intricately intertwined with its time than the career of the Beatles? According to the usual account, the group's shifting personae, from the original 1964 mania through the 1970 break-up, either led or reflected the period's changing tastes and behavior. For Americans of a certain age, it was seven delirious years of teenybopper screaming, androgynous hair-doing, cartoon-India meditating, psychedelic drug taking, syncretic sitar strumming, and all-you-need-is-loving.

Is that wrong? Surely not. If the increasingly brittle idea of "the '60s" has any meaning aside from common nostalgia, it describes the transformation of a type of cultural fandom into a type of social and political identity. The Beatles managed to remain at the center of this phenomenon -- if not ahead of it -- as long as they existed. Their fans, primarily leading-edge boomers, became what they beheld. Which of them is not part Beatle?

Now another transformation is underway. Older boomers are starting to retire, enrolling in the AARP, and leafing uneasily through its Modern Maturity magazine. It may have helped their transition when, last year, Sir Paul McCartney appeared on Modern Maturity's cover, with an interview inside about the losses, the challenges, and even the pleasures of growing older. Another boomer milestone, another Beatles persona. Nor is that the final such crossroads: Such Beatles songs as "In My Life" seem to be cued up regularly at boomer memorials.

So how is it that this year, Rolling Stone used its cover to proclaim the Beatles as the "World's Hottest Band"? Since the release last November of 1, that compilation of 27 No. 1 Beatles hits has been selling at a pace that could make it the biggest-selling CD ever. How is it that a huge $60 volume called The Beatles Anthology, featuring old interviews and writings, is setting new sales standards for the coffee-table tome? The black-and-white Beatles movie, A Hard Day's Night, has been back in theatrical release. Beatles hit singles are getting increased rotation even in radio contexts where they were sparingly played, such as on classic-rock album formats. A Beatles cookbook has somehow appeared (She Came in Through the Kitchen Window), and so has the Beatles' "first and only official Web site," thebeatles.com. Even some out-of-print Beatles books are back, including a volume of post-Beatles interviews with John Lennon, then in his Lord Byron wannabe stage, in which he expresses his utter contempt for the Beatles.

The new Beatlemania has surprised many people, especially because so many buyers of the new CD are under 20. That means that many new Beatles fans were born after John Lennon's 1980 murder. What can the Beatles mean to such listeners? Why such persistence? Certainly the older boomers don't get it. As The New York Times put it -- in a headline, yet -- last January: "The Beatles Never Die, But Why? Ask Fans."

Some newspaper accounts have quoted pleased older boomers, who "explain" that these songs have "stood the test of time." But that merely reposes the original question: Why did they stand this supposed test? Some journalists have pointed to Capitol Records' heavy promotion of the CD on kid-oriented cable channel Nickelodeon, which has pushed the CD toward a young audience. That has probably helped sustain sales, but it doesn't address why young viewers have embraced music twice as old as they are. Anyway, since when do teen consumers identify with music that is so closely associated with a previous generation? Isn't teen culture usually about distancing a rising generation from its predecessors?

Besides, to focus on such factors as promotion is to fall into the usual "pop culture" trap. According to this common view, phenomena such as the original Beatlemania are best understood as events cynically engineered by the culture industries. "Mass" forms such as music, movies, TV shows, and the like are thus supposedly fashioned according to market research and sold to gullible consumers. Cultural industrialists may well wish they had this power, but they obviously don't. They can only try to guess, after the fact, why some of their artifacts succeed and others fail. Accumulated market research notwithstanding, there is neither pop culture nor mass culture; in the end there is only personal culture. Each consumer uses cultural artifacts, the Beatles included, according to his or her peculiar and usually shifting needs.

To ask "Why?" about this Beatles resurgence is to pose the wrong question. A better question is "Who?" As in, Who are the Beatles now? While each new fan will probably answer that question differently, 21st century fans are certainly using the group and its music differently from the original fans of the 1960s. That is, the meanings that boomers attribute to the Beatles are no longer the group's only meanings. Alternative hearings of the familiar songs have emerged, and these are claiming their own validity. Some new fans may be hearing the CD through the groups and music that have come since, in terms of musical influence. Some may be hearing the songs historically, attempting to associate it with their own understanding of the 1960s. Some may be using the music to distance themselves from their own contemporaries.

Leading-edge boomers engaged in the same sort of cultural appropriation: When they flocked to Humphrey Bogart film festivals in the 1960s, they used his character and films for their own purposes, which were no doubt different from the purposes of the films' original Depression-era audiences. Now they are on the receiving end of the same process.

But there's another nagging question raised by the new Beatlemania. Not just who are the Beatles now, but who were they then? New fans may be using the group for their own purposes, but then so did the original generation of fans. The years since the group's breakup have seen a lot of myth-making and obscuring, in order to fit them better into a pliable narrative of the era and its aftermath. It is worth pausing to listen to the group anew in the context of their own time, because there are some lost chords in their music waiting to sound again.

It was 38 years ago today

The Beatles -- image, music, and text -- are obviously bound up with 1960s teen life, taste, and mentality, and from this vantage point that seems both natural and inevitable. But was it? The fact is, the American teenage audience that lost its head over the Beatles was the group's second American audience. The foursome entered American culture through a different portal: They came in through the MOR window.

It is well-known that American record executives originally regarded the Beatles with complete indifference. The label with the American rights to the group was Capitol, and it refused to release any Beatles records. A notorious 1963 Capitol memo that curtly dismisses the group ("We don't think the Beatles will do anything in this market") is now regarded as a prime instance of bovine corporate stupidity. But Capitol actually had some evidence to support its dim view of the group's U.S. prospects. It could have cited three specific reasons to ignore the Beatles.

Those three reasons were "Please Please Me," "From Me to You," and "She Loves You." While Capitol originally wasn't interested in these songs, some smaller U.S. labels were willing to take a chance with them. All three of these records were released in the U.S. market in 1963, two by Vee-Jay and one by Swan, albeit with minimal promotion. What happened? Nobody played them. "From Me to You" did chart on the long Billboard list at No. 116, but neither "Please Please Me" nor "She Loves You" charted at all.

Late in the year, however, a Washington, D.C., disc jockey named Carroll James ("CJ the DJ"), started to play the British pressing of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." James had a girlfriend who worked for a British airline; she had observed British Beatlemania firsthand, and brought back the group's latest 45. The Washington audience loved the song. Capitol noticed. The big label had already agreed to a limited U.S. release of the record, with an unambitious pressing that reflected the label's low hopes and lack of interest. Now, Capitol considered releasing it quickly in the Washington area.

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    I think that one of the reasons that Beatlemania happened in the first place was a coincidence of timing. In Winter 1963, the United States went into an extended period of national mourning with the assassination of President Kennedy. The Beatles' early music brought excitement and joy to a nation that really needed it and were ready for it. The critics were probably right that the Beatles might not have made much of an impact under different circumstances.

    Just as an example, I remember being emotionally overwhelmed by the musical episode of Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Not that it was a magnificant piece of work, but it was broadcast about a month after the September 11th attacks. The mourning, seriousness and sadness had gone on so relentlessly and oppressively that even something that something as corny and escapist as a sitcom musical came as a desperately needed breath of fresh air in a sad time. I think that the Beatles' audience came to them under similar circumstances, and of course, they had the talent to make the most of their sudden unexpected fame, and the insight to realize that their value was more as storytellers than rockers.

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