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.

But someone at James' station had already sent a tape of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" to a DJ friend in Chicago, who started playing it, too; Chicago soon sent it to St. Louis. Capitol decided to press a million copies of the record immediately, and to promote the group hard. The rest is hysteria.

Except for the details: Carroll James wasn't a rock DJ, and his audience was mostly grown-ups. James did a talky afternoon drive-time show for WWDC, a popular AM station. Back then, WWDC was a laid-back outlet with a so-called "middle of the road," or MOR, format that was aimed at an older audience. What did it do besides break the Beatles? When it wasn't running its oddball contests, the station drew on a mostly pop play list, mixing Andy Williams and Al Hirt with soft-rock acts like Ruby and the Romantics, Bobby Vinton, and Ben E. King. WWDC's morning guy had been around for decades, played the organ behind his own wake-up patter, and had a pair of miked, twittering canaries in the studio with him. At night, WWDC didn't play any music at all; it interviewed touring book authors. The only show it aimed at a young audience was in the evening, when its preferred adult listeners were watching TV, and that show was targeted at the dutiful children of the station's core middle-class following. The "teen" show was called The House of Homework, and its gimmick was letting kids call in to ask for help with their assignments.

In short, WWDC was a station for dorks. Nobody who aimed for Hip or Cool would have listened to it. Carroll James himself used to play snippets of Bob Dylan's early records as jokes, in disbelief that the folkie actually existed. On the other hand, every single program director at every hip, cool rock station in America had already thrown his copies of "Please Please Me" and "She Loves You" into the trash. One dorky Washington station played the Beatles for an audience of commuting office workers, at-home moms, and their bookish kids—and they wanted more. How could this be? Who could the Beatles have been to these listeners?

In fact, the MOR audience had a template for receiving the Beatles that nobody else had, because MOR stations were the only part of the American music scene at all open to British vocal acts. Top 40 rock listeners accepted foreign singers only as sideshow displays; Lonnie Donegan's 1961 novelty "Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavor?" was a Top 10 hit. But, unlike rock listeners, the MOR audience was familiar with Britain's biggest pre-Beatles singer, Cliff Richard, who was one of the most popular acts in the world. Richard and his band, later famous as the Shadows, had had a middling 1959 hit here called "Living Doll," and Richard was getting some MOR airplay in 1963 with "Lucky Lips." (He would finally get a Top 10 U.S. hit—"Devil Woman"—in 1976.) MOR stations had featured a string of mostly minor hits by British singers, including Frank Ifield ("I Remember You"), Helen Shapiro ("Tell Me What He Said"), and Matt Munro ("My Kind of Girl"). These were largely treacly, '50s-style pop records: Munro had a lounge-crooner sound; Shapiro was a Connie Francis-style torch singer. What did the Beatles have in common with acts like these?

Quite a bit, actually. The early Beatles sang Ifield's hits in their live shows, and toured with Helen Shapiro. (Indeed, "She Loves You" could well be an "answer record"—then a genre of its own—to Shapiro's musically inventive "Tell Me What He Said.") While boomers may cherish the image of the early Beatles as leather-clad bad boys playing raw rock in smoky Hamburg clubs, the reality is that along with the rock covers, their Hamburg repertoire also included lots of sappy old pop standards like "Red Sails in the Sunset." The mammoth Meet the Beatles album, after all, features a version of Anita Bryant's syrupy "'Til There Was You." Perhaps the greatest tribute to the intensity of the original U.S. Beatlemania is that even this intolerable piece of anti-rock made the era's Top 40 playlists.

Just let me hear that pop music

So what? Given the Beatles' long career, their dozens of hits, and their various notable innovations, what possible significance can their early, brief connection to a pop audience have? In fact, it is in the context of their career that it matters, because the group's pop dimension is a key factor not only in their musical "growth," but in the longevity of their music as well.

Although Beatles' music is currently fixed in the musical canon as having revolutionized rock, that is not quite correct. What is true is that the group's enormous success opened the door to a lot of groups who energized the era's rock playlists, though even this element can be—and has been—vastly overstated. Early '60s rock was far from being the string-laden wasteland it is sometimes made out to have been (think of the Crystals' "Da Do Ron Ron," for instance). It is also true that the Beatles made long-form compositions possible, introduced the concept album, and, through their lyrics, helped bring personal expression into a field that was largely formulaic. However, the Beatles are themselves indebted to others for some of these advances (among them, Bob Dylan and Paul Simon). Besides, these later changes often occurred at the cost of the very musical energy that the Beatles are otherwise credited with restoring to the rock scene.

But is the Beatles' own career and development really a study in rock revolution, as it is usually portrayed? Or is it actually something different: a study in the extension of the otherwise despised pop form? The answer to that question could help resolve the apparent mysteries of the group's persistence. Here's the short answer: The mature Beatles, the Beatles who "revolutionized" rock music from Revolver through Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band through the end of their common career, the Beatles who helped construct the foundation of the '60s counterculture, were themselves built on an essentially pop foundation and enjoyed an essentially pop florescence.

By 1966, the Beatles were far more interested in melody than in beat, had largely abandoned the influences from American country music and American blues that had been apparent on their earlier recordings, and were building an increasing number of their compositions around narrative lyrics that told stories rather than expressed adolescent emotions. The more they developed as composers and lyricists, the less they tried to harmonize like the Everly Brothers or whoop like the Isley Brothers, and the more they drew on their own roots in British popular music. While they continued to use rock elements to make their music, there is almost as much British Music Hall in their later work as there is rock.

The apotheosis of their personal development is not the avant-garde experimentation of the White Album (only a few of its cuts get much play anymore). It is Abbey Road, which, dear as it is to the hearts of many rock enthusiasts, could just as well be hailed as the greatest pop album of all time. Certainly, it could have been played almost in its entirety on MOR radio. As for the Beatles' career coda, the Let It Be album, its major songs—especially the title number and the whining "Long and Winding Road"—out-treacle anything that Matt Munro ever dared record.

Getting back

Does this distinction between "pop" and "rock" actually matter? From the point of view of the music, no. One either likes the stuff or doesn't. But from the vantage point of rock mythology, the distinction is potentially revealing.

Over the years, what might be called the rock establishment—the music's historians, its journalists, often its performers, and now a class of academics, too—has developed a complex story of the music's origins, nature, and social role. As humanities professor Robert Pattison has pointed out, this story has been laid out along the lines of 19th-century Romanticism. Unlike other forms of music, goes the myth, rock prides itself on being elemental. Though it was commercialized by whites, its soul is black. Its true roots are in Africa by way of the Mississippi Delta. Stolen from blacks by Sun Records in the guise of Elvis Presley, the music nevertheless remains true to its undeniable nature. It is a music that stands outside middle-class restraint, reveling in its sexual power, emerging from—and this is a real phrase from a real musicologist—"orgiastic magic." Some statement of primitivist obligation is essential to the pose of rock seriousness, and it is in fact part of the Beatles' persona as well.

No grand narrative is complete without a vanquished villain, and this narrative features one, too: pop music. Pop was everything rock hated. Pop was polite; rock is outspoken. Pop was false; rock is authentic. Pop was constrained; rock lets it all hang out. Pop was commercial artifice; rock is, in Pattison's portrait, Walt Whitman's "barbaric yawp," updated and indispensable to surviving a corrupt consumerist world.

Not much of this story has any merit. Rock music is obviously indebted to black forms that preceded it, but these forms aren't African. The various kinds of black music that developed here are American, and were themselves influenced by other American forms. Efforts by such music writers as Gerald Early to demonstrate the indebtedness of Sam Cooke, Marvin Gaye, and other '60s black crooners to an Italian-American model (an overtly pop model) have yet to be absorbed into this myth. There's no Romantic capital in that story. Similarly, rock is indebted to the "country" musical forms that emerged from a variety of influences, including European yodels, but there's not much Romantic capital in saying that, either.

But the real problem with this myth is its treatment of pop. Rock describes not one type of music, but a variety of styles that have influenced each other, including doo-wop harmonizing, boogie-woogie, jump forms of swing, soul music, rock- abilly, etc. Looming over the other influences, however, is none other than pop.

The pop music of the '50s that was overwhelmed by rock was the last stage of big-band music; band singers like Perry Como and Rosemary Clooney displaced the bands as headline attractions after World War II, though they continued to perform in the old-fashioned idiom of the band era. While rock swept many of these singers offstage, the younger vocalists who replaced them quickly took up the same traditional pop narrative that has been going on since the 1890s, when the first commercial hit song ("After the Ball") established it. That narrative addresses a limited number of themes involving social identity, pleasure, personal fulfillment, and, above all, issues of courtship. These themes continued to dominate the new rock charts as they had the earlier songs, even though they were sung, played, and received in new ways. The musical break in the 1950s was not one of emotional substance, as the rock establishment likes to suggest; it was one of emotional style.

The separation between these two emotional styles is not nearly so distinct as rock would like to think. While rock is never threatened by its other influences—it is never about to become the blues, much less jump or country music—it has repeatedly been threatened by pop.

In fact, one of the original merits of the Beatles is, supposedly, that they arrived to rescue American rock at just such a point of decay. According to this take, Elvis had been reduced to a bel-canto fraud, singing such horrors as a rewrite of "O Sole Mio" ("It's Now or Never"); acts such as Ben E. King were doing over-lush numbers like "Spanish Harlem" and "Amor"; pop figures such as Steve Lawrence and Eydie Gorme had been sneaking back into the Top 10; the Beach Boys were doing barbershop harmonies; the model of teen excitement was Rick Nelson, a sitcom spinoff. Rock was forgetting itself amid symphonic arrangements and a crooner revival, when suddenly the Beatles exploded on the scene with three guitars, a set of drums, a bluesy harmonica, and a "Whoa, yeah!" whoop.

This is a tendentious picture of the time; it ignores, among other matters, James Brown, early Motown, Phil Spector, and the Atlantic Records groups (such as the Drifters), and it downplays the merits of Brill Building music. But it's not an entirely false picture, either. The Beatles, along with the torrent of British Invasion groups that followed them into the American market, trimmed the Top 40's excrescences, invigorated its sound, and addressed its audience with new subjects.

This story is often interpreted in terms of rock's Romantic myth. According to this narrative, British musicians had been closer students of America's own musical heritage than Americans had been, especially regarding the lost heritage of the blues. British groups listened eagerly to recordings that most Americans didn't know existed, incorporated the rhythms and instrumentation into their own styles, and returned the vigorous result to surprised and delighted American audiences. This story is demonstrably true for many of the British (and Irish) groups that enjoyed American success; one can clearly hear the influence in the early hits of such groups as the Animals, the Yardbirds, Them, the Spencer Davis Group, and, obviously, the Rolling Stones.

This story is applicable, at least in part, to the Beatles as well. For two years after their explosion into the American market, the Beatles released a long series of singles and albums in the American style. Their own compositions and their choice of cover versions reflected their enthusiasm for the music of such U.S. artists as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and their willing adherence to the familiar pop themes of courtship and fulfillment. This was the "early Beatles" period of making music to dance and cruise to. It seems to be the preferred Beatles period for many leading-edge boomers, perhaps because, as radio and party music that was used socially, it's evocative of their adolescence.

But this is not the music that has shaped the Beatles' later reputation. If the group's career had ended in 1965, it would probably be remembered—with as much embarrassment as pleasure—for the intense mania it inspired, and only secondarily for the songs. Although it's largely forgotten now, a Beatles backlash was gaining steam by the time Rubber Soul was released in 1965. The group's cherubic cheerfulness was beginning to seem flabby compared to other groups' tougher material. Yet the Beatles today occupy a uniquely transcendent position in the rock world, and a reputation for innovative genius. How did they achieve this? By turning down rock's volume.

What your mother should know

With the release of Revolver in 1966, the Beatles began to transform themselves from teen idols into storytellers. Throughout the album, they display a genuine talent for creating characters, states of mind, and dramatic situations, and for doing so by suggestion and with the use of spare images. In other words, the album invited not only a rock listening, but a literary listening. The outstanding example is "Eleanor Rigby," a Bronte novel in miniature, unrecognizable as a rock number. But songs like "For No One," "She Said, She Said," "And Your Bird Can Sing," and "Tomorrow Never Knows" are all departures from the rock idiom, offering unusual imagery, surprising allusions, and verbal riddles. Most of the cuts are heavily melodic and carefully arranged. One of the album's chart hits, the sing-song "Yellow Submarine," reaches back beyond rock for its inspiration. A children's song, it pointed in the direction the Beatles were to go: the British Music Hall.

Sgt. Pepper's (1967) may well have transformed the rock world, but it owes nothing to rock's Romantic myth. It is built largely from the music and imagery of the Victorian and Edwardian pleasure palaces of the industrial working class. (Herman's Hermits had already revived the Music Hall standard, "I'm Henry VIII, I Am," but as a 1965 novelty song.) Though the Beatles approached the material with a literary sensibility, especially irony, songs like "When I'm 64" and "Lovely Rita" are effective evocations of antique Music Hall style, while "Getting Better" and the melodramatic "She's Leaving Home" make sympathetic use of antique emotion. Indeed, the corny, melodic sentimentalism of the Music Hall repertoire was a rich vein for the group, and they were never to abandon it.

A long list of later Beatles songs is drawn, directly or indirectly, from this tradition: "Martha, My Dear," "Your Mother Should Know," "Penny Lane," "All You Need Is Love," "All Together Now," "Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da," "Honey Pie," "Maxwell's Silver Hammer," "Magical Mystery Tour," "Good Night," and almost everything on the B side of Abbey Road, down to and including the inner-groove run-out, "Her Majesty." While the Beatles continued to write and record rock songs such as "Revolution" and "Come Together," and while they engaged in some entirely different musical experiments on the White Album, the influences that shaped their major, later output—most of the music for which they are best known—emerges from an antique pop style.

These two elements of the Beatles' career—their development as narrators, and their exploitation of Music Hall content and style—lift the group's music into a context of its own. It is these elements that are able to claim the attention of an audience that was born long after the group broke up. But what do either of these elements have to do with the mythology that the rock establishment embraces? Precious little. In the end, the rock world's head was turned by music that was sweet, corny, artificial, and intensely sentimental. Rock has yet to come to grips with this.

"Their music doesn't grow old," according to Beatles authority Bill Harry, compiler of the 720-page Ultimate Beatles Encyclopedia. Actually, much of it is drawn from musical conventions that were so old that the group's American following didn't know them. Fans were free to create their own context for the music, and to create their own associations and meanings. That the music's sensibilities arrived from such sources as Paul McCartney's musician father didn't matter decades ago, and certainly doesn't matter now. "A lot of my musicality came from my dad," says McCartney in the new Beatles coffee-table book. He cherishes his boyhood memories of lying on the rug while his father played the piano and explained the "clever" parts of the old songs he once performed. According to Paul, such memories are why he is "so open about sentimentality."

The Beatles' 21st century fans are already assembling their own memories of the group, choosing among Beatles "eras," and even asserting their primacy. One of them recently told USA Today that "In some ways, we are more sincere fans in that, unlike the baby boomers who see The Beatles as a form of nostalgia, we pick The Beatles over all the music of today and make a conscious choice to experience a group of 35 years ago."

"We hope you all will sing along," sang the Beatles in Sgt. Pepper's. In fact, singing along, pint in hand, was a staple of the 19th century Music Hall experience. In a sense, everybody did sing along, and more fans than ever seem to be joining in. Many of the original boomers thought at the time that the Beatles were helping raise the roof of a new culture. If so, they did it by opening the longest lasting Music Hall performance of all time, entertaining, infectious, and dripping with sentiment down to the last note.