Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles explosion onto the American cultural scene, when 74 million television viewers tuned in to see the band perform on The Ed Sullivan Show. CBS—the network on which the show aired—will be celebrating the day with a live multimedia event at the site of program, the Ed Sullivan Theater, followed by a two-hour special taped earlier this month that includes an array of past stars and modern day icons, including Stevie Wonder, Jeff Lynne, Eurythmics, Alicia Keys, John Mayer, Brad Paisley, and the two surviving Beatles, Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr. New York’s JFK International Airport, where The Beatles first touched down on U.S. soil, is celebrating the occasion with concerts and other festivities, libraries are holding exhibits, and countless venues are hosting parties in New York City and across the nation. Which all raises the important question: Why all the fuss over four lads from Liverpool who made music five decades ago?
There can be little doubt of their ongoing appeal: Their music continues to sell amazingly well and their songs are still in heavy rotation on U.S. radio stations. Contemporary artists in every genre continue to cover—or sample—their songs. The Los Angeles Times described how their music has “entered into the ether; it is something we live in; it has achieved something of the quality of folk music, a thing we know from childhood, and our children and their children will know as well. It isn’t nostalgia that colors these songs; they are simply everpresent.”
So what is it about The Beatles’ music and myth that continues to inspire fans and musicians from every age, background, and musical genre? After consideration, several reasons emerge.
The Beatles arrived in the United States during winter, when the country was still caught in the gloom of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination 77 days prior, in addition to a Cold War that was getting colder all the time. McCartney, Starr, John Lennon, and George Harrison offered a striking contrast with their youthful exuberance and quick wit. They played a fiery brand of new music and sported (what was considered at the time) long hair. Yet their pressed suits and playful demeanor made them an intriguing combination of safe and edgy. A whole generation of young men emulated their look and fashion—whether it was “mop-tops,” the later facial hair, or the iconic clothing—while a generation of young women experienced the emotion of “Beatlemania”—intense bouts of hysteria and shrieking caused by their music or their mere appearance. The history of rock and roll is filled with musicians striking a revolutionary pose, but few have been so, well, pleasant about it.
But there were notable exceptions. In 1966 Lennon sparked a huge controversy when he told the London Evening Standard, “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue with that; I’m right and will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now.” After the comments caused severe backlash in the American Bible Belt, Lennon issued a retraction, claiming his words were taken out of context and misunderstood.
While most artists of the time recorded songs penned by others, The Beatles boldly engaged in original songwriting, and with a flair not previously seen. Lennon and McCartney were masters of the clever lyric. And the band delivered those lyrics with gutsy singing and inventive harmonies, all undergirded by forceful, guitar-driven arrangements. The Beatles metabolized the best of early rock and roll and rhythm and blues, and brought it all together in a fresh and vital way. Thanks to the band’s legacy, writing one’s own material is taken for granted these days, or at least aspired to.
The Beatles also demonstrated an uncanny ability to grow and evolve. While the band’s first pop hits showed originality, they clearly carried traditional boy/girl themes. Later albums saw the group singlehandedly rewrite the rules of what rock and roll could be, bringing together string-quartet character pieces like “Eleanor Rigby” with imaginative whimsy like “Yellow Submarine” and non-Western instrumentation on “Tomorrow Never Knows.” The Beatles breadth of style broadened its audience in a way unparalleled since.
In a quest for discovery The Beatles left no stone unturned, boosting the bass up to unheard of levels and experimenting with distortion and multi-track recording in ways that no one had imagined. Beatles engineer Geoff Emerick, in his book Here, There, and Everywhere: My Life Recording the Music of The Beatles, remembered the group’s insistence on massive musical experimentation: “We had microphones right down in the bells of brass instruments … headphones turned into microphones attached to violins. We used giant primitive oscillators to vary the speed of instruments and vocals and had tapes chopped to pieces and stuck together upside down and the wrong way around.”
The experiments in sound wonderfully complemented the growing abstraction of the group’s lyrics to create impressionistic dreamscapes like Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band—credited as the first-ever concept album and lauded by Allmusic as a transformation of pop music into “Art with a capital A.” Every artist today that pursues a unified vision on the edge of musical boundaries is walking in The Beatles’ footsteps.
In one band, then, there exists a microcosm of rock and roll from then to now—expert at so many things, from catchy pop melodies to avant-garde experimentation. The songs meet listeners on familiar terrain but also stretch and challenge—sometimes all at the same time. That’s why the Foo Fighters’ Dave Grohl can proclaim that The Beatles “are my mom’s favorite band, my favorite band, and now my daughter’s favorite band.”