Pop Rock Band of the Century – The Beatles
Posted by dorian on September 8, 2009
The Beatles: Hysteria in the making
John Lennon’s biographer explains the extraordinary longevity of greatest pop band ever, who never went out of fashion
[ fun quiz at end of article]
When the Beatles’ deceptively euphoric Abbey Road album came out, 40 years ago this month, I was hanging around their Apple company in Savile Row, Mayfair, watching them break up. Little did I think I would be telling and retelling the story well into the then-distant next century.
In the panorama of modern British history, there are two achievements we remember with unqualified pride. The first was standing alone against Hitler in 1940; the second was giving the world Beatlemania. Indeed, as everything that was once special about Britain slides into ruin, the Beatles increasingly seem just about all we have left. Our streets may be blighted by muggers, vandals and drunks, our public transport may be shambolic, our hospitals virus-ridden slums, our state schools hellish, our system farcical, our police force in retreat, our prime minister a head-hiding coward, our royal family debased, our MPs and peers exposed as chiselling fraudsters, our former tolerance and civility swamped by egomaniacal rudeness, even our long-cherished freedom of speech threatened by grovelling political correctness. But nothing, it seems, can tarnish the glory that was John, Paul, George and Ringo.
Thirty-eight years after their break-up, and 29 after John Lennon’s violent death made that split irrevocable, the Beatles command the headlines as much as ever they did at their mid-1960s high noon. Every month or so, some new footnote is added to a life story that millions of people across the globe know almost as well as their own — a forgotten sheet of photographic contacts, a lost letter, a doodled lyric, a few treasure-laden inches of reel-to-reel tape. And always the story comes near the top of prime-time television news and makes splashy press headlines. Public appetite seems insatiable for what the group’s witty PR man, the late Derek Taylor (trust them even to have a witty PR man), once called “the 20th century’s greatest romance”.
At the start of their career they were derided for choosing a name that suggested an insect. Perhaps the ultimate sign of their fame is that now in the English language, wherever spoken, a small, black creepy-crawly is only the second image the word “beetle” calls to mind.
Books and TV documentaries on the Beatles must by now run into thousands. Though I have produced novels, plays and journalism on numerous other subjects, I am tagged as a Beatles “expert” for good and all. I have come to dread the light that springs into people’s eyes at parties when the only alternative to clam-like rudeness on my part is to admit that I’ve published biographies of the Beatles and Lennon and that, yes, I actually knew them. From here on, I know I’ll be allowed to talk about nothing else. And yet I cannot pretend that my own fascination has waned since my biography Shout! first appeared in 1981.
There can be no disputing that the Beatles were the greatest pop band ever; musical genius in a perfect combination of characters: witty John, adorable Paul, serious George, cute runt-of-the-litter Ringo. No matter how pop music and style may change, they remain the summit to which all performers aspire, their name the ultimate turn-on in the lexicon of hype. Over the past three decades, there has hardly been a single big chart-topper whose management did not proudly announce that
they had sold more singles or more albums than the Beatles, played to larger audiences than the Beatles, had more consecutive hits than the Beatles, reached No 1 faster than the Beatles, been mobbed at airports more hysterically than the Beatles, generated more obsessive media coverage than the Beatles.
What tends to be forgotten is that the Beatles rose to fame in a music industry as different from the modern one as the Stone Age from Star Wars. As a top live group they were around for only three years, and as a top recording one for only seven. Plenty of others since have shifted more product, counted more heads on their tours and, certainly, earned more. But none has ever been so much loved. Love was what took them to their unbeatable heights but also destroyed them; the terrible, mindless love which ultimately entwined them and squeezed the vitality from them, leaving each in his solo career feeling like the shell-shocked survivor of some terrible battle.
Their longevity testifies, of course, to the residual power of the generation that grew up with them, the Chelsea-booted boys and miniskirted girls who would one day turn into politicians, captains of industry, television bosses and newspaper editors. Virtually every middle-aged Briton and American looks back to the same goldenly privileged mid-1960s youth and cherishes the same clutch of Lennon-McCartney songs, above all, as mementos of that gorgeous time. Forty years on, grey and wrinkled though they may be, they still find it inconceivable that any other generation could more perfectly embody the state of being young. Hence the post-1960s culture in which nobody admits to growing old, and faded Levis and ponytails define the pensioner as much as the punk. Hence the BBC’s assignment of more people to cover this year’s Glastonbury festival than they would send to cover a war.
Immense though the nostalgia market is, it represents only a part of the Beatles’ global constituency. Millions adore them who had no share in their career — who, in many cases, were not even born when they split up. First-generation fans may smile to recollect how furiously they once rejected the pop idols of their own parents; how liking the Beatles in the early days meant facing a constant barrage of adult disapproval and contempt. Back in the 1960s it was inconceivable for a young pop addict to share his mother’s and father’s fondness for the teen idols of 20 years earlier, such as Frank Sinatra or Artie Shaw. Nowadays, children, their parents and grandparents listen to Revolver or Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, or watch Help! or Yellow Submarine, for all the same reasons and with the same simple delight.
Most potently of all, the Beatles are the so-called “Swinging Sixties” incarnate. Britain has a long tradition of spinning history into fantasy worlds — theme parks of the mind — from knights and damsels through the Dickens era to the “Naughty” Nineties and “Roaring” Twenties, but none of these endlessly redramatised epochs even begins to compare to what came over staid and stuffy old London between 1964 and 1969 — and was inimitably distilled in the Beatles’ music. Although every last trace vanished decades ago, millions of foreign tourists annually still come seeking it. You can see them any day of the week in their drab blue-denim crocodiles, haunting the no-longer-distinctive clothes boutiques of Carnaby Street, treading the no-longer-superchic pavements of Chelsea and Kensington, hunting for a space among the graffiti outside the Abbey Road recording studios to add their tribute, or braving the heavy traffic to process in fours over the adjacent zebra crossing after their idols on the most iconic album cover of all time.
Other colourful decades — notably the 1920s — seemed embarrassing, even shaming to the less enjoyable ones that followed. But the Swinging Sixties grow more alluring the further they recede into history. When Tony Blair brought the Labour party back to power as new Labour in 1997, he was marketed as the figurehead of a youthful dynamism that evoked Beatle-crazed Britain circa 1966 in almost eerie detail. The jaded, broken-down nation which Blair’s cohorts inherited was rebranded overnight with the fab-speak imprimatur of “Cool Britannia”. As in days when Harold Wilson hobnobbed with the Beatles, 10 Downing Street thronged once more with pop stars and “with-it” young painters, designers and couturiers. And who can ever forget that bowel-churning moment when the ludicrous Bono of U2 discovered similarities between Lennon’s partnership with McCartney and Blair’s with Gordon Brown?
In pre-millennium teen culture, the Britpop movement consisted almost wholly of bands in Beatly haircuts, playing Beatly songs with Beatly harmonies and enacting shadow plays from Beatle history, including their rooftop farewell concert and, of course, the Abbey Road zebra crossing. The supposed rivalry between the two leading Britpop bands, Oasis (working class northern lads) and Blur (middle-class southern lads), was portrayed in the same terms as that between the Beatles and the Rolling Stones 30-odd years earlier. Psychedelic colours, microskirts, long pointed shirt collars, Union Jack carrier bags, Beatle haircuts, Beatle round-neck jackets, Beatle boots; suddenly they all came back — and are still with us. Psychologists call it “nostalgia without memory”.
It is often said that if you can remember the Sixties you can’t have been there. But to the vast majority of the decade’s survivors, it never felt quite so dreamily enchanted as it is now painted. The age of so-called love and peace saw the world as rife as today with natural disaster and human cruelty. Together with free rock festivals, kipper ties, fun furs and All You Need Is Love, it brought the Vietnam war, the Arab-Israeli Six-Day war, the assassinations of John F Kennedy, Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, cataclysmic race riots across America, famine in Bihar and genocide in Biafra. Even as Britain “swung” with such apparent careless joy, it had to deal with the Aberfan disaster, when
116 Welsh schoolchildren were buried under a collapsing coal tip, and to face the depravity revealed by the Moors murder trial. As a descant to the glorious soundtrack of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and the White Album came paralysing national strikes, devaluation and the opening shots of Northern Ireland’s later bloodbath. Being a 1960s teenager had sunburst moments, certainly, but also involved long stretches of workaday dullness, unrelieved by such modern diversions as mobile phones, text messaging, personal stereos or the internet.
If we are honest, too, we must accept the extent to which the heady new freedoms of the Beatles years paved the way to this frightening, ungovernable new century. The happy high of pot and pills and the cosy hallucinations of Sgt Pepper helped to implant the drug culture that now saturates western civilisation, turns once bright and happy children into black-and-blue-punctured suicides, litters public thoroughfares and parks with the same foul stew of broken ampoules and needles. Because the Beatles were so good at breaking rules and getting away with it, everyone else in pop music — then in the wider world — started breaking rules and finding that they, too, could get away with it. Now, with virtually every rule broken every minute of the day, by everyone from terrorists to motorists, who does not sometimes pine for the stuffier but more scrupulous years before Beatlemania?
The Beatles’ story is the ultimate show- business fable, one whose relevance only sharpens as our collective obsession grows with the joys and horrors of celebrity. As a moral tale, it is both emblematic (be careful what you wish for) and utterly unique. If it were presented as fiction, with its web of extraordinary accidents and coincidences, nobody would believe it. A modern Dickens or Tolstoy would be needed to create such a cast of characters, such mould-shattering events, such a shading of comedy into tragedy, such a sweeping panorama of social evolution and transformation — though not even Dickens or Tolstoy had the nerve to make any of their heroes actually change the world.
What amazes me most is how nice all four Beatles were, and managed to remain even after their life together had turned into a refined form of hell. In 1966, as a nobody on a local paper, I interviewed them during what turned out to be their last-ever UK tour. By that stage, the fans’ screams had so completely blotted out the music that, rather than playing his organ, Lennon would simply crash his arm across the keys in frustration. Yet backstage at Newcastle City Hall, perched on the arm of Ringo’s chair, he talked to me as candidly as if I was his oldest friend until their roadie, “fifth Beatle” Neil Aspinall, alerted, no doubt by some secret signal, threw me out of the dressing room. Amazing, too, to remember the sky-high standards they always set themselves — when their shrieking public would have been happy with a laundry list set to music — and the sheer volume of brilliant work they turned out between 1962 and 1969, from I Saw Her Standing There to Because.
Once upon a time, the daydream of teenagers everywhere was to be in the Beatles. But their individual destinies were such that Pete Best, the drummer they sacked on the brink of success, eventually felt fortunate: John, who fought so hard to escape from mindless fan worship, shot dead by a mindless fan on his own doorstep… Paul, always so in control and infallible, tragically widowed, then sleepwalking into that gruesome second marriage… George, the mantra-chanting misanthrope and secret sex addict, killed by a lifetime’s reliance on nicotine… Ringo, once the nicest and most grounded of the four, now a recovering alcoholic, grousing at fans he is lucky to have for their impudence in asking him to “sign stuff”.
But to posterity, they remain forever twentysomething and indissoluble, the forever Fab Four, perhaps the greatest engine for human happiness the modern world has known. Whenever their music plays, it makes the sun come out, and in every language brings the same bleak little thought: only two of them left.
Philip Norman is the author of Shout! The True Story of the Beatles, and John Lennon: The Life
which beatle are you? try the Times Online quiz. click on john’s picture.