Today, by at least one account, marks the 60th anniversary of the professional use of the name The Beatles by the band featuring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. Prior to this they had been billed as Johnny and the Moondogs, Long John and the Silver Beatles, and finally just the Silver Beatles. At this stage, the band’s line-up also included bassist Stu Sutcliff and drummer Pete Best. Ringo Starr, as is well known, was hired at the last minute as a replacement for Best when the group began recording with EMI two years later. Having written a couple of dozen posts about the Beatles in the past, this seemed a suitable occasion on which to treat of the quartet as a group.
I was born in 1965, which puts me at the elbow of two manufactured generations. I am at the old end of Gen X, but spent a lot of my youth looking backwards at the Baby Boom generation which arbitrarily ended 11 months before I was born. My older brothers were of the latter age group, and I always felt like I had missed something by coming into the world after the Big Parade had gone by. Anyhow, my wife, who is squarely in Generation X, gets to say “Okay Boomer” to me (even though I’m not one), but she also LOVES to be provocative by pretending she doesn’t know the difference between John Lennon and Paul McCartney. Rather than being irritated by this, as some might, I see more truth and wisdom in it than many others might. Those of us who are Beatle fans (i.e. most of the people on earth), have a tendency to assign the members of the songwriting team a polar opposite dichotomy, to make of them a sort of Cain and Abel, Isaac and Essau type symbiotic Yin-Yang situation. Anyone who has two children (especially two of the same gender) tends to do the same. I catch myself doing it with my kids. And so many fans tend to carve the two up into: Lennon: cynical, hard, tough, radical, cool, experimental. McCartney: soft, romantic, traditional, conservative, commercial. But one day, I was speculating on the topic of which of their peers in the music business were most like each of them, and the obvious dawned on me. Each other! And Harrison, of course. They all came out of the same crucible, the same “school”. They evolved together. They developed similar techniques and instincts. They were more like one another than unlike. And they proved it many times in subsequent years, on countless occasions when they sound like each other well after the breakup of the Beatles. Once a Beatle, always a Beatle, though they had slightly different skill sets.
“What is it about them?” my ex-sister-in-law asked in frustration one time. A highly musical person herself, she seemed nonplussed (as some are) about the immoderate superlatives people use about The Beatles to this day. She professed not to find them musically unique, which is interesting, but feels willful to me. Her bag I think would have been someone more like Joni Mitchell, who is both musically inventive and gifted with an extraordinary voice. Moreover, unlike the Beatles, she is not a savant, so to speak, she is musically literate. She knows what she is doing. To me, that answers part of the question right there. The Beatles were brashly original through a combination of being simultaneously encyclopedic in their repertoire AND blissfully ignorant about the rules of music theory. This ignorance (much like a lot of the early Delta blues musicians) caused them to write crazy chords, strange harmonies, surprising key shifts, weird time signatures and so forth, stuff they heard in their heads, but would be dismissed out of hand by people who knew what the rules were. To this day, most songwriters (and most artists) operate within a lazy mental box, basing artistic choices on the expected direction rather than the unexpected one, let alone the sort of enormous leaps the Beatles routinely took. Later, as they learned the rules, that would come to be the case less frequently, and they ceased to be in the vanguard. But in the early years, it was as though some crazy people had thrown every popular musical style into a blender and added their own weird ingredients, creating something that was at once familiar and unprecedented. There could be no non-committal reaction to such a thing. People either thought it was horrible or brilliant and exciting.
Liverpool, where they were born and bred, is a port city. In the mid-20th century, when goods and passengers still moved about primarily by ship, it meant cultural diversity, new sounds and ideas from abroad. Group leader Lennon was an art student at a local college, a fact that would reach its ultimate consummation in his marriage and professional partnership with international conceptual artist Yoko Ono later in the decade. His distinctly English love for wordplay (among other things) was one of the things that would set the group apart. It was baked right into their name. McCartney, on the other hand, came from a musical family, and lived and breathed popular song from all eras. He could play any instrument with great facility and had the flexibility to go in any artistic direction. The third man, Harrison, specialized in guitar, mastering the styles of his American heroes. The Beatles’ early set embraced rockabilly, Tin Pan Alley, Motown, R & B. For a time, they went in for a popular local country-derived sound known as “skiffle”. Their speed-fueled early sets in Hamburg and the Liverpool clubs sound tougher and faster than most rock and roll as it then existed, more like what we recognize now as proto-punk. Both Lennon and McCartney pushed the envelope on some songs on soul-based scream-singing in the manner of Elvis or Little Richard. Yet they would explore three part harmony in a style borrowed from Detroit girl groups. The early hits like “Love Me Do” and “Please Please Me” sound a little like the Everly Brothers. With their occasional falsetto vocals, they were gender ambiguous in a manner some found threatening. Later they borrowed largely from the folk scene, and deepened and diversified the lyrical content.
Originally attired from head to toe in black leather, The Beatles were persuaded by their manager Brian Epstein to don suits and ties. In retrospect, the suits seem distinctive, but that was actually one of the least unique things about them. All the rock and roll acts of the ’50s and even folk acts like The Weavers and the two men in Peter, Paul and Mary sported suits and ties back in the day. The Beatles’ image was much more defined by their long hair. Young people can have no conception of how seismic a cultural shift it was. In the 20th century, maleness in the Western world had largely been defined by a military aesthetic, heads clipped very short and often groomed with hair oil. The most radical, dandyish non-conformists might wear it slightly longer, perhaps with sideburns, but still combed compulsively with grease. The Beatle haircut, fashioned by their Hamburg friend Astrid Kirchherr, evoked something else entirely. For Americans, the only frame of of reference people could compare it to was faux Medieval Hollywood movies like Prince Valiant. It was so radical, yet such a logical “new direction” that it became instantly imitated and increased throughout the decade and into the next, becoming an instant marker in the cultural wars of the decade. Hippies vs. The Establishment. I still got yelled at by my parents for wearing long hair as late as the late 1970s. By then, I’d assumed it was settled science. Even teachers had long hair. But it was a marker. Long hair signified that you were on the side of a hoped-for cultural transformation that would embrace such things as tolerance, political and social equality, sexual freedom, and an ethic of non-violence. Perhaps mercifully, Lennon was assassinated just before the entire culture in his adopted country backslid horribly in another direction. The twin catastrophes of 1980, Reagan’s election and Lennon’s murder were the symbolic death of hope for a lot of people. Little did anyone dream how much worse everything could get.
The Beatles are also unique for being the only band (with the debatable exception of the manufactured Monkees) in which every single member was a legit star. That never happens. That STILL never happens. Usually it’s just one or two members of the group. Here it was all of them. (This was true btw even before Ringo joined — Pete Best was considered the heart throb.) Initially they weren’t really differentiated, they were considered a sort of four-headed entity. They had similar accents, similar senses of humor, played the same music, dressed the same way. But by the time of Hard Day’s Night, they begin to exert identifiable personalities. Interestingly, in that film Harrison (as opposed to Lennon) comes across as the dark, scary, anarchist one. He has this direct, unnerving stare which he turns on people, his impassive gaze boring into each interlocutor with something that probably looked to some like imbecility but was more like hard-edged, working class mockery to those who could read it. He seemed menacing and strange, an existential rebel. He has these great moments, like the one where he upsets the marketing people who want to use him in a commercial by being gloriously unimpressed with their confident exertions (“She’s a drag, a well known drag!”), or the scene where he sarcastically shouts “Sorry we hurt your field, mister!” when some square kicks them off his private property. Harrison comes across as the most non-conformist of the bunch, a trait that would be reinforced when he dove deeply into Indian culture three years later. Ringo emerged as a screen star in the film, and indeed, of the four, he would go on to have the only real movie career as an actor. McCartney was the worst actor of the bunch, but he does embody a quality which at the time was assumed to be the common property of all four of them. He was silly and cute, not just in the sense of good looking, but also in the sense of “cutesy”. This was a quality that was still prized in pop culture in the mid ’60s (think of movies like What’s New Pussycat? or Casino Royale) but by the end of the decade the counterculture (and the other three Beatles) turned definitively away from it as the times grew increasingly serious. McCartney never quite lost the cute thing, making him a sort of persona non grata in the rock world, even as he remained one of its most popular stars with the general public. Interestingly, Lennon emerges as the principal comedian in Hard Day’s Night. It’s one of the things fans loved best about him, and this quality would come to take many forms, not just in film performances, but also songs, humor books, and provocative performance art and political activism.
As a group The Beatles sort of had access to every demographic, but as solo artists following their break-up, they each necessarily shed some of their followings. As lead guitarist, Harrison was the only one who seemed to have street cred as a “rock musician” per se — more than the others he was the one who interfaced with rock royalty like The Band, Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton etc over the decades. By contrast, Lennon and McCartney were more POP stars, Lennon collaborated with artists like David Bowie, Elton John, and Nilsson, and McCartney with people like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Elvis Costello. Torn apart by every conceivable personal difference you can think of in 1970, Lennon and McCartney gradually caught up with each other. Lennon’s Double Fantasy (1980), all about home life and domestic bliss, is frankly turf that had been McCartney’s on McCartney (1970) and Ram (1971). And similarly, some of McCartney’s more recent records seem to possess the kind of moody introspection that had once been considered exclusive Lennon territory on records like John Lennon/ Plastic Ono Band (1970). By the ’70s, though, both former Beatles were old hat, no longer breaking boundaries. Others had caught up with them, and they seemed less like leaders than part of the greater pop culture pack. In 1979-80, for example, The Clash released London Calling, which despite its shocking reference to “phony Beatlemania” is closer to the Beatles’ own standard of inventiveness and quality than the albums of any of the former Beatles during that period by an order of magnitude.
Is that just what happens when you get old? Speaking of which, hang on to your hat — a month from now Ringo turns 80.