The sweet girls loved Paul. The bookish girls loved John. The party girls loved Ringo. No girl loved George, except apparently my mother. How could any girl love that extremely British looking kid with an underbite, big ears and a unibrow? But true to the contrarian streak that nearly everyone in my family seems to share, the fact that no other girl loved George made him that much more loveable to Mom.
George was the youngest, but he seemed like the adult Beatle - that may have been a completely undeserved reputation, but it was how he came off. He seemed as smart as John, but without his head in the clouds; as polite as Paul, without the maudlin sensitivity; as macho as Ringo, but utterly without Ringo’s bravado. George’s quietness was like a blank slate upon which people could paint whatever qualities they wished to see.
This is not a post about their music. That will wait for when I’m not intimidated by a subject on which everybody’s a bigger expert than me. Everybody else was listening to The Beatles in utero, I found them at twenty-seven. In fact, I want to stay as far away in this post from any musical aspect of The Beatles as possible. Like most converts, I have the unquestioning credulity about great non-classical music of someone who was once a non-believer. I’m still worried that I don’t understand my reactions and will proclaim something as a masterpiece that bores me, or worse still, pronounce something boring that I later surrounds me as the masterpiece it is. Until I know a third as much about rock music as I do about classical, I don’t think I’m ready to be a reliable judge of The Beatles.
So this is not a post about music. This post is purely about coming to terms what The Beatles meant for millions of girls like Mom, for millions of students like Dad, and for millions of their kids like me who grew up only with stories of Beatle fever - learning to appreciate their music but never understanding how they could once meant so much to so many.
Furthermore, too much of our appreciation of Rock Music is grounded in religious terms that it’s dangerous to analyze it without getting too enamored by the grandiosity of its scale. All you have to do is read any Greil Marcus book or Rolling Stone profile to see how lazy and easy it is to pretend that Rock Music is a substitute for religion; Bob Dylan is inevitably a ‘prophet,’ Madonna inevitably a ‘goddess.’ But the more one listens to Rock, particularly British Rock, the more one realizes that without religion, how could this music exist? Unless you’re willing to slather yourself in the excitement of worship and surrender yourself to the idea that you’re just another brick in the wall, there is little point to sixties rock. The Beatles might allow for critical distance that allows you to keep your head even in the most heady passages, so might Van Morrison or The Beach Boys, but the Stones surely don’t and neither do the Velvet Underground or The Doors. A Day in the Life might seem just as great a song if you heard it sung by a hippie in a coffeehouse, but could Turd on the Run ever seem like a great song if it weren’t played at 105 decibels? So why listen to Robert Plant sing the blues in an age when we can hear Billie Holiday or Mississippi John Hurt whenever we want? Can the exhilaration of Pete Townshend rocking out compare to the visceral thrills provided by James Brown (or Leonard Bernstein)? It’s one thing to experience Ozzie or Pink Floyd in in a stadium, but to listen to them at home is a burden too great to bare.
What makes the music work is religious revelation - you don’t have to be from the Frankfurt School to see that. The Beatles persuade, the Stones command, but both demand the same ecstatic out-of-body experience (at least live). The very musical structure of Rock is the structure of religious revelation; with rhythms, melodies, lyrics and messages that require no critical faculties to be loved. And it’s all pitched at a single dynamic level: a fortissimo louder than anything by Bruckner. A single guitar with three chords now creates more volume than a Symphony of a Thousand - made possible by the development of electronic amplification; the single most important musical discovery since the invention of polyphony. What is the religion of 60’s music? Perhaps nothing more than music itself. But it is the most revolutionary new music in a millennium, and it forces us to relearn everything we ever thought we knew about it. From a certain point of view, The Sixties was just an ecstatic celebration of new music.
Is it art? Well...yes....BUT...
The bad stuff certainly isn’t. Bad classical isn’t art either. But most bad classical music has long since disappeared from the concert circuit (along with some extraordinary stuff). But we hear the bad music of the pop world every day of our lives. Bad music must be endured, good music must be found. And the very decrepitude of the classical music world ensures that only the stuff worth saving is worth the time to perform. Let’s face it, most music sucks. Most professional musicians are ordinary, unhappy people who give their lives to music because there isn’t enough joy in their lives to make a dull, stable job worth the time for them to commit.
But that’s the miracle of The Beatles: four not particularly extraordinary musicians came together, made some of the greatest music of the twentieth century, and simultaneously withstood a celebrity and worship unprecedented in world history. The overriding question of The Beatles’ story is not what might have happened had they stayed together, but how they stayed together at all.
I suppose it should go without saying, but The Beatles really are the historical dividing line between the old world and the world we now live in. When Philip Larkin wrote those famous opening lines from Annus Mirabilis: Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/(which was rather late for me) -/Between the end of the Chatterly ban/And The Beatles’ first LP, he was clearly limiting himself to sex. But in Larkin's case, sex was a metaphor for the larger divides between an old way of perceiving the world and a new one. But the dividing line between the old world and new wasn’t sex - a subject every era thinks they’re the first to discover. It was, however, certainly the most important year for the creation of our world - the year which the postwar illusion that America solved the world’s problems soured definitively. Until ‘63, it was all too simple for most people in the West: America was the side of the angels, and those who opposed The American Way opposed the path of virtue. Could The Cuban Missile Crisis been allowed to happen if Americans did not believe with such Messianic force in the rightness of their worldview? But a Cuban Missile Crisis could never have happened after ‘63. 1963 was the year of the Kennedy Assassination, of The Feminine Mystique, of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail and the March on Washington, of Diem’s assassination and Vietnam’s first public self-immolation, of Medgar Evers’s murder and John XXIII’s death. It is the dividing line between the confident, healthy vision of America we only recognize from Mad Men and the distressed, infirm America we know so well.
It certainly was a more innocent time. Until their era, The Beatles were certainly the most overly managed group in Rock History. But when they declared in interviews that they were not overly managed, you have to believe them. During their touring years, they were never presented as anything but what they were: four working class adolescents who didn’t quite understand why people loved them so much. The banter between The Beatles onstage and in interviews could not be manufactured. In their early days, publicists could simply put them in front of a microphone and let The Beatles do their work for them. The exchanges always bespeak an electric chemistry, but they cause us to wonder all the more... How was there once a moment in history where four unextraordinary seeming guys could create the music that defines our lives simply by being themselves?
Like so much great art, it was forged in competition: John vs. Paul, Paul vs. John, George vs. John and Paul, John vs. Dylan, Paul vs. Brian Wilson, George vs. Clapton, Beatles vs. Beach Boys, Beatles vs. Stones, Beatles vs. the Who. The competition could be as friendly as it was ferocious, but it was an age forged in a caulderon in which hundreds of talented people were thrown together. The twentieth century did not see a more fruitful decade for music of all kinds than the sixties.
But the great paradox of the music is that a music so devoted to surrendering one’s individuality could only be created with the friction and tension that occurs between many strong personalities. As happens with the music of all epochs, the further distance we get from Swingin’ London, the more all of its music begins to resemble each other. But at the time, Paul and John seemed like diametric opposites in people’s minds, as did The Beatles and The Stones, as did culture and counter-culture.
But all of those fights, between culture and counter-culture, or establishment and rebellion, seemed to play out on every possible scale. Paul wanted a rock that could comfort and soothe while John wanted a Rock that could climb every flight of imagination. Together, Paul and John wanted a vision of Rock that could bring the world together, Mick and Keith wanted a vision of Rock that could divide the infidels from the faithful.
The famed rock critic, Robert Christgau, made the amazing observation that The Beatles and The Rolling Stones had diametrically opposed views of Rock, and their views were based on the class system. The Beatles’s view of Rock was that of poor working kids wanting to ‘make it,’ whereas The Rolling Stones’s vision was of upper class art-school kids wanting to slum. If you played most Beatles songs on a piano, they wouldn’t sound out of place in a cocktail lounge alongside Cole Porter’s and Rogers & Hammerstein’s. If you played most Rolling Stones songs on an acoustic guitar at half-tempo, they would be redolent of a guitarist at a smelly dive bar who plays Robert Johnson and John Lee Hooker. They were the twin polls of their time, with an angel’s symbiotic relationship to a devil - a relationship of two equally talented contemporaries in which one spurs the other to higher ground: like the relationship of Chopin to Liszt, or Ellington to Basie.
But they weren’t quite contemporary. By the time the Stones arose to their current eminence, The Beatles had retired to Abbey Road - issuing the sounds of a new world from on high. But in the minds of music lovers, it was the Stones who took their place as the live show of the world’s affections. A generation of children had grown into spiritual adolescence, and had outgrown their need for a god. The difference between the concerts was like the difference between two ends of a Bosch triptych. Beatles concerts seemed like a revivalist tent - full of ecstatic screaming and speaking in tongues while Jesus and Paul gazed immovably from their stations at the microphone. But Stones concerts were like pagan orgies presided over by living gods, ultra-kinetic androgynes who broke down barriers which suddenly seemed unnecessary: masculine was joined with feminine, modernist joined with primitivist, and most importantly the spiritual fused with the erotic. With The Beatles, you were never sure if the adulation was religious or sexual. With the Stones, you realized that they were one and the same.
By 1967, most of The Beatles’ generation was in college, and when they weren’t off protesting they wanted music. The Beatles had opened a new soundworld to them, the soundworld existed before The Beatles, but never to such enormous reach. The albums of their later years were not only listened to more reverently than any music since Wagner, but they gave far more to their listeners than Wagner ever did: the diversity of a whole world integrated into a single album. A scope this broad and generous had not been heard within a single piece of music since a Mahler symphony. This was not just art, it was great art.