The Beatles: Let them be
Like the Model T or the IBM Selectric, the Beatles once stood for perfection, writes Justin Moyer, but they just weren’t built for these times.
Special to The Washington Post
Half a century ago, the Beatles were really busy. After Beatlemania broke out in 1963, they played more than 1,200 shows, recorded 12 LPs and appeared in five movies. Some followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or admitted to trying acid, or spurned royal honors, or claimed to be more popular than Jesus. Then, in 1970, they broke up.
But that didn’t end Beatlemania. In 1976, “Saturday Night Live” producer Lorne Michaels appealed to the band on the air, offering them $3,000 to reunite. Not long before he was killed, John Lennon had to endure questions about a reunion while promoting a record he made with Yoko Ono. In 2009, the Fab Four were reintroduced to kids with the release of “The Beatles: Rock Band” video game. And Sir Paul McCartney — at 71, forced to imagine life beyond the scenarios outlined in “When I’m Sixty-Four” — recently played a sold-out Nationals Park in Washington. [He played this past weekend at Safeco Field in Seattle.]
Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were in a great band. They made more than music; they made history. But four decades later, it’s time to let them go. Like the Model T or the IBM Selectric, they once stood for perfection, but they just weren’t built for these times.
The Fab Four are overrated. Sure, they blew baby boomers’ minds on “Ed Sullivan” and, with bold concept albums and countercultural leanings, brought gravitas to rock 'n' roll. But some of their peers — the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Velvet Underground — were just as good. Shaping and responding to the fraught adolescence of almost 80 million U.S. teenagers born after World War II, the Walrus et al caught a demographic wave that is still crashing over their children and grandchildren.
In 1964, 73 million people, or more than a third of America at the time, watched that fateful “Ed Sullivan Show” broadcast. This year, about 28 million viewers, or less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, watched the Grammys. Sheer exposure ensured that John, Paul, George and Ringo clicked in a way that Radiohead never will.
Kicking our Beatles addiction is bigger than an argument over whether “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” tops the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” Five decades of Beatlemania have twisted audiences’ expectations about what a band should be and, wrongly, have convinced us that pop culture is made by icons, not people.
For one thing, the Beatles’ business model — youth with guitars making long records — has been in decline for more than a decade. I know this well — I started making records in 1996 and still perform regularly. By some measures, more songs are sold digitally than physically; sales of guitars are down; music licensing, which the Beatles largely spurn, is more profitable than radio play; and live shows, which the Beatles abandoned in 1966, account for almost 70 percent of top performers’ revenue. Executives and artists tweaking the biz after the shock of iTunes, Facebook and Spotify are just fiddling while Rome burns, ignoring that the 40-minute album is toast.
It’s not just the Beatles’ music that’s overhyped. If some historians are to be believed, the Beatles were pioneering gender-benders, played a vital part in the end of the British Empire and were instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union, a country they never visited. “Only Hitler ever duplicated their power over crowds,” said Sid Bernstein, a promoter who helped book the band’s first stateside shows — and who perhaps had never heard of Roman caesars, Catholic popes, Genghis Khan, royal families, Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum or Chairman Mao.
The hyperbole distracts from who the Beatles were: gifted blokes who started out writing good songs about love, then wrote better songs about drugs. Is projecting the hopes and fears of a generation onto a mere rock band wise?
Nirvana, a compelling fusion of punk and, well, Beatle-esque melodies, was the last rock band a generation rallied around. That didn’t end well. No one in two decades has taken Kurt Cobain’s place. U2 is massively popular, but Bono saves children in Africa without defining street fashion or the liberal agenda. Magazines fawn over Bruce Springsteen, but at 63, he’s a codger in a youth-dominated field. Most hip-hop is aggressively apolitical — on national television in 2005, Kanye West said that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” but he followed up his bold proclamation by courting Kim Kardashian, not launching an anti-establishment movement.
What artist dares speak for every millennial? Lady Gaga? Katy Perry? Psy?
“Kids, at parties, are putting on forty-year-old records!” Elijah Wald, shocked that his 12-year-old nephew loves the Fab Four, writes in “How the Beatles Destroyed Rock ‘n’ Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music.” “Much as I love a lot of older music, I find that incomprehensibly strange.”
When headshots of John, Paul, George and Ringo — two deceased, two septuagenarians — adorn adolescents’ walls from 1963 to 2013, something is either wrong with pop culture or wrong with teenagers. Can’t another artist become the gold standard of aesthetic success? Aren’t there other musicians from other communities — perhaps New Orleans or Nigeria, not Northern England — that every kid can adore? Can’t we build a pop culture without Great Men?
In “God,” a song from his first record as a solo artist, Lennon offered a cynical view of his former group: “I don’t believe in Beatles/I just believe in me.”
Don’t nitpick about “Revolver,” one of the best records of the 20th century. And listen to the White Album as many times as you want. But, like Lennon, we should be asking if there’s something else to believe in.