They stormed barriers that haven’t been breached since.
They quit while they were ahead. Well maybe not ahead so much as ready to bust apart from interpersonal squabbling. And yet, like the great running back Jimmy Brown of the Cleveland Browns, the Beatles’ accomplishments have never been eclipsed.
I just spent over $600 so my wife and I can see Mick and Keith and Charlie and Ron (and a very good supporting cast) in the Phoenix area in May. The Rolling Stones are in their way an unparalleled achievement, their legacy assured. What moves out like a Stones rocker? Nothing.
But the Beatles are the penultimate accomplishment of pop music in the last century.
You want to do yourself a favor? Feeling blue? Find a Vevo or YouTube rendering of “End of the Line.” You won’t stay blue for long.
Seems it’s jointly penned by the Traveling Wilburys, a serendipitous throw-together if there ever was one. The main guitar hook is George Harrison, not to mention lead and ending vocal solo. The warmth and cheer fill you. The song feels distinctly Dylanish, though Bob is the only band member who doesn’t sing; he’s happy to sit and play with such eminences. The band are two English cats by birth, and three born-Americans (if you count the empty chair of Roy Orbison). And yet somehow George Harrison feels central here. Architect of “Here Comes the Sun” and “My Sweet Lord,” rockabilly picker who studied at the altar of Carl Perkins, a spotty 17-year-old when he joined the most important musical forging of all time in the crucible of Hamburg — George Harrison required years to get past the censorship bureau of Lennon and McCartney. “Who knew?” as George Martin remembered.
That happened because John Lennon and Paul McCartney were an exquisite song writing team. Lennon was brash and acerbic, nasty; McCartney was lyrical and sweet. They needed each other. Maybe they didn’t like each other, but they needed each other. This was, if you’ll excuse the cliché, synergy.
Ever wonder how rock ‘n’ roll eroded into an irrelevancy? It forgot itself.
Get out your Hard Days’ Night and listen to those first seven tracks. None is over three minutes, and there is not a dull second. (I once wowed a party karaokeing “I Should Have Known Better,” which nobody was expecting, and is about as catchy as you can get, even with me singing.) Even if they had remained Early Beatles, their legacy would be unassailable. The Beatles may not have had the sexual menace of the Rolling Stones, but they rocked as hard. And there was a magic nobody else had. “It has something to do with the construction of the song,” Roger Kleinman, bass player of Wild Horses, Cleveland’s greatest ever bar band, once told me. Put on “I Saw Her Standing There.” If you don’t feel like jumping around the room, you’re dead. Rock ‘n’ roll never got better.
That’s not to say it didn’t evolve. The Beatles evolved it. I believe it was Rolling Stone magazine that once had a poll in which Revolver came out the top rated rock album of all time. I see why. Listen with fresh ears to “Tomorrow Never Knows.” Be amazed. Be very amazed. There is more pure psychedelia in this one song than in the entire oeuvre of the Grateful Dead. And don’t get me wrong. The “skull and roses” Grateful Dead competes for the distinction of My Favorite Record of all time. Some have called the lyrics of “Tomorrow Never Knows” very Yeats. They are. It’s not seagulls creating that otherworldly, scratchy soundtrack, but tricks John Lennon achieved in the recording room. The result takes you out of yourself. “Turn off your mind, relax and float downstream / It is not dying …” It is dying … to your ego-realm. It is transcendence, a finding of spiritual life. By the way, there’s an award-winning film available on YouTube, a trippy video in which aboriginals in a seeming vision trance disport themselves, with this playing as a soundtrack. Check it out.
The Beatles never stopped rocking out. “Birthday” and other tunes off the White Album, “One After 909” off of Let It Be, and so many other songs continued to electrify with that original Beatles energy.
Nor did they stop being mystical. I was driving around and called into a college radio station in Cleveland on a trip back there a few years ago. When “Across the Universe” (the original one, from Let It Be) came on, I had to pull over to wipe my eyes. “Nothing’s gonna change my world” is unspeakably ironic and poignant, double entendre having become John Lennon’s stock in trade. The emotional power of the song overwhelmed me.
I’ve got The Beatles, aka the White Album, going around and around on heavy rotation in my car. Got the whole package lashed together, the busted-apart plastic casings for the two CDs, and the little paper booklet with words and pictures of the players, all secured, a sacred artifact. Here is contained the Beatles’ unmatchable, diverse artistry. “Back in the U.S.S.R.” rocks out fresh as ever. Was there ever anything as catchy as a Beatles song? And “Honey Pie”! I used to think this was a Twenties standard reworked by McCartney. I went online to find McCartney wrote it. It’s dreamy, funny, with its scratchy old-sounding backing, just like a song from the Jazz Age. What genius.
The Beatles’ accomplishment ranges from the silly-sweet “When I’m Sixty-Four” off of Pepper to the acid “Yer Blues” off of the White Album. You can go on and on finding marking-points by which to identify the range: push pins on the sonic timeline.
One of the things I loved about becoming a high school teacher in middle age was the ability to discover young people love the Beatles. Kids at Chino Valley High School, where I had my rookie season, wore Beatles T-shirts. The girls had Beatles purses. I queried them. “The Beatles are great!” they said.
The Beatles have legs. The Beatles will live forever.
We owe much to this trailblazing quartet, two of whom survive. McCartney helped us heal with his benefit concert for New York firefighters after 911. He is an honorary American if there ever was one. That was consistent with the whole Beatles accomplishment. We staggered through the Sixties. The Beatles were the only reliable guides we had. They brought us in on a note of boy-girl rebellion; they steered us through with artifacts of mind-altered consciousness that were not only beautiful but culturally validating. And when they split the scene, leaving us feeling a little jilted and confused, maybe there was something perfect, if painful, in that too.
I would never again see Jim Brown take a handoff and run for an 80-yard touchdown with that unmatchable synthesis of balletic grace and sledgehammer force. I would never again experience the marvel of a new Beatles album.
The Sixties were over.
It may be argued that the departure of the Beatles and the departure of the Sixties — with all its storied rebellion and idealism — were in fact the same event.