Sunday, February 09, 2014

“It was fifty years ago today ...” Why The Beatles Matter

Fifty years ago tonight, the Beatles did their first televised performance in America, on The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS. They had already been together for several years, and had already released at least two albums the previous year, one in the United States. They had even made their first hit single, Please Please Me. But 1964 was the year that really put them on the map, and into the mainstream of American pop culture.

People can go on at great length as to the influence of "the four lads from Liverpool" on popular music. While they certainly did not invent rock and roll, they are responsible to a large extent for the genre as we know it today. To understand that, and to know why one major label actually rejected their audition two years earlier, is to understand the state of that genre for five years prior to that time.

There is, of course, the conventional wisdom; that the tragic death of Texas rocker Buddy Holly, just five years earlier almost to the day of the Beatles' USA debut -- it was memorialized in 1971 by Don McLean's "American Pie" as "the day the music died" -- signaled an end of innocence for popular music, if only for the white audiences. The raucous rockabilly beat that came out of the white musicians of Memphis, gave way to a smoother, more polished sound of Pat Boone and Frankie Avalon, while the Motown sound, with James Brown leading the way, went in its own direction.

Then again, as Elijah Wald writes for CNN:

In fact, the rock 'n' roll scene had become increasingly integrated through the early 1960s, to the point that in late 1963 Billboard magazine stopped publishing separate pop and R&B charts because so many of the same records were on both.

Be that as it may, by 1962, it was apparent to the music industry, that "guitar bands" were already a thing of the past. Small wonder, then, that Decca Records dismissed the Beatles' audition demo that year. This wasn't the direction the music was going, and these boys, however hard-working, however optimistic, simply didn't fit the narrative. Few would have guessed that Capitol Records would have made the right choice in picking them up only two years later for American distribution.

While the Beatles did not introduce white kids to black music, they went a long way towards making more respectable for mainstream distribution. It was no longer just "Negro music," the sound of a particular demographic, but "rock and roll" that was for all with ears to hear. The would-be rockers in port cities like Liverpool scooped up the 45rpm singles by black artists like Chuck Berry and Little Richard, brought to their shores by British seamen returning from America, and boys like John Lennon and Paul McCartney, already teamed up with a skiffle band known as The Quarrymen (skiffle being a jazzed up form of jug band or folk rock made popular by artists like Lonnie Donegan), listened to every line, and copied every riff they heard.

The "fab four" were not the first to bring together the Negro sounds of rhythm and blues out of Detroit and Chicago, with the white sounds of rockabilly out of Memphis and Nashville. But under the influence of manager Brian Epstein, and the artistic genius of veteran producer George Martin, the band lent a degree of light and shade heretofore unknown to the emergent genré, as if unconsciously inculcating centuries of European culture. Critics would still dismiss them as a passing fad, but a few musicologists noticed a certain sophistication to their arrangements, both instrumental and vocal. Even classical music scholars such as Peter Schickele have found melodic similarities between early Lennon-McCartney compositions and various classical works.

The Beatles were not the mere fabrication of promoters, picked off the street with good looks and no talent; they were, at least in their essential form, a collective creature of their own making. There were no backup singers, no anonymous horn sections, no army of songwriters manufacturing creations for the uncreative (the occasional covers of R&B standards notwithstanding). What you saw was the whole package, on the packagers' own terms. No compromising with commercialism, but the other way around. Even trading in the slicked-back hair and the leather jackets, for the "pudding basin" haircuts and the matching suits and cravats, was their own brainchild, or at least that of Epstein, who followed a hunch for a trendsetter, by which they made their own mark on haute couture, and the culture at large.

As time went on, four young men who became overnight sensations in their early- and mid-twenties would come to terms with their sudden wealth, and their coming of age. With that would be the pull in different directions. There has been much speculation over the years, and more will be written anew, as to whether they would have lasted past the end of the decade, were it not for John Lennon's encounter with an older woman, an avant-garde conceptual artist from Japan by way of New York, by the name of Yoko Ono, who consumed John's life from their first meeting, and whose relationship has been said by some to be the catalyst of the band's demise. But the truth is, Yoko or no Yoko, all four of them were already on divergent paths. It would be some years after the tragic assassination of Lennon in December of 1980, that the remaining three would appear together in a television documentary, remembering their lost comrade, and singing the melodies together that they once knew.

It was the closest to a "Beatles reunion" the world would ever know. The opening segment begins here, with the video clip immediately above (and part two of twelve gets even better) ...

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