At the time of its unfolding, the Beatles story seemed like one glorious continuum. But viewed with 40 years of hindsight — three distinct acts in their improbable journey into mankind’s heart are apparent.
From the fabled Saturday afternoon in July 1957 (when the teenage Lennon and McCartney first met and became instant musical blood brothers) to December 1961 was Act I. These were years of evolution from rock ‘n’ roll admirers and skiffle copyists to nascent self-contained pop group.
From January 1962 to October 1965, their Act II revealed a gift for buoyant reinvention of popular music and a giddy optimism that rejuvenated a world reeling from the JFK assassination. They turbo-charged us out of the shrouded Eisenhower-gray 1950s into the translucent multicolored, multicultured 1960s.
But it was Act III, October 1965 to the summit point of October 1969 (when “Abbey Road,” their last recorded work, was released), that immortalized them. The toil of the early years … the promise of their middle era … all came to fruition beyond the wildest imagination in that glorious four-year finale.
If there was a piece of music that could convey those last Fab Four years it would be the orchestral crescendo that concludes their masterwork “A Day in the Life.” The Beatles swept themselves and the world along a gathering tide of musical invention that swooshed inevitably toward a grand climax of majestic proportion and the satisfying resolution of that definitive final chord.
The unfortunate postscript of 1970, when the dream truly was over, revealed the human foibles behind our musical gods. They broke up, they sued each other, they acted like … well, like us: like any family, with all the petty squabbles that sometimes overshadow the deeper bonds of love.
In retrospect, while the manner of their dissolution was regrettable (a pink-ribbon-wrapped finale and exit would have made a better ending to the fairy tale), at least they exited the stage at their height. Never to have a “Sunset Boulevard”-style descent into unbecoming fads (the Stones go disco … Elvis goes Vegas … etc., etc.) the Beatles as a group left us with as crystalline and perfect a recollection as we hold of Marilyn Monroe, James Dean and John F. Kennedy. Forever young …
When the fan hits the shit
One of the keys to understanding this immaculate third act lies in a meeting that took place in August 1965 in the improbable setting of Bel-Air. It was the denouement of a nine-year love affair. From March 1956, when the 15-year-old John Lennon first laid his ears and eyes on Elvis Presley, he wanted to be him. He wanted to be that swaggering, rebellious rock ‘n’ roll star. He gathered fellow travelers Paul McCartney (in 1957), George Harrison (1958) and finally Ringo Starr (1962), who all shared that passion.
Together they synthesized much more than just Elvis. They absorbed rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm ‘n’ blues, soul, folk, country, rockabilly, jazz, swing, Brill Building pop, calypso, blues, dance-band crooning, English music hall, vaudeville — and myriad other shards from the musical universe. But at its heart lay Lennon’s passion to be like Elvis. Until the fateful day he met him. “Never meet your heroes,” as the adage goes, “they can only disappoint you.” So it was to be.
For when Lennon finally met Elvis he discovered the tragically empty facade that Presley had become.
The physical obesity had not yet manifested — but the sterile, vacant cadaver living in ivory tower isolation and divorced from musical invention, devoid of any intellectual curiosity and apparently content to be the pawn of a greedy manager — was in Lennon’s eyes as corrupt spiritually as Elvis’ body became 10 years later.
He was a red-neck, reactionary shell of the old Elvis. The fan hit the shit. And the fan resolved that he would not emulate his former idol. There was now something that Lennon wanted even more than his 1956 wish to be like Elvis. He wanted to be not like Elvis. He wanted to be the opposite of Elvis. He didn’t want to become enslaved to fame. He didn’t wish to stagnate creatively. He wanted to use fame, as he had, for good purposes — not for indolent self-indulgence.
What happened over the next four years was unprecedented in popular music. Until then musical performers — be they soloists or ensembles — did not “progress” creatively. They got better at doing essentially the same thing: sang better, played better, wrote better. But they tended to mine the same basic seam of music they had started in — simply providing a higher standard of entertainment for their fans. In other spheres of the arts, playwrights, poets, film directors might aspire to break new ground. Serious jazz musicians certainly did. But the world of pop music — both before the rock era and in its aftermath — was not predicated on creative advancement and innovation. It was rooted in entertainment that simply became more polished.
The Beatles led the charge in changing that. They were not alone. Other artists took up the standard and joined what became an unnamed but fearless crusade: Dylan, the Who, Jim Hendrix, Brian Wilson, Marvin Gaye and many others. But the undoubted leaders in this pioneering movement were the ever-evolving Fab Four.
What happened was not the result of calculation, it was the flowering of nascent genius in an era when creativity was prized, when taking risks was championed, when it was de rigueur to seek a fresh sound and canvas for each recording. Artists prized themselves on breaking ground. It was a thirst to offer something exciting, a willingness to experiment and even to risk failure in the quest to create something daring. It was listening to your peers and learning, borrowing (and occasionally stealing!) from them. But that was OK — because they would steal from you. There was a journey afoot. You were either on the bus or off.
It is hard in the present era to comprehend fully the quantity and quality of what the Beatles achieved in those four short years. Let’s deal with just the sheer quantity first.
We now live in a world where a band can take a week in the studio just to get a drum sound they are happy with, where a band will take a year or more to eke out 10 songs to complete an album, a year or two on the road to promote the album — issuing singles culled from the album.
With a ferocity and pace that would exhaust today’s youngsters and in an era before computers and 64-track recording, in just an 18-month period the Beatles wrote, arranged and recorded the trio of albums that are perhaps their crowning glory: “Rubber Soul,” a collection of songs bathed in warm optimism; “Revolver,” sharply edged and acutely bright; and “Sgt. Pepper,” suffused in Edwardian imagery — British to the core yet glorying in the Day-Glo intensity of 1967.
Oh, and at the same time, they toured the world, recorded a few “throwaway” singles not on the albums (such as “Strawberry Fields Forever,” “Penny Lane,” “We Can Work It Out,” “Paperback Writer,” “All You Need Is Love”), came up with the forerunner of the musicvideo (and filmed several of them), wrote songs that they gave away to other artists, wrote books (Lennon), film scores (McCartney), pioneered what became the Western interest in world music (Harrison) and reinvented rock drumming (Starr) etc., etc. Exhausted yet?
And that just addresses the quantity. What is even more astonishing is that each of those albums broke considerable new ground, with quantum leaps in artistic imagination from album to album. Melodies became more inventive. Harmonies defied all known rules. Rhythms and time signatures became complex. Lyrics became insightful and addressed serious topics never before tackled in popular music. Did I mention that their album jackets were becoming inventive artworks rather than being mere packaging?
Was this creativity undertaken while they were ethereal artists tucked away in splendid isolation in the proverbial cottage in the country? No, the muse struck them while they were in the eye of the biggest entertainment hurricane to ever strike the planet. They just did it, and without a whimper or moan about the stress and strain.
The Beatles had the gift of making innovation and experimentation accessible — without compromise. We reveled in the freshness. We didn’t yearn for more of the same. We became accustomed to the fact there would always be something fresh, new and inventive from the Beatles because it had become their creed — their pride to reinvent the form rather than rely on familiarity and complacency. For once there was no divide between critic and consumer.
With a little help…
The Beatles did not accomplish this journey alone. The four-headed messiah that lifted the spirits of the century had the good fortune and perhaps providence — to have been served by Three Wise Men. George Martin was that most rare and wise of producers. Unlike the vast majority of producers who felt the need to impose their own style and life-lessons on their artists, Martin was like an enlightened teacher who instinctively understood that his role was to nurture his young charges and encourage their growth. It was the tending of a patient, intuitive gardener that enabled the Beatles’ full creativity to flower and yield its abundant fruits.
Derek Taylor worked for Brian Epstein as an assistant and press officer in the seminal year of 1964 — and was then summoned to return by the lads in 1968 to preside over their publicity in the crucial Apple years. Taylor (who was my boss and mentor in the early 1970s and a good friend thereafter) was as remarkable as Martin in the music world: urbane, literate, witty, sophisticated and attuned to the countercultural Zeitgeist — he fulfilled a vital role in what has become the lasting legacy of the Beatles.
It was Taylor who stitched together the disparate threads of the Beatles creative output and presented it to the world as a whole cloth — a philosophical view of the world. Though their earlier songs had been innocent love songs for the most part, it was Taylor’s genius to recognize that nonetheless all the songs sprang from the same wellspring of optimism. He identified the seam of positivity that ran throughout their canon, and having identified it, he wove it into the Bayeux tapestry of their story, so that his perception became our lasting reality.
Lastly — and most important — the third key figure was their manager Brian Epstein. Without their talent he could have done nothing. But conversely — without his vision, passion, tenacity, taste and unconditional love for them — the Beatles today probably would have been the seventh-most-popular lounge act on the cruise ship ‘n’ cabaret circuit. No disrespect whatsoever to their gargantuan talent, but three of them had been toiling together since 1958. In the narrow-minded, antiyouth, antiprovincial world of early ’60s Britain they could not have been arrested — not to mention recorded or placed on TV without his persistence in pursuing a record contract. His wisdom in sugar-coating their stage appearance for TV producers with sartorial elegance and those oh-so sweet synchronized bows cannot be overstated.
Epstein’s brilliance in securing the Beatles their three con-secutive “Ed Sullivan Show” ap-pearances and the promotional commitment of Capitol Records in the U.S. (after the label had rejected them four times) is alone testament to his achievements.
But his greatest legacy was when the Beatles started their musical journey into the unknown (potentially disastrous to his finances), Epstein took a position then unknown in artist management. Unlike the Col. Tom Parkers of the world (“don’t change the formula — stick to doing the type of songs the kids like”), Epstein positively embraced their aspirations and took pride in their growth.
And in the end…
Epstein’s tragically early death in August 1967 (ruled an accidental overdose) spelled the end for the Beatles. “When Brian died I knew we’d had it,” said Lennon. And he was right.
While the Beatles were the talent and the godhead, Epstein was the glue that held the four independent spirits together.
Their incandescent shining moment lasted in real time from 1963 till 1970. But in rare defiance of the laws of celebrity physics, they have stayed brilliantly luminescent. Unlike most entertainers who eventually slip into a lower profile — offset by the occasional revival — the Beatles’ star continues to burn bright. That is because their music was not about the ’60s; it was born during the ’60s, and it reflected, illuminated and galvanized those years. The music itself was, and remains, timeless.
Martin Lewis has been involved in Beatles projects since 1967 when he compiled the discography for the group’s official bio. He was a consultant on the Beatles’ “Anthology” and “Live at the BBC” and produced the “A Hard Day’s Night” DVD.