The upcoming and very welcome reissue of the Beatles’ canon Sept. 9 in digitally remastered form is an inspiring event — and, to borrow the words of President Obama, presents us with a “teachable moment” about one of the unspoken prejudices that still plague us. We have rightly refuted racism, sexism and ageism. But still rampant in society is the pointless notion that judges the value of a work by when it was created as distinct from its inherent value. I call this foolishness “dateism.”
The entertainment industry’s obsession with the youth market and its misperception that the young will only like things that are new can be mostly blamed — this in the face of overwhelming evidence that what today’s savvy kids are drawn to does not necessarily carry an expiration date. Try telling a teenager that he/she shouldn’t be listening to Hendrix or Zeppelin. This especially applies to the Fab Four’s music.
For the work of the Beatles — like all great creations from Shakespeare’s plays to Dickens’ novels to Beethoven’s symphonies — should be appreciated for its intrinsic qualities and not whether it seems “old-fashioned” or mired in “nostalgia.”
I first became aware of dateism when I was hired as U.S. marketing strategist on the Beatles’ “Live at the BBC” and “Anthology” albums — projects that reunited me with my first employer and mentor, the late Derek Taylor (who prior to my working with him in the early 1970s had been Apple’s inhouse publicist for the Beatles). Taylor had been re-engaged by Apple in the early 1990s to work on the new Beatles releases. In our first conversation, Taylor’s expectation of me was quite simple: “To educate the American record company.”
But why on earth would I need to educate Capitol Records about the Beatles? They had been successfully releasing Beatles records in the U.S. since 1964. But Taylor explained that both Beatles distributors — EMI in the U.K. and Capitol in the U.S. — suffered from the same syndrome: Their senior executives were baby boomers who had grown up loving the Beatles but were loath to be viewed as enthusiasts of decades-old music.
Promoting the Beatles as nostalgic gold to fellow baby boomers might have been a no-brainer, but to treat the band as appealing and relevant to a younger market? That would be tantamount to a parent trying to inflict his/her tastes on a teenage child.
As Taylor wrote in his liner notes for the 1964 album “Beatles for Sale” and Beatles manager Brian Epstein evangelized in his autobiography “A Cellarful of Noise” the same year, the Beatles were never about the 1960s; they were of that era, of course, but there was a spirit about them even in those earliest days that was truly timeless and universal.
When I first conveyed this to the then powers-that-be at Capitol, there was a lot of skepticism. Despite my protestations, their initial campaign focused primarily on boomers. Imagine then the shock at the results of the survey Capitol commissioned after releasing Volume One of “Anthology” that revealed approximately 40% of album sales were to consumers under age 40.
In those pre-Internet years, my team used the unplugged predecessor to viral marketing — a seemingly now forgotten tactic called “word of mouth,” enlisting young enthusiasts at Beatles fan conventions to become our foot soldiers. We encouraged them to form groups at their schools and among pals to “spread the word.” And it worked.
Actress-filmmaker Drew Barrymore, who didn’t breathe her first breath till five years after the Beatles broke up, appeared on my radio show many years ago when she was barely out of her teens and waxed as eloquently about the Beatles as the most perceptive cultural anthropologist.
“My muse in life is the Beatles,” she claimed. “Every song spoke to me. Their evolution was so inspiring.
“There’s nothing better in life than to live to the Beatles. You can eat with them … you can make love to them … you can talk to your best friend with them … you can be heartbroken … you can be the happiest person in the world — but their music always applies.”
There are three undersung heroes of the forthcoming releases, whose work over the past 50 years has contributed to the evergreen qualities of the Beatles’ catalog:
- Neil Aspinall, the loyal caretaker of their empire from 1970 until his retirement in 2007. While his painstakingly slow pace frustrated many fans, his renegotiations with EMI in the 1980s and 1990s gave Apple a creative control that saved the Beatles’ oeuvre from becoming overexposed or diluted.
- Apple’s new chief executive since 2007, Jeff Jones, has skillfully ushered the Beatles canon and business dealings into the digital era without compromising their zealously guarded reputation for excellence.
- And most importantly, their discoverer, Brian Epstein — often unfairly maligned for what Beatles producer George Martin points out to anyone who will listen were simply errors of naivete (in what were then totally uncharted commercial waters) that pale into insignificance when contrasted with his immeasurable achievements. Epstein insisted from day one that no original Beatles album would ever be reissued at a budget or midprice release — a prescient condition that safeguarded the value of the catalog.
Once you’ve been reissued into those cut-price bins at retail, it’s hard to revert to demanding full price from the customers. Amid all of Epstein’s myriad other triumphs of advocacy for the Beatles, that insistence has paid them one of the richest dividends.
The young kids at those fan conventions (that I gladly continue to host) now treat me as though I am the Pat Morita character in “The Karate Kid” — an elder from that halcyon yesteryear whose message resonates in the vacuum of today’s False Idols (American and other). For kids, of course, are ultimately much savvier than the latest pop peddlers and puppeteers.
So when the remastered original catalog arrives on CD or vinyl and through the present-day configuration of Rock Band, don’t be surprised at the hoopla and the sky-high sales figures. And don’t fall prey to the mutterings of the cynics about it simply being a baby-boomer replacement spree. The massive sales to the under-40s will demolish that canard.
Martin Lewis is a Beatles scholar who produced the DVD edition of “A Hard Day’s Night,” coordinated “The Fab 40,” the 40th anniversary celebrations of the Beatles’ first U.S. visit, and instigated the beaming of the Beatles song “Across the Universe” into outer space by NASA in 2008.