Thoughts About Them
There’s something about The Beatles.
Okay, they were musicians first and foremost, and we are left with their music long after they disappeared from the scene. That much is understood, and it is as it should be.
It’s not just the string of pop hits, either. Elvis had a string of pop hits, perhaps equalling them. Jackson, Madonna, ABBA and... (insert any one of a hundred names here) also had hit after hit on the popular music charts. It goes beyond mere success on the notoriously-fickle charts.
Nor is it the controversy. Plenty of other bands and artists have danced with the devil. Yesterday’s controversy is today’s “so-what?” Drugs. Psychedelia. Jesus statements. So what?
A large part of their place in history is due to their youth.
The Beatles will forever be a young band. At their final performance on the rooftop, the eldest of them (Starr) was a ripe-old 28. To put this in perspective, 28 is the age at which most people are just settling in to their careers. It is not an age at which anyone should have a claim on being the greatest-ever practitioner of his craft, yet there were John Lennon and Paul McCartney, standing on a roof in London, in precisely that position as songwriters. McCartney was just 26, for heaven’s sake.
The other side of the coin, of course, is that The Beatles were never a middle-aged or old band. They never reunited, even while they had the chance for ten years, and fate denied them the ongoing tours like Eagles or The Rolling Stones. So, as I type, The Beatles have not played a note together for over 42 years—an eternity.
They started young and finished young.
The other remarkable thing about The Beatles is the sheer pace and breadth of their achievement. In just over eight years officially together, and about seven actively, they recorded some 210 original songs on 13 studio albums, and dozens of “covers” in their early years.
Consider the range of music in those thirteen albums: the differences between, say, Help! and Magical Mystery Tour; or the differences between Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and With The Beatles. Look at the artistic differences between their first and last albums, over a seven-year span.
Let me re-state that for the record: The Beatles’ active recording life was just seven years. In that ridiculously short time, they produced enough to last any other artist thirty years. When they released Yellow Submarine, the White Album was two months old. From A Hard Day’s Night to Rubber Soul, they released four studio albums in seventeen months. I wonder if there is a comparable phenomenon in popular music, in terms of quality and quantity.
There were some dogs, for sure, but look at the good ones: can there be a more emphatic statement of optimism and resilience than “Hey Jude”? At a time when music was about to change forever, was not “I Saw Her Standing There” one of the last great rock ‘n’ roll songs? Consider the longing of “The Long and Winding Road”, the heartbreak of “Yesterday”, the incitement of “Nowhere Man” and the sheer poetry of “Across the Universe”. Think of the enormous variety between “Blackbird”, “A Day In The Life”, “Helter Skelter” and “Day Tripper”. I could go on, a hundred times.
I've seen it written that "The post-war geography of popular music is remarkably simple: The Beatles and Elvis are the Everest and K2 in a range that includes some weathered giants and many emerging or vanishing foothills." This is true—The Beatles occupy their place by comparison. There will always be the question, “Can there be another...?” The answer must always be “perhaps, but differently”.
In the popular realm, The Beatles remain the most successful and respected musical band ever.
And they did it all before they hit 30.