The Beatles at 55: Still Guaranteed to Raise a Smile
Their songs are immortal because they speak directly to universal human passions
By Matt Frati
I vividly remember the moment when I really listened to a band called the Beatles for the first time. I was twelve and like any kid growing up in a post-Beatles world, I had heard their songs here and there before, but I’d never truly listened. When I finally gave them a serious listen, my little world was changed forever. What I heard in those songs sparked something in me that I couldn’t fully comprehend or articulate at the time. All I knew was that is sounded radically different than any music I’d heard prior to that and immediately I decided to let my hair grow and thought seriously about playing drums. This reaction wouldn’t have been uncommon back in 1964 when the Beatles first arrived in America, but my reaction happened more than forty years after their unforgettable arrival. That just shows the dynamite impact that their music and legacy still has on millions of kids even today.
Whenever I start to talk about the Beatles, my mind is overwhelmed with all that their music means to me, things which pile up in the doorway of my mind and never get out. There simply isn’t enough space to accommodate all that I could write about the Beatles. This year marked the 55th anniversary of their arrival in the U.S. and legendary first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. It’s an anniversary I’ve been celebrating by listening to them pretty much non-stop as well as re-watching the epic Beatles Anthology, which never fails to capture all the ecstasy, madness and magic of their incredible musical odyssey from their formation in 1962 to their sad breakup in 1970.
There are a number of phenomena that can be said to have radically altered the course of history and culture for all time, but no event in recent memory has had quite the lasting impact as the Beatles’ invasion of America in 1964. It wasn’t simply American music that was altered, it was every level of American life, style, and consciousness. When those four lads landed on our shores, they ushered in a new era of rock and roll consciousness and creativity, one in which we are still living and feeling the effects of today.
The Beatles on Ed Sullivan Show
Their legendary appearance on the Ed Sullivan show had 73 million viewers, the largest TV audience up until that point, frozen in front of their television screens, hypnotized by what they were witnessing. These days that kind of viewership is usually reserved for celebrity funerals or royal weddings, not the arrival of a pop group. Even the teen girl hysteria surrounding nineties boy bands like Nsync or the recent K-Pop phenomenon can’t touch the frenzy stirred up by the Beatles’ arrival. It wasn’t just teenage girls getting swept up in the mania, but boys as well who were electrified by the arrival of these shaggy headed guys. Those who had never touched a guitar or drum kit suddenly clamored for these instruments and those who were already members of the music scene were frantically taking notes. Overnight, millions of boys unanimously decided to never let another pair of scissors touch their hair in an age where neat crew cuts were still the norm. In an instant, the Beatles took just about every “norm” and shattered it into oblivion.
These were only the first signs of the new direction that the Beatles were pointing towards. It’s baffling to consider that I wasn’t even close to being a thought when the Beatles broke up in 1970, let alone when they first arrived, and yet their impact has a deeply profound effect on me. Just fathom the effect they had on millions of young kids who remembered a world before the Beatles. Even more baffling is what these four guys from Liverpool were able to achieve in their remarkably short lifetime as a band. In less than 8 years, they influenced nearly every facet of culture, American and worldwide, with their songs, style, opinions, and attitude. Along the way, they recognized the need for artists to always be growing and challenging themselves creatively. From the infectious melodies and raucous chords of the early pop songs to the more poetic, introspective lyrics and unorthodox sounds and far-out effects of the mid-sixties psychedelically tinged work leading to Sgt. Peppers and beyond, their music seemed to carry us through those turbulent and dark times to a new maturity, all before any of them were even thirty.
The best way to describe the Beatles’ influence on the world is to look at them as aliens whose sudden presence shook a languid nation out of its collective disillusionment. After Kennedy’s assassination, the country was in desperate need of a shot in the arm and these strange beings from across the sea gave us one. It was precisely the other-worldliness of their sound and style, indeed the whole splendid package, which whipped our weary spirits into a frenzy of pure bliss. Like aliens, they seemed to descend from the stars to broadcast a musical message of joy, passion, and love to an ailing nation. Fifty years later, those splendid messages they beamed into our collective consciousness continue to resonate across the ether like triumphant shock waves. The songs the Beatles gave us have a way of getting under our skin and planting their roots firmly in our minds. The enchantment of those tunes permeates every atom of our being and infuses our souls with an ecstasy which borders on the superhuman.
The alchemy of their music is precisely why they were together for less time than the decade they came to define. That almost superhuman magic conjured by those four Liverpool lads took its toll on the very human men at the center of it and just like a dying star, the pressure inevitably led to self-destruction. Like all great art, however, their songs are immortal because they speak directly to universal, human passions. This is why the songs still sound as fresh and enthralling as when they were crafted…and crafted they were, by four craftsmen who seemed to have secret blueprints to the very heart of mankind. Even in humanity’s darkest moments, the Beatles’ music and legacy never fail to burst through the thickest storm clouds like the most radiant and splendid sunshine.
When I grew up, the Beatles already held an omnipresent position in culture. They weren’t simply a part of pop culture, they were larger than it; they were a vital part of life. Due to this, it was easy for my generation to dismiss them in favor of edgier and more obscure artists and bands in our desire to be original and trendsetting. Every generation needs that one “band” that sets them apart and defines them and we’ve had several since the Beatles. There’s no doubt there are hundreds of great bands, both older and more contemporary, who have helped to move culture and art forward, but none so seismically as the Beatles. Therefore even those bands and artists who aren’t directly influenced by the Beatles still owe them a huge debt.
The loss of John Lennon and George Harrison has ensured that a true Beatles reunion is impossible, but there’s no doubt that if they were still with us and decided to reunite, it would be the biggest musical event in history, perhaps even bigger than their arrival fifty-five years ago. Not only are most of their original fans still alive, but they now have legions of young fans like myself who recognize the ability of the music to speak to everyone in a unique way. Their mark on culture and life extends well beyond not just the decade they defined but the century they helped shape. Likewise, their music will always be a safe harbor for those seeking refuge from the storms of the world to find peace, unity, joy, and love in boundless supply. These are just some of the reasons why the Beatles, whether twenty, fifty or two hundred years ago today, will always be the greatest show on earth.