That Old Feeling: Meet the Beatles

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As Kurt Loder insisted in his TIME 100 essay on the group, the Beatles didn't emerge from, or atone for, a stagnant caesura in the age of rock. The years between Elvis' Army service (during which, like a good American, he never went AWOL) and February 64 overflowed with a sophisticated form of pop-rock, from the Brill Building on Broadway to Brian Wilson's house in Hawthorne, Cal. At first sound, the Beatles seemed a throwback to the rockabilly 50s. Their name was a punning riff on Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets. Harrison's and Lennon's thrashing guitars yanked rock 'n roll back to its primal instrument after a few years of piano, horns and strings (and it's stayed that way for four decades). The matching leather outfits of their Cavern days lent them the attitude of rock's first outlaws. "We looked like four Gene Vincents," Lennon said, "or tried to."

In the broad democracy of Top 40 radio of the day, the Beatles rubbed sounds with Martha and the Vandellas, Steve and Eydie. They'd borrow, then improve; scavenging gave way to alchemy. It was always a fight to be the best. "We'd try to beat what we were doing," Paul says. The Beatles beat everybody — which is why, when the mania has faded and the little scandals raise a yawn, the music lives.

Believers in the sanctity of the single, the Beatles made classics in miniature. A melody simple enough to leech onto the brain and fresh enough to bear repeated airplay. The bending of a cliché, musical or verbal. High harmonies so close that John, Paul and George could be Siamese triplets. In and out in no time. Two minutes, two and a half tops — leave 'em wanting to hear it again. And to hear others just as good. That's how the Beatles created the pop album. Before them, an album was a couple of hits and 10 cuts of filler. With the Beatles, every album was an event.

This inventiveness was evident from their earlier songs, and from the first moments of each song. They often dispensed with the standard four-bar instrumental intro. Five rapid base-drum beats ("She Loves You"); or a single, startling guitar chord ("A Hard Day's Night") or door-slamming rim shot ("Any Time at All"); sometimes just the voice, attacking without warning on an uptempo number ("All My Loving," "Can't Buy Me Love") or a ballad ("P.S. I Love You," "If I Fell," "No Reply") — announced that they couldn't wait to get to the song, and didn't want disc jockeys chattering over their lead-ins. Lotta content, little filler.

The closings were a switch, too: not so many fade-outs, which had become the rule in Brill Building and Phil Spector pop. The Beatles, who played in clubs long before they released their first single, knew that songs with a climax, a point, a socko finish, were guaranteed audience-goosers. Listeners may smile at the fade-out ending of, say, "Save the Last Dance for Me"; they cheer as "She Loves You" soars into its final yeah-yeah-yeahs, with the last chord a minor-key sixth — daringly dangling.

And in between was the song. The typical verse and chorus of a Beatle tune from 63 and 64 was beguiling enough — usually some variation on a 12-bar blues ("A Hard Day's Night") or "26 Miles" ballad format ("Do You Want to Know a Secret") — but it was in the bridge, or middle section, that Lennon and McCartney first raised the bar for pop-rock songwriting. They explored new chord patterns, prettier melodies in so many bridges (where to start?): "And when I touch you..." from "I Want to Hold your Hand," "Since you left me..." from "It Won't Be Long," "If you need somebody to love..." from "Any Time at All," "Me I'm just a lucky kind..." from "Things We Said Today," "When I'm home..." from "A Hard Day's Night," "I'm so glad..." from "I Feel Fine" (where to stop?). "I'll Be Back" has two plaintive bridges, expressing two shades of unease, each running a half-measure longer than expected, without jarring the ear. It sounded fresh and natural; the strain never showed.


It spooks me to realize I've been writing about the Beatles almost from the time I first heard them, and that I've done at least one piece about them in every decade since. To give you an idea of how a budding writer approached a burgeoning art form, I'll pull a few yellowed clippings from the files. In late 1964 or early 65, when I did a piece for my college newspaper on the group's gift for pop poetry. I remember citing the bridge from "Things We Said Today" — Me I'm just a lucky kind Love to hear you say That love is love And though we may be blind Love is here to stay And that's enough... — and noting the triple-rhyme scheme, the unforced mimesis in "Love to hear you say" and "Love is here to stay," and the ease with which the bridge ends and blends into the verse ("And that's enough / To make you mine, girl"). I still think that's pretty impressive musicianship.

In 1967 I was writing about films for National Review and thought to introduce conservative opinion-makers to the new rock criticism in all its pretentiousness. I made my pitch for the artistic reach and rigor of Brian Wilson, the Mamas & the Papas, Burt Bacharach, Phil Spector (was I the first critic to commit to print his enthusiasm for "River Deep Mountain High"") and worked my way up to the Fab Four: "I am strongly tempted to write, "The Beatles are great, Their most recent album is "Revolver." Buy it,' and leave it at that. But as a critic is never simply to effuse, I will attempt to bridle my awe at the group's genius for invention and elaboration. ... They have constantly enlarged their musical scope by use of varied instrumentation ("Revolver" features harpsichord, harmonium, sitar, tabla, French horn, double string quartet and a flock of birds), sophisticated lyric forms (like the madrigal and mantra), modal scales ("And I Love Her" is in the Dorian mode) ... The album even has integrity. It's a beautiful accomplishment. The Beatles are great."

At the onslaught of the British Invasion, there was virtually no serious or sympathetic consideration of pop music. In TIME, rock was often covered under the Show Business logo; Music was Joan Sutherland and Leonard Bernstein. By 1967, thanks in part to Bernstein's prime-time anointing of the Beatles, the mainstream press had cottoned to the notion of pop music as serious stuff, and as a reader magnet. I figured I was a guy to pick that cotton. A month after the National Review piece I did an essay for Commonweal on double-domed rock writing (R. Meltzer, that crowd), all of which was an excuse to review a new 45: the Beatles single "Penny Lane" b/w/ "Strawberry Fields Forever." Here's some of that gargle:

"Penny Lane' melds the terse, insightful observations of "Eleanor Rigby,' sound effects à la "Yellow Submarine,' the strong scuffle beat of "Good Day Sunshine,' the poignant trumpet featured on "For No One' and the cheerfully strident brass background of "Got to Get You into My Life' (all songs from "Revolver') into a Brueghelesque word-portrait of English suburban life. In addition, Paul McCartney has given each character on Penny Lane a leitmotif: a rolling piano phrase for the village barber, a horn riff for the banker, a clanging bell for the fireman. There's not much excitement in the town: the song's muted climax comes when the fireman rushes into the barbershop to tell the townspeople that the rain has ruined his fire-engine's polish. "Very strange,' the narrator comments, but also melancholy and haunting. "Penny Lane is in my ears and in my eyes' — and, because of McCartney's artistry, it will stay in mine."

In 1974 I wrote my first Beatles nostalgia piece, for Film Comment, on the tenth anniversary of the group's first movie: "You probably have to be about my age — turning 30, and none too pleased about it — to look back nostalgically on a period as recent as 1964, and to smile crookedly when you think of "A Hard Day's Night.' Most of us were the last stragglers of the 50s... all we had were the private passions of movies and rock 'n roll, which our teachers considered occasions of sin and not yet adventures in scholarship. With the Beatles, and specifically with "A Hard Day's Night,' the unspeakable became acceptable. ... "A Hard Day's Night' today retains its vigor, its good humor, its Lancashire courtliness and easy grace,,,, We can also find in the film what we responded to then: its perfect distillation of a moment when, for a lot of us, it felt good to be young. The loss of that moment, and that youth, may make us melancholy when we watch "A Hard Day's Night,' especially alone. We've aged, and it hasn't."

Jeez. Pretty morose for a guy turning 30. How despondent will he be when he hits 60?


Yesterday, I showed the clip of Chris Porterfield and Ringo Starr to a young TIME staffer. He correctly guessed that the young reporter had aged, ever so gracefully, into Chris, then asked, "But who's the other guy?"

It's not fair to either of us. The young staffer shouldn't be expected to recognize the drummer from a group that had an eight-year recording career that ended 34 years ago; and I shouldn't have to know that he doesn't know. Chris might be chagrined if I couldn't distinguish among Patty, Maxene and LaVerne (the Andrews Sisters) or, in opera, John, Charles and Thomas. Most young people today are as fuzzy on Beatle IDs as reporters were that February 64 weekend. ("Which one are you?" "I'm Paul.") The difference is that, 40 years ago, it mattered.

I'll bet most people in their 20s can tell Mick Jagger from Keith Richard. That's partly because the Rolling Stones have kept performing into their 60s — the Open Coffin Tour hits the road every few years. But mostly because, in lingering musical influence, the Stones are it. The Beatles are out.

I remember seeing the Stones in the American TV debut, in March 64, on an ABC variety show, "The Hollywood Palace."They were to sing two songs. But Dean Martin, the host, lavished so much air time on insulting the quintet — introducing a trampolinist, he gibed, "That's the father of the Rolling Stones. He's been trying to kill himself ever since? — that the Stones never got to do their second number.

Having defied conventions, the Beatles had quickly become their own convention: uniform clothes and haircuts, light banter, sweet songs, no leering or posturing. The Stones broke those rules, and wrote new ones that have held ever since: a blues-based musical scheme, a strutting, sexually aggressive lead singer, the exaltation of rhythm over melody, of energy over craft. If those early Beatles were perceived as endearing, the Stones were seen as dangerous. The lure of the lurid would lead pop-rock away from the Liverpudlians and into the grip of the Londoners. Everyone stopped smiling and started glowering. Rock became an expression not of joy but of pain and anger.

In the ten-part 1996 documentary "Anthology," George tells how bored the Beatles became with concerts; sometimes they'd run through their 30-minute set in 25, by playing every song faster. For the audience, the concert experience was wholly votive — unintelligible and incandescent, like Mass in Latin. But the band no longer wanted to do it on the road. They stopped touring in 1966 and holed up in a recording studio with their maestro, George Martin, to make pop songs art songs.

Meanwhile, and ever since, the Stones perfected the rock act as traveling circus, high-wire act and freak show included. That was another crucial component of late-century rock: a live, spontaneous feel rather than the perfectionist, studio sound of the Beatles. Playing huge stadiums meant performing the assaultive, theatrical music that would fill and rock those stadiums. That practically killed ballads, which were nearly half the Beatles repertoire. Lennon and McCartney, pushing the limits off pop songwriting, had little to do with today's rock, which pushes the limits of content but is musically conservative. You get three chords, tops. And the pure vocal harmony of John, Paul and George — that's for wimps.

Beatlemania II might amount to little more than a geriatric palpitation for a Boomer Brigade that has no Lawrence Welk to usher them into their twilight years. What is a Beatle to today's kids? Some guy standing next to Chris Porterfield.

Musical fecundity, vocal virtuosity, a shapely melody — these may be antique standards. But I'll apply them, here, and say that the Beatles achieved something nobody else in pop music did: they made each album of higher quality than the one before (if you acknowledge that "Let It Be" was the chronological predecessor to their eloquent farewell, "Abbey Road"). Their lives inevitably became more complex, but their music retains a lustrous purity and verve. Though it's a shame that nobody wants to be the Beatles any more ... well the Beatles were, and that's enough. They made music, and its listeners, feel good. And that's still true today, 40 years on.

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