Re-reading some Beatles literature recently, I was struck by the ossified hyperbole with which the group has come to be described: superlatives like “legendary,” “immortal,” and “genius” recur over and over, while biographers pronounce that the foursome “changed the course of popular music history” (June Skinner Sawyers, Read the Beatles) and even “put the rest of us in touch with the divine” (Mark Hertsgaard, A Day In the Life). The Beatles are indeed great, and I’m a dedicated listener, but extolling their virtues beyond rational dispute has become both safe and unimaginative – like naming Shakespeare as the greatest writer of all time, or Da Vinci as the greatest artist. And as the era in which the Beatles lived recedes, their reputation as the best-ever rock group becomes an increasingly abstract position, akin to the Spitfire’s status as the best fighter plane of World War II or Clark Gable’s as the onetime King of Hollywood. For a quick refresher, here are the key elements of the Fabs’ fabulousness that should hold up for future decades.
1. Numbers Nowhere does the adage that nothing succeeds like success apply more than to the fame and fortune heaped upon John, Paul, George, and Ringo. The Beatles were simply the most successful show business phenomenon of the Twentieth Century, certainly within their own industry, and by considerable measure in the fields of film, broadcasting, fashion, design, and publishing as well. Other works and performers generated comparable or more revenue – Charlie Chaplin, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson, the Peanuts, Star Wars, and Disney franchises – but relative to the initial investment represented by an obscure English rock ‘n’ roll act, no single source of commercial entertainment enjoyed the payoff earned by the Beatles brand. Though the quartet’s popularity was gained inside a Eurocentric, pre-Internet “monoculture” which no longer exists, during the 1960s and for years after, the Beatles dominated the global media market in a manner unlikely to be achieved by anyone again.
2. Influence It’s now a commonplace to say that “the Beatles changed the world,” despite their manifest failure to secure international peace or cure cancer. In fact the Beatles were credited with developments which now seem either ephemeral (long hair for men, albums over singles), or of at best arguable benefit (drug use, radical politics), and which they in any case were more identified with than directly promoted. In his landmark study Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, Ian MacDonald suggested the group’s deepest legacy was to definitively confirm individualist, technologically-abetted gratification as the prime impetus of modern civilization: “The truth is that…neither Jesus nor Marx is of interest to a society now functioning mostly below the level of the rational mind in an emotional / physical dimension of personal appetite and private insecurity,” he concluded. Whatever else they were about, the Beatles were revered by millions and at least liked by billions more, such that their romantic, generally optimistic outlook is today reflected in the instinctive desires of most of the planet’s inhabitants.
3. Music Among the many classic songs the Beatles did not create are “What a Wonderful World,” “La Vie en Rose,” “Take the ‘A’ Train,” “Johnny B. Goode,” “Radar Love,” “He Stopped Loving Her Today,” or “Rolling in the Deep.” Nor can they much claim the sophistication of Cole Porter or George Gershwin, the instrumental prowess of Charlie Parker or Jimi Hendrix, nor the indelible vocal timbres of Presley, Sinatra, Aretha Franklin or Marvin Gaye. There is a lot of other good music beside the Beatles’. Yet it is still remarkable that so many memorable pieces were generated by this single ensemble, in formats ranging from jangly rock (“She Loves You,” “Nowhere Man”) to winsome acoustic (“And I Love Her,” “Across the Universe”) to avant-garde (“Tomorrow Never Knows,” “I Am the Walrus”) to anthemic hymn (“All You Need Is Love,” “Let It Be”) to love ballad (“If I Fell,” “Something”) to idiosyncratic protest (“Help!,” “Come Together”) to communal exultation (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “With a Little Help From My Friends”). That the four members of the Beatles – and only they – wrote, sang and played these is an artistic fluke of historic scale. Even allowing for overrated work and indiscriminate adulation, the Beatles built a formidable catalog of well-crafted, catchy tunes. “You look at Revolver or Rubber Soul,” Paul McCartney commented in 2004, “they are decent efforts by any standards. If they’re not good, then has anyone ever been any good?” By 2100, when the original Beatles and their contemporary boosters are long gone, it will be this material, together with their epochal celebrity and their fable-like biography, that will be cited as the reasons for their enduring, extraordinary appeal.