Read Time 6 Minutes
If you weren’t there, you may not appreciate the Fab Four. But you should, and here’s why.
When the Beatles sang, “It was twenty years ago, today…” to open the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album, none of us thought that in 2014 we’d be saying, “It was 50 years ago …” and still be talking about the band’s amazing impact on music and culture. But it’s here: the 50th anniversary of the British invasion, and it still matters.
But just for grins, let’s assume you don’t get it. You’ve heard Beatles songs and don’t understand why they get lumped in with rock’s heaviest hitters. That’s fair.
No doubt, it’s easy for younger listeners to wonder why the Beatles were such a big deal. There was no Eric Clapton, Jimmy Page or Jeff Beck searing the blues into their songs; no Jimi Hendrix or Pete Townsend reinventing the way the guitar was played; no Mick Jagger or Robert Plant swagger and sex appeal out front, or John Bonham/Keith Moon thunder from behind the drums.
But it’s very likely we never would have heard those names if it weren’t for the Beatles. Think about that.
It sounds crazy, if not a little blasphemous. But you have to understand what was happening at the time to appreciate how utterly revolutionary the Beatles were—and how they opened doors for every other band to come after them.
“Oh, the shark bites …”
When John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr burst onto the scene, British acts were novelties, at best. European records almost never made a dent in the American charts. There were very few self-contained guitar bands. Even here in the States, few recording acts actually played their own instruments. Singers rarely wrote the songs they recorded, much less had any involvement in their production.
Broadway and Las Vegas were the standards of popular music, so most of what made it to TV and radio was still smooth, legit—and frankly, boring. Yes, there were other young, exciting acts on American radio. Elvis was already The King, blazing a trail for other rockabilly stars, including Roy Orbison and the Everly Brothers (both big influences on the Beatles).
But for every innovative young artist, there were dozens of slick crooners named Bobby or Frankie something who snapped their fingers in the finest Sinatra style. There were countless girl groups, tuxedoed doo-wop acts and R&B bands trying to emerge from New York, Philly, Detroit and the southern Chitlin’ Circuit. There were sequined country singers, folkies with their Martins and surfers with their matching Fenders.
They all had fans and followings, but none was redefining the mainstream. They were either too greasy, too punk, too cute, too Hollywood or just too boring.
The Fab Four Changed Everything
When the lads from Liverpool debuted on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday-night variety hour in February 1964, everything changed. There was a sudden, seismic shift in entertainment, as we knew it. Popular music was reinvented with a British accent and a newer, louder beat that could barely be heard over the screaming fans. Almost instantly, all those smarmy Vegas headliners that had been the staple of TV and records became irrelevant. Broadway, big bands and Tin Pan Alley were about to lose their hold on popular music.
Overnight, the standards—not only of music, but also of coolness—changed, and anyone who wasn’t the Beatles was either a copycat or a has-been. Hairstyles changed from pompadours to schoolboy bangs. Fashion moved towards Edwardian suits, Beatle boots, Nehru jackets and Carnaby Street colors. Instead of a typical, Jersey-tinged “Hey, baby…” the world’s biggest new stars entered the room with a cheeky, but civil, “Scuse me, luv.”
They were loud and young, but not rebellious. They were cocky but polite; unprecedented, but somehow non-threatening. And they changed the meaning of British, from goofy into golden.
Everything – even their guitars – was different.
The Beatles seemed to do everything uniquely. Their melodic, powerful songs combined pop, rockabilly, R&B, country and folk with their own raw Liverpool spin. Their vocals were gritty but tight. They didn’t use keyboards or horns onstage—this was a real guitar band. And even those guitars were different.
Lennon played aggressive, growling rhythm on his black Rickenbacker. At the time, the Ric brand was virtually unknown (many people assumed it was a German company). But John used his 325 to get a throaty, gutsy driving tone different from anyone else on radio. And when he shifted to acoustic, it was a workmanlike, sunburst Gibson J160-E with a built-in pickup (to keep things good and loud).
Harrison followed the example of his rockabilly hero, Carl Perkins, with a big Gretsch. An established U.S. brand, Gretsch guitars were used by several artists, including Duane Eddy, Eddie Cochran and Bo Diddley. But instead of a fat, orange, single-cutaway 6120, George hit America with a polished, double-cutaway Chet Atkins Country Gentleman. Then, when Rickenbacker presented him with the world’s first 360/12, in a bright red fireglo finish, the sound and look of the 60s was completely redefined. The electric 12-string became a fixture on records and bandstands. And Ric went from unknown to untouchable.
McCartney’s left-handed, German-made Hofner 500/1 helped him stand out from every other electric bassist on the planet. Most in that era were converted stand-up bass players, fingering safe, fundamental parts. But Paul played like a guitar player (which he was), using a pick and propelling songs with the Hofner’s thumping, hollow-body, low end. Fender was no longer the only game in town and the bass player was no longer just a sideman.
Even Ringo was different. Instead of a gaudy, sparkle-finish drum set, he used a compact, four-piece, Ludwig black oyster pearl kit and hammered his hi-hat to create a driving, unstoppable sizzle that set the band’s sound apart.
And on either side of him, those Vox amps, with their unique diagonal-pattern grill covers and chrome swivel-stands, made everyone else’s old Fender and Ampeg boxes look primitive and boring. As they graduated from AC15 and AC30 combos to the towering AC100 Super Beatle amps with 4×12 cabinets (and a horn), every other manufacturer began reconfiguring their bigger amps to an upright, column-style look. Once again, the Beatles set the standard.
Any instrument they were seen playing enjoyed a boost in sales. Even today, the instruments mentioned above, along with the Epiphone Casino, certain Gretsch models, the Rickenbacker 4001 bass and a few others, remain steady sellers—in part, due to their association with the Beatles.
But were they really that good?
50 years is a long time, and there has been a lot of amazing music produced since 1964. It would be hard to objectively compare the Beatles to everything that has followed. But in their day, they were gods.
They released two or three albums a year, with 19 No.1 singles in the U.S. between 1964 and their breakup in 1969. At one point, the top five records on the Billboard charts were by the Beatles. In addition to their own songs, they wrote hits for other acts (including the Rolling Stones). They squeezed in recording sessions when they weren’t touring the world, starring on English TV shows and feature films, performing command events for the royal family and accepting the British government’s highest awards. And they did it all in just six years.
Were they better than The Stones, Led Zeppelin or Pink Floyd? Could they have possibly been more amazing than later acts like Van Halen, Nirvana, Foo Fighters, Michael Jackson or Prince—or whichever act you think is the best ever? Maybe not.
But they led the charge. They were first to market. They put it all together like nobody before them, and paved the way for everybody since. They legitimized rock and roll. They drove the sales of electric guitars and basses through the roof. They validated young artists as writers. They turned the recording studio into a place where sonic art was created. And they certainly changed the way American record companies, American radio and American listeners perceived music coming from outside America.
They did it in a very different world. Before MTV or YouTube. Before Woodstock or Bonnaroo. Before JumboTrons and massive PA systems, pyro, light trusses, crews and tour busses. Before Ticketmaster. Before moonwalking or moshing, and way before twerking.
So while their estimated sales of 1 billion units easily puts them at the top of all-time best-selling bands, I can’t tell you they were the best band ever. I can only tell you that music was very different before the Beatles, and much more exciting after they arrived. For me, personally—and for most of my contemporaries—they were our greatest inspiration and a big reason many of us got into the music business. They changed everything. So yeah, they mattered.