Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow

RAJGOPAL NIDAMBOOR

When a crazy fan shot dead John Lennon, in a mad frenzy, forty-four years ago, it marked the end of an era — an age which was unlike any other epoch in music history. It’s also everything that made the Beatles, the Beatles — for yesterday, today, and tomorrow.

The Beatles influenced just about everything, including the post-war baby-boom generation in Britain, the US, and across the globe like no other, before, or after them. They kicked off their fascinating saga, also voyage, soon after they launched their debut single and runaway hit, Love Me Do, sixty years ago. Their worldwide fame, in no time, exceeded not just the charisma of Presidents, but also Jesus Christ.

Though the ‘Fab Four’ — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr — that made the group were originally famous for light pop music, their sublime dexterity achieved a mix of critical and literary acclaim that nobody has been able to equal. What’s more, and thanks to their amazing musical repertoire and exalted skills, the Beatles became more than recording artists; they also branched out into films [Note: A new documentary, The Beatles: Get Back, directed by Peter Jackson of The Lord of the Rings fame, is slated to premiere this fall. It’s sure going to be a huge hit with every Beatles fan across the globe]. This wasn’t all. Lennon, the man behind the band’s charismatic appeal, espoused political activism, not just the comfort of drugs, which the Beatles were once dubiously renowned for. The best part is—the Beatles were, for sure, the most successful music group in history; their global sales exceed 1.6+ billion records.

When McCartney, the prince charming-to-be of the group, met Lennon at a party in the late 1950s, the first seeds of the Beatles music were sown. A few years later, it blossomed to mesmerise fans all over the globe. Well, credit ought to go to producer Brian Epstein, who discovered and managed the Beatles, and George Martin, who played a crucial role in the band’s success. They tapped the latent potential in the group and recognised and nurtured it without infringing upon the Beatles’ natural musical chemistry.

It was music’s annus mirabilis. As McCartney, Harrison and Starr convened at Paul’s Studio outside London, long after they split, and set about completing an old, incomplete Lennon song, Free as a Bird, a profound sense of belief that the Beatles would never sing together again was shattered. The ‘Fab Three’ also got into the act in vintage style to produce a multimedia campaign — The Beatles Anthology. It relieved the longest-held breath in popular music.

It was also inconceivable, yes — because, Lennon was shot dead by a crazy fan in New York on December 8, 1980. However, the stage was set not only to ‘feel him’ metaphysically, even if it was spooky hearing a dead man on lead vocals. What did the trick was a copy of Lennon singing with his son, Julian, on a squeaky-sounding mono-recording, in 1977. This was proof enough that the Beatles were ageless.

There’s a bit of the odd too with the band. When the Beatles soared high with their songs, they also provided fulsome grist for middle-class daydreams, even though Lennon debunked the 1960s. He resented, no less, “performing for the f***ing idiots who don’t know anything about music.” Lennon, of course, never suppressed his class-consciousness. Yet, when it came to winning, the Beatles emerged trumps always. They won the MBE too, despite protests from previous recipients, who called the honour “vulgar and horrendous.”

Some critics argue the Beatles’ original genius was Lennon with McCartney being the charming performer with a gift for melodies — pleasant and sound. Over to Paul: “We were good to each other. John and I are the only two people in the world who were Lennon and McCartney.” Right, but the fact remains that McCartney — Sir Paul — has relied too much on past glory, although what makes him a true knight in musical armour is his powerhouse of a voice and sublime finesse. He’s without a peer.

Picture this. Psychedelic drugs, sex, and their once much-vaunted and much-soured tryst — because someone played a crooked game — which was later normalised, with Maharshi Mahesh Yogi, the famed Indian guru, were all part of the Beatles’ catalogue. Yet, what remains on terra firma is the band’s eternal and magnetic charm. The Beatles produced a record number of mind-blowing tunes and numbers — with a literary flourish never before, or after, incarnate.

The Beatles: Top 12

  1. Beatles are quite simply and in a manner born the greatest band ever
  2. The Beatles amplified rock music with their stylistic inventions, including sound, and lights, aside from the genres they embraced
  3. Their first album, Please, Please Me, topped the UK music charts for 36 weeks
  4. Eleven of their first 12 albums touched number one position on the UK national charts
  5. Sgt Pepper was rated as the greatest album of all time, by Rolling Stones magazine, among 500 Greatest Albums of All Time
  6. The Beatles won ten Grammy awards — this also includes the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award [2014]
  7. The Beatles won an Oscar for the film, Let It Be, for best original song score
  8. The Beatles were included in Time magazine’s list of the most important people of the 20th century
  9. The ‘Fab Four’ were honoured with the MBE, one of Britain’s highest honours for their contribution to music, one which until then was given primarily to the armed forces, among others
  10. The Beatles engaged their amazing popularity to influence several significant movements: political, social, environmental, freedom and women’s rights
  11. McCartney was knighted by Queen Elizabeth in person [1997]. He was also later awarded the Legion of Honour in 2012
  12. The Beatles were the biggest-selling rock band during the first half of 2020.

While songs like Yesterday and I Want to Hold Your Hand, or Hey Jude, champion a transcendental goal, a moving image, there are several other compositions that conjure up visions of a new utopia, a succinct summation. In Lennon’s words: “Nothing is real/And, nothing to get hung about.”

That the ‘Fab Four’ could not, quite incredibly, read music made no difference to their creative genius and instinctive feel for words. Take Sgt Pepper, for instance. The exquisite number is an epochal execution—the resolution of rock into a work of art. Or, take another example — McCartney’s Penny Lane, which brings home the lost world of childhood. Or, think of Harrison’s dazzling masterstrokes in While My Guitar Gently Weeps. Yes, a host of the Beatles numbers convey sweet hopelessness; some produce a groan from the heart full of hope. Some others have anguish, absurdity, melancholy, and a sense of something new — the realities and redemptions in our lives.

Lennon and Harrison are no more; McCartney and Starr are around ‘pontificating’ under the Beatles umbrella — continuing a legacy without the flourish of the past. But, it’s working — more so, when you look at the growing number of fans in a generation exposed to a new line of singers and technological glitz.

This is not all. The Beatles’ fabulous records convey a dialect no one can challenge. They are the highest chart-topping musical group of all time. They have had more #1 albums than any other group [19 in the US, and 15 in the UK]. They have also spent the highest number of weeks at #1 in the albums chart [174 in the UK and 132 in the US]. They have the fastest selling CD of all time with 1 — selling over 13 million copies in a month’s time, following its release, twenty-one years ago.  No other group appears more than twice. To highlight yet another feature, among a multitude of historic accolades, the Beatles appear five times in the top 100 best-selling singles in the UK — a unique record, because no other band has appeared more than twice in the category.

What’s more, The Beatles had their own stamp commissioned — a tribute to one of their all-time great hits, Yellow Submarine. The most interesting part—the Beatles music is exquisitely peppered with Oriental influences, the latter primarily owing to sitar wizard Pandit Ravi Shankar and Harrison’s friendship and concerted excursions. The best part too is — the Beatles’ timeless numbers are imperishable; they reach the pinnacle of musical glory from simple ‘folk’ tunes to blissful orchestral heights of a masterpiece.

If this isn’t the true embodiment of music as the highest philosophy — as Plato articulated — what is?

— First published in Madras Courier