The Band That Saved Rock ‘N’ Roll

It’s the 57th anniversary of the Beatles first appearance in the United States.

You’d think February would be no big deal of a month, being as short as it is. But it’s the month that the world’s most famous groundhog, Punxsutawney Phil, does or does not see his shadow. It’s the month George Washington was elected President. It’s the month Queen Elizabeth II became queen.

And it was Feb. 3, 1959, the day the music died. The day Rock ‘n’ Roll lost its soul. Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper, and the promise they brought to American music, died in a plane crash. No more “That’ll be the day.” No more “Peggy Sue.” No more “Chantilly Lace”. No more “La Bamba”. Then, on March 24, 1958, a day referred to as “Black Monday”, Elvis was drafted into the Army. When he got out in March, 1960, he wouldn’t be the same king of rock ‘n’ roll that once upon a time he had been. He was Col. Tom Parker’s watered down version. Jerry Lee Lewis was banished from rock ‘n’ roll hero-dom and Chuck Berry was in jail. Only Dion, Roy Orbison and the Everlies remained standing. But they weren’t the threats to Western Civilization Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the early Elvis were. The glory days of rock ‘n’ roll were over.

Teenagers were left with the likes of Frankie Avalon, Connie Francis, Bobby Rydell, Paul Anka, and David Seville and the Chipmunks. Weak imitations of the glory that had been rock ‘n’ roll in its heyday. Only the Beach Boys gave us any reason for hope. And their sound was much more smooth than the authenticity of the music that filled the airwaves from Philadelphia, PA to Los Angeles years earlier. There seemed to be no place for the real stuff that had blasted out of our radios and created a revolution of sound. Instead of Buddy Holly, they were now given Bobby Vee. Rock ‘n’ roll was drowning and it had no saviors to throw it a lifeline. At least, not in America. Parents were pleased.

But, across the pond we call the Atlantic, a new sound was being created in the streets and the underground clubs of towns like Liverpool and Manchester, Andover and London and Hamburg. Born out of early rock ‘n’ roll, rhythm and blues, and skiffle, this sound would change the world of music forever. Like a storm that starts with a little rain, they would give teenagers back their battlecry of freedom. They would show America how music should be made.

Just as a February day killed off the dynamics and energy of what was once a great sound, it was reborn on another February day in 1964 On the ninth day of February, 1964, history was made on the Sunday night broadcast of the “Ed Sullivan Show”. With a one-two-three-four, John, Paul, George and Ringo in their moptops played “All my loving” and “Till There Was You”. Then “She loves you”. There was a pandemonium in the studio with all the screaming pouring out of the audience. It was Elvis, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry rolled into one. Seventy-three million people watched as the four performed songs from their first Capitol album, “Meet the Beatles”. Within twenty-four hours of their performance on Sullivan, there were few in the country who did not know their names. These Beatles from working class Liverpool were not only musicians and singers, but they wrote their own songs. And they were personable. And funny.

Suddenly a flood of British musicians were breaking down the walls of American radio and television. The Rolling Stones. The Kinks. The Hollies. The Animals. Herman’s Hermits. And dozens more. But they were only stepping into the footprints left by the Beatles.

Then there was an August tour and a movie. Only Elvis had his own movies. But now here were the Beatles with their own movie, “A Hard Day’s Night”. Not only did the director Richard Lester capture on film the songs but also the spontaneity and the spirit that were the Beatles without taming them the way Hollywood had tamed Elvis. It was a jolly good case of pretend with all its madcap zaniness, and even better songs. It was something to see, musicians successfully performing comedy. With the two films and the songs the band wrote for them, it was clear that the Beatles were growing as songwriters, as musicians and as performers. They were emerging as the best thing since Elvis. Soon they would bypass Presley as the new Kings of Rock ‘n’ Roll.

In a time when bands did not perform in large arenas, the Beatles were filling stadiums. In those early years they steamrolled across America in a way that no artist before or since has. Other bands were taking up the mantra of out-Beatling the Beatles. Everybody from the Rolling Stones to the Beach Boys to Buffalo Springfield to the Byrds to the Hollies. Just when the others thought they had beat the Beatles at their game, the Beatles upped the ante and blew away all the competition.

Soon the craziness of Beatlemania made them quit the touring. They went into the studio and innovated, not just once but again and again, producing magic the way no group before or since has. Working with their fifth Beatle of George Martin in Abbey Road Studios, they produced one masterpiece after another, the mature “Rubber Soul” and “Revolver”, the innovative “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club” and the unsuccessful “Magical Mystery Tour”. Then the straight-up rock ‘n’ roller, “The White Album” and finally what may be their best album, “Abbey Road”, ending their career as a group with the Phil Spector produced “Let It Be”. Their power as musical artists can be seen by the fact to they performed “All You Need Is Love” on a live global television link and were seen by 150 million people in 26 countries on June 26, 1967. They didn’t need gimmicks. They were the real thing.

For seven years, they changed the way we saw things, setting trends not only in music but spirituality, fashion and art. It was the Beatles who introduced Indian music into the mainstream of Western music. Musically they never stood still. They were always evolving, exploring, using different styles to serve the music they were producing. It was the Beatles who made popular songs that were a way to express not only love but other things few songwriters of popular song had dared to express.

It was always the music. That amazing music. Song after song of it pouring out of these four extraordinary artists. Again and again they hit a bulls eye with “And I Love Her”, “Eight Days a Week”, “Ticket to Ride”, “Here, There and Everywhere”, “Norwegian Wood”, “Yesterday”, “Penny Lane”, “Eleanor Rigby”, “In My Life”, “A Little Help from My Friends”, “A Day in the Life”, “She’s Leaving Home”, “The Fool on the Hill”, “While My Guitar Gently Weeps”, “Lady Madonna”, “Get Back”, “Here Comes the Sun”, “Something”, “The Long and Winding Road” and so many more. Songs that have been recorded by hundreds of musicians, maybe thousands, everybody from Frank Sinatra to Aerosmith to Wes Montgomery to Stevie Wonder to Tori Amos to Billy Joel to Norah Jones to Pat Metheny to Guns N’ Roses to Elton John to the Red Hot Chili Peppers to Jason Mraz and Michael Jackson, and these are only the names of some of the artists who have tried to put their stamp on some of the greatest popular songs ever written. Cirque du Soleil produced a major show based on the Beatles songs, and who knows how many directors have put their music into a soundtrack.

Without the Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll likely would have survived. But it wouldn’t have had the impact it has had. It would only have been a shadow of the self it became. Those three guitarist and a drummer, from the very beginning on that Ed Sullivan stage, made it look easy, made kids everywhere want to pick up those same instruments and play. When “Rolling Stone Magazine” ticked off the greatest musical artists of the twentieth century, it was not Elvis, it was not Ray Charles, it was not Bob Dylan who was number one. It was the Beatles.