50 Years Later: The legacy of The Beatles

I’m convinced there’s only one way to spell the word beatle. Microsoft Word is telling me it’s wrong, but how could it be? There’s only one way that word can be used, and it’s to describe the band that changed the way we communicate.

Fifty years ago, on Feb. 9, 1964, the British pop band The Beatles came to America for the first time when they played on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s impossible to overstate what that moment would mean to the history of popular western music.

On Sunday, CBS aired a stunning tribute to the band called The Night That Changed America: A Grammy salute to The Beatles. A variety of pop stars, from Stevie Wonder to Ed Sheeran to Imagine Dragons, played their own interpretations of classic Beatles songs. But one of the most striking moments for me was when Dave Grohl, of Nirvana and The Foo Fighters, said, “Without The Beatles, I wouldn’t be a musician.” Some day, I imagine, the next generation of musicians will be saying the same thing about Dave Grohl.

I can safely say, as a music fan, without The Beatles, I wouldn’t be a music lover. I play the trumpet, and the musical influences that have shaped my ear are too myriad to print here. But I’ve never forgotten that my eclectic tastes point back to one source.

This poster of Abbey Road, my favorite Beatles album, will forever occupy prime real estate on my poster-covered wall.

This poster of Abbey Road, my favorite Beatles album, will forever occupy prime real estate on my poster-covered wall.

I have to thank my dad for introducing me to The Beatles (among many other of my all-time favorites), but, unlike many older fans, I don’t remember hearing them for the first time. In my world, they have always existed; they have always been timeless. I can’t remember having not heard nearly any of their songs. This speaks so directly to the group’s widespread influence, that a typical ‘90s kid is as familiar with their body of work as someone who experienced their music afresh while growing up.

But why is the music of The Beatles still seem so new, so enduring? What makes them stand out over their contemporaries? The radio station 100.3 The Sound played an amazing set of the “top 50 Beatles songs of all time” on Sunday (as voted by listeners). A DJ on the station said that “The Beatles introduced art to popular songwriting.” Now, there had certainly been popular rock n’ roll artists before The Beatles: Elvis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, etc. But art as The Sound used it is, I think, more akin to appreciating a favorite painting in a gallery.

Popular music had made us feel before, but not like this. A song like Let it Be or A Day in the Life cause us to feel not just an emotion, but the entire spectrum of human feeling and experience. Never before had rock allowed us to feel hope and despair and outrage and love, often at the same time.

In an interview with David Letterman on that CBS special, Ringo Starr said that the reason he thought The Beatles were so successful because they could play anything; they were never confined to one genre. And, looking through the Lennon-McCartney songbook, it’s easy to agree. The Sound’s top 50 songs include aching love ballads (And I Love Her, If I Fell, Yesterday), nonsensical flights of fancy (I am the Walrus, Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) and epic, transcendent odysseys (Strawberry Fields Forever, Golden Slumbers Medley).

While everyone has their personal favorite Beatles songs (Hey Jude was number one on this countdown), it’s tough to argue that any particular “style” of song is superior to another. It seems to be a matter of preference. In other words, The Beatles have something for everyone.

During the countdown, I noticed that many of the Fab Four’s most haunting songs involve looking (often focused on the lover’s gaze). Think of I Want You (She’s so Heavy), You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, I Saw Her Standing There, Something and Eleanor Rigby. Isn’t that appropriate for a band that has changed so much about the way we see?

Speaking of seeing, we’ve never seen anything like The Beatles—never has a “popular” band so expertly mixed politics and pop culture, rage and romance, coolness and controversy—and we never will again. I don’t think we want to.