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OPINION: Looking back at the Beatles and what made them so great

Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr perform in "The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles" on CBS-TV on Sunday night. AP Photo

Brooklyn Daily Eagle

The big event of the week for many people was Sunday night’s CBS-TV special, starring Ringo Starr, Paul McCartney and a host of other musicians, which celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Pundits looking back at the original 1964 event hailed it as the beginning of a revolution..

But was it? The Beatles didn’t start the ‘60s “hippie movement,” with its tradition-breaking ideas about sex, drugs, politics and clothing. That came a few years later. If anything, the Beatles changed with the times---they didn’t start those changes. That trend began with a relatively small number of folk and jazz musicians, beat poets and avant-garde artists in the East Village and San Francisco, then spread from there. The early Beatles wore suits and ties, and the only thing “revolutionary” about them was their hairstyles.

Nor were they musical revolutionaries. In their early style, they followed in the footsteps of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers, with a little doo-wop thrown in (“Tell Me Why,” “This Boy”). Again, their truly revolutionary music, like “Sergeant Pepper,” was several years in the future.

So what was so special about the early Beatles, other than their youthful vitality?

Number one, they were extraordinarily versatile. They could go from a hard-core R&B number like “Twist and Shout” or “Roll Over Beethoven” to a Broadway song like “A Taste of Honey” to a country song like “Act Naturally,” then wrap things up with a soft ballad like “If I Fell.” That was very unusual in those days, and it still is.

Number two, they were the full package—singers, instrumentalists and songwriters. The years 1963 and 1964 were still at the tail end of the doo-wop era, and most hit groups, from Smokey Robinson and the Miracles to Jay and the Americans, just sang and didn’t play. In Lennon and McCartney, the Beatles also had a songwriting team every bit the equal of the great Brill Building songwriting teams such as Lieber and Stoller or Goffin and King. Some artists had written their own songs before, such as the aforementioned Chuck Berry, but more often, a record company gave songs to an artist to record. Before the Beatles came to America, the closest parallel to them as a group of writers, singers and instrumentalists was the Beach Boys, a talented band for sure, but not as influential as the Fab Four.

Number three, the Beatles shone the spotlight on every member of the group. Beforehand, a group would have a lead singer, like Dion of Dion and the Belmonts, and the other members were very much in the background. With the Beatles, every member took a turn at singing lead, even Ringo.

Number four, the Beatles played extremely well together, down to each sixteenth note. By the time they hit the U.S., the Beatles had been playing together six, seven times a week for four years, and they could play those songs in their sleep.

Number five, the Beatles were natural-born comedians as well as musicians. This can be seen over and over again in their early radio and television interviews and in their films “A Hard Days Night” and “Help.” This also endeared the Beatles to their audiences.

These are some of the reasons, in my opinion, for the Beatles’ great success. They weren’t revolutionaries, but they were a really great band.

February 10, 2014 - 12:30pm


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