Myth or magic; the enduring appeal of a “good little band” 50 years on

We all know about anniversary-itis; the phenomena whereby the anniversary of every major event in history is treated by the media, as another major event in itself!

The benefit of anniversary-itis, of course, is that, as well as requiring little work on the part of the reporter — only having to recount in a portentous and solemn tenor the earth-shattering and epoch-making significance of “X” event all those years ago — you have the advantage of a never-ending supply of news stories…

Mostly readers just pass their eye over the “75 years since the landing on Iwo Jima” headlines and black-and-white photos and move on to more current news.

But one item caught my eye the other day in an online London newspaper: “Help; How the Beatles invented the music video.” The article covered the supposed zany inventiveness and unique creative genius of the The Beatles comic movie, Help which started filming 55 years ago in 1965.

Now I like the Beatles more than anyone; the seismic creative energy of Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band being my first album, but an article celebrating the “55th year(!)” since the making of a vacuous comedic romp like Help, of which the group openly-admitted to being stoned throughout the vast majority of its shooting?

How is it, that The Beatles, 50 years since their break-up in April 1970, still have such a strong musical profile over our popular culture. I mean, no-one writes articles on “55 years since Elvis Presley’s historical-romantic-musical-comedy, Frankie and Johnny.”

I remember the tragic shooting of John Lennon at the Dakota building in New York City by delusional fan, Mark David Chapman in December 1980 (another anniversary!) and the impact.

While the media, newspapers, television, and radio covered the event extensively, comparing it to the shooting of John F Kennedy as US President in 1963, the impact on our current musicians at the time seemed more, well, muted.

Australian musical show, Countdown, for the following month as a tribute to Lennon ran brief comments from visiting English New Wave and American stadium rock stars and asked them their response to the murder. Almost invariably they all started with the proviso, “While the Beatles had little influence on my music…” and then ran on with platitudes about the tragedy of the shooting and what a wonderful man John Lennon was, blah, blah, blah.

Because to acknowledge in 1980 that the Beatles or John Lennon had been an influence, was to admit that your own musical virtuosity was anything other than a well-spring of your own genius. Rock and roll and pop were different from jazz, classical, folk, and country music. They were unique musical forms where your creative gift allowed you to rise from the most humble beginnings to becoming a rock God adored by millions.   

Rock nostalgia was an embarrassing hobby of has-beens. Because this was six years before Bob Geldof’s Band-Aid concert where old rockers got to play in front of tens of millions of young people from around the world. This was a decade before the nostalgia tours of old rockers became the hottest tickets one could buy, and to have watched a legend like Queen or the Eagles perform was a treasured memory.

English Director Danny Boyle, having escaped from the death-march of the next James Bond movie in 2018, created a whimsical little movie, Yesterday, exploring a world where only one man remembers the Beatles.

Struggling rocker Jack Malik makes a hot run reviving old Lennon/McCartney hits before eventually putting love before his stolen success. The movie was a surprise hit and touched on a point that most rock fans of a certain age ponder at some point, were The Beatles unique, or just a little more successful than anyone else?

From the early days of rampant Beatlemania, they were unusual in that they were from an unfashionable northern town, Liverpool, and the first major English act to succeed worldwide.

To see their early interviews is to also witness their rich comic abilities and sharp complementary wits that was so naturally portrayed in their first movie, A Hard Day’s Night. But more than that, it was their creative development from loveable mop-tops to serious musicians and artists from 1965 onwards that seemed to set them apart.

 Dylan had always been serious and introspective and the Rolling Stones bluesy and sardonic, but The Beatles seemed to change and grow before the musical public. From Love Me Do to Let it Be was only about seven years, the time difference between each U2 album, in fact.

One got the impression that they always took the musical form of rock and roll seriously; it was not some elaborate marketing form simply to take money off young girls and teenage boys with disposable songs written by rote by professional, anonymous songwriters for smiling crooners to perform on the Ed Sullivan show.

The fact that they also stopped touring for musical reasons (they could no longer represent their new songs in concerts) also gave them a serious air of artistic solitude. Also, the magical creative force of their collaboration was never sundered by new members or band line-up changes, although John, George, and Ringo had all at one time declared they were leaving the band.

And the way in which they broke-up, no farewell concerts or souvenir last-stand merchandise and greatest hits albums, offered a serious-minded air of creativity. They simply stopped working together when they had collectively run-out of collaborative energy.

One wonders what their reputation would have been if they were still dragging themselves around giant concrete amphitheaters as old-age pensioners, like the Rolling Stones, or they had held umpteen reunion concert tours like the Eagles. Like the eternal, iridescent youth of popular culture, they will be remembered as they were, on that rooftop in Saville Row in January 1969, playing together for the fun of it.

One thing that popular musicians have had to admit since 1980, is that rock and roll, hip-hop, rave, electro-pop, and fusion are all just other musical forms running all the way back to prehistory when the first drum was beaten in the forest.

The fact that no pop performer would dare suggest now that The Beatles had had no influence on their art is a measure not only of the continued and enhanced esteem of their musical legacy. It is also an acknowledgement that popular music in all its forms, is no different from folk or the blues, it has its history, its pioneers, inventors, and antecedents.

John Lennon said soon after Paul McCartney had publicly-announced the end of the group’s collaboration in April 1970: “I never bought into the myth of the Beatles; in the end we were just a good little band.”

But you’ll know that the rock-nostalgia has gone too far when you read in a few years’ articles titled: “55 years on: The surreal genius of Yellow Submarine” or “How Magical Mystery Tour changed movie-making”!

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