Years Ago Today-2/9/2014
Perhaps the most fortunate piece of luck
that has ever befallen me was to be born at the right time for music.
Most baby boomers first became aware of
popular music at the tail end of the 1950’s when Elvis’ upper torso only
shimmied into the American consciousness on the Ed Sullivan Show. Those a bit
older than we, like Elvis, were more influenced by doo-wop, rhythm and blues,
country and the very earliest of Motown. Four men so influenced appeared on
that same Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago today, February 9, 1964. Bursting on an
America reeling from the loss of its first President born in the 1900s to an
assassin’s bullets, the Beatles filled a hole in the American heart that needed
to smile. John, Paul, George and Ringo made us smile.
The Beatles were not the first super group
to write and perform its own music. Brian Wilson’s Beach Boys predated them as
did the perennial hit makers, The Four Seasons with Frankie Valli singing Bob
Gaudio’s tunes. But the Beatles were something else again.
For those not alive then, it is very hard
to describe the phenomenon because there really has been nothing comparable
since for a host of reasons including the progressive fractionation of popular
music by FM radio, XM radio, music downloading, cable TV and rap (that rhymes
with crap) music. (Sorry out there, music has three core elements, melody,
harmony and rhythm. “Songs” containing just one of the three are not music).
When the Beatles hit the airwaves there were only a
few AM rock stations per city and we listened to them on transistor radios
using one earplug only as the sound was monophonic.
Above all, the Beatles had impeccable
timing. They came to America for the first time after an earlier attempt on our
markets with records alone had failed. But I believe in the aftermath of the
Kennedy assassination 10 weeks before, America had found the perfect antidote
to our collective despair—collective hysteria. Besides, they talked like
James Bond. They had what was then considered long hair and they wore tight,
matching suits. They must be cool.
What happened after that weekend is true music
history for in the very short span of less than 6 years from Beatlemania to Woodstock,
the finest popular music that America ever produced pounded through the veins
of my generation. It still does. (For those who wish to argue with this, just
listen to the Beach Boys, Beatles, Rolling Stones, The Doors, Bob Dylan, The Band,
the Jefferson Airplane, Grateful Dead, Janis Joplin, the Supremes, Stevie
Wonder, Marvin Gaye, the Temptations, the Four Tops, Martha and the Vandellas,
the Ronettes, Simon and Garfunkel, the Who and the Rascals and realize these
artists were churning out their music co-temporally with one another at the
rate of one to two albums each per year. This is unheard of now).
When you consider what non-classical music was
heard by us as toddlers, 50 or more years after it was first performed, there
wasn’t all that much. A Bicycle Built for Two comes to mind (written in 1892). Big
bands had died. Even the music of Gershwin and Porter weren’t 50 years old when I was 10 and
the Wizard of Oz was just 20 then. The Beatles’ music is every bit as fresh
today as it was when we first heard it for the simplest of reasons. It was and
A few hundred years ago Paul McCartney would have
been Mozart. John Lennon, Beethoven. George and Ringo would have somehow found
their niches as well. (Never dismiss the writing power of George Harrison.
Though he wrote fewer hits than his mates, Don’t Bother Me, Something, Here Comes the
Sun and a host of others both before and after the Beatles disbanded make him a
significant force in his own right).
I was very fortunate to have been born when I was.
America was still on the rise as a world power and hadn’t yet crawled onto an
analyst’s couch trying to figure out what went wrong after we beat the Nazis,
defeated Japan, hit the moon and then traded craters for rice paddies and substantive
televised debates for Watergate hearings. The greatest music ever produced for
a popular audience since Beethoven was mine at the flip of a dial, even though
it was all analog all the time.
After the Beatles, rock shows became commonplace
growing into stadium affairs. This enabled my generation to not just listen to
the music but to experience it live. Having run the pop concerts as an
undergraduate at Duke, I got to meet many of these people. Not surprisingly,
they were just a bit older than I with a lot more talent. I was always
surprised at how many of them were so quiet in person and so exuberant on stage
from Janis Joplin to Paul Simon to the Rascals to Aretha to Marvin Gaye to John
My generation has done a miserable job at producing
leaders. Our two Presidents, Clinton and W, displayed seriously flawed judgment
in their public and private comportment. The same is true of my fellow boomers
on Wall Street and in Congress. We blew a lot of things, Vietnam being the most
But when it came to making you dance AND listen to
the words, we were fabulous.
So 50 years ago today, the Beatles taught us all to
play and to listen. Three years later, they even printed the lyrics to Sergeant
Pepper’s on the record jacket (ask your parents what a record is). And when we
are all old, way past 64, and then gone, the Fab Four may be our most
significant footprints in the sands of time.
And you know that can’t be bad!