Fifty years on: The Beatles triumph again in USA

Fab four: In February 1964 the lads from Liverpool electrified US audiences © PA

On Sunday, 50 years after first stunning America with their talent, the two surviving Beatles were feted at the ‘Oscars’ of music. Were they part of the greatest band of all time?

It could almost be a Beatles song: ‘It was fifty years ago today, Sgt Pepper taught the band to play’. In the winter of 1964 crowds of screaming, sobbing fans, police barricades and eager journalists greeted four young, scruffy Liverpudlians as they arrived in New York. Beatlemania had arrived in the USA. It became known as ‘the British invasion’ and the world of music would never be the same again.

This Sunday, half a century on, Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr were at the US Grammys – the music industry’s top prizes – to receive a lifetime achievement award. Both men, now in their 70s, performed McCartney’s new song Queenie Eye.

Back in February 1964, when the band gave their first live US television performance they attracted the largest ever TV audience in the USA to that date: 73 million viewers or roughly 43% of the American population; even US crime statistics fell during their performance. They sang the hit songs I Want To Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, written by McCartney and John Lennon, a music-writing collaboration that would last until 1970, when the group split up. Lennon’s assassination in 1980 finally silenced repeated pleas for a reconciliation.

Of the many revolutionary changes unleashed by The Beatles, two famous examples were the invention of merchandising in the form of badges, dolls, chewing gum and even cans of Beatle breath; and a radical departure from the prevailing tradition of performing other people’s songs. The Beatles steadfastly composed their own material.

It did not take long before they had established Liverpool as the pop music capital of the world and the beat boom spread from the UK across to the USA. In common with Bob Dylan, The Beatles taught the world that pop music could be intelligent and was worthy of serious consideration, reaching beyond ‘the screaming hordes’ of teenage fans.

Yesterday?

It would be hard to deny that The Beatles were the most influential group of the last century. In the course of eight years, they changed not only rock and roll, but also the face of all music forever. They remain the best-selling band in the world. Yet many believe their triumphs belong to ‘yesterday’, to cultural history, and their music can’t be listened to seriously today, unlike classical composers such as Mozart or Beethoven.

Nonsense, say devotees. Listen to Let It Be or Yesterday or Here Comes The Sun or any number of other Beatles classics and you are listening to a pure version of pop genius that will never pale. As the American writer Kurt Vonnegut wrote: ‘I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, The Beatles did.’

You Decide

  1. Beethoven, The Beatles, or Bieber – who’s better?
  2. Does music matter?

Activities

  1. Design a poster promoting your favourite band.
  2. In groups, decide what your favourite pop song is. Come up with three arguments for why it is the greatest song of all time, and present them to the rest of the class. Take a class vote at the end on whose presentation was best. The winning group gets to play their favourite song.

Some People Say...

“A dream you dream alone is only a dream. A dream you dream together is reality.’John Lennon”

What do you think?

Q & A

How do The Beatles affect what I listen to today?
Whether or not you like The Beatles, their influence on popular music and culture has been considerable. Both the queen’s Diamond Jubilee and the opening and closing ceremonies of the 2012 Olympics featured Beatles songs, and many artists cite them as a key influence. Some would argue that pop music today simply would not be the same without them.
So, should I listen to The Beatles?
Their influence on pop music is such that it would certainly be worth a listen. Why not listen to a range of Beatles songs and see how their music varies from year to year. You might well discover similarities between their music and the music you enjoy today, or discover that you prefer The Beatles!

Word Watch

Beatlemania
In 1963 there were widespread examples of teenage girls screaming, crying, fainting and chasing the band down the street; police escorts were needed to keep them safe.
Grammys
according to a rather excited US celebrity website, the Grammy Awards are the annual Oscars of music in which ‘wall to wall celebrity musicians and their live acts range from the hottest stars of the moment to some of the all time greats.’
Lennon’s assassination
John Lennon was shot in New York City by Mark David Chapman. Chapman claims his motive was instant notoriety. He remains in prison.

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