Why The Beatles?

by Allen J. Wiener

(We are extremely honored to have this essay sent to us by Allen J. Wiener, author of "The Beatles: The Ultimate Recording Guide.") This article may not be reproduced in print or elsewhere on the Internet without permission of the author or the webmaster.

Could any other group draw a crowd as big as the one that congregated around "The Beatles Anthology"? Probably not, or at least not for six to 10 hours of visuals and sound, particularly since the Beatles created it out of little more than a bunch of old recordings and film clips - unused "rough drafts", if you will. But then, the Beatles were never like anyone else. From the very beginning they looked, sounded, sang and acted differently from all who had gone before. Only Elvis had so personally revolutionized pop music.

There can be no doubt that the Beatles are exactly what Billboard's Joel Whitburn has called them -- "The world's #1 rock group" -- and his facts and figures demonstrate their Olympian status: more U.S. number one singles, albums, and gold singles than any act in history; second only to Elvis Presley on Billboard's list of top 100 singles artists since 1955; second in total top 10 hits; top album artists of the rock era; and by far the biggest sellers in the 1960s, all within a recording career of less than eight years. In that brief time, the Beatles released some 213 songs, about 26 per year, something that would overwhelm contemporary artists. And most of those songs have stood the test of time quite well.

Just before "Anthology" was televised, Forbes predicted that the Beatles would earn more than $100 million in 1995, and money is certainly one potent measure of the group's sustained drawing power and sales potential. After ABC-TV had paid $20 million for "Anthology" broadcast rights, the network sold 80 percent of the series' commercial slots in less than three weeks at premium prices, with thirty-second spots commanding fees over $300,000. At the time, Apple expected to realize $75 million from "Anthology" television broadcasts alone. Even recycling the original Beatles albums in their present compact disc editions earns the group an estimated $12 million annually.

No one, not even George Martin, who helped create their music, can articulate what is so special about the Beatles. Nor is it easy to explain why their mystique continues to grow, recruiting new fans with each generation. Perhaps the timeless fascination with the Beatles and their music defies explanation, but a few factors do shed some light on the group's lasting appeal.

  • The Beatles redefined the parameters of rock and roll music and demonstrated that its possibilities were limitless. Once albums like "Rubber Soul," "Revolver," and "Sgt. Pepper" conquered the charts it was clear that rock and roll could be just about anything that anyone wanted it to be. The Beatles may have been partially shaped by Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, but they did not confine themselves to that early form of teen rock and roll for very long. As those pioneers had captured the frivolous teenage spirit of the fifties, the Beatles bent and shaped their music to match the mood of '60s youth, which had moved from the malt shop and teen hop to the more dangerous battlefields of sit-ins and political demonstrations.

  • The Beatles revolutionized studio recording methods, proving that there was no sound, mood or effect that could not be achieved if all possibilities were explored. Today, many of those innovations are taken for granted, but the Beatles had to imagine or invent them on the fly. "We didn't have any magic or electronic boxes to plug into," their engineer Geoff Emerick points out. "We had to make it all mechanically ourselves. Most of the gadgets you can buy today are just based on the things we used to do mechanically. The artificial double tracking and the flanging and all that sort of stuff." The Beatles added their own experimental innovations, including endless tape loops that combined multiple layers of sound, backward effects, and the introduction of instruments like the sitar, the mellotron and the synthesizer. They did not hesitate to bring any instrument or musician into their sessions, whether it was a lone horn player, a string quartet, or a full symphony orchestra. After the Beatles, the only limitations were those of imagination, creativity and effort. The Beatles even managed to break the long-standing three-minute time limit rule that had applied to virtually all previous hit singles by clocking in with the 7:11 "Hey Jude." And, along the way, they invented the modern outdoor stadium concert.

  • The Beatles seldom, if ever, repeated themselves. Unlike many rock and roll singers who preceded them, they did not attempt to continually recycle the sound or "formula" of their first hit over and over, a mindless strategy that was followed by far too many artists and producers in the '50s and early '60s, and which spawned a legion of one-hit wonders. Each new Beatles record, particularly after their first two albums, showed significant creative growth.

  • The Beatles "died young" by calling it quits while still at their peak. They didn't dwindle down to a second- or third-rate act. Despite 25 years of solo work, they are still frozen in that 1960s image, the top group in the world with lots of remaining potential, albeit unrealized - enough to fuel decades of "what ifs."

  • The Beatles' music has been made more special by the group's lasting breakup. When they closed shop at Abbey Road in 1970, it was really for good. There was no reunion album, no reunion concert, no one-off charity gig. When Lennon died in 1980, all chance of a real reunion died too. Fans may enjoy "Free As A Bird," but the Beatles can never really come together again. That leaves a finite body of work comprising 13 albums and 22 singles that represent all of the real music the Beatles ever produced together for public consumption. The "Anthology" packages of outtakes, demos, and home recordings lends insight into the creation of that music, but does not really enhance it. That finite status adds a special preciousness to the Beatles' music.

  • The closer one gets to the Beatles' sessions, the more elusive is an explanation for their longevity. Those who worked most intimately with them seem unable to resolve it. Allan Rouse, the EMI archivist who worked on both the "Live At The BBC" and "Anthology" projects with George Martin, is similarly stuck for an explanation. "I've heard that question asked of far better qualified people than me, and even George Martin has struggled to come up with an answer. The simple fact is that great music lasts forever."

    The Beatles were extremely creative artists, and the combination of their four personalities gave rise to a rare studio environment that none of them could later duplicate individually, nor has any succeeding group recaptured it. More than anything else, it is the lasting quality of the Beatles' music that accounts for their continued magnetism. "It's the songwriting," Emerick agrees. "Like Cole Porter and Gershwin - it's just there forever. I don't think we'll be playing Oasis' stuff in 30 years, but we'll be playing Gershwin and Cole Porter and Lennon-McCartney."

    And Emerick believes that there was an intangible magic to those sessions. "Whenever they are in a room together there's just an energy there, and I guess that's really the only word I can use to explain that." Emerick witnessed the same thing when Harrison, McCartney and Starr returned to the studio to work on "Free As A Bird." "We hadn't been in the same room together for 25 years, and it was just like it had been a week ago. We just carried on recording."

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    Copyright © 1997 by Allen J. Wiener.
    This page was created September 29, 1997