It's getting to be time for Christmas and, sure enough, The Beatles are back with us again.
If you were around in 1964 for that first chorus of yeah-yeah-yeahs on The Ed Sullivan Show, you know what I mean. For most of their history, The Beatles have made a point of bringing their fans some measure of holiday cheer – something new to listen to, watch or, most of all, put under the tree.
When they were still together, this meant an annual Christmas message, a free, one-off bit of tom-foolery, cut for members of the official fan club. Looking back, I don't know what's more amazing – that the band indulged us with this yearly gesture, or how we came to take the magic of these guys' embellishments for granted.Remember the sheet of cut-outs that came with Sergeant Pepper? The Richard Hamilton poster and the portraits accompanying The White Album?
This year, the round of remembrance began with the slender, if surprisingly moving film about John Lennon's teenage years, Nowhere Boy. Lately there have been a couple of original films, also dealing with Lennon, on public television. In Indianapolis, this year's Tonic Ball featured performances of Beatles tunes by 30-some local bands.
The piece de resistance, of course, was the announcement that Apple, the computer company, finally came to terms with The Beatles' Apple Corp, making the Fabs' entire catalog available on iTunes.
'Tis the season for downloading.
Making all this a little odd is that The Beatles haven't been a band for 40 years. Two of them, John and George, are long dead. Yet their appeal lives on, as members of one generation after another find themselves getting hooked.
The Beatles still matter. Which, given the rate at which we masticate, digest and excrete most forms of pop culture, is saying something. Why it's true is worth considering.
No one, least of all The Beatles themselves, could have known what was happening to them would wind up being the kind of story we call legendary. "Meeting Paul was just like two people meeting. Not falling in love or anything. Just us," said John Lennon of the day he was introduced to Paul McCartney at Liverpool's Woolton Parish Church in 1956.
Yes, and it was also the genesis of what, from that time until this, stands as western culture's greatest creation myth.
According to this myth, two motherless boys form a creative bond that eventually includes two other working class kids. Together, they escape the afflictions and drudgery of their everyday circumstances by playing rock and roll music. They are enormously ambitious, sure, but their ambition is inextricably bound up with their friendship. Not only do they make their dreams of stardom come true, these friends change the world.
Then The Beatles come of age. They become men and "the dream," quoting Lennon again, "is over."
This story has been told and retold so many times, in so many forms, it amounts to a modern Odyssey. Older fans fill in the blanks for their younger friends, who turn around and repeat the narrative for those who follow. What's uncanny is that, in this age of revelation, investigation and expose, the basic elements of The Beatles' saga have remained unchanged since Hunter Davies published the first authorized biography in 1968.
If The Beatles were just another, albeit supremely talented, pop group, their story wouldn't be that much different from such peers as The Stones, The Who or The Kinks. On their own, there's little surviving members McCartney and Starr have added to rock's canon.
But The Beatles remain important because they pulled off something most artists can only dream about: For a moment they were able to build a bridge between pop culture and high culture, fuse the worlds of avant-garde art and teenage romance, the experimental and the everyday. Until The Beatles, these were separate planets with seemingly incompatible atmospheres. They made the far out near at hand.
At the time, many people over-interpreted what was going on. They saw the birthing of great social changes, when what was really afoot was a massive transfusion of possibility and profit into the worlds of art and entertainment. That so much of this was ultimately co-opted by commerce made it no less significant. To this day, many artists still hope for a taste of what the Beatles made a feast.
The Beatles set a standard that challenges artists, no matter how high-flown or conceptual, to think about the audience for their work. As for entertainers, those performers who say their job is to give the audience what it wants, The Beatles are a guilty conscience asking, why not do more?
That's what you hear in all those songs. The something extra that's added by the bass; the way a harmony takes an unexpected dip; a turn of phrase that finds the truth in what used to be a cliché. Go ahead, download 'em. Or pull out your CDs and vinyl and take another spin. In the end, it's The Beatles' music that matters most.
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