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Craig Brown on the Enduring Appeal of The Beatles

Posted on 31st March 2021 by Mark Skinner

The Beatles are so much a part of the national fabric that we are in danger of taking their astounding achievements for granted. Just how did John, Paul, George and Ringo manage to elevate pop music into an enduring art form and why do we remember them with such reverence and love in the twenty-first century? In this exclusive essay, Craig Brown, author of One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, offers his compelling explanation.  

In the first week of April, 1964, The Beatles occupied all top five positions in the US charts. Yet the question they were most frequently asked by journalists was: "What will you do when the bubble bursts?"

The Beatles soon grew tired of the question, and replied, characteristically, with a succession of jokey answers. "Get jobs" was John's reply at a press conference in Los Angeles on 23 August 1964. "Count the money" was his reply three days later, in Cincinnati.

Nevertheless, they heard the question so frequently that they couldn't help but ponder the future. Ringo, the most pragmatic and, having just turned 24, the oldest, planned to set up a chain of hairdressing salons in the North East.

Even when they were well-established as the most popular and influential group in the world, the older generation continued to regard them as a passing fad. In 1967, when Hunter Davies first approached his publisher with the idea of writing their authorised biography, he was told "Oh, the bubble's going to burst. We know everything we could possibly want to know about the Beatles, and they'll disappear soon."

How wrong they all were! It is now exactly half a century since the Beatles disbanded, yet they are as much part of the fabric of our culture as Big Ben, Shakespeare, or the Royal Family. In many parts of the world, they are all that is known of Great Britain. A few years ago, we had a 15 year old school exchange student from St Petersburg to stay. She told us that most Russians know only two things about Britain: The Beatles, and the fact that we put milk in our tea. In fact, the impact of The Beatles on Russia is hard to over-estimate: When Paul McCartney visited Moscow in 2003, President Putin told him that hearing the Beatles as a boy growing up in the Soviet Union was "like a gulp of freedom". On that same visit, President Gorbachev told him, "I believe the music of the Beatles taught the young people of the Soviet Union that there is another life."

There are over a thousand Beatles tribute acts in the world today. Many of them - the Tefeatles from Guatemala, Rubber Soul from Brazil, the Nowhere Boys from Colombia, Abbey Road from Spain - have now been together longer than the Beatles were themselves. Britain's Bootleg Beatles and Australia's Beatnix have both been going for forty years.

Why did the Beatles' bubble so singularly fail to burst? I think it had something to do with the combination of their four distinct talents and personalities. As I suggest in One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time, each of them personified a different element: John fire, Paul water, George air, Ringo earth. Together, they produced music of endless variety. Other groups were raucous or reflective, progressive or traditional, solemn or catchy, folksy or sexy or aggressive. This is why, fifty years on, The Beatles continue to appeal to people young enough to be their grandchildren, or even great-grandchildren: when you hear a Beatles album, you feel that all human life is there. John Updike once described them as "like the sun coming up on Easter morning"

Back in 1967, the politician and philosopher Bryan Magee asked readers of the highbrow Listener magazine, "Does anyone seriously believe that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?" He was clearly expecting the answer "no", but now his question seems hopelessly outdated, rather as if someone in the 19th century had asked the same question of electricity.

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