“Here Comes the Sun,” “Come Together,” and “Let It Be.”
They’re songs that nearly everyone knows today. They’ve been sung in schoolyards, played on the oldies stations and featured in countless Hollywood films.
In fact, the songs are so common it’s hard to believe that it has been five decades since the arrival of the band that brought these hits to America. When the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show, 50 years ago today, they set in motion a cultural phenomenon that is still ongoing.
“The Beatles’ music has transcended time, in the way that we usually see with classical music,” said William Moylan, professor of music and recording technology at UMass Lowell. “Their music has reached beyond generations, and is reaching young people still. It has a universal language and appeal that is almost unheard of for popular music.”
However, exactly what has made the Beatles’ music so popular is hard to pinpoint.
“No one ever gets to the full explanation,” said Chad Montrie, a history professor at UMass Lowell and avid Beatles fan. “It’s just amazing. You can listen over and over and be shocked by how good it is. The music is not of an era. Anyone can listen to the Beatles and understand it’s great music.”
On one hand, the band pushed the envelope musically, experimenting with different genres and breaking with protocol on things like song length (“Hey Jude” is significantly longer than most pop releases, running over seven minutes) and time signatures (“Strawberry Fields Forever” has four different time signatures, which affect the measurement of the beats in the song). At the same time, the band first appeared in America during the tumultuous 1960’s.
“People were challenging authority, and rock ‘n roll does that in all kinds of ways,” said Montrie. “Rock ‘n roll became a subversive music genre on both sides: for the kids who were listening to it and for the parents who were worrying about losing their traditional authority.”
Oftentimes that struggle came to a head around the Beatles, including in 1966 when John Lennon made his controversial remarks that the band was “more popular then Jesus.”
“That made them even more popular,” Montrie said.
However, Montrie was quick to note that although the Beatles seemed to incite controversy, their music, particularly the earlier songs, were fairly docile.
“They really were the tamest of the rock bands,” he said. “Their hit in 1964 was “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” and that’s all the song said. Lyrically, the Beatles music is not that controversial. They knew how to be polite.”
While understanding the 1960’s is important to understanding Beatlemania, knowing the context that the band debuted in does not tell the whole story, Moylan said.
“Their music was reflective of the time, but not dependent on the time. It’s still relevant today.”
No matter how hard one studies the music, or the time period, there’s no way to quantify just what gives the Beatle’s music its magic.
“It was the uncanny happening of very talented people getting together and making something much bigger than the four of them,” Moylan said. “It’s very remarkable.”
For more coverage on the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' arrival in America, see the Accent section. Page B3