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CBS’s 50th anniversary Beatles special showcased the band’s lasting legacy

Sections: Award Shows, Grammy Award, Music, TV

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You can argue it all you want to. You can call them a “mere boy band” or proclaim how Macklemore and One Direction are more “talented”/”musical”/”cool”/etc. than they are/were.

No matter how you say it, not matter how clever or smart you think you are, you’re wrong. 100% wrong. So wrong that it would take the light from the region of right a billion or so light years to find you, even if it could. Bellyache until you are blue or pontificate until a Messageboard monitor tosses you as a troll, but The Beatles were, are, and always will be the most important and influential modern musical act of all time. Bar none. Not The Rolling Stones. Not U2. Not any number of post-millennial auto-tuned digital pretenders.

Put another way, the music that you’re arguing is BETTER than the Beatles, the bands you are lumping them in with (including the always effective Backstreet/N’Sync/O-Town comparisons) would NOT EXIST IF IT WASN’T FOR JOHN LENNON, PAUL MCCARTNEY, GEORGE HARRISON, and RINGO STARR. PERIOD.

The Fab Four, as they are often called, landed on our shores some 50 years ago this month, and literally reconfigured the way America responded to the ’60s. They inspired as many bands as they directly influenced. Yes, there is the inevitable mention of how the Lads from Liverpool lifted the spirits of a nation still grieving for its dead President (JFK was assassinated in Dallas just three months before) and how the guys took our heritage of showtunes, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll and turned it into a creamy commercial confection, but without The Beatles, what we consider music today would be radically different…if it existed at all.

Still don’t think so? Well, try going back to the years before they showed up on our shores. Return to the days of Johnnie Ray, Frankie Avalon, Pat Boone, and dozens of derivative teen idol crooners. Focus on how Phil Specter was influencing Beach Boy Brian Wilson with his “little symphonies for the kids” and see if seismic shift wasn’t necessary.

Without The Beatles, there’d be no British Invasion, no Summer of Love, no psychedelia, and perhaps more importantly, no import/export of same. Before them, few acts outside the US ever cracked our charts. After them, music became more and more internationalized. In fact, the authority of the group cannot be understated. Even CBS, the network which first exposed millions of households to the band via the incredible popular variety series ‘The Ed Sullivan Show‘ decided to devote two and a half hours of prime time television to expose a new generation to the excitement that occurred on February 9, 1964.

beatles-ed-sullivan-cbsFeaturing the only living members of the band (George Harrison died of cancer in 2001 and John Lennon was murdered by a psychotic fan, Mark David Chapman, in 1980) and several celebrity presenters and performers, ‘The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to The Beatles,’ offered up such sonic standard bearers as John Mayer, Keith Urban, Pharrell Williams (and his hat), Stevie Wonder, Katy Perry, Dave Grohl, and Imagine Dragons, among others.

In the audience were spouses, children, superstars (Tom Hanks, Johnny Depp), well wishers, and hundreds of attendees who one guesses weren’t even born when the band broke up in 1970. As Paul and Ringo looked on, the crowd was treated to some great moments (Grohl growling through “Hey Bulldog,”  Alicia Keyes and John Legend ‘s soaring “Let It Be”), some iffy pairings (Mayer and Urban’s odd “Don’t Let Me Down”) and sequences that must have sounded great…on paper (Perry’s passive reading of “Yesterday”).

Interspersed between the musical numbers were testimonials, onstage salutes, news footage from the era, and interviews with McCartney and Starr. Conducted by David Letterman (whose ‘Late Show‘ now resides in Sullivan’s old theater), the aging icons did their best to enliven stories and anecdotes we’ve heard hundreds of times before. Of course, the PR pushed the fact that both men, each now in their ’70s, would take the stage, both solo and together (for the first time since 2010). Starr was first, running through the few songs he sang lead on, and ending with a rousing rendition of “Yellow Submarine” dedicated to Grohl’s daughter. Then McCartney stepped up, ran through “Birthday, ” “Get Back,” “I Saw Her Standing There,” and “Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

That final song provided the perfect segue, as it does on the album, for Ringo’s greatest musical moment as part of The Beatles, “With a Little Help from My Friends.” As the camera captured images of Lennon’s widow Yoko Ono and son Sean clapping and singing along, as Dhani and Olivia Harrison wiped the occasional tear from their eyes, the naysayers and the no nothings could finally see McCartney and Starr and understand why the band was so important.

An entire audience of people were singing along to a song that was, as they say, a hit before you mother was born (though she was born a long, long time ago – wink) and everyone knew the words. Everyone knew the melody. Today’s music is fractured in a dozen different directions,  with one genre barely recognizing the realities of the others. When The Beatles broke, they took the entirety of the medium by storm. Even outlets that would normally never entertain a rock or pop group picked up the lads music and ran with it.

Today, we refer to things as Beatle-esque, mimic their look and philosophy, flashback to the Swinging London of the ’60s and see the obvious influence of the band in the fashions, the faces, and the sense of fun and free spirit. Unlike other acts out there chugging along (we’re looking at you, Mick and Keith), the Fab Four didn’t overstay their welcome. Unlike most bands, they said what they wanted, how they wanted, and then when they grew tired of each other, went their separate ways. Now, some 50 years later, their music and image have become ingrained into our collective consciousness.

The Beatles are a shared experience, perhaps even on a subatomic level. You may not see it now, but once you grow weary of the latest chart-topping fad, their music will still be there, and it will probably become the soundtrack of your life. It was and is for untold millions.

Five decades ago, no one could have imagined such an impact. Now, thanks to Sunday night’s special, it’s evident how wide ranging their influence has been. Don’t think that Backstreet Boys can claim such a legacy.

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  • Ray

    Very nice article. 2 huge omissions. Joe Walsh and Jeff Lynne. Wonder if you know how important those 2 guys are to Paul, George, and Ringo.