No Ordinary Fad

Making sense of the Beatles, whose music has been digitally re-mastered and featured in a new video game. Plus: We share our favorite songs and memories in this multimedia tribute.

Illustration by André Carrilho

Someone once noted that, other than Shakespeare, the Beatles may be Western culture’s only instance of the best and the most popular being the same thing. It’s not hard to imagine 500 years from now people questioning, as they have with Shakespeare’s plays, how four young working-class guys with no training could have made so much music so varied and so consistently first-rate in less than a decade, evolving at a pace that would exhaust amoebas. It may take U2 five years to produce an album, but only 38 months (five albums, more than 70 songs) separated the Beatles’ winningly naive “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and the nuclear Debussy of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” which sounded like nothing else in 20th-century pop before or after. Shakespeare didn’t have a digital age to bear witness, but the reissue this month—for the first time since the mid-’80s—of the Beatles’ work on CD not only verifies the scope of their accomplishment but snatches it from the noisy distractions of their mystique.

Two different audiences for the Beatles exist. For anyone much over 50 the Beatles’ impact was so massive, it still feels immediate; that this music was made nearly half a century ago is an invitation to mortal terror. Those under 50 must groan at the mere mention of the band let alone the oppressive cast of its shadow. It doesn’t hurt, then, to remember the messy beginning, acknowledging there does seem something slightly supernatural about it, particularly when you consider that in the early ’60s, the post-World War II U.K. was crawling with such bands. The Beatles themselves existed in other incarnations early on, first as the Quarrymen, then the Moondogs, erratically numbering five or six who always included John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. They were the bottom of the barrel. On the Liverpool circuit Richard Starkey, aka Ringo Starr, the seaport’s hottest drummer and coveted by the Beatles until they landed him for their first album, was the bigger star. Surrounding the band is a bit of the Robert Johnson legend, having to do with a ’30s Mississippi singer-guitarist of no special faculties who disappeared one night and returned at dawn the greatest blues artist of all time, a deal with the Devil in his back pocket. Not competent enough to get a gig in their hometown, the Beatles decamped to the ash heaps of Germany, playing among the strippers in depraved hellholes where pickpockets worked the crowd, then returned a few months later to Liverpool in Robert Johnson style as the greatest band of all time, to the astonishment of anyone who remembered them.

Hometown triumph notwithstanding, the band’s records were released in the United States to indifference a year before a momentous television appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. In retrospect the performance was less impressive than boomer memory allows. McCartney trilled songs from The Music Man, the big Broadway show of the day. So the new CD reissues are a testament to what no 21st-century skepticism can assail: If the band’s second album, With the Beatles (released in England on the day of John Kennedy’s assassination), was a powerhouse consolidation of their gifts, the Brit version of A Hard Day’s Night just four months after the American breakthrough, timed to coincide with a witty, irrepressible movie, was the quantum leap that put any doubters in their place. It was the first album on which the band, mostly Lennon and McCartney, wrote everything, demonstrating the freshest melodic sense since Puccini. The singing was almost as spectacular.

With A Hard Day’s Night, the Beatles began to assert their individual personalities as they continued cohering into a single superpersonality. This was a gestalt no other band ever has quite replicated, with talents, viewpoints, and temperaments overlapping and complementing one another. McCartney and Lennon shared the loss of orphans, McCartney’s mother taken by cancer and Lennon’s run over by a cop (which must have cemented his antiauthoritarian tendencies), and each responded in ways that distinguished him, McCartney with plucky opportunism, Lennon with pain and rage. Growing up the youngest of four siblings, Harrison again found himself the “kid” whose frequent dismissal by a new set of older brothers only drove him to prove something. Starr, the product of a broken marriage and a childhood of crises (in a coma at the age of six, then a sanatorium for two years of his adolescence), had learned not to take too much too seriously. What he couldn’t give the band in vision he supplied in professionalism, perspective, and bonhomie. These were four psyches in the kind of lucky alignment that any Vegas slot machine pays off in millions.

A Hard Day’s Night revealed the first signs of healthy contradiction, the evidence that the four men could as often be at odds with the types to which they already were consigned by their audience. The album’s most beautiful song, “If I Fell,” was written not by McCartney the romantic but by Lennon the cynic, even as it was full of his signature self-loathing, and even as, in a pattern he would repeat, it repudiated a past that was barely past (“I’ve found that love is more / Than just holding hands,” recorded 17 weeks after “I Want to Hold Your Hand”). Conversely the album’s big up-tempo number, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” was written not by Lennon but McCartney the balladeer, who already had contributed the band’s best original rocker, ’63’s “I Saw Her Standing There.” McCartney’s DNA as a songwriter is found in the lost gem “Things We Said Today,” a strange, ominous reverie that imagines remembering, years afterward, an affair that’s not yet over. With the exception of ’66’s “Here, There and Everywhere” and its exquisite distillation of bliss, the landmark McCartney ballads composed in the presence of congenital gloomsters Lennon and Harrison would be similarly marked by yearning (“Hey Jude”), doubt (“Yesterday”), melancholy (“Michelle”), sorrow (“Eleanor Rigby”), darkness (“For No One”). Lennon would be celebrated as the band’s experimentalist and McCartney as its traditionalist, but it was Lennon who said “avant-garde” was “French for bullshit” and McCartney who came up with the spooky Mellotron that opens Lennon’s “Strawberry Fields” and the trippy tape loops that thread Lennon’s “Tomorrow Never Knows.” That McCartney’s most adventurous notions surfaced on his partner’s songs rather than his own is the best measure of how, in the band’s prime, the superego overrode four individual ones.

The band never made a better record than A Hard Day’s Night, and it may have been the only moment when the musical zenith was as in sync with the phenomenon as the Beatles were with each other. It’s difficult to fathom the speculation that followed—leading up to Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band in ’67—that the group was a spent force creatively. It’s even more difficult to describe the sense of event, in a nonviral, non-Internet age, that surrounded Pepper, without the entire thing sounding unhinged, which maybe it was. With Pepper the Beatles emerged from the chrysalis of the first phenomenon, as a second phenomenon that rendered the first frivolous. As much as for the music, the public adored Pepper for its audacity, an audacity that lay less in the album’s artistry than the album’s insistence on its artistry. Few noticed or cared that the core was missing. To the specious extent Pepper was of a conceptual piece, like a novel or movie, intending to be a psychedelic Remembrance of Things Past, it centered on the authors’ Liverpudlian childhoods as most brilliantly evoked by “Strawberry Fields” and the cinematic “Penny Lane.” Neither wound up on the album, the band pressured by the record company to release the songs as a single.

Sgt. Pepper captured the world’s imagination and was the apotheosis of how the Beatles had changed everything: music and fashion, politics and philosophy, and the social contracts they included. Forty-two years later the acclaim for Pepper seems more cumulative. Though Pepper’s superior prequels—’65’s autumnal Rubber Soul and ’66’s hallucinatory Revolver—were critical and commercial successes, they came to appear, if anything, underrated. With Revolver in particular the Beatles may have gotten a bit ahead of themselves. It abounded with so many new ideas that it was greeted with confusion in quarters where already there was consternation over remarks Lennon recently had made about Christianity. A tour de force of raga and chamber music, Stax and Stockhausen and the soundscapes of altered states, Revolver existed at the locus of these four aligned sensibilities; poised between the McCartney-dominated Pepper and Lennon-dominated Hard Day’s Night, Revolver was dominated by neither (though both men were at personal peaks) while giving equal time to the emerging Harrison and tossing to Ringo the lead vocal on the album’s crowd-pleaser, a kid’s ditty about a submarine.

It may be inevitable that what happened after Rubber Soul, Revolver, and Sgt. Pepper should turn both the art and phenomenon of the Beatles on their heads. In the fall of ’68—the darkest, most tumultuous year of the decade that the band embodied—the Beatles released a sprawling 30-song pastiche and a towering example of the whole being greater than the sum of the parts. If Pepper was Proust, then the “white album” (actually titled The Beatles) was Pynchon, entropy instead of gravity, with more jokes, subplots, and sleights of hand than grand themes. It wasn’t just the anti-Pepper but a manifesto of anti-Beatlemania as much as A Hard Day’s Night was a manifesto for it, and on its blank tablets the band meant to smash its future as well as its audience’s love. The audience only wound up loving them more, of course, while by this time the personalities once in sync could barely abide each other. Born of the era’s determination to transcend materialism (the four men having traded Hamburg debauchery for India’s meditative oases, before the sabbatical was sabotaged by a hanger-on who convinced them their guru was another horndog after young girls) and the incendiary disorder spilling onto Parisian boulevards (to which Lennon, Mister Avant-Garde-Is-French-for-Bullshit, responded with a 12-minute montage/freakout called “Revolution” that eventually was divided into two parts), the White Album was a four-way divorce document, something the Beatles understood so unconsciously as to hardly warrant the word “understand.”

There was a single point of consensus among the quartet about the music, and that was to hold nothing back, and on its release the reaction of the public and critics (with which the band’s producer agreed) was that the double album would better have been a well-chosen single one. Only hindsight has exposed the folly of what sounded reasonable. The contention assumes that I would have gotten to do the well-choosing, or you, or the next listener. These years later we might wonder who—in the ruthlessness of choosing well, when radio favored the likes of McCartney’s “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da”—would have selected Lennon’s surrealist bookends “Happiness Is a Warm Gun” and “Cry Baby Cry” or Harrison’s hushed “Long, Long, Long” that ends with a howl into the void and anticipates Radiohead by more than a quarter century. Though the band agreed about nothing else, the collective instinct still was sharp enough to hear the value of mixing sonic spectacle with midnight diary, with sheer dazzlement being the point rather than what among the dazzlement was jewelry or junk.

The 14 new reissues, along with a Rock Band video game, invite us to reconsider all this. They represent the first significant remastering of the work since it was recorded, and they will be revelatory to varying degrees; for all the legend surrounding the Abbey Road studio for which their final album was named, the Beatles never liked the way the records that came out of there sounded. Of the Beatles’ two audiences, the older grows, well, older, relevance belonging to the young as it always does. Assuming the under-50 skeptic succumbs—at a time when the CD is becoming a more and more quaint delivery system for music—to the four (or five)(or seven) essential albums, he or she then is left to scoop up whatever fistfuls of smash hits prove irresistible, between “Please Please Me” at the beginning and “The Long and Winding Road” at the end. After that is left the odd, glittering miscellany of “Rain,” “Ticket to Ride,” “No Reply,” “There’s a Place,” “Not a Second Time,” “Day Tripper,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Blue Jay Way,” “Across the Universe,” “A Day in the Life,” and torrid soul/Motown covers of “Twist and Shout,” “Money,” “Dizzy Miss Lizzy,” and “Please Mister Postman” that demonstrate conclusively how, the Rolling Stones’ vaunted reputation as the “blacker” group aside, Mick Jagger wasn’t in the league of Lennon, the greatest white rock singer after Elvis Presley and Van Morrison. Past or future, over 50 or under, it all pretty much takes the breath away. The hysterics of phenomenon become the snarls of nostalgia, but the tomorrow that may never know anything else knows this music.