Decades later, the Beatles and their most irreverent and creative
member still matter
By Alexander E. Hooke
October 7, 2010
"I'm interested in expressing myself in a way that will mean
something to people in any country, in any language, and at any time
in history." --From "Lennon Remembers"
John Lennon would have been 70 tomorrow. The movie "Imagine" will be
aired as the tiresome, hagiographic view of Lennon persists. Cynics
will dismiss the birthday as another pathetic occasion for
baby-boomer nostalgia about the 1960s. Some enthusiasts will remind
us that Lennon was a rebel with a cause to be in a great rock band.
Although Lennon became one of the foremost artists of the
anti-war/social justice movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s,
he was anything but a saint. His life was mostly a mix of
fascination, energy and trouble. An acerbic wit, quick to throw a
punch or perturb an adult, the young Lennon was never the kid
Liverpool's parents wanted to see with their own. Predictably,
teenagers were often drawn to Lennon's wild antics and compelling
charm. Three of them Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo
Starr disregarded their parents' fears and joined Lennon to become
The Beatles. That he and the group still matter is why tomorrow's
birthday is celebrated.
Beatles' statistics reached Ruthian levels. Their record for the most
No. 1 singles and No. 1 albums is still unchallenged. One week in
1964, they owned the top five singles on the Billboard charts.
Periodic surveys of the greatest 500 rock albums invariably find The
Beatles having five in the top 15. Incredibly, from 1965's "Rubber
Soul" to 1969's "Abbey Road," they annually produced an album
considered a classic by today's critics and fans. Perhaps only
Beethoven's symphonies match such an accomplishment.
The Beatles remain the most revolutionary force in modern popular
music. They first demonstrated the viability of an autonomous band
whose members wrote, played and sang their own music. U2, the Dave
Matthews Band, Green Day, REM all are unthinkable without the
Beatles. Even rap artists find inspiration in how the Beatles
continually developed new sounds as they stopped touring and
transformed into a studio group.
Lennon and his collaborators invented the rock album. They envisioned
a collection of 12 to 14 songs that presented their best work rather
than offering inferior material to back a hit song or two. Lennon and
McCartney felt their fans should not pay twice for the same song, so
they often left hit singles off their albums. The group saw each new
album as an opportunity to experience and experiment with new sounds.
A Beatles album was neither a sequel nor an afterthought it was an event.
Some purists dismiss the Beatles as money-makers who sold out. They
became the Fab Four or trippy eccentrics whom even parents could
tolerate or enjoy. These purists might learn that when the Beatles
went to Hamburg in 1960 to perform in its notorious Reeperbahn (a red
light district), they began anticipating later forms of rock music.
The striking film "Backbeat" depicts the Beatles in Hamburg as
raucous and raw, mastering every form of rock 'n' roll and becoming
forerunners to punk and grunge.
The Beatles were unabashed champions of American music. They admired
Elvis Presley, Hank Williams, Buddy Holly and the Crickets (hence
their name), and the girl groups of the early 1960s. With America
mired in segregation, it was the Beatles not the Rolling Stones or
Bob Dylan who convinced international audiences of the beautiful
music being made by Ray Charles, The Shirelles and Smokey Robinson.
Current artists continue to be influenced by the Beatles. Gnarls
Barkley says their music changed his life. His renowned Grey Album
interweaves fragments of Beatles sounds and words with contemporary
rhythms and beats. Win Butler, lead singer of Arcade Fire, whose CD
"Suburbia" just hit No. 1, remembers how listening to "A Day in The
Life" evoked a different part of the universe.
In a 1970 interview, Lennon explained his love for Little Richard,
Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry: "They're like primitive painters."
Lennon and the Beatles, as disciples of such masters, became masters
themselves through their own rebellious and creative musical
paintings of the universe. The enduring richness of this mastery is
why the band still matters and why John Lennon's birthday, 30 years
after his untimely death, is still something to celebrate.
Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson
University. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org