And so the 50th anniversary of the world’s first discovery of the greatest rock band of all time — perhaps the greatest ENTERTAINMENT phenoma of all time — has passed with suitable note and well-deserved praise for the Fab Four, the Loveable Moptops: The Beatles.
All of us who are “of an age” and thus remember the Fabs from our — and their — youths, or who are younger but have taken the trouble to look up the fascinating story of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, are familiar with the general outlines of their story: From the Cavern Club’s dankness in Liverpool, England, to the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany, back to England, through much frustrating struggling to find the bottom end of the rope to success. And then, when that elusive prize came, it was suddenly, like a clap of thunder, a bolt of lightning, or … the Second Coming? After all, didn’t John once say, “We’re more popular than Jesus now”?
Nahh, I’m joking about that part. That wasn’t necessarily the most foolish thing that John Lennon ever said, but it ranked right up there. Top five, anyhow.
But since I found a way to bring up religion — uh, spirituality — (pretty clever, huh? Oh, well, I try) — let’s talk about how these four young lads with their amazing talents — actual genius in a couple of them — just happened to come together, at just the right time, to revolutionize the then-fairly-new genre of rock ‘n’ roll.
Did I forget to mention that they all just happened to be born in Liverpool, within three years of each other, and that three of the four knew each other from their mid-teens on? John Lennon formed a band in the mid-1950s; Paul McCartney came forward to ask to become a member in July 1957; and the next year, his friend George Harrison, a mere lad of 15, was also allowed on board. Later, after two years of performing, the trio decided they needed a drummer, and hired a young man their age named Pete Best.
Pete survived for two years as the man behind the drum kit, but the trouble was that, he wasn’t the “Best” — although he may not have been the “worst”, either. He was just a stiff, unimaginative drummer. And was of the same type of personality. He didn’t “fit in.” So in 1962, the Beatles dumped him, through their by-then manager Brian Epstein. They all vaguely said later that they felt bad about it, but these boys could smell success — BIG success — in the wind, and they weren’t about to see it soured by any extra weight for them to have to carry.
Besides, they knew of another drummer — a slim little guy with a likeable, winning personality and rings on every finger. And Richard Starkey was more than happy to become the only drummer of the Beatles that 99 percent of the world will ever remember.
And the rest of the story is common knowledge: Superstardom in Britain starting in early 1963; in parts of Europe later that year; and in early 1964, America. The world was at their feet, until their ultimate, acrimonious break-up, six years later.
And what was so very uncommon, so very, uh, “unique” about the Beatles’ music, compared to the Rolling Stones, or the Beach Boys, or the Who, etc.? And about the individual Beatles themselves, for another thing?
Well, they never claimed to have invented their “sound” right out of thin air. They always cited Buddy Holly and the Everly Brothers, as well as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, as early inspirations. Their early hits “Love Me Do” and “Please, Please Me” reflected the former two artists; covers like “Roll Over Beethoven” and “Long Tall Sally,” the second ones.
But then Lennon and McCartney, who wrote most of the Beatles’ music, began branching out, exploring new venues, trying new things to see if they would work. Lennon, whose rather-coarse voice was often, but by no means always, the Beatles’ lead, loved to have the studio technicians add various weird sounds to his songs. McCartney, who was always far more industrious, began experimenting with tapes, cutting and splicing them at home, then bringing the results to the recording studio to see what could be done with them. Harrison’s writing was less prolific at first: the fact that Lennon and McCartney usually limited him to one or two songs per album was a continuing source of irritation and resentment to him. But gradually he produced “Taxman,” his first really notable work; then “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” one of the Beatles’ most beautiful melodies; and finally, on their last album, “Abbey Road,” he produced “Something” and “Here Comes the Sun.” And he played a precise, distinctive, if not brilliant, lead guitar.
And of course, Ringo Starr’s talents as a drummer have been the subject of occasional jokes — but not to people who really know rock drumming. They say that his timing was impeccable, that it was always right where it needed to be for any particular song, and that it was just perfect for the Beatles.
The public knew — or thought it knew — the Beatles individually, too — mostly because of their first movie, “A Hard Day’s Night.” John was the clever, wise-cracking leader; Paul, the “cute” but shallow bass player; George the quiet, “shy” lead guitarist; and Ringo the loveable, goofy little drummer. All somewhat off the mark; yes, John was smart, but he did some very foolish things, and often led because the others let him; Paul was “cute” (were the other three “not cute”?), but he was just as smart as John, and had awesome musical talents beyond any of the other three, and increasingly took over more of the “leadership” role as John became more drug addled and more obsessed with Yoko Ono; George was more reserved than shy, and could have a fearsome temper when aroused; and Ringo was a lot more than just the sum of his drumsticks.
But to get back to the spirituality thing that I mentioned earlier. Lennon and McCartney sometimes suspected they were “channeling” some of the melodies they wrote. McCartney woke up one morning with the melody to what became “Yesterday” echoing in his head, and rushed to the piano in his apartment and worked it out while it was fresh. Then he went around, humming it for numerous musicians, for a long time to see if anyone had ever heard it before. Nobody had.
And there is yet another thing. In biographies of the various Beatles, in books written about them by technicians who worked with them in the recording studio, an interesting observation has been made more than once. To paraphrase it, “If there were one, two or three Beatles in the studio practicing, or even recording a side, it was kind of like having some other band there. But the instant all four Beatles were present, it was like something changed in the atmosphere; like there was an unseen presence there from that time on.”
Four lads born in the same town, just three years apart, meeting “by chance,” forming a rock band together, having just the right balance of rock and soul and … well, something else … to produce music that ultimately wasn’t just rock, or soul, or anything else but THEIR music, much of it from the final five years, of inordinate melodic beauty and memorable lyrical splendor? A “presence” people could feel when all four were in the studio together?
Awful lot of coincidences, says me. Things that big, don’t just happen, all in the right places and the right order, for an end result that will have such an impact on the world as the Beatles did. We were sent them, my friends, by a Higher Power. It’s called a “God wink.”
If all the Beatles were alive today, I doubt they would take me seriously. John, a famous scoffer who loved to denigrate his band while eagerly pocketing his share of the millions they earned, might say, “Ah, yer bloody daft, Engle! We’re just a rock band — that’s all. Nothing special.” Paul, always more kindly with other people, might say, “Wow! That’s an interesting theory, Mr. Engle! Let me think about that a little bit …” (gives John a conspiratorial wink as soon as my attention is distracted). George, who was deeply into Hindu mysticism, might have said, “Hare Krishna!” And Ringo might have said, “If it’s God that did it, why didn’t he make me taller and better looking?”
And after I left the room and the interview was over (hey, when I fantasize, I fantasize BIG! The Beatles reunion was actually held! You just didn’t find out about it because I kept it from you all these years! Mine — all mine!) Oh, pardon me; got carried away there. Anyway, once I thank the Fabs for their time and walk out, I can just hear them chuckling.
“Yank seems a decent enough chap, but he’s fookin’ round the bend with that ‘God sent us’ stuff.”
“Yeah, I suppose so. But we did see you tryin’ to fly to the moon a time or two, John. Know something you never told us about?”
“Oh, if a god had sent us, He would have been Brahma; he’s the top god; all the others are just versions of him. Right, Ring?”
“Well, George, I’ll go along with whatever the three of you think. Speaking of flying to the moon, did you notice Engle’s ears? Maybe he flies with THEM!”
Meeting breaks up in gales of laughter.
That’s OK. I believe what I believe.