Jeff Spevak: Feels just like yesterday with The Beatles

10:51 AM, Feb 05, 2014

The Beatles perform on the Ed Sullivan Show in New York in this Feb. 9, 1964, file photo. (AP file photo)/


Written By Jeff Spevak | Staff music critic

In many ways, celebrating a Beatles anniversary is like celebrating another sunrise. Here comes the sun. It is always with us. Even in the midst of a gray old Rochester winter.

The Beatles are an omnipresent pop-culture touchstone. Like Elvis and Seinfeld repeats, seemingly with us every day, whether or not we are aware of their presence.

It’s been five decades since The Beatles were simply four lads from Liverpool. Yet the band remains a vast marketing machine of products bearing their likenesses, re-issues of their music, TV documentaries. Books are published; I have two new ones sitting on my desk this very minute, distributed by eager publishers, perhaps very books I’ll probably never get around to reading. My apologies to The Beatles Are Here! 50 Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember.

And that’s why we are gathered here today: Sunday is the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Sometimes it seems as though a day hasn’t gone by when I didn’t hear a song by The Beatles coming out of a passing car window, or a Beatles song interpreted by a New Age musician drifting among the neatly stacked vegetables in a grocery store. Or I encountered a new band whose music is described in a term invented to cover just such a sound, “Beatlesque.”

On any night, I might walk into a bar and hear a local band playing a Beatles song. Rochester has tribute bands such as Mr. Mustard, playing nothing but Beatles songs. Don Christiano, joined by a guest or two, plays host to a bi-weekly Beatles tribute on Tuesday nights at Abilene Bar & Lounge. The University of Rochester has a series of Beatles events this week, culminated by a Sunday-night concert with performances by faculty, students and the local ’60s band The Smooth Talkers at Strong Auditorium on the UR Riverside campus. And the school’s free on-line class exploring the band’s music has already attracted 23,000 sign-ups nationwide.

I’m not cynical about this surge of nostalgia. After all of these years the music does seem to warrant the attention.

The Beatles did not invent pop music, and they did not invent the rock band. Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry were there first, although I’d never want to be pinned down on a definitive answer to those questions.

It’s different with The Beatles. The Allman Brothers announced last week that the band will be done by year’s end. A fabulous group, in so many respects. Great songs, deep jazz and blues influences, accomplished musicians, a story that’s an intriguing musical tragicomedy. Forty-seven years. Why aren’t the Allmans as mythological as The Beatles?

I think it’s because while we saw John, Paul, George and Ringo age, The Beatles didn’t. The band was done by 1969. Perhaps you can stretch that out to 1970. Six years on our pop consciousness. The Brady Bunch couldn’t even stick together that long.

The Beatles evolved rapidly over a decade, starting with nights as a bar band banging out somebody else’s songs. Their shift from garage rockers to psychedelic, spiritual anthems was swift. Beautiful ballads like “Michelle,” rockers like “Back in the USSR.” Something for everyone.

The band’s been gone for nearly 45 years, but many people can easily compile a personal Top Five list of Beatles songs without giving it a thought.

Mine:

1. “Across the Universe.”

2. “Nowhere Man.”

3. “Do You Want to Know a Secret.”

4. “Let It Be.”

5. “Yesterday.”

That’s today. I seem to be in a sentimental mood. Tomorrow I’ll give you a completely different list, one that rocks a little more.

The Beatles were so good at what they did, it was almost as if the band was a piece in some over-arching scheme of world domination. In fact, I do remember reading years ago about some forgotten American government official, as The Beatles soared in popularity, warned that the band must surely be a part of a communist plot to seize control of the minds of young people. Because four guys of The Beatles’ limited academic credentials couldn’t possibly write so brilliantly.

If that sounds like an impossibly paranoid story, those were strange and twisted times. Pete Seeger died last week; a folk singer who a decade before the Beatles’ emergence was hauled in front of the House Un-American Activities Committee, where he had to lecture members of Congress that, “I greatly resent this implication that some of the places that I have sung and some of the people that I have known, and some of my opinions, whether they are religious or philosophical, or I might be a vegetarian, make me any less of an American.”

The authorities were afraid of music. They were afraid of a guy with a banjo, and Elvis. And then they were afraid of The Beatles.

The Beatles were a very good band. So are The Rolling Stones and The Allman Brothers. Today, some of our older citizens are afraid of rap music and death metal. Yet while we might dismiss today’s hits as inconsequential — I confess to that — in general we seem to have gotten over our fear of music.

It seems so odd that The Beatles might have struck fear in the hearts of parents and congressmen. I’m 56 years old, so The Beatles were hardly on my radar screen when they came to America. I watched Ed Sullivan, but it was for Ed’s conversations with Topo Gigio, the puppet mouse.

Yet — when I was 6 years old, or maybe it was a year or two later — for Christmas I had been given a portal to the outside world. A little transistor radio. One night I was in bed, supposedly asleep, but with the blankets pulled over my head, listening to that radio. And I remember, it was a Beatles song. That is my very first memory of music.