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The Beatles, Part 2: Roll Up for the Mystery Tour

NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The upcoming Grammy tribute to the Beatles' 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, discussed in Part 1 of this article, "Ladies And Gentlemen, the Beatles," is only the first step on the long and winding road of anniversaries leading to 2020, the 50th anniversary of the Beatles breakup. The ups and downs of the band's career were very public and each step and misstep became an important part of the history of the 1960s.

In the book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, Tom Wolfe notes how the Beatles provided an important soundtrack for the San Francisco-based Ken Kesey's LSD-tripping Merry Pranksters.

In 1966, John Lennon cracked to a London paper that Christianity might die out before rock 'n' roll, adding "We're more popular than Jesus," a remark that sparked protests and the burning of Beatles records in the U.S.'s Bible Belt.

Paul's 1967 admission that he had taken LSD was given national TV airtime in Britain. The 1968 release, The Beatles, commonly known as the White Album, inspired intense popular myth-making and conspiracy theories, ranging from the hysterical "Paul is dead" rumors to the horrific Manson family murders. Playing Beatles tracks backward became a national pastime as the rabidly conspiratorial fans and detractors listened for hidden clues. (The popular term "back-masking," describing the technique of hiding information in the backward version of a dense mix, didn't exist before the Beatles).

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The Beatles were more than just a band, more even than one of the greatest bands. They were actually, in a very real way, important shapers of the larger culture in which we are all participants.

That doesn't mean they invented the culture. Far from it. The Beatles rarely originated any style or trend, but simply focused elements already in the air. Even the name of the band was in part an imitation of the popular rock 'n' roll act Buddy Holly and the Crickets. Of course, Lennon respelled the "beetle" to include the pun, "Beat," from "the Mersey beat," a name given to the sound of bands in the rock 'n' roll scene in Liverpool.

The early mop-top hairstyles? They were a fad on German college campuses, where one of the band's close friends Astrid Kirchherr was a student. The collarless jackets and close harmonies? They were an imitation of the matching outfits and vocal harmonies of U.S. girl groups like the Marvelettes and the Shirelles. The psychedelic art, music and bus trip of Magical Mystery Tour? That came out of San Francisco's Haight-Ashbury scene and the circles around author Ken Kesey. The heavy metal sounds and acoustic folk influences on White Album? Jimi Hendrix and The Who for the former, Donovan and Bob Dylan for the latter.

Even the technique of playing songs or parts of song backward was taken from the tape manipulations of young, avant-garde classical composers like John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen.

The band played from a towering popular pulpit, unifying the concerns and tastes of a wildly divided population, turning some innovations that would otherwise have been little known into a mainstream trend, while challenging and remaking many that were already mainstream.

Occasionally the band found itself accused of something more sinister than mere imitation. A similarity between the 1969 Come Together and Chuck Berry's You Can't Catch Me resulted in a lawsuit (which the group settled with an agreement that Lennon record one of Berry's songs on a solo album). Berry was also reportedly the inspiration for the bass line in the early hit I Saw Her Standing There. And George Harrison was successfully sued for the stark similarity between his solo hit My Sweet Lord and the the Chiffons, He's So Fine.

Typically though, the Beatles didn't steal outright, but borrowed approaches, or even just ideas. In Lennon's Here Comes the Sun King, the opening chords of Beethoven's Moonlight Sonata are reimagined, transformed to form the song's foundation. Helter Skelter, a wicked brawl of a song, was inspired by an interview McCartney read, in which The Who's Peter Townshend talked about wanting to write the loudest, heaviest song ever.

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