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).

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.

No matter where the ideas came from, the Beatles created a new twist on everything its members touched, making each innovation their own. That will undoubtedly become evident as we march through the 50th anniversary of the band's milestones over the next seven years.

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Beginning with the release of the first film starring the Beatles, A Hard Day's Night in 1964, and its accompanying album of songs, the release of each Beatles album and film became a landmark cultural event, with the most important remaining influential today: Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), Magical Mystery Tour album and film (1967), Yellow Submarine album and film (1968), The White Album (1968), Let It Be album and film (1969) and Abbey Road (1969). Each one has a significance that is hard to overestimate. Any or all of them could be the subject of 50th anniversary tributes but certainly the anniversaries of Sergeant Pepper's in 2017 and The White Album in 2018 will be huge.

Unlike Elvis Presley's movies, which were empty marketing tools, most of the Beatles' films held lasting influence, beginning with the stylish irreverence of the 1964 release A Hard Day's Night. These films set new ground rules for pop music in the visual medium, heavily influencing the video era and MTV that would come about two decades later.

Along the way, the Beatles' personal lives were also the stuff of cultural mythology. The career and early death of artist and one-time fifth Beatle Stu Sutcliffe remains a topic of intense interest in both the music and art circles, as does the ousting of original drummer Pete Best in 1962. In 1967, the band's manager Brian Epstein died of an overdose that some termed a suicide. News of the bandmembers' drug use, which began to emerge in 1967 and climaxed with John Lennon's in-your-face single Cold Turkey in 1969 about heroin withdrawal, shook households all over America.

In the big year of 1968, the band members hooked up with the Maharishi and Ravi Shankar, simultaneously introducing the western world to meditation and kicking open the door to a genre now known as World Music. The song Revolution, calling for passive resistance to a broken system, sparked political outrage in the media both among the more radical New Left, who were advocating violent resistance and saw Lennon's stance as a betrayal, and among the mainstream, who saw the Beatles inciting rebellion.

Also in 1968, Lennon and Fluxus artist Yoko Ono became a couple -- perhaps the most famous couple in the popular art world at that time. Lennon divorced his first wife, Cynthia, and married Ono in 1969, recording albums with her and entering the arena of political protest with her at his side. The cover of their 1968 album Two Virgins showed them both nude, facing the camera. The cover and its censorship, particularly in the U.S., set off howls of outrage in the public discourse. Ono's presence during the entire recording of the White Album reportedly increased tensions among the band members who were already growing restless under the yoke of the Beatles' machine.

Lennon and Ono remained married until his death in 1980. Lennon's two sons, Julian by his first wife and Sean with Ono, have both had celebrated musical careers and continue Lennon's complex legacy of art, angst, social compassion and activism.

April 10, 1970, Paul McCartney announced to stunned fans that the fractious state of affairs among the Beatles had become too much and the band was likely done. That became official by the end of the year, when he filed suit to dissolve the Beatles business partnership. Any lingering hope fans and the bandmates themselves held out for a real reunion were obliterated when John Lennon was murdered by a deranged fan outside his apartment in New York City in 1980. The three remaining Beatles reunited in 1994 for The Beatles Anthology, a series of releases that included added tracks to two songs Lennon recorded before he died, Real Love and Free as a Bird.

George Harrison died of cancer in 2001, leaving only Paul and Ringo as the surviving members.

So it is that from the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' first appearance in America, we are looking at a host of 50th anniversaries over the rest of the remaining decade. Each of those will be an opportunity to do something else the Beatles did incredibly well: make money. 

The Grammy tribute, "The Night That Changed America," was taped Monday, Jan. 27, the day after the Grammy Awards, and will air Feb. 9 on CBS  (CBS), 50 years to the very hour of the Beatles' original Ed Sullivan Show appearance.

In Part 3 of this series, coming next Friday, Feb. 7, we will look at some of the people making money from the Beatles anniversaries and some of the big re-releases and other products to expect over the coming years.

Read: Science Has Determined the Best Beatle


-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park and New York 

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