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Exactly 50 years ago, four lads from Liverpool came together around a guitar to make music. They gave us yellow submarines and marmalade skies and told us that strawberry fields were forever. The tabla and sitar found their way into their melodies. They continue to inspire musicians in metal, punk and rock like no other band. Imagine a world without the Beatles. It isn't easy. No matter how hard you try...
In the sixties, there were the Beatles, and there was everybody else. The Liverpudlians didn't start with a bang. Their tryst with the music industry was far from glamourous. Brian Epstein, the band's first manager, huffed and puffed his way to London several times to meet record companies, but was faithfully rejected. When the Beatles did secure an audition with Decca A & R on New Year's Day in 1962, the company representative wasn't impressed. In what was to be one of music history's most famous snubs, Decca man Dick Rowe flatly told Epstein that "guitar groups are on the way out" and that "the Beatles have no future in show business". Many years later, John Lennon would compare his band with another man, a religious leader, who also was slow off the block, but went on to conquer the world anyway.
One of the 20th century's most important introductions took place on July 6, 1957 at a church fete in a Liverpool parish. That evening, John Lennon met Paul Mc-Cartney for the first time. John was 17, Paul 15. Lennon was impressed by McCartney's natural ability to sing the songs Lennon's band, The Quarrymen, was struggling with. It was the beginning of the most iconic songwriting partnership in music history. Soon, the Beatles would become the first British band to write their own music, and the duo's suave vocal harmonies and crystal-clean sound would make even established superstars like Simon & Garfunkel sound predictable.
When the Beatles first emerged from the woodwork, nobody was prepared for the musical and cultural onslaught they would unleash, least of all them. But they got used to it pretty quickly. Beatlemania swept through England like the flu. When John Lennon opened his mouth, everyone else shut theirs. On their 1964 tour of the US, tens of thousands thronged the airports hoping to catch a glimpse of the Fab Four. In the hotels they occupied, teenage girls chased them down corridors screaming, dying to have sex with a Beatle. In Adelaide, Australia, 300, 000 fans, one-third of the city's population, lined the streets as the Beatles' motorcade drove by. At concerts around the world, teenagers yelled and wept hysterically, several of them fainting at the first sound of George Harrison's guitar.
Some musicologists believe that the Beatles were partly responsible for the fall of socialism. In the erstwhile USSR, the Beatles and electric guitars were banned. Since vinyl production was highly controlled, fans became scientists to satiate their love for the band. High-quality films of medical X-rays were used to make records. If a record was held up to the light, bones appeared. Telephone receivers' microphones were used as guitar pick-ups, which resulted in large-scale vandalism of public phones;piano strings were used to make bass guitars. The Iron Curtain simply could not keep Sgt Pepper and his music out.
The Beatles were a band for ten years before they fell apart. Over these years, they evolved steadily, both as musicians and lyricists. In the early sixties, cheerful, straightforward harmonies characterised the band;the music was peppy and the lyrics simple. Slowly, they began to push the boundaries of rock 'n' roll;every new album brought musical innovation. By the late sixties, their style had become increasingly complex;it now incorporated elements of Indian classical music (Norwegian wood) and psychedelia (Lucy in sky with diamonds). The lyrics, too, changed from simplistic (Love me do, I want to hold your hand) to the philosophical (Yesterday, Eleanor Rigby) and political (Blackbird). Amazingly, the Beatles managed to carry out all this experimentation while retaining the fresh sound and quality of their early work. Their formula was simple: two guitars, one bass, one drum kit, four geniuses. One of their main inspirations was Elvis Presley. "If there was no Elvis Presley, there would not have been the Beatles, " Lennon was later to say.
Music had the stellar role to play in the cult of the Beatles but there were other factors too. The untidy mop-top hairdo, the happy-go-lucky songs about teenage love and romance, their good looks (they probably wouldn't be so popular had Lennon looked like Wayne Rooney), their interest in Eastern spirituality, their irreverence and controversial interviews. No other band has had such a lasting effect on the pop culture scene. Primarily responsible for this was the manner in which they fused British and
American pop culture. They were the first British band to storm the US, and led the way for what is known as the British Invasion;in fact, the Beatles were the first 'band' to hit mainstream popularity, the previous greats - Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Dean Martin, Tony Bennett and Frank Sinatra - were all solo artistes. Their fusion of pop, rock 'n' roll and R&B simply swept away the competition and more or less wrote the obituary of London's professional songwriters.
The Beatles also broke the dominance of recording studios. Prior to them, studios ruled the roost. They told bands what to record, how to record and when to record. With the Beatles' soaring popularity, EMI-owned Parlophone records gave them a free hand. Perfect for songwriters like Lennon and McCartney, whose open-ears policy allowed their sound to expand from simple rock 'n' roll to complex genres like psychedelia (Rubber Soul), punk (Revolution) and even, perhaps, metal (Helter Skelter). They sometimes even recorded in independent studios. Despite all this, they are till today the highestselling rock band of all time.
Today, the biggest names in music doff their caps to the Fab Four. The entire metal genre, for instance. Ozzy Osbourne, iconic frontman of metal pioneers Black Sabbath, consistently states that he got into music because he wanted to become a Beatle.
The Gallagher brothers of Oasis, who spearheaded the Britpop revolution in the nineties, used to drop the Beatles' name in practically every interview (also, Liam Gallagher named his son Lennon). The Rolling Stones, a cover band, started writing originals after meeting McCartney and Lennon. Sir Elton John, The Byrds, Beach Boys, Pink Floyd, Elvis Costello, Lenny Kravitz and The Grateful Dead among others have all credited the Beatles at some time or the other in their careers. Yesterday continues to be the most covered song in history.
In the post-split era, the individual Beatles recorded prolifically, occasionally with one or more of the other members. Ringo Starr's Ringo, in 1973, was the only record to feature all four, but on different songs. Lennon was shot dead by a deranged fan in 1980, and Harrison lost his battle with cancer in 2001. Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr are still active, but two Beatles performing in isolation are not half the band they used to be. The Beatles were the only band to have all the Beatles in one band. It makes us long for Yesterday.
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