Even 50 years after their breakup, the Beatles still hold the distinction of "greatest band ever" for IPR's Mark Simmet. Here's why.
John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison formed the Beatles in 1960, with various changes of personnel resulting in Ringo Starr completing the quartet in 1962. The Liverpool band released their first single in late 1962, became popular in their native England (and other European countries) in 1963, and a sensation in the United States in early 1964. Although the Beatles essentially were over by late 1969, the world didn't know about it until April of 1970.
That means the Beatles existed for only about ten years. That's amazing considering the amount of music they made, the ground they covered, and the influence they continue to have. Of course, the Beatles weren't the only band doing groundbreaking work in the 1960s, but they were so in tune with that decade's cultural changes that it seemed to many that the group itself was responsible for those changes. They weren't, but they were still the greatest band of that era and beyond.
They so perfectly laid down the template for what a rock band can do and how it can develop, from playing loud, fast rock 'n' roll covers in dive bars to writing their own songs with lyrics from their own experiences and imaginations. They also played with a new sound derived from their many influences, influences that included English music hall songs, traditional songs, American rock 'n' roll, Motown, Bob Dylan and more.
"Paperback Writer" is from May 1966, toward the end of their reign as teen idols and just a few months before they decided to stop touring. The Beatles did not stick with what had made them incredibly successful; they followed an artistic path in a commercial world. And as they did, their audience grew with them.
It wasn't just the skill sets of the four band members that made them the greatest band. Of all the so-called "fifth Beatles," producer George Martin was the most vital. Martin studied and recorded classical music, but he also produced comedy and novelty records in the 1950s. As the Beatles moved into their psychedelic period, George Martin provided both gounding and encouragement as he always did. He knew the studio, and he was willing to push the boundaries of what could be done there.
"Strawberry Fields Forever" came early in the sessions that produced the "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" album in June 1967. The reputation of that album rests on the fruition of the Beatles as a "studio band," open to new musical ideas and recording innovations. "Sgt. Pepper" came at a moment when it was possible for the right band to be both avant-garde and mainstream. After its release, every other band in the world wanted to do the same thing. For many years afterward, the record was routinely aknowledged as the Greatest Rock Album. That status was due to its place in history. (Personally, I think "Revolver" is a better album.)
The Beatles moved from psychedelic music to what would come to be called "roots rock," an amalgam of styles that can include R&B, folk, country, blues and gospel. Those styles had long been part of the group's palette, but now they wanted to get back to music that could be played without added studio techniques and manipulations.
This new attitude on their part led to the "Get Back" sessions, recorded and filmed in January 1969. The project was considered a failure by the band and most of the music was not released. The Beatles went on to record and release "Abbey Road" later in 1969.
The "Get Back" sessions came out in May 1970 as the "Let It Be" album. A documentary film of the sessions was released at the same time. The highlight of that film is the Beatles' January 1969 London rooftop concert.
There are plans for a 50th anniversary "Let It Be" album (along with previously unreleased music from the sessions), a restored cut of the 1970 "Let It Be" movie, and a new "Get Back" documentary (with previously unseen footage) from Peter Jackson.
Clearly, there is still a great deal of interest in the Beatles. Innovative songwriters, talented (but not virtuoso) players, excellent vocalists and harmonizers, expert purveyers of the pop single, pioneers of the album as art form, recording studio innovators, music video pioneers, founders of their own label, psychedelic popularizers, introducers of Eastern spirituality and influencers of men's hairstyles.
Fifty years after they ended, the Beatles remain an inspiration to aspiring bands and music lovers alike.