Back in 1967, the MP and philosopher Bryan Magee ventured a prediction in the Listener magazine. “Does anyone seriously believe” he asked, “that Beatles music will be an unthinkingly accepted part of daily life all over the world in the 2000s?”
My old Latin teacher would no doubt have identified this as an example of a question expecting the answer ‘no’. But over half a century later, and well into the 2000s, it’s safe to say that Magee got it wrong. Thinkingly or unthinkingly, The Beatles are indeed an accepted part of daily life all over the world.
There are now reckoned to be over a thousand Beatles tribute acts across the globe. When I was in Liverpool for the annual Beatles festival, I watched The Bertils from Sweden, Best Beat from Serbia (crowned “one of the 30 most prominent Beatles tribute bands on the planet” by Newsweek), The Bits from Hungary, Clube Big Beatles from Brazil and The Norwegian Beatles, who came billed as “probably the world’s northernmost Beatles tribute band.”
Many of these groups—The Tefeatles from Guatemala, Rubber Soul from Brazil, the Nowhere Boys from Colombia, Abbey Road from Spain—have been together longer than The Beatles: Britain’s Bootleg Beatles and Australia’s Beatnix have both been going for forty years or more.
This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the Beatles’ break-up. If you go back fifty years from the year 1957, when John Lennon first bumped into Paul McCartney, you arrive in 1907, when King Edward V11 was on the throne, Theodore Roosevelt was in the White House and the most popular music was by Scott Joplin and Enrico Caruso.
Though they once seem so temporary, they now concertina time in the most extraordinary way. The leader of the brass section on All You Need Is Love was a 41 year old Professor at the Royal College of Music called David Mason. In 1958, Mason had played the flugelhorn at the premiere of Vaughan Williams’ 9th Symphony, in the presence of the composer himself. Williams was at that time 85 years old, and died three weeks later. For the first ten years of his life, he had known his great-uncle, Charles Darwin. So we can go from Charles Darwin to John Lennon in just three handshakes.
Just as remarkably, Paul McCartney once called in on Bertrand Russell, who lived down the road from him. Russell had enjoyed childhood meetings with William Gladstone, who himself used to breakfast with the elderly William Wordsworth. So it’s “Blackbird’ to “Daffodils” in three encounters.
Against all the odds, the Beatles have endured. When they first hit the big time, back in 1964, they were always being asked what they were going to do when the bubble burst, so much so that, at a Press Conference in Kansas City in September 1964, when a reporter began: “It’s assumed that you will sing for quite some time yet, but what do you plan to do… ” the 21 year old George able to complete the question: “…when the bubble bursts.”
As it happened, Ringo, probably the most pragmatic of the four, was already making plans for just such an eventuality: he was going to open a chain of hairdressing salons in the North West of England.
Despite Magee’s prediction, their music eked its way into every corner of our lives. When Paul McCartney visited Moscow in May 2003, President Putin told him that hearing the Beatles as a boy growing up in the Soviet Union was “like a gulp of freedom”. On that same visit, President Gorbachev told Paul: “I do believe the music of the Beatles taught the young people of the Soviet Union that there is another life.”
In 2010, President Obama spoke of how The Beatles had changed America. “It’s hard to believe that it’s been nearly half a century since four lads from Liverpool landed on our shores and changed everything overnight” he said, “…In a few short years, they had changed the way that we listened to music, thought about music, and performed music, forever. They helped to lay the soundtrack for an entire generation—an era of endless possibility and of great change.” And even our own dear Queen, never the most conspicuous of groovers, paid tribute to them on the occasion of her golden wedding anniversary in 1997. “What a remarkable fifty years they have been for the world…” she said, “Think what we would have missed if we had never heard of the Beatles.”
Why the Beatles? At one point in my new book “One Two Three Four: The Beatles in Time”, I toy with the notion that, in some parallel universe, it was Gerry and the Pacemakers who became the most celebrated group of the 20th century, while their early rivals, The Beatles, are now known only for performing in Sixties Revival Tours and making personal appearances at Gerry and the Pacemakers conventions.
In this other world, Gerry Marsden was taken up by the ambitious Japanese conceptual artist Yoko Ono, and went to live with her in New York. In 1980, he was shot dead outside their apartment by a deranged fan. Today, Beatles’ members John and Paul tour Britain with their “tribute to Gerry and the Pacemakers show”, thrilling audiences with their exact rendition of “You’ll Never Walk Alone”. Touchingly, they still perform one or two of their own, more recent numbers – Yesterday and A Hard Day’s Night – in each set. “We sneak ’em in, even if no-one wants to hear ’em!” quips John. Meanwhile, Ringo Starr, having retired in 1966, now owns and manages a successful chain of hairdressing salons throughout the North West.
As it happened, history failed to follow that particular byway, but the more I found out about the Beatles’ early lives, the more random and chancy their story appeared. For instance, in June, 1957, Paul, a bright boy, was encouraged to take two of his GCE O-level exams—Spanish and Latin—a year early. Had he revised harder, he would have gone up a year at school, as planned. As it was, he passed Spanish but failed Latin, so had to remain in the Remove, alongside boys a year younger. This meant that he was forced to make friends with a little boy he would never have deigned to speak to had he gone up a year. So, if Paul had passed his Latin GCE, George Harrison would never have become a Beatle.
What if Paul’s friend Ivan Vaughan had never suggested they drop by the church fete in Woolton the following month? It’s unlikely Paul would ever have met John. What if the shy young classical music afficianado Brian Epstein hadn’t popped into the Cavern on a whim on on 9 November 1961? And what if Epstein had given up on the Beatles, having received his umpteenth thumb’s-down from record executives?
In its haphazard way, providence brought these four very different characters together. Their variety was their essence. Other groups had a front man; your favorite was pre-selected for you. But there was a Beatle to suit every taste. Each personified a different element: John fire, Paul water, George air, Ringo earth. Central to their art was the sharply contrasting combination of John and Paul. The EMI recording engineer Geoff Emerick watched them at work over a number of years. “They couldn’t have been two more different people. Paul was meticulous and organized, he always carried a notebook around with him, in which he methodically wrote down lyrics and chord changes in his neat handwriting. In contrast, John seemed to live in chaos: he was constantly searching for scraps of paper that he’d scribbled hurried ideas on. Paul was a natural communicator; John couldn’t articulate his ideas well. Paul was the diplomat; John was the agitator. Paul was soft-spoken and almost unfailingly polite; John could be a loudmouth and quite rude.”
The peculiar power of the Beatles’ music, its magic and its beauty, lies in the intermingling of these opposites. As John saw it, when they were composing together, Paul “provided a lightness, an optimism, while I would always go for the sadness, the discords, a certain bluesy edge”. It was this tension that made their greatest music so expressive, capable of being universal and particular at one and the same time. Other groups were raucous or reflective, progressive or traditional, solemn or upbeat, folksy or sexy or aggressive. But when you hear a Beatles album, you feel that all human life is there. Many of their songs have bright melodies but dark lyrics, or dark melodies but bright lyrics. The words of Help! Run For Your Life, Misery and Maxwell’s Silver Hammer are all about depression and psychosis, but they are set to jaunty tunes. Paul comes up with “We can work it out” and John immediately undercuts it: “Life is very short.” Paul sings, “It’s getting better” and John butts in with “Can’t get much worse”.
As I was to discover, the people who surrounded them were every bit as various, almost like characters from an Ealing comedy. Some of the key figures, like John’s Aunt Mimi, stood in sharp contrast to the easy-going liberal ethos of the Sixties. Nowadays her old house, Mendips, is owned by the National Trust, and sports a blue plaque. The National Trust guide, a retired teacher called Colin, introduces three tours a day by denouncing Aunt Mimi as a snob. This is not the sort of thing one usually hears from National Trust guides, who tend to be tweedy types, sturdy apologists for snobs and snobbery, and stalwart defenders of the former occupants of their stately homes. But not Colin. “She would cast her withering looks on the people who lived on the council estate. She’d call them “Common” because they lived in social housing. And so did my Mum. And that’s because Mimi was a snob and so was my Mum! They were both SNOBS!”
But, for me, Aunt Mimi stands in the proud tradition of British aunts – bossy, determined, no-nonsense, imperious – as memorialized by P.G. Wodehouse and Richmal. Without her, John would have had nothing to rebel against. Even after he had become one of the four most famous young men on earth, she would criticize the way he dressed and the way he spoke. To a 13 year old Beatles fan who had seen John on television, she wrote, “When he came home, I said, “John, what’s all this about, what’s happened to your voice? He didn’t really talk like that. I brought him up properly, not to talk like a ruffian.” And on the release of Two Virgins, with its notorious cover photograph of John and Yoko naked, she made her feelings plain. “It would have been all right, John, but you’re both so ugly. Why don’t you get somebody attractive on the cover if you’ve got to have someone completely naked?”
The other characters in the Beatles orbit were every bit as colorful. They included the anguished Brian Epstein; the suave and sympathetic George Martin, whose background was as poor and downtrodden as Ringo’s, but whose wartime stint in the RAF had transformed him into a gent; John’s ne’erdowell father, Fred, who released his own, dreadful single, “That’s My Life”, on the back of John’s success; and “Magic Alex” Mardas, a Greek conman paid roughly 4 million pounds by The Beatles on the promise of producing miraculous inventions such as a paint that made objects invisible, a house that hovers in the air on an invisible beam and “loudpaper” a form of audible wallpaper.
For four years, Paul lived with Jane Asher’s arty and sophisticated family in Wimpole Street. Jane’s mother, Margaret was a teacher at the Royal College of Music; she was related to Alfred Lord Tennyson; her father had been T.E. Lawrence’s solicitor. I particularly warmed to Jane’s father, Dr Richard Asher, a pioneering endocrinologist who in 1951 had named and identified Munchausen’s Syndrome, the mental disorder that drives individuals to fabricate symptoms of illness. Reading his witty articles in the British Medical Journal on subjects such as “The Dangers of Going to Bed” and “Why are Medical Journals So Dull”, was one of the unexpected pleasures of researching my book. Paul had an extraordinary aptitude for self-improvement, and relished being part of this civilized household, where culture was valued.
In the music room of the Asher home, he wrote “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, “Here, There and Everywhere”, “And I Love Her”, “Yesterday” and many other Beatles songs, most of them flowing from his fertile young mind in no more than an hour or two, as if by magic.
Many, like Bryan Magee dismissed them at the time. Noel Coward considered them “bad mannered little shits”. William F. Buckley thought them “unbelievably horrible”. Anthony Burgess prayed that a special circle of hell would be set aside for them, where they would be bound to “a white-hot turntable, stuck all over with blunt and rusty acoustic needles, each tooth hollowed to the raw nerve”. But, much to the despair of their critics, the Beatles’ bubble never burst. Instead, it grew larger and larger, and now, fifty years on, it contains the whole world.
Craig Brown is the author of more than fifteen books, among them the New York Times bestseller Ninety-Nine Glimpses of Princess Margaret, and was a finalist for a National Book Critics Circle Award. He has been a columnist for The Guardian, The Times (London), Spectator, and The Daily Telegraph, and currently writes for The Daily Mail.