Martin Lewis - In His Own Write

Daytrippin' Magazine - Issue 8
by Martin Lewis
(First published November 1999)


Were the Beatles the Band of the Millennium? Or at least the band of the Century? Probably. I mean yes - obviously.

It's not any doubt on my part about the Beatles' talent that causes me to hesitate in anointing them with this title. Just my general disdain of such dubious lists.

For a start, such lists are inevitably prepared towards the end of the time period in question. End of the year... decade... century etc. And for the same reasons that movie studios have taken to releasing their prime Oscar candidates in the last few months of the year - these lists inevitably end up disproportionately dominated by the most recent names.

The studios have noticed that most Academy members seem to vote just for films that are released in the last 3 months of the year. So they stack their 'Oscar-worthy' films in that quarter.

I guess it's that's mentality which led to VH1 putting on a TV special recently - titled "The Concert of the Century" that included performances from En Sync and a few other flavors of the month! "The Concert of the Late 90's" might have been a better title!

Not to say definitively that En Sync don't belong in a concert of the century (ahem! - maybe the 21st century!) but simply that any meaningful list covering a period of time has to feature names that have had a chance to stand the test of time.

Now the vast majority of people reading this column are devoted Beatles fans. And among those of us who were around in the 60's - we would have probably declared the Beatles as artists of the century as early as 1964.

Now - as it happens we'd have been right. Eventually. But in truth it WOULD have been premature to say that back then. We'd have just seemed like obsessed fans (which we were!) While we might have suspected it then - we couldn't truly know that their music would last this long. We might have hoped. But we couldn't be sure.

However there were two people who really WERE sure as early as 1964. In that year manager Brian Epstein wrote in his autobiography "Cellarful Of Noise" about the magical qualities of the band and how those would sustain their popularity far into the future. He always said that the Beatles would be bigger than Elvis. And he was totally correct.

And later in 1964 - my hero, mentor and first boss - Beatles publicist Derek Taylor - wrote these supremely prescient words about the long-term prospects for the Fabs - for the liner notes of "Beatles For Sale":

"The kids of AD 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well being and warmth as we do today. For the magic of the Beatles is, I suspect, timeless and ageless. It has cut through differences of race, age and class. It is adored by the world."

(God bless you Derek - my Ringolevio pal! - you really did know... And how sad that you were taken from us before the year 2000. It would have been so wonderful to toast you for your prediction coming true. But even though you didn't make it till 2000, when we met up for the last time in 1995 at the time of the "Anthology" you KNEW that your prophecy was being fulfilled... )

It is certainly the case that the usual measure of classic art and entertainment is how it holds up over a period of time. And in particular how it plays with an an audience other than the original fans.

There are undoubtedly some skeptics out there who wonder why the Beatles have won so many plaudits in all the recent lists of the century's best.

I'm usually wary because of course the people voting on these lists are commenting not just on musicians whose work they are familiar with - but also on people who died long before they were born.

Furthermore they - and we - are in the bizarre position of comparing apples and oranges. How do we compare The Beatles with Ma Rainey - the great blues singer. Bob Dylan with Cole Porter... Elvis Presley with Scott Joplin... On some levels it makes no sense at all.

Because there is never a level playing field. When Scott Joplin developed the bluesy piano playing of the bordello into the syncopated quasi-classical genius of ragtime - technology was primitive. So only a tiny fraction of the number of people who 50 years later heard the Beatles, could have heard Joplin perform.

But all of that eventually evens out in the wash. In the 90's far more people could theoretically see Madonna than could have ever seen the Beatles. The advent of 24-hour music TV channels, home video and other technical breakthroughs has made music even more accessible now than it was in the 60's.

So what ultimately matters is what impact the artist has on the culture and society after a reasonable passage of time. And the impact on other artists. Particularly when one can gauge how the work in question plays with a generation other than the fans who grew up with it.

That's how the genius of Shakespeare, Dickens, Mark Twain, Mozart, Beethoven and Bessie Smith has proved itself.

(Of course this means that it's still too early to tell whether there will be any sustained longevity to the great recordings of Right Said Fred! Give 'em a few thousand years!)

So what were the facets of the Beatles that transcended time and allowed them to legitimately be considered such an essential part of the century's cultural fabric?

It was a multiplicity of factors. The music? Yes of course. But certainly not the music alone. It was the personality of the Beatles as much as anything else. That and the time period in which the Beatles explosion took place.

The Beatles arrived at a time when the very fulcrum of time and technology was changing. When the entire world was at the beginning of a technological revolution. In some senses it was not unlike the current new frontiers of the Internet.

Not so much the aspect of a NEW technology. More in the quantum leaps of how an emerging technology suddenly became widely available.

There was an enormous economic boom in the 60's - which meant that the teenage masses suddenly had access to disposable income. Items which had previously been only one per household - could now be owned by everyone. Teenagers had money to splash out on their own record players and personal radios. (You kids with your own computers, TVs, CD players and personal nuclear missile systems may not understand how revolutionary it was in the 60's to have your own little radio!)

There was one other factor that absolutely contributed to the speed and velocity of the Beatles' success in America.

And that was the tragedy of JFK's assassination.

The Beatles were always going to succeed in America. They were like a tidal force of history. They had already made such a huge impact in Britain and Europe in 1963 that there was no way that America would have been able to resist the sheer impact of the Beatles.

But the coincidence of the timing of the Beatles' arrival in America certainly made a difference in the speed of their breakthrough.

America was in a deep trauma. A generation that had been born into the prosperous yet generally geriatric 1950's came of age in an exciting early 1960's with a young charismatic leader. For the first time in modern history a leader as young as the generation he led was in the seat of power . Everything seemed possible....

Except of course the treacherous act which took him from us. (It was a harbinger of the great loss we would feel when Bobby Kennedy, Martin Luther King - and then finally - our own John Lennon - were so wickedly taken from us.)

[WE INTERRUPT THIS COLUMN FOR A BRIEF POLITICAL MESSAGE! Support gun control and all those who work for it! Campaign vigorously against the NRA and its misguided political lackeys! Thank you. We now return you to the regularly scheduled column.]

Into that aching chasm... that gaping wound of innocence-lost - stepped the Beatles. The sheer exuberance of their personalities. their zest for life and the giddy charm of their self-deprecatory wit all filled the vacuum.

The collective hunger and unspoken yearning for some relief from the pain was palpable, Like balm on a naked wound - the Beatles soothed the wound - and then, within weeks, lifted the world's spirits into the stratosphere. We didn't come down again till the brutal reality of 1970 - and the sadness of the Beatles' break-up.

Had the Beatles arrived in America in September 1963 or September 1964 - their reception would still have been momentous. The sheer novelty of their haircuts (yes those mop tops looked like long hair in those crewcut days!) their bubbly personalities and their rollickingly optimistic music would have gathered SOME attention.

But the media lust for the Beatles was partly fueled by the desire for a positive upbeat story.

When JFK died, his place was immediately taken by the Vice-President - Lyndon Johnson - a man who in comparison to JFK looked like a doddering grandfather. We had instantly returned to a traditional patriarchal style leader of the Eisenhower generation. The dream of the younger generation ruling itself was shattered.

Now it's not as though either the media or the public sat down and planned this. Teenage girls didn't suddenly say "Gosh I'm depressed by JFK's death. I'm wide open to a new long-haired teenage phenomenon from England to take my mind off things!" Editors and TV producers didn't say "Hmm... This will divert the attention of a distressed populace!" It was just the result of a natural spontaneous yearning for 'a smile that would lighten everything.'

Lastly, had the Beatles done no more than entertain us all with the joyous music of their formative pop years (1962-1965) - they would have certainly earned a place in those lists of the century as a teenage phenomenon. Though maybe not in the number one position. What elevated the Beatles to their rightly invincible position as "the latest and the greatest of them all" - was their relentless quest for creative growth. "Progression" we called it in those halcyon days.

Before the Beatles - pop entertainers had NOT progressed. They had become BETTER - but better at doing the SAME things.

So a Sinatra or a Presley or an Ella Fitzgerald matured and gained greater mastery of their vocal talents - and their ability to interpret and deliver a lyric. But they didn't PROGRESS creatively.

The Beatles did. And in doing so - lifted all of us to a higher plane. They broke the rules - and laid them out for all to see. Every contemporary music artist who followed them took a little from them. What started out as a simple quest just to try and make every song sound a little different from the previous one - resulted in a full-on renaissance of gargantuan proportions.

They revolutionized songwriting, recording technique and showed everyone that the only limits were the ones we impose on ourselves. And they created words and music that touched our brains, hearts and souls - and even our little booties! All at the same time.

And you didn't need to be there. The music is as fresh and effective today to someone hearing it for the first time - as it is for those of us listening for the millionth time. That - my friends - is magic.

I'm going to leave the last words of this edition's column to my dear pal Derek - who said it all better than anyone else.

This is his brilliant summation of the Beatles that he gave me for our interview (the last TV interview he ever gave) - in November 1995. (I love and miss you Derek...)

"They had it all. They had charm and cheek and impudence and glamor. They were new... original... fresh... good-looking... from Liverpool. They could write songs like no one else. And they engaged with the best part of the human spirit. The part that's optimistic and full of self-esteem... that says 'Anyone can do it.' It was a great welling up of confidence. They tapped into the best part of the human condition.

"The Beatles will always be here. Long after you and I are gone. Long after even today's new Beatles fans... next year's Beatles fans who will be joining the club. The Beatles are going to out-last all of us...."

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