Why the Beatles

I’ve spent a lot of time in Mexico lately, and some of my younger friends there have asked why there is such a mystique surrounding the Beatles. So here are my thoughts, especially for my younger friends who know something big was happening at the time but crave more context on the Beatlemania that swept the world in the 1960s.

They only released 12 studio albums over 7 years, but in shaping the modern (post-Elvis) era of music, no other band comes close. 11 of those 12 albums reached #1 on the charts (and the 12th peaked at #2). Nearly every song on every album was a hit. When I look today at Rolling Stone magazine’s list of top 100 Beatles songs, I can sing at least 85 of them right now off the top of my head, and so can many people without even realizing it. No other band has seeped into the popular imagination in quite that way. As an indication of their dominance, even the last song on the Rolling Stone list, #100, reached #1 on the singles charts. During some years, they were releasing hit songs so fast that they were taking up all the spots (e.g., there was at least one week in the mid-1960s when three of the top five songs were all Beatles songs). Keith Richards, who was there at the 1960s epicenter as lead guitarist for the Rolling Stones, once said that there would be no Rolling Stones without the Beatles, because “they kicked the door in” for the Stones and everyone else to follow. (You can see Keith, Mick Jagger, and others in a couple of the later Beatles clips below, as they were usually hanging around for the taping.)

Ozzy Osbourne, whose Satanic antics with his late 60s proto-metal band, Black Sabbath, earned him the nickname “The Prince of Darkness,” was once talking to one of the Sex Pistols in the mid-70s London punk scene. The Sex Pistol (I forget which one) said he didn’t like the Beatles. Ozzy’s response was typical Ozzy: “There’s something fucking wrong with you,” was all he said. But he later added: “For a musician in 1970s London, saying you don’t like the Beatles is like saying you don’t like oxygen.”

The revolutionary work of the Beatles – culturally and musically – is less clear now than it was then, partly (1) because they shaped the sound of music so much to their own image that they now sound like just “one of those 1960s bands,” and (2) their own evolution from beautiful pop love songs to psychedelic rock and experimental sounds, though rapid, was steady enough that no one point seems revolutionary (although some would focus on the 1967 release of the Sgt Pepper’s album as that point). So yes, there were many great bands in the mid-60s to mid-70s reshaping the sonic universe of music, and some of them you might like more than the Beatles, but most of them looked back at the Beatles as the groundbreakers.

Here are a few songs in historical order:

(If it helps measure historical impact, note that even what I’ve listed as “late” Beatles came before the emergence of Pink Floyd or Led Zeppelin or the Woodstock festival.)

Early Beatles (1964) https://vimeo.com/241059239
Middle Beatles (1966) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yYvkICbTZIQ
Late Beatles (1967): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=usNsCeOV4GM

And bonus songs/videos from 1967-68:
Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds (1967) https://vimeo.com/249451145
All You Need Is Love (1967) https://vimeo.com/214047758
Revolution (1968) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=AFckPkukF7g

Click covers below for links.

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