100 Greatest Artists

1

The Beatles

Illustration by Paul Davis

I first heard of the Beatles when I was nine years old. I spent most of my holidays on Merseyside then, and a local girl gave me a bad publicity shot of them with their names scrawled on the back. This was 1962 or '63, before they came to America. The photo was badly lit, and they didn't quite have their look down; Ringo had his hair slightly swept back, as if he wasn't quite sold on the Beatles haircut yet. I didn't care; they were the band for me. The funny thing is that parents and all their friends from Liverpool were also curious and proud about this local group. Prior to that, the people in show business from the north of England had all been comedians. Come to think of it, the Beatles recorded for Parlophone, which was known as a comedy label.

I was exactly the right age to be hit by them full on. My experience — seizing on every picture, saving money for singles and EPs, catching them on a local news show — was repeated over and over again around the world. It was the first time anything like this had happened on this scale. But it wasn't just about the numbers.

Every record was a shock when it came out. Compared to rabid R&B evangelists like the Rolling Stones, the Beatles arrived sounding like nothing else. They had already absorbed Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Chuck Berry, but they were also writing their own songs. They made writing your own material expected, rather than exceptional.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney were exceptional songwriters; McCartney was, and is, a truly virtuoso musician; George Harrison wasn't the kind of guitar player who tore off wild, unpredictable solos, but you can sing the melodies of nearly all of his breaks. Most important, they always fit right into the arrangement. Ringo Starr played the drums with an incredibly unique feel that nobody can really copy, although many fine drummers have tried and failed. Most of all, John and Paul were fantastic singers.

Lennon, McCartney and Harrison had stunningly high standards as writers. Imagine releasing a song like "Ask Me Why" or "Things We Said Today" as a B side. These records were events, and not just advance notice of an album release.

Then they started to really grow up. They went from simple love lyrics to adult stories like "Norwegian Wood," which spoke of the sour side of love, and on to bigger ideas than you would expect to find in catchy pop lyrics.

They were pretty much the first group to mess with the aural perspective of their recordings and have it be more than just a gimmick. Before the Beatles, you had guys in lab coats doing recording experiments in the Fifties, but you didn't have rockers deliberately putting things out of balance, like a quiet vocal in front of a loud track on "Strawberry Fields Forever." You can't exaggerate the license that this gave to everyone from Motown to Jimi Hendrix.

My absolute favorite albums are Rubber Soul and Revolver. When you picked up Revolver, you knew it was something different. Heck, they are wearing sunglasses indoors in the picture on the back of the cover and not even looking at the camera ... and the music was so strange and yet so vivid. If I had to pick a favorite song from those albums, it would be "And Your Bird Can Sing" ... no, "Girl" ... no, "For No One" ... and so on, and so on....

Their breakup album, Let It Be, contains songs both gorgeous and jagged. I remember going to Leicester Square and seeing the film of Let It Be in 1970. I left with a melancholy feeling.

The word "Beatlesque" has been in the dictionary for a while now. I can hear them in the Prince album Around the World in a Day; in Ron Sexsmith's tunes; in Harry Nilsson's melodies. You can hear that Kurt Cobain listened to the Beatles and mixed them in with punk and metal.

I've co-written some songs with Paul McCartney and performed with him in concert on a few occasions. During one rehearsal, I was singing harmony on a Ricky Nelson song, and Paul called out the next tune: "All My Loving." I said, "Do you want me to take the harmony line the second time round?" And he said, "Yeah, give it a try." I'd only had 35 years to learn the part. It was a very poignant performance, witnessed only by the crew and other artists on the bill.

At the show, it was very different. The second he sang the opening lines — "Close your eyes, and I'll kiss you" — the crowd's reaction was so intense that it all but drowned the song out. It was very thrilling but also rather disconcerting. Perhaps I understood in that moment one of the reasons why the Beatles had to stop performing. The songs weren't theirs anymore. They were everybody's.

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