Bob Dylan, The Beatles, and the Rock & Roll of the 60s

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But when Brian Epstein — a Liverpool record-store manager who was aspiring to a more eventful life — first saw the Beatles at one of the city's cellar jazz clubs, the Cavern, he saw a band that not only delivered its American obsessions with infectious verve but also reflected British youth's joyful sense of being cultural outsiders, ready to seize everything that it had been refused. What's more, Epstein figured that the British pop scene would recognize and seize on this kinship. As the group's manager, Epstein cleaned up the Beatles' punkness considerably, but he didn't deny the group its spirit or its musical instincts, and in a markedly short time, his faith paid off. A year after "Love Me Do" peaked at Number Seventeen in the New Musical Express charts, the Beatles had six singles active in the Top Twenty in the same week, including the three top positions — an unprecedented and still unduplicated feat. In the process, Lennon and McCartney had grown enormously as writers — in fact, they were already one of the best composing teams in pop history — and the group itself had upended the local pop scene, establishing a hierarchy of long-haired male ensembles playing a popwise but hard-bashing update of 1950s-style rock & roll. But there was more to it than mere pop success. In less than a year, the Beatles had transformed British pop culture — had redefined not just its intensities and possibilities but had turned it into a matter of nationalistic impetus.

100 Greatest Artists of All Time: The Beatles

Then, on February 9th, 1964, following close on the frenzied breakthrough of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "She Loves You," the TV variety-show kingpin Ed Sullivan presented the Beatles for the first time to a mass American audience, and it proved to be an epochal moment. The Sullivan appearance drew more than 70 million viewers — the largest TV audience ever, at that time — an event that cut across divisions of style and region and drew new divisions of era and age; an event that, like Presley's TV appearances, made rock & roll seem an irrefutable opportunity. Within days it was apparent that a genuine upheaval was underway, offering a frenetic distraction to the dread that had set into America after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and a renewal of the brutally wounded ideal that youthfulness carried our national hope. Elvis Presley had shown us how rebellion could be fashioned into eye-opening style; the Beatles were showing us how style could have the impact of cultural revelation — or at least how a pop vision might be forged into an unimpeachable consensus. Virtually overnight, the Beatles' arrival in the American consciousness announced not only that the music and times were changing but also that we were changing. Everything about the band — its look, sound, style and abandon — made it plain that we were entering a different age, that young people were free to redefine themselves in completely new terms.

All of which raises an interesting question: Would the decade's pop and youth scenes have been substantially different without the Beatles? Or were the conditions such that, given the right catalyst, an ongoing pop explosion was inevitable? Certainly other bands (including the Dave Clark Five, the Searchers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Zombies and Manfred Mann) contributed to the sense of an emerging scene, and still others (among them the Kinks, the Who, the Animals and the Rolling Stones) would make music just as vital and more aggressive (and sometimes smarter and more revealing). Yet the Beatles had a singular gift that transcended even their malleable sense of style, or John Lennon and Paul McCartney's genius as songwriters and arrangers, or Brian Epstein and producer George Martin's unerring stewardship as devoted mentors. Namely, the Beatles possessed an almost impeccable flair for rising to the occasion of their own moment in history, for honoring the promise of their own talents, and this knack turned out to be the essence of their artistry. The thrill and momentum wouldn't fade for several years. The music remained a constant surprise and delight; it continually transfixed and influenced us, as the Beatles' work and presence intensified our lives.

In short, the Beatles were a rupture — they changed modern history, and no less a craftsman than Bob Dylan understood the meaning of their advent. "They were doing things nobody else was doing," he later told his biographer Anthony Scaduto. "But I just kept it to myself that I really dug them. Everybody else thought they were just for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction that music had to go. . . . It seemed to me a definite line was being drawn. This was something that never happened before."

Coming from Dylan, this was considerable praise. In his stint as a folk eminence, he had been writing vastly influential songs that held a brave and glaring mirror up to the face of cultural corruption — and he did it all with unequaled poetic grace. But Dylan — who, like the Beatles, had grown up on the music of Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis and Buddy Holly — was feeling confined by the limited interests of the folk audience and by the narrow stylistic range of folk music itself. After witnessing the breakthrough of the Beatles and after hearing the rawer blues-based rock being made by the Animals and the Rolling Stones, Dylan realized it was possible to transform and enliven his music, connecting with a broader and more vital audience in the process. (When the Byrds scored a June 1965 Number One hit with their chiming folk-rock cover of "Mr. Tambourine Man," it only further convinced him.)

On July 25th, 1965, Dylan took the stage with the Paul Butterfield Blues Band at the Newport Folk Festival and played a brief, howling set of the new electric music he had been recording. The shocked folk purists howled back at him in rage, and for fair reason: The music that Dylan began making on albums like Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited would effectively kill off any remaining notions that folk was the imperative new art form of American youth and confer on rock a greater sense of consequence and a deeper expressiveness. Clearly, it was music worth the killing of old conceits and older ways. In particular, with "Like a Rolling Stone" (the singer's biggest hit and the decade's most liberating, form-stretching single), Dylan framed perfectly the spirit of an emerging generation that was trying to live by its own rules and integrity and that was feeling increasingly cut off from the conventions and privileges of the mainstream culture. In the same manner that he had once given voice to a rising political consciousness, Dylan seemed to be voicing our deepest-felt fears and hopes — to be speaking for us. "How does it feeeel," he brayed at his brave new audience. "To be without a home/Like a complete unknown/Like a ROO-olling STONE?"

How did it feel? It felt scary; it felt exhilarating; and suddenly it felt exactly like rock & roll.

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