Should it be surprising that as the year 2000 comes to a close, the band that is on everybody’s minds is the Beatles? When I asked Bono last fall which band he sees as the role model for U2, he immediately answered, “The Beatles. Dare I make the comparison? I don’t — but I’m not afraid of the Beatles. You need people to jump at. The ‘White Album’ is still the blueprint for me. It was all there — the songs, the ideas, the disciplined songwriting right next to the mayhem. It’s mindblowing.”
Around that same time I interviewed Ben Harper, who was born a year before the Beatles disbanded, and he cited the same inspiration — and made the same sheepish apology. “Any group that mentions themselves in the same breath as the Beatles is shooting themselves in the foot to water the grass,” he said, laughing. “But I’m gonna do it, man. It’s about how they could bring something new and different to every song. They just remained so open, and that’s where I want to come from.”
I talked to Steve Earle last week, and he had practically memorized The Beatles Anthology, the 368-page band autobiography that was published in October. When Phish recently decided to go on “hiatus,” they obliquely announced their decision to their fans by playing the Beatles’ “Let It Be” over the public address system after their last show.
Really, the list could go on and on. Partly, the Beatles were in the news because of the twentieth anniversary of John Lennon’s death, and the release of 1, the collection of the group’s twenty-seven No. 1 singles, which is currently — and aptly – the No. 1 album in the country. A couple of television specials also documented the band’s brief history. But the real reason why the Fab Four are at the forefront right now is that so much of what’s occurring in popular music today refers back to them.
Admittedly, sometimes the analogies are not really justifiable. Acts that have been part of the teen-pop explosion that has been so dominant in recent years often point out that the Beatles were teen idols too. But none of those acts — the Backstreet Boys, ‘N Sync, Britney or Christina — has remotely earned the right to those comparisons, except, perhaps, in commercial terms. From the very first, the Beatles altered the course of music history. In fact, the Beatles definitively ended a period that was ruled by soulless, manufactured teen pop and made the world safe again both for the likes of Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard as well as for the harder bands that followed them in the British Invasion like the Rolling Stones and the Who.
The real impact of the Beatles can be seen in the ambition of a band like Radiohead. As absurdly overrated as Kid A has been by the rock press, it still represents a bold willingness to defy audience expectations and to try something new and radical — a value instilled by the Beatles. I even found myself thinking about the Beatles as I watched an extraordinary performance this year by Nine Inch Nails. It was simultaneously raw and indescribably beautiful — visually, it may well have been the most compelling concert experience of my life. I found myself drawing comparisons between Trent Reznor and John Lennon — both intensely musical and determined to venture into previously unexplored terrain. On another front, the floating melodies and gorgeous lyricism of Travis evoked the Beatles’ softer side. And when Pearl Jam flooded the market with twenty-four live double-CDs it was a gesture that seemed both whimsical and mad, very much in the spirit of the genial anarchy that seemed to come so naturally to the Beatles.
But if the Beatles were the ghost of Christmas past that haunted the year, the memory of them was also tinged with sadness. The Beatles Anthology, of course, ends with the band’s bitter breakup, and the Lennon memorials were a painful reminder of his senseless loss. Even 1, for all of the fantastic energy, excitement and promise of its early tracks, ends with “Let It Be” and “The Long and Winding Road,” two of Paul McCartney’s requiems for a band that had already begun to come apart.
Still, somehow, the Beatles in the year 2000 ended on a wildly positive note. Last week I went to see the restored version of A Hard Day’s Night. The packed house of characteristically jaded New Yorkers was completely transformed by the film’s irresistible charm and zip. People responded as if they were at a live performance, cheering, laughing loudly, clapping wildly at the end. Everybody left the theater renewed and charged up — even inspired.
It’s possible, the movie intimated, to be smart and accessible, to be musically adventurous and unpretentious, to be challenging and commercially successful. That’s also the message of the Beatles’ entire career. And when you encounter those qualities in the music of 2001, you will be encountering the Beatles and everything they meant once again.