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MARGARET WARNER: Beatlemania hit the United States once again this week. The Beatles first came to New York in 1964, leaving thousands of screaming fans in their wake. By 1970, the band had split up, leaving each member to play and record individually. And in 1980, came the tragedy of John Lennon’s murder in New York. But now the Beatles are back.
ANNOUNCER: They changed the way we looked, the way we thought, and the way we lived our lives. Tonight, the Beatles continue to change history again.
MARGARET WARNER: The promotion has been masterful. ABC TV has been airing a three-part six-hour mini-series all week called “The Beatles Anthology.” Forty-seven million people tuned in for the Sunday installment. Right after the broadcast, 2 million copies of a double CD collection of Beatles music were delivered under tight security to record stores around the country.
The CD set includes the first new Beatles release since 1970, a song called “Free As A Bird.” The song was recorded by the three living Beatles, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, laying new vocal and instrumental tracks over a home recording made by John Lennon in 1977. People were already waiting in line when the CD’s arrived at record stores. The customers spanned the generations, some of them old-time Beatle fans.
MAN IN LINE: I’m a diehard Beatle maniac. I’d stand out, outside and wait for tapes of Paul McCartney singing in the bathtub. You know, that’s the kind of guy I am.
MARGARET WARNER: Others in line were younger. Many weren’t even born when the Beatles first came to the U.S. in 1964.
SECOND MAN IN LINE: It’s a release for our generation too, because nothing came out for us, and we’re Beatles fans too.
MARGARET WARNER: Profits from the Beatles’ multimedia anthology are expected tobe considerable. The Beatles’s long-time company, called Apple, has complete control over the project and reportedly stands to make $100 million this year. Some of the press commentary has focused on the hype and promotional push behind this Beatles’ reemergence, but even its harshest critics acknowledge the Beatles’ musical genius and the special nostalgia the early Beatles era evokes.
MARGARET WARNER: Now, some thoughts on the Beatles then and now. John Pareles is the chief popular music critic at The New York Times. He joins us from New York. And Anne Taylor Fleming is a writer and a regular NewsHour essayist. She joins us from Los Angeles. John Pareles, is this just clever hype, clever marketing, or is there something real going on here?
JOHN PARELES, New York Times: I think a lot of it is the marketing, frankly. Capitol Records has managed to stoke this Beatles nostalgia every time it’s come around. There was a 25th anniversary of the release of Sergeant Pepper. There was the Beatles Live at the BBC last year. This year, they’ve really gone all out because they have television colluding with them.
They have the ABC special with them, and they have this new song. But people seem to keep getting excited. I think that people in their 40’s and now early 50’s, for boomers, this is it, and the Beatles bring back all of that feeling of excitement that they had in the 60’s.
MARGARET WARNER: Anne Fleming, why do you think we’re seeing this surge of Beatlemania? How real is it?
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: Well, I think John is right. Obviously, a lot of it’s market-driven, but you know, the baby boomers are right in the midst of their full tilt nostalgia. You know, all I have to do is look at those things, and my heart flutters again. I mean, I think that the thing to remember is that there was such a sweetness to them and such an optimism. You know, that’s what I resonate to when I look at them and listen to them. I mean, and it was before everything bad had happened. I mean, we’d had one Kennedy assassination is all by the time the Beatles hit.
I think they were on Ed Sullivan in 1964, if I’m not mistaken. Everything was still to happen that was ugly. And when I look back at them, there is just a sweetness. I think also there was a sweetness particularly for women.
You know, Elvis was there, but he had such a sort of challenging sexuality for women. The Beatles came along and wanted to hold your hand. I mean, for somebody who was as I was then, 14, 15, 16, I mean, I still want somebody to hold my hand. I mean, it’s sort of like looking back and saying, oh, can we please undo a couple of decades.
MARGARET WARNER: But John Pareles, do you think that’s where the appeal lies?
JOHN PARELES: Oh, definitely. I mean, you listen to the songs, and they’re having such fun. They’re always, they’re hooting and hollering, you know, between–between lines you’ll hear somebody screaming, or they’ll be twanging away at the guitar. There’s just such pleasure in it, such unabashed pleasure. They really loved being stars; they loved all of the excitement; they loved showing off all of the clever little things they’d put in the music.
MARGARET WARNER: And what is this new CD like? Have you heard it?
JOHN PARELES: Oh, sure. It’s–you can look at it two ways. It’s either, depending on how you think of it, it’s leftovers. It’s all of the stuff they had sort of lying around on tape that they haven’t put out yet, or it’s more relics from the, from the holy–from the holy repository of Beatledom.
I believe about half of it’s pretty good. Half of it’s live tracks, and there’s a concert in Sweden that just tears the roof off the place. There’s the royal command performance where they played “Twist and Shout” and John Lennon really belts the thing. And then some of it is things you kind of want to hear once, and, you know, they’ve fulfilled your trivia quotient, and you’re fine.
MARGARET WARNER: And finally, it strikes me that if you think of other bands from that era, such as the Rolling Stones or say the Grateful Dead that remain popular, they, of course, kept performing and stayed together. Do you think that there’s something special about the fact that, after all, they broke up in 1970? And it was–you could never hear them again as the Beatles.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I suppose that’s some of it. I suppose in some ways–and I don’t mean this to sound ghoulish–I suppose it’s like having a President cut down before he finishes his term. I mean, who knows what John Kennedy would have become in mythology had he not been assassinated in ’63?
So I think your point is well taken; that when they stopped, I mean, we were all left with a gut ache and a longing. But I really think the overwhelming feeling that I’m hearing from people is what John and I are talking about and we were talking about earlier, just the longing for that more innocent time, a sweetness, something that just wasn’t going on.
And by the 70’s in some ways they got out when the getting was good, because the country was certainly turning darker. By that time, all kinds of things had happened. The drugs were more serious.
All of the music had been–become certainly in this country, and John can add to this, I’m sure– more drug-infused. I mean, the sweetness and the lightness and the optimism of the Beatles perhaps was going to become passe had it not stopped at that point.
MARGARET WARNER: Do you agree, John Pareles, I mean, they got out before the drugs and rock’n roll culture got kind of ugly?
JOHN PARELES: Well, they had some pretty fun drugs, themselves. I mean, you can’t help listening to “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and thinking, thinking they were having a pretty good time on whatever substances they were enjoying.
But, I mean, things got–I mean, things–the economy started down, the result of bitterness over Vietnam. A lot of things– optimism just didn’t pan out in the early 70’s. And you can see in 1970, just when they got out, Pop turns to much more depressive stuff, and alternately much more bubble-gummy and manufactured stuff. So they did get out at a good time.
But they had also had it. I mean, they had an astonishing streak of creativity. They did seven albums between 1963 and 1966 alone, along with two movies and toured like maniacs, you know, they–maybe they felt that they had given it their best.
MARGARET WARNER: And do you think, John Pareles, in the history of music, do they have a lasting legacy musically?
JOHN PARELES: Oh, absolutely. Absolutely.
MARGARET WARNER: Which is what? What do we see today that really comes from them?
JOHN PARELES: Just about–you can trace back just about everything and you can find a Beatles song with an antecedent in it. Our whole idea of what Pop music melody is I think is traceable to them and to the fusion they made of Tin Pan Alley, an English music hall, and Blues and Country.
If you hear a certain kind of major-minor chord change, the kind of thing Green Day uses now, where Nirvana used to use, it’s straight from the Beatles, and that, that rings a little bell in our head that says tuneful. But they also had lots of experiments with production, all kinds of guitar sounds.
They were really listening all the time. The amazing thing is they kept challenging themselves. They kept trying to better themselves, and they could have just said, well, you know, we’ve got a winning formula here, we’ll just write all these happy love songs, but they didn’t. They kept doing new things. And I think that’s what still amazes all these years later.
MARGARET WARNER: Anne.
ANNE TAYLOR FLEMING: I think there’s also an authenticity to them. You know, one of the interesting things is to watch them come back around this time. Now that we’re all so sophisticated, sophisticated about packaging, I mean, they’re being summarily sort of rammed down our throats now.
The market system has really gained over their, during their absence. But even as I watched the thing the other night, I was watching them on the ABC thing, there’s an authenticity to their own talent that, that almost resists the packaging. And that you find yourself resonating to in a world in which everything now is manufactured, packaged, you know, sound-bited and whatever.
And one of the things that occurs to me about them coming around now, it’s funny, it comes at the same time that Sinatra is having his 80th birthday and there’s a whole hoopla about him, it almost seems to me as we come around to this election time not to make too fancy a point, but you’re going to have the Beatles generation guy, which is Bill Clinton, a real referendum on him versus Bob Dole, which is really the Sinatra generation.
We’re sort of having a duke-out of those two musical strains. And those are our real hard core nostalgia icons, one for the baby boomers and one for those who preceded us, the World War II generation. So in that sense, it’s an interesting timing too.
MARGARET WARNER: Okay. And on that rock’n roll political nexus, we’re going to end this. Thank you both very much, Anne Fleming and John Pareles.