Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were in a great band. They made more than music; they made history. But four decades later, it’s time to let them go. Like the Model T or the IBM Selectric, they once stood for perfection, but they just weren’t built for these times.
Sure, the Fab Four are overrated. They blew baby boomers’ minds on “The Ed Sullivan Show” and, with bold concept albums and countercultural leanings, brought gravitas to rock-and-roll. But some of their peers — the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Velvet Underground — were just as good. Shaping and responding to the fraught adolescence of almost 80 million U.S. teenagers born after World War II, the Walrus et al caught a demographic wave that is still crashing over their children and grandchildren.
In 1964, 73 million people, or more than a third of America at the time, watched that fateful “Ed Sullivan” broadcast. This year, about 28 million viewers, or less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, watched the Grammys. Sheer exposure ensured that John, Paul, George and Ringo clicked in a way that Radiohead never will.
But kicking our Beatles addiction is bigger than an argument over whether “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” tops the Beach Boys’ “Pet Sounds.” Five decades of Beatlemania have twisted audiences’ expectations about what a band should be and, wrongly, have convinced us that pop culture is made by icons, not people.
For one thing, the Beatles’ business model — youth with guitars making long records — has been in decline for more than a decade. I know this well — I started making records in 1996 and still perform regularly. By some measures, more songs are sold digitally than physically; sales of guitars are down; music licensing, which the Beatles largely spurn, is more profitable than radio play; and live shows, which the Beatles abandoned in 1966, account for almost 70 percent of top performers’ revenue. Executives and artists tweaking the biz after the shock of iTunes, Facebook and Spotify are just fiddling while Rome burns, ignoring that the 40-minute album is toast.
It’s not just the Beatles’ music that’s overhyped. If some historians are to be believed, the Beatles were pioneering gender-benders, played a vital part in the end of the British Empire and were instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union, a country they never visited. “Only Hitler ever duplicated their power over crowds,” said Sid Bernstein, a promoter who helped book the band’s first stateside shows — and who perhaps had never heard of Roman caesars, Catholic popes, Genghis Khan, royal families, Ulysses S. Grant, P.T. Barnum or Chairman Mao.