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It is hard to overstate the impact of the Beatles

The iconic musical group first burst on the American music scene on Feb. 9, 1964


The next six years will be filled with celebrating 50-year marks from events during that incredible decade, the '60s. Civil Rights Act, the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert Kennedy and the moon landing, to name but four. Marking the Beatles' 50th anniversary from their famous appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964 — their initial in the United States — belongs in that pantheon.

The Beatles grew up listening to the best of American '50s music, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent, Little Richard, Elvis and others. Like many of their contemporaries in England, they took that music, twisted it, and made it their own. The British Invasion, with the Beatles steering the ship, would soon embark.

Judging by the anniversary celebration, one might think the Sullivan Show was the Beatles first performance, as if they emerged from a garage the week before. Far from it. John, Paul and George met as school boys in Liverpool, and they honed their craft in dirty bars in the red-light district of Hamburg, Germany, from 1960 through '62, when still just kids, George just 17. They learned to be a band playing marathon sessions, trying to stay out of trouble. They returned to England and were eventually "discovered" by Brian Epstein, who as their manager would hone their look and direction. The direction was straight to the top, and the launching pad was the Sullivan Show.

The timing of their arrival in early '64 was almost mystical. They came to America a bit over two months following the assassination of John Kennedy. Their arrival, in a way, marked the end of a national time of mourning. If nothing else, it was time to wake up. A revolution in music and culture was exploding just as teenagers everywhere leaned forward to turn up the volume on that old black and white.

The Beatles took America, and the world, by the throat in 1964. They soon owned all the top five spots on the Billboard Top 40 (arguably the most amazing pop music accomplishment ever), and soon put out a rollicking movie, "A Hard Days Night," that further solidified them as cultural icons.

But at their core, they were musicians, songwriters and singers. In their mid-20s, they grew tired of being teen idols and playing outdoor concerts with subpar sound systems where they couldn't hear themselves. So, they focused on their recording. Industry-altering albums flowed: “Rubber Soul,” “Revolver,” “Sgt. Pepper's,” “Abbey Road,” “Let It Be” — each with classic songs embedded in our minds and souls to this day.

But it was over so quickly. In 1970, they broke up, for several reasons. Few knew it at the time, I suppose, but really, they'd given us enough already.

I was in first grade when the Beatles ended. Born in '63, I'd missed the entire show, relegated only to reruns. Still, the early '70s were a great time for pop music, for a kid listening to top 40 radio, in large part because the new bands and singers were all trying their best to emulate the Beatles.

As for the four, they took turns showcasing their solo talents in the '70s: Paul pounding out a mountain of decade-defining hits with Wings; John less prolific but near perfect with songs like "Imagine;" George out of the shadows with great albums and singles; even Ringo had hit records.

Most of the news of the Beatles in the '70s was of how much they disliked each other, at least Paul and John, plus the constant questions of whether they'd reunite. Like everyone on the planet, I liked the Beatles music and their solo stuff, but I didn't LOVE it at the time. It was "old," they were old — deep into their 30s, my goodness, from the '60s. For '70s kids, it seemed like only those who wanted to be musicians, or had stereo-dominating older siblings, listened to the Beatles.

Music changed a lot in the mid- to late '70s — the scourge of disco, punk, the soft rock stuff that dominated top 40. I was a senior in high school in 1980 when John returned with that huge album, "Double Fantasy," emerging out of a self-imposed cocoon, staying at home for several years with his young son. Man, compared to nearly everything else on the air at the time, it was fabulous.

One of a handful of "know where you were when" moments of my life came Dec. 6 that year. It was a Monday night. I was working at my parents' grocery store. We had a little TV above the dairy cooler. I was taking my sweet time putting out gallons of milk, watching Monday Night Football, when Howard Cosell broke the news to the world: John Lennon had been shot and killed.

Fast forward a few years: I figured my GPA could really use an A, so I took, yes, the History of Rock and Roll class at the University of Oregon. We read the quintessential Beatles' history book, "The Love You Make," Our professor told us that our final would be to write an essay on the band. So I went to work studying that book, remembering details, middle names, album orders, etc. I wrote a detail-rich essay about the Fab Four — and was very disappointed to received a mediocre B. Below the B, Professor Ponytail wrote, "You missed the point."

He was right. I had. If it hadn't hit me before, it did then. The Beatles were far more than statistics and hits to memorize. their musical and cultural importance was vast and huge, yet unique and personal. On a global scale, that rock band influenced not only the universal language of music, but politics and culture— humanity in general — more so than any writer, artist, actor, or other musical act of their time.

Even now, 30 years later, I still can't come close to writing an essay that defines the essence of the Beatles; nowhere near the writer, music aficionado or connoisseur of culture to do justice to their true importance.

A few years ago, when my now first-grade daughter was a newborn, my wife bought a Baby Beatles CD, a soft, instrumental, lullaby music compilation designed to calm an infant. It was magic in its capacity to do so. I'll always remember those hot afternoons, sitting on the bed, just watching her drift to sleep, listening to the sweet little renditions of "In My Life" and "Yesterday."

I'm sure the lullaby CD was far from what the Beatles imagined when they were cranking out thrashing rock songs like "Helter Skelter," but for a dad and his sleeping baby, it made for a perfect moment. Just one of billions of moments, of millions of days and human lives, made better with Beatles music.

So, on Feb. 9, we marked the passing of 50 years from when four young guys came out and sang "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on Sullivan. In doing so, they also rang a giant bell, one that has continued to ring for a half century, and will continue until man disappears — maybe not growing louder than it was in the '60s, but more rich, more full, more heartbreakingly sweet as time continues to pass.

Tony Ahern is the publisher of the Central Oregonian. He can be reached at 541-447-6205.




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