Fifty years after the Beatles swept North America, a music historian explains their enduring magical mystery
When the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan Show, they were already the “complete package,” says Michael Connolly, a graduate researcher in UBC’s School of Music.
How does the Fab Four’s arrival in North America rank, in terms of music history?
The Beatles were a terrific vehicle of change in the American pop industry. When they first arrived and ignited Beatlemania, they played “beat music” – a British adaptation of American rock’n’roll. It captivated the U.S.
They presented themselves as a complete package to the media: clean-cut, good-looking, funny and youthful. The music featured their distinct high voices, twangy guitar sound, and fast-paced, driving rhythm. They were also one of the first acts in popular music to write their songs while singing and performing on their own records. They kept pushing the boundaries for commercial pop records and were continuous innovators in the studio.
Beatles’ music can’t be classified as simple “pop/rock.” They constantly defied genre labels and audience expectations and wrote successfully within a wide variety of styles and topics. This undoubtedly led to the size of their fan base – they truly did have something for everyone. Whether it was the classical strings of “Eleanor Rigby,” the gospel sound of “Let It Be,” or the experimental sounds of “Strawberry Fields Forever,” the Beatles were brilliant musicians who managed to avoid stagnation during one of the most radical decades of music.
Why are the Beatles important 50 years on?
The Beatles had a very large and diverse fan base and were extremely well respected by critics and fellow musicians – they are seen as the pinnacle of success in popular music. They have become staples of popular culture, both of the 1960s and even the 20th century – an impressive feat considering the wide consumption of pop music.
Fifty years later, we remember the day when one of the greatest acts of our time arrived in North America to contribute to the narrative of pop culture. They were the biggest band during the 1960s, a time of great change for our society and to many, the Beatles provided the soundtrack.
Could the Beatles phenomenon happen again – will we be celebrating a currently popular band 50 years from now?
Nostalgia is a powerful influence over how we listen to music and the current generation may well happily look back on the music of their childhood or young adulthood.
But I believe the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in North America is a unique phenomenon that further distinguishes the band from their peers. Many acts may achieve great success and a strong following but few, if any, stand the test of time like the Beatles.
Watch the Beatles’ first performance on the Ed Sullivan Show: