Fifty years ago this Friday, a British rock band arrived at New York's recently renamed John F. Kennedy Airport - and we all know the rest. The songs. The screams. The unyielding Beatlemania.
That arrival is now being celebrated as the musical equivalent of Christopher Columbus' landing, with detailed dissections of the Fab Four's cultural impact that include a CBS tribute, The Night That Changed America: A Grammy Salute to the Beatles, airing the same date and time (Feb. 9, 8 p.m. ET/PT) that the mop-topped quartet hit what is now known as Ed Sullivan Theater for the first of three deafening appearances.
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Together, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr went on to hit highs that may never be repeated, becoming a global phenomenon virtually overnight, then shifting suddenly and effortlessly from crowd-pleasing performers to studio-bound artists who redefined the parameters of pop stardom to include innovative musicianship, poignant lyricism and complete creative oversight.
Five decades on, we remain enamored of that six-year explosion that ended with the band dismantling in 1970, as evidenced not only by the reverence shown the two surviving members but also by The Beatles' still-staggering sales (177 million albums in the USA alone, according to the Recording Industry Association of America).
But what about five decades from now? Will we still need them in 2064?
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Foo Fighter Dave Grohl believes so. "What Paul and the band did will last forever," Grohl said backstage at the Grammy Awards, as he and the former Beatle held trophies for best rock song, Cut Me Some Slack. "I have two daughters, ages 4 and 7, and I know Beatles music will have an impact on their generation like it did with mine."
McCartney, 71, agreed with wide eyes. "It's crazy, I know," he said.
Starr, 73, echoes that awed feeling. "Kids are listening today who never have seen Paul or me, they're into the music," he told USA TODAY. "The thing I'm most proud of is the music, not the haircuts. The music is it. That's what will last."
Eventually down that long and winding road, there no longer will be humans who experienced the band's revolutionary impact firsthand; naysayers suggest that The Beatles will be dutifully studied but no longer embraced by popular culture. But among the evidence arguing for a lasting if less frenzied reverence:
- Timeless tunes. The Lennon-McCartney songbook is compared favorably to the best of classical music.
- Regenerating fans. Fan clubs report a steady stream of members in their teens and 20s.
- Shrewd catalog management. Note that it was Bob Dylan pitching for Chrysler during the Super Bowl, not Paul McCartney.
"The root of all this hysteria is that Beatles music was always completely and utterly timeless - it's nothing to do with the '60s, really, it's about a spirit of life," says Beatles scholar Martin Lewis, who produced the E! special Re-Meet the Beatles!, about the making of the band's epic 1995 Anthology miniseries. "What makes Shakespeare from the 1600s or the Marx Brothers from the 1930s still great? It's authenticity, which is the hallmark of all great artists."
Lewis hosts an annual Beatles convention dubbed The Fest that launched in 1974, and he's bullish on the band's future, given the young faces he increasingly sees in attendance. "Many of those who come to the conventions aren't there to relive their past," he says.
The British Beatles Fan Club also reports a spry corps. "We have members in their 20s, teens and even younger," says club secretary Terry Bloxham, adding that babies are often spotted at confabs wearing wee Beatles tees. The Beatles "are one of the few things in life that span all the age groups."
Also spotting newer fans is Beatles memorabilia expert Wayne Johnson, whose Rockaway Records in Los Angeles stocks $500,000 worth of Fab Four souvenirs, including a recently procured Beatles Shampoo bottle that should fetch $5,000.
"It's not just Boomers buying this stuff," says Johnson, who notes that a signed Beatles album can fetch as much as $200,000, nearly quadruple the Rolling Stones' rate. "With kids getting back into vinyl, that's making them aware of The Beatles. That means their music really could still be important 50 years from now."
Music mogul Clive Davis, chief creative officer of Sony Music Entertainment, is confident that The Beatles will be remembered "not just for 50 years but for more."
"You can't put a limit on it," says the man who signed Janis Joplin and Whitney Houston. "There are hit songs, and then there are songs that people will be listening to for centuries. The Beatles are in that rarified (latter) group."
One clue to The Beatles' reception decades from now is in how strong their presence is felt today, says Mikal Gilmore, who wrote Rolling Stone's recent cover on The Beatles' U.S. invasion. He credits that in part to how The Beatles' various musical custodians, notably Apple and Universal Music Group, have carefully continued to prime the pump with reissues on CD and vinyl, just recently releasing Capitol Records' 13-disc box set,The U.S. Albums.
"By keeping the name and the product out there, the energy peaks again every few years," Gilmore says. "They've been a sizable commercial force through the decades, and I don't think they'd endure quite as easily without smart (catalog) stewardship."
What's important to remember when discussing The Beatles is the group's stunning ability to be a sales force decades after calling it quits. For example, a 2000 hits compilation, Beatles 1, was the nation's best-selling album from 2000 to 2009, and the 2009 release of 13 remastered studio albums in stereo and mono broke Billboard records for the most albums to chart simultaneously by an artist (18). They're the eighth-most-streamed artist of the past decade, according to SoundExchange, a performance rights organization that collects royalties from more than 2,000 digital music services.
Also flying The Beatles' flag for old and new fans alike today is Love, Cirque du Soleil's Beatles-approved tribute. Since its 2006 premiere, more than 6 million people have been exposed to the band's music during 3,600 performances, making it one of the most popular attractions in Las Vegas' history.
Bruce Resnikoff, president of Universal Music Enterprises, says his company's role "is not just as gatekeepers of Beatles music; we have the responsibility of building an appreciation for future generations. Fifty years from now, no one will be around who experienced the band in a culturally relevant way. But it's clear from continued sales of their music that we're selling millions of songs to new generations of fans."
Underground marketing will be key to perpetuating the love for the band that already exists, says branding expert Nick Nanton, a Recording Academy member with expertise in music and pop culture. That involves "positioning (the music) in a way that it's not as obvious, cutting deals (for film and TV licensing) to make people curious without shoving it in their faces, making (them) think it was their idea to dig deeper."
"You have to make it relevant to a whole new age group. I don't think you're going to get kids 50 years from now waking up and saying, 'Well, who are the Beatles? I want to discover them.' You really have to capture the hearts and minds of a new generation, and the best way to do that is encroach on their space."
But some aren't so sure the Beatles can outlast Father Time.
"I think the emotion of it all will have to come down, so that when you hear a great Beatles song, it will be with an affection and not so much a passion," says Bruce Morrow, who as WABC deejay "Cousin Brucie" was on hand at JFK for The Beatles' post-flight press conference. "They won't keep the same place in history that they have today. In 50 years, they'll be a history lesson, where people will read about how these four kids changed the face of this thing we called rock 'n' roll. It's sad for me to say, but it's true."
Chris Carter, longtime host of Breakfast With the Beatles on Los Angeles' KLOS, adds that "unfortunately, once you lose the generation that experienced The Beatles firsthand, you lose the momentum." He cautions that a judicious handling of the band's legacy is critical to making sure The Beatles and their music stay in the cultural mainstream - whether with continued new releases, as seen with Experience Hendrix's approach to prolonging Jimi's legacy, or the Graceland exhibits and other cultural events created by Elvis Presley Enterprises.
"It will be interesting to see how things go, especially when the band members all pass on and it falls to their children and heirs," he says. "You have your era, but there's a shelf life on everything. That said, if anyone can challenge that, it's The Beatles."
In the end, remaining a force in 2064 may come down to the music that The Beatles made, songs wrought from influences as disparate as "country, folk, blues, Western music, Eastern music, Latin and that blending gives them their unique sound," says Suzanne Clark, associate professor of harmony at Berklee College of Music, which for years has filled classrooms for courses on the compositional and harmonizing prowess of The Beatles.
Clark goes into music theory specifics on The Beatles' magic, from shuffling around the standard I-IV-V chord progression to tinkering with dominant chord movement. But it all boils down to the creation of musical "phrases where the listener easily accepted what was offered even though it did not fit an 'even' pattern."
Which specific songs will endure? The jury isn't unanimous. For writer Gilmore, two in the canon that stand out are the anthemic A Day in the Life and the surreal Strawberry Fields Forever. "The former showcases a partnership (between Lennon and McCartney) that always worked, while the latter, when it's covered by others, just never has the same power as the original," he says.
For Morrow, it's also got to be A Day in the Life, with its epic and endless final piano chord. "It's almost an opera," says the deejay, who hosts a '60s on 6 show on Sirius XM radio. Fellow radio jockey Carter is convinced it "isn't the early stuff, but more the Hey Jude type songs, music that you just can't pigeonhole."
Not so for Charlie Schwartz of Sonoma, Calif., who was one of a group of New Jersey friends who tried to see The Beatles at JFK and wound up riding alongside the band's motorcade; Ringo snapped a photo of the teens and kept it for decades until the fans were found last year by USA TODAY.
"For me, the music that really will last is the early stuff - it'll have the same impact on kids who are 20 now and they'll be 70 and loving it in 2064," Schwartz says. "A good chunk of what they did is timeless, universal and hits you at your core."
Although Bruce Spizer, author of The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America, is a die-hard fan of the evolved sounds on Rubber Soul and The Beatles (aka The White Album), he concedes that what will still strike a chord in 50 years may well be those early tunes that rocked the world back in 1964.
"I Want to Hold Your Hand and She Loves You, they're great songs, and in another 50 years they're still going to be great," he says. "Fifty years from now, you'll be doing an article saying, '100 years ago, The Beatles first came to America and we still have their great music.' "
Beatles scholar Lewis immediately offers just one song as tops in his Beatles pantheon: All You Need Is Love. "It's a sentiment that's so primal and essential to our role on this planet," he says. "It's deceptively simple. But when Elvis Costello did it at 1985's Live Aid concert, he introduced it as an 'old English folk song.' Actually, it's the world's folk song."
The Beatles' first publicist, Derek Taylor, foresaw the universal power of The Beatles' music back when it all began.
In December 1964, he penned these words for the liner notes of Beatles for Sale, channeling both P.T. Barnum and Nostradamus: "There's priceless history between these covers. None of us is getting any younger. When, in a generation or so, a radioactive, cigar-smoking child, picnicking on Saturn, asks you what the Beatle affair was all about - 'Did you actually know them?' - don't try to explain all about the long hair and the screams! Just play them a few tracks from this album and he'll probably understand what it was all about.
"The kids of A.D. 2000 will draw from the music much the same sense of well-being and warmth as we do today."
So will the kids of A.D. 2064.
Contributing: Edna Gundersen, Patrick Ryan