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The seven years that revolutionized music

· 40th anniversary of the Beatles' break-up ·

It's true, they took drugs. Carried away by their success, they lived for years in an uninhibited, reckless way; with an excess of bravado they even claimed to be more famous than Jesus. They amused themselves by sending out mysterious messages – even satanic ones, according to some implausible exegetes – pandering to the widespread gossip and legends of the modern age about their lives and even about the rumoured death of one of them. Certainly they were not the best example for the young people of that time, yet neither the worst.

However, when we listen to their songs all this fades and appears insignificant. Forty years after the turbulent break-up of the Beatles – which became official on 10 April 1970, but had in fact occurred the previous year when they finished recording “Abbey Road” – their intensely beautiful melodies that changed pop music forever still sparkle like precious jewels and continue to move audiences.

Today their most devoted fans regret the early break-up of a group that only issued its first record in 1963. They continue to wonder what, and how many, other hits this “fab four” might have thrilled us with if personal idiosyncrasies, moodiness and misunderstanding had not irreparably damaged a collaboration that seemed to have been shaped above all by friendship.

This is a legitimate question, but it is entirely speculative. More or less deliberately – as only true champions can – Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr decided to stop at the height of their success and creativity.

They had said all there was to say in those six years and thirteen albums which changed the history of pop music. There was perhaps nothing more to add.

Having realized that one of the reasons for ending their collaboration was their need for greater individual freedom, they opted – not without a certain amount of regret on the part of some of them – to embark on solo careers, treating us to some good music, especially Lennon (“Images”) and McCartney (“Band On The Run”), but failing to reach the peaks that only working together would have enabled them to achieve.

And it must certainly have been difficult to shake off such a past. They had been the Beatles, the most famous group, globally acclaimed, and the weight of the myth they had created almost seemed to crush them.

McCartney had indeed foretold as much in “Let it Be”. In fact the song – that gave its title to the last album they released, although not the last they recorded – crystallizes the thought of the band member who more than all the others attempted to avoid their break-up. “Let it be” he sang, taking up the words spoken to him in a dream by his mother, Mary McCartney. They are words that evoke regret at an ending, already announced and probably inevitable but painful nonetheless.

Paul asked himself obsessively, “There will be an answer?”.

In that April of 1970, the answer awaited by millions of fans throughout the world – the news of a reconciliation between the four – never came. Just as the news of their reunion, if only for a single, unforgettable concert, never came.

However, rather than crying over what didn’t happen, it might perhaps be more interesting to ask what pop music would have been like without the Beatles. When barely seven years earlier – although it seemed like a century musically speaking – the four young men from Liverpool had burst onto the scene, creating a real revolution. By becoming the idols of a generation that couldn’t wait to escape from the grip of a culture it found excessively traditional and oppressive, they definitely started a revolution in morals. But above all they revolutionized music.

They arrived with their boy-next-door faces, their mocking and mischievous smiles, and swept away all competition, constantly reaching the top of the charts in England and abroad with songs as (seemingly) simple as they were captivating. And more importantly they were different: different in their sound, their mood, in the words of their songs that little by little became more complicated and refined, in their influences rich with crossovers and completely innovative experimentations. Those songs brought a breath of fresh air to an environment that had seemed at a standstill, apart from a few timid exceptions.

Floods of words have been written about that magical creative alchemy, but what really counts is the value of their musical legacy which, because of the influence it had – and continues to have – is beyond reckoning.

Dozens and dozens of groups have been and are still inspired by them – adopting their insights as well as, more or less consciously, their experimentation and technique. Stars of undisputed fame have sung their songs in a myriad of versions that have not always been successful, and still today “cover bands” exist throughout the world which re-propose the Beatles' repertoire.

Theirs is an important heritage, therefore, from a purely philological point of view. Its value, however, finds its chief confirmation in the fact that still today, 40 years later, their records are listened to not only by nostalgic earlier fans, now adult, but also by young people and even by children. The proof of this is the way that some of their albums – digitally remastered and issued last September in an operation which was no doubt undeniably commercial but which, in the era of the MP3, has made the music of the greatest pop group available to the future – have hit the top of the world charts. We need only listen to these recordings to understand the reason for their unfading success: some of the songs might have been written yesterday; they date from the 1960s yet seem unmarked by the passage of time that has made so many other musical groups obsolete who had achieved a fame as great as it was transitory.

It is not by chance that the Beatles survived without having to undergo the depressing experience of other geriatric rock groups whose members still insist on appearing on stage bare-chested and wearing skin-tight jeans. The Beatles remain the most enduring phenomenon, consistent and representative of the history of pop music.

Theirs was the band which first gave pop artistic dignity, by “exploring the conventions of classical music” as the critic Carl Belz wrote, but also by drawing inspiration from other art forms, from photography to film. Theirs was an unforeseeable evolution from the role of simple entertainers to the far more demanding role of artists who strove to find a new language not solely confined to music.

Already in 1967 Luciano Berio perceived the essential link between the work of the Beatles and the avant-garde movement, especially surrealism, in a transition from the idea of singing to that of “sonorous dramaturgy”, constructed using fragments of dialogues, cuts and superimposed recordings.

Particularly attuned to the transformations that invested the cultural scene of those years, the Beatles were symbols of a generational revolution under the banner of rock. Even more, however, were they the ingenious popularizers of a wave that others also rode with a different slant and with greater fury – “I can't get no satisfaction, I can't get no satisfaction. / ’Cause I try and I try and I try and I try”, sang the Rolling Stones – but without gaining the same hold on the public.

Through their music the Beatles, those four splendid and imperfect boys from Liverpool, were able to interpret and express the signs of an epoch, certain areas of which they themselves directed, imprinting on it their own indelible seal. A seal that demarcates the watershed between the before and the after, when, musically speaking, nothing was ever the same again.




St. Peter’s Square

Feb. 23, 2020