Why the Beatles Still Matter

Abbey Road LIVE!Friday night in suburban Atlanta. I’m on the lawn of the town square, and hundreds of families have brought their kids, bought food, and lugged blankets and chairs and bug spray to stake out their spot. All to see four Americans standing in a gazebo performing 45 year-old songs from a British rock band.

I know that most of these people don’t know any of the words to “Rocky Raccoon” or know that John Lennon wrote “Nowhere Man”. But I also know that a Herman’s Hermits tribute band wouldn’t get a turnout like this.

These people are here to listen to music from the Beatles – the greatest rock band in history.

The four members of Abbey Road LIVE! aren’t your typical Beatles tribute band. They aren’t moptops, they don’t wear the Sgt. Pepper jackets, and they don’t try to sound like Paul, John, George or Ringo. They just like Beatles music, and they play it well, flowing seamlessly between older and newer Beatles tunes (long hair vs facial hair Beatles) during the two-hour show.

As the evening wears on, the crowd, polite but reserved at first, begins to loosen up. Couples both young and old get up and start dancing, and on some of the more popular hits such as “Twist and Shout” (not a Beatles original) and “Drive My Car.” People around me belt out off-key renditions of each song, and I catch my older daughter singing along as she plays a game on my iPod Touch. All is good with the world.

What is it about this group that makes it still relevant almost 50 years later?

“It was just the perfect combination of melody, harmony and lyrics, and its place in history probably holds some significance,” says Michael Wegner, keyboardist and guitarist for Abbey Road LIVE! “They were so groundbreaking at the time, and now they have become the very foundation for a lot of rock/pop music.”

Melodies and our memory

It’s hard to tell sometimes, given today’s focus on rap, sex and shallow synth-pop. But melodies stay with us; they are timeless. We can recall campfire songs from our youth, hymns from a church service decades earlier, and songs we heard on the radio a half-century ago. We remember “Ice Ice Baby” not because of Mr. Ice’s rhymes, but because Queen’s John Deacon created a memorable bass line to “Under Pressure” 10 years earlier.

In 1984’s movie Amadeus, there is a scene in which composer Antonio Salieri plays some of his tunes for a priest, asking if he has heard any of them. The priest is disappointed that he can’t recognize any of them, until Salieri plays the opening melody from Eine Kleine Nachtmusik. The priest’s eyes light up, and he instantly begins to hum along. “Yes, I know that! Oh, that’s charming! I’m sorry, I didn’t know you wrote that.” Salieri smiles and says, “I didn’t. That was Mozart.”

Mozart, Beethoven and the Beatles created memorable tunes because they had a knack for being inventive, while staying within the parameters of what is familiar. Schoenberg was inventive, but it’s difficult to hum his tunes. Thousands of artists release albums each year, hoping something will stick with the buying public. Precious few break through.

The middle era of the Beatles

Take almost any Beatles song, though – I’ll pick one randomly: “Tomorrow Never Knows.” It’s the closing track to Revolver and one of the lesser known songs in their catalog: It’s known mostly for the psychedelic sounds – backwards loops, indecipherable lyrics and Eastern instruments. But the tune itself is only four notes – a droning C in the bass, with subtle chord changes from a C to B flat – has been copied time and again by artists over the past four decades (e.g., Supertramp’s “Take the Long Way Home”). John Lennon uses those four notes so well with the added textures of the one chord change, the overproduction and strange noises. Everything comes together in a wonderful cacophony, creating a song that many critics laud as one of the greatest of all time.

“A lot of the middle era psychedelic period is just stunning – ‘I Am The Walrus,’ ‘Penny Lane,’ ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’… chord changes that are very unpredictable, but still natural and fluid, and totally supporting the lyrics,” Wegner says. “And so much of the guitar work is brilliantly expressive – ‘And Your Bird Can Sing,’ ‘She Said She Said,’ ‘Something.’ Pure genius indeed.”

Not many people can create a memorable tune like “Happy Birthday” or “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star.” The Beatles did it time and again. Each song of Abbey Road LIVE!’s set brings cheers from different people who got something from that particular song. (I think I was the only one who whooped for “Dear Prudence”). These songs are burned into our brains, with no sign of going away. And the members of Abbey Road LIVE! get to learn the inner workings of these songs and then perform them countless times in front of an appreciative crowd.

At one point during the show, my daughter joins some other elementary school kids on stage to perform “Yellow Submarine.” I am so proud. I see other parents beaming at their kids as well, snapping photos. I know that they, too, have been force-feeding Beatles tunes to their kids, hoping that they will get half as much out of their music as we have – and in the process, giving Abbey Road LIVE! another generation of fans.

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Peter Lee