Some revolutions begin so quietly that they are not even noticed. When four Liverpudlians recorded their first single 50 years ago no one reckoned that a new era in music had been inaugurated. The record had two songs, “Love Me Do’’, and on the flip side, “P.S. I Love You”. The lyrics, the music and the singing had all been done by the four young men who called themselves The Beatles. They had no distinguished musical lineage. They had previously played in a club called The Cavern in Liverpool and then in Hamburg. Their first record settled down comfortably at number 17 in the charts. But the music they continued to make through the 1960s and the personas they cultivated defined in many unforgettable ways the cultural landscape of an era. Their sartorial uniqueness — first the cropped mop, later the long hair and the bell-bottomed trousers — became the signifiers for an entire generation of youth. Their music became synonymous with the culture of an age — its radicalism, its protest, its aspiration of the underdog making good. Their fame and their music coincided with 1968 — the year of protest across the world on the streets of cities and the campuses of major universities. The music of The Beatles, a poster of Che Guevara and a whiff of marijuana in the air — these were the characteristics of the young of the Sixties.
What was there in the music of The Beatles that made it so popular at that time and makes it so even today? Listening to their songs it is obvious that there was nothing very innovative in their music making. Their music drew from the traditions of rhythm and blues and rock and roll and it was easy-flowing. Above everything else, their compositions had melody — the quality that Mozart said was at the heart of music. These qualities meant that their music could be hummed and whistled. This indeed was the case with “Love Me Do”, the lyrics of which were by no means memorable, but the song acquired, through an ineffable process, a place in the hearts of ordinary people who whistled it while waiting for a bus or hummed it at work. It was only in their later songs — “Hey Jude’’, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds’’, “A Day in the Life’’ and, of course, “Yesterday”, to name just a few — that the words became poignant and memorable, occasionally even profound. There was also an element of sheer fun and enjoyment as was evident when they experimented with reggae in “Obladi, Oblada”.
Their tunes and their lyrics were the songlines of a generation. Their image was an epoch’s icon. They captured that mood of defiance and angst that made young men and women give up their familiar ideas and background and seek an alternative that was more peaceful and harmonious. It was a passing moment but no less memorable for that. Paul McCartney, John Lennon, George Harrison and Ringo Starr walked across a zebra crossing on the way to Abbey Road. It was a great crossing.