The Beatles: What Has Become of Pop Music?

Fifty years ago to the day I began writing this post, an obscure quartet of young, musical lads from across the pond landed in New York, their first visit to the “New World.” Following three successive Sunday night appearances on the venerable Ed Sullivan television program, the winds of excitement created by their fresh, ebullient musical performances caused a severe “muss” to America’s musical hairdo.

The Beatles

Put simply, they took America by storm while creating a new musical genre and a boost to the recording/entertainment industries that was unparalleled. How did they, in three weeks, go from virtual unknowns out of Liverpool, England, to being the toast of America? Thank America’s then-burgeoning television and communication networks for spreading the word, but look for the real answer in the entertainment value they offered. They played great music – tunes with melody, harmony, and that ever-present beat supplied by Sir Ringo on drums. They also turned out to be very competent song-writers in the personas of John and Paul.

As was the case with a very young Frank Sinatra who set the tone in the early nineteen-forties, young girls went Ga-Ga over the lads with the long haircuts. Like Sinatra, they played to screaming audiences and girls who fainted. The same enthusiasm was not forthcoming from some of the older set who, at first, viewed the Beatles’ English mod-style and haircuts with some apprehension; what else is new under the sun? Before long, many of them were also on-board, at least musically.

As individuals, the Beatles were an interesting lot. There was Paul, who, on first impression, seemed to be the extrovert and “face” of the group. There was Ringo, whose mop of hair swung happily to-and-fro as he knocked-out the Beatle’s backbone-beat on his Ludwig drums. Ultimately, George was the quiet, private one of the group while John was revealed as the mystic, the free-thinker, the hippie.

The colorful personas of the Beatles did not hurt their cause, but there was much more than that involved: They played good music…with a flair. I still get a chill watching that first Ed Sullivan television show, the night America was introduced to the lads from Liverpool. When Sullivan waved his hand toward them and announced, “Ladies and gentlemen… the Beatles!” and they launched into their flagship song, you immediately knew that this was something special. You felt the excitement of something new, something different, something that would not quickly blow-over and be gone. The Beatles offered-up unforgettable music and genuine excitement that first night in New York.

The same was true of Sinatra after he left Tommy Dorsey’s band to go out on his own in 1941 as a vocalist. Performances featuring Sinatra, a vocalist with musical support behind him, were a radical departure from the then-pervasive concept of a big-band spotlighting occasional brief vocal interludes. Sinatra made it big on his own, right from the beginning, ultimately arriving to the point in the nineteen-fifties where big studio bands and orchestras provided background support for his most famous recordings. He demanded and got the best studio musicians and musical arrangers extant, and the results reflected that fact. Despite all the first-class backup, Sinatra could really SING…and interpret the music. It all came from him. Like the Beatles, Sinatra was the real deal. Oh yes, there was another fellow who came in-between Sinatra and the Beatles and also stirred up some real musical excitement; his name was Elvis Presley.

Two events prompted me to write this particular post: The fiftieth anniversary of the Beatle’s arrival in New York, and the appearance of an editorial in our local newspaper written by Leonard Pitts Jr. of the Washington Post. The byline reads: Music has lost its edge – even today’s youths agree. As a former pop music critic, he is often asked his opinion of music today. He relates to being bored by much of it and goes on to say, “much of it feels corporate, cold, plastic, image-driven, less reflective of talent than tech, more programmed than played.” He goes on to add, “Of course, the old folks are not supposed to get the young folks’ music. That’s the whole point of the young folks’ music.” I believe he hit the nail on the head – on both counts. Even some young listeners have begun to express boredom with today’s performance-extravaganzas which masquerade as pop music.

For me, today’s music is much more a reflection on the talent of the tech-folks behind the scenes who “stage” the performance than on the performer’s “talent.” I see great visuals like programmed lasers and incendiaries, and I hear thunderous audio, distortion-free and balanced, but I hear no melody, no real harmony, and no discernable lyrics from the “performers.” I do hear much shouting, screaming, and gesturing some of which is not so PC. I am not impressed. I believe Pitts got it exactly right in his column. I ask, “Whatever happened to the great songwriters, the great music, the truly-talented performers of yesterday?

Pitts sagely observes part of the answer to the question – that the younger generation has always looked to something new, something different, something their parents either do not approve of or do not understand. I am afraid that attitude, along with the “dumbing-down” and commercialization of the music/entertainment business has taken us off into the weeds.

For me, the rose garden of the music business was the decade which spanned the mid-thirties to the mid-forties – the era of the big bands and the immensely talented songwriters and arrangers whose efforts made their music unforgettable. It was smooth, it was lyrical, it was exciting, it was jazz, it was romantic, and it was all eminently danceable. Although the economics which made the big bands of Artie Shaw, Benny Goodman, Tommy Dorsey, and Harry James possible are never to return, my fondest hope is that young people will see fit to put aside the generational forces at play and re-discover their fabulous music. Fortunately, much of it is still available on well-restored CD tracks, waiting for new audiences to discover, for themselves, the musical treasure that they represent.

In the meantime, let us rejoice in the memory of those four talented lads from Liverpool who captivated America’s musical sensibilities almost fifty years ago. Unlike so much that we hear today, their music was truly worth all the excitement that ensued. It forged a unique niche in our musical memory and culture and will be fondly recalled and enjoyed for a long time to come.

 For previous blog posts of mine on the subjects of music and the big bands, click on the “Home” page and go into my post archives. Clicking on the red keywords on the right-hand side of the “Home” page can also take you to the posts.

The First Anniversary of Reason and Reflection

This is my 52nd post on this blog! Since I post every Sunday morning, this completes my first year of blogging. Thank you for following me this past year; I plan to keep-on keepin’-on for at least another year. I am not on Facebook or Twitter; if you are and have enjoyed this blog, please pass along its URL to friends and acquaintances who might also like what I write. Remember, too, that comments (replys) are always welcome. Thanks!