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Still the sound of the future [Commentary]

Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of The Beatles' official United States debut, when they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show — the country's most watched television program — and lit a generation on fire. By the end of 1964, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were international stars, cultural icons and on their way toward becoming the most profitable cash cow in the history of the music business.

Media attention to this occasion started weeks ago with music shows and magazine covers highlighting the advent of Beatlemania. Naysayers shrug off the event as just another trip down nostalgia lane for baby boomers, who commemorated the 50th anniversary of JFK's death a few months ago and are now ready to move on to the cheerier Beatles trend.

But celebrating 50 years of The Beatles shows the band was more than a passing fad; it's a testimony to their enduring appeal. Current musical groups and figures such as Arcade Fire, Flaming Lips, Gnarls Barkley and Tori Amos credit The Beatles for their own creative directions. Go to a film revival showing "Yellow Submarine," and you will find 6 year olds joyfully jumping up and down in the seats and aisles.

Americans have a special reason to commemorate today. Each Beatle adored the range and intensity of American music — from blues and country to girl groups and early Motown. They especially worshiped the pioneers of rock and roll. For them Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Hank Williams, Roy Orbison, Carole King, Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly and The Crickets were epiphanies. In pre-fame days, The Beatles were a live juke-box of recent American music.

While learning and performing music of their masters, The Beatles themselves became masters of creating and presenting songs. However inexplicable — four kids drop out of school, ignore their parents' disapproval and become a musical and cultural event — The Beatles' revolutionary contribution to the art and popularity of the song is striking.

Consider the evidence. The Beatles set the record for the most No. 1 hits (20) and albums (15) — a Ruthian accomplishment that still stands. One week they owned the top five singles in the Billboard charts, an unimaginable feat.

In the latest Rolling Stone survey of rock critics on the 500 greatest rock albums of all time, five of the top 15 are by The Beatles, with Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band ranked at No. 1.

And the top selling CD of the 21st century is "1," a collection of The Beatles' No. 1 singles in the UK and U.S., which has surpassed 30 million in sales. These sales are not driven by baby boomers, who likely have these songs in duplicate on their old LPs, 45s and other compilations of their favorite group. This international market is led by younger generations having their first sustained experience of music that was so radically new in February 1964.

Songs written by The Beatles are continually covered. The first release by The Rolling Stones, "I Wanna Be Your Man," was a John Lennon-Paul McCartney ditty. "We Can Work It Out" became a Stevie Wonder hit. "Lucy in the Sky" reached No. 1 for Elton John. Siouxsie and the Banshees have a widely played version of "Dear Prudence." Rufus Wainwright's bluesy version of "Across the Universe" can be heard on radio stations. "Yesterday" is the most recorded song of all-time. Add in covers by Aretha Franklin, Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley and we have a veritable hall of fame of singers giving their renditions of the Beatles' songs. Obviously, such a legacy cannot be attributed to something so trite as boomer-nostalgia.

John, Paul, George and Ringo exemplified a very unusual human experience — a creative collaboration and friendship that marks one of the most impressive artistic events of the past century. Through this musical friendship they brought their own creative craft of writing and recording songs about teenage love, childhood memories, moments of joy and death, desire and despair. They told stories of loneliness and self-doubt — three- to four-minute perspectives on the human experience.

To focus on one's own memories between 1964 and 1970, when the band broke up, might be boomer-nostalgia. But when younger generations study, play and dance to Beatles' music, then to celebrate their 50th anniversary is not just about the past. It is to respect — and even love — the Beatle sound that still thrives today and will endure into the future.

Alexander E. Hooke is a professor of philosophy at Stevenson University. His email is ahooke@stevenson.edu.

To respond to this commentary, send an email to talkback@baltimoresun.com. Please include your name and contact information.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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