On Song: 29 luminaries on Beatles

(As published on The Punch Magazine. May Issue. Link here.)

Fifty years ago, a band dropped an eclectic album in the middle of the 1960s music scene that changed the world of popular music for years to come. The band was the Beatles, and the album was the phenomenal Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles eighth studio album marked the band’s transition from schoolboy pop to a genre of their own. Although this change was apparent in their previous albums (Revolver and Rubber Soul), the incredible commercial success of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band sealed the Fab Four’s iconic status. To mark this watershed moment in the history of music, Penguin Random House has released In Their Lives, an anthology of 29 essays that reflect on the cultural impact of the Beatles. Edited by Andrew Blauner, In Their Lives fuses together the history of the band with the personal histories of the 29 diverse essayists of the anthology and captures the indelible mark The Beatles left on pop culture.
Personally, my first brush with The Beatles was through a synthetic connection, or through two degrees of separation. I was seventeen, crushing heavily on a boy in class with an enthusiasm that any seventeen-year-old could muster. (My infatuation was predictably unrequited.) In this hot-headed adolescent period, I heard the song That Thing You Do on my phone’s radio while I was on the bus on my way home from college. I found a reflection of my teenage turmoil in the line “You never even knew about the heartache I’ve been going through…”
That Thing You Do was the OST of the movie of the same name that came out in 1996. A story about a pop band of four boys wearing suits, it was quite apparent this movie found its inspiration from The Beatles. Curiosity and a seventeen-year-old’s thirst for more moppy songs led me to the originals: The Beatles. I heard every song of The Fab Four I could possibly lay my hands, nay, my Internet-trailing mouse on. I regret to inform, I was not very impressed. They sounded… old. Boring. What can I say? It was 2007. I was a teen. My idea of good music, like many of my “English music” listening peers, was Bryan Adams and Michael Learns to Rock (MLTR). I’m not proud of that phase, but it was a learning period.
Fast forward to almost a decade. I got over the boy. I got over That Thing You Do. What stayed with me? The Beatles’ songs. When I heard them again, nearly 10 years later, something clicked in my head. The Beatles were no longer boring. I find it hard to pinpoint to a particular word or a verse of the song or the music that pulled me towards them. Aldous Huxley, in his wonderful essay ‘Music at Night’, wrote that music of the exceptional kind has the power to “evoke experiences as perfect wholes”. Listening to the Fab Four again did not just let to a resurfacing of the bubbly feelings of a teenage infatuation. Ten years later, I had experienced a déjà vu that the possible futures that I had imagined for myself at the age of 17 perhaps can still exist.
The Beatles had evoked a perfect whole of an experience I had as a teenager. Their songs became a marker of Proustian moments of my life as Andrew Blauner, in his introduction to In Their Lives, explains: “Seemingly everyone, everywhere, knows the Beatles, and ever so many of us seem to have Proustian memories, meaningful and memorable associations, and experiences with them.” Perhaps, this is what makes The Beatles one of the greatest bands to have existed. After all these years, they still have that evocative power. This is what the anthology of essays in In Their Lives testify.
When John Lennon and Paul McCartney started writing their songs, McCartney writes in his note in In Their Lives, they had hoped to garner a small number of fans who would love the songs. But, as history tells us, their songs were not meant to be heard by just a handful. McCartney confesses in his note that he was as surprised as the rest of the world by the massive fan following of the band: “…it is astounding to me to realize the extent to which the songs have reached people of all shapes and sizes in so many places around the world.”
Hardcore Beatles fans will already know all the trivia and stories featuring in In Their Lives. And, of course, there are some stellar books that chronicle the lives and music of one of the most iconic bands of the century (Geoff Emerick’s Here, There and Everywhere and Bob Spitz’s The Beatles: The Biography). What makes In Their Lives different? Although partly a retrospective on the Fab Four, In Their Lives is more about us — as listeners, lovers, interpreters, critics, and connoisseurs of music. This anthology of essays shows how we built a relationship, consciously and unconsciously, with a song or a band throughout our lifetime. We weave our interpretations with those of the artists. The essays in In Their Lives form a story, or multiple sides of the same story, about how the music and songs of a band that existed more than 50 years ago still resonate within us. Rosanne Cash in her essay explains what made songs of The Beatles stick: “…..the specificity — the clean capture of a normal scene —give it [the song] soul, and, as always the case in a great work, the personal becomes universal.”

To mark the 50th anniversary of the release of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, In Their Lives fuses together the history of the band with the personal histories of the 29 diverse essayists of the anthology and captures the indelible mark The Beatles left on pop culture.

It is not accidental that the music of The Beatles still intrigues us. It was a very intentional act of two exceptional songwriters: Paul McCartney and John Lennon. In an interview with Dennis Elsas of  WNEW-FM on 28 September 1974, Lennon while talking about I Am The Walrus had said, “…it’s one of those that has enough little bitties going to keep you interested even a hundred years later.” A hundred years later. These visionary men wrote songs that would make listeners sit up and take notice even hundred years later. The little “bitties”, which Lennon referred to, left songs like I Am The Walrus and Yellow Submarine open to multitudes of interpretations.
Despite what critics and Beatles fans speculated about the meaning and stories behind these songs, the lyrics were simplistic at their best. In the song Yesterday, Lennon laments, “Why she had to go, I don’t know, she wouldn’t say… I said something wrong, now I long for yesterday…” Written by McCartney, with the working title as Scrambled Eggs, the tune of Yesterday is easy to hum and the words are as memorable as a nursery rhyme learned at early childhood and retained in memory of late adulthood. Pico Iyer writes in his essay how he picked this easy song rather than a complex love song from a karaoke as he spent three brief hours with his long-distance beloved in a love hotel in Osaka “to commemorate the fleeting moment in a few lines that might prove a little less fleeting than the pre-dawn good-bye.” Iyer, who claims to be not so crazy about the Beatles, says, “It is a theory I will develop in later years that the artists I don’t love are often capable of songs I’ll always cherish if they’re simple to the point of being everyone’s, generic.” With this theory comes the realization that perhaps Paul McCartney’s seemingly easy words of Yesterday untangled the complexity of a long-distance relationship for those precious three hours of togetherness to, as Iyer writes, “… ease me into simplicity that fool writers are tempted to refute.”
Every story about humanity has already been told; each storyteller only brings in a new flavour to an old story. Similarly, songs for every possible human emotion have already been written. However, only a handful of them, like The Beatles, endure through time. Nicholas Davidoff in his essay ascertains the timelessness of The Beatles: “Beatles songs were, like quotations from Shakespeare, the musical means of expressing enduring consequences.” In her brilliant essay in the book, Maria Popova sums up what makes popular art, which includes the music of The Beatles, an influential cultural force: “…[Popular art] provides a screen onto which vastly different people in vastly different circumstances can project the singular meaning of their lives.”
The 29 authors and musicians include Roz Chast on She Loves You, Jane Smiley on I Want to Hold Your Hand, Rosanne Cash on No Reply, Gerald Early on I’m a Loser, Rick Moody on The End, David Duchovny on Dear Prudence, Chuck Klosterman on Helter Skelter, David Hadju on You Know My Name (Look Up the Number). They, as the blurb says, make the breadth of the band’s impact clear: “From musings on young love and family strife to explorations of racial boundaries and identity, these essays pay tribute to a band that ran the gamut of human experience in a way no musical group has done before or since.”

 

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