On a rainy day last fall, six musicians took to the stage at a club in Toronto’s west end. They were all top-flight players. They were also very brave: their show would be wall-to-wall Beatles, the centrepiece a performance of the Abbey Road album from start to finish, to mark 50 years since its release.
To the casual listener, Beatles songs might appear simple. The nimble melodies, inventive chord changes and crystalline harmonies seem so straightforward as to be obvious — as if the songs have always been there, even if you’re hearing them for the first time. But try to play them, and you begin to grasp the complexity and ingenuity lurking within. Performing Beatles music in front of paying customers is not for the faint-hearted; the songs are so deeply rooted in our cultural DNA that even the most tone-deaf will catch the inevitable flaws.
The musicians performing Abbey Road that night may not have been the real thing, but for the sold-out audience they were close enough. The deeper the band waded into the album, the more the music seemed to cast a spell. People closed their eyes, swayed to the beat and silently mouthed the lyrics. When the band hit the refrain of Here Comes the Sun, the room burst into open rapture. The sound of the audience chanting “Sun, sun, sun, here it comes” felt less like a singalong than it did an incantation.
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The reverence in the room brought to mind John Lennon’s infamous 1966 remark about the Beatles being more popular than Jesus Christ. It was probably true then — Christianity was beginning to wane while the Beatles were soaring to uncharted new heights — and it’s definitely true in the post-Christian western world of today. The band publicly broke up 50 years ago this April, yet Abbey Road was the hottest selling album in Britain last fall. From January through September last year, Spotify logged 1.7 billion Beatles streams. The most avid streamers were 18- to 24-year-olds, and their top-requested song was a ballad recorded 55 years ago: Yesterday. No doubt the track got a boost from a 2019 Beatles-themed movie by the same name, directed by Oscar winner Danny Boyle.
You’d think the Beatles had never broken up. Maybe in some ways they didn’t: it depends on how you define “Beatles.” By the time Lennon made his “more popular than Jesus” remark, the band had morphed into something far greater than the sum of John, Paul, George and Ringo. As Lennon’s comment suggested, the foursome now loomed so large in popular consciousness that “Beatles” had become a phenomenon with a life of its own.
“I happened to be talking to a friend,” he later explained, “and I used the word ‘Beatles’ as a remote thing — ‘Beatles’ like other people see us.” The group stopped touring shortly afterwards, seeking asylum from Beatlemania in the seclusion of the recording studio. But the iconic albums that followed only nourished the “remote thing” Lennon spoke of: a pop-culture abstraction that held an increasingly spellbound world in its thrall. Each of the members repeatedly said the eventual breakup of the band was partly an effort to reclaim their individuality: the Beatles had become something they were not.
In spite of abundant signs that the band was disintegrating as the 1960s drew to a close, the final split was met with disbelief: the Beatles were too omnipresent to fail. Hope that the band would someday record or perform again flickered until Lennon’s murder in 1980; had the truce ever happened, it would have been more of a resurrection than a reunion.
Each of the members repeatedly said the eventual breakup of the band was partly an effort to reclaim their individuality: the Beatles had become something they were not.
Lennon has been gone almost 40 years. George Harrison died in 2001. Paul McCartney is pushing 78, and Ringo Starr, 80. The strange irony is that the remote thing called the Beatles will outlive the actual Beatles. It’s a perpetual-motion machine that creates and feeds a hunger for all things Beatles. By repackaging material that’s more than half a century old, Apple Corps sells millions of records to consumers who likely already own most of them several times over. Tens of thousands of pilgrims journey to Beatles conventions, hoping for a glimpse of a Beatle relative or someone who might have once rubbed shoulders with a Beatle or two. The official Beatles fan club dissolved in 1972, but hundreds of unofficial chapters — online sanctuaries where the devout gather in the Beatles’ name — still operate in dozens of countries. Global Beatles Day falls on June 25 each year, the anniversary of the band’s performance on the first worldwide satellite broadcast in 1967, where they performed All You Need Is Love for an audience of 350 million.
In 2018, late-night talk-show host James Corden teamed up with McCartney for one of Corden’s “Carpool Karaoke” segments. The pair drove around Liverpool, England, visiting McCartney’s old haunts and singing along with Beatles songs playing on the car radio. When they got to Let It Be, Corden teared up. “I couldn’t feel it coming,” he confessed as McCartney extended a comforting arm. A year and 45 million YouTube views later, Corden, who was born eight years after the Beatles split, was still at a loss to explain what had come over him. The best he could offer was that it had been a transcendent moment, a brush with something greater than his mortal self.
Beatles songs can do that. They seem to radiate from a place that keeps them as fresh as the day they were minted. Their originality only shines brighter with age. The songs touch us personally, yet they’re as universal as gravity.
The Abbey Road show in Toronto last fall was by no means unique. In the Toronto area alone, bands with names like the Liverpool 4, the Beachles, the Caverners and the Beatlers toil the club and special-events circuit, trying to recreate the Beatles sound — and frequently (and regrettably) the Beatles look. Mercifully, the Abbey Road band stuck to the music. The show hit full stride during the 16-minute suite of song fragments that anchors the album’s second side and concludes with the eulogistic The End.
The Abbey Road sessions were the last time the Beatles recorded together. When the album was released, The End served as a kind of leave-taking. Fifty years on, the devout in Toronto and around the world know better: it wasn’t the end; it was just the end of the beginning. The remote thing endures.
This essay was first published in Broadview’s May 2020 issue with the title “Beatles forever.”
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