We don’t have to tell you what a profound impact the Beatles’ live debut on American TV — on the Feb. 9, 1964, Ed Sullivan Show, 40 years ago this week — had on pop culture, do we? You know all about how it marked the unofficial start of the era commonly known as the ’60s, leading, indirectly, to everything from long hair and loud music to psychedelic substances and the transmogrification of rock & roll into something more expansive. After all, they actually teach kids about it in history class these days. It’s called the British Invasion or something.
Of course, if you’re the average EW reader (median age: 34), you weren’t around to catch the lads on Sullivan. You might even find yourself rolling your eyes over the attention this 40th anniversary is garnering. ”Yeah, yeah, yeah, the Beatles. They were big and talented and whatever, but, like, the ’60s are over — as dead and gone as those Lennon and Harrison dudes.”
We know where you’re coming from. The world has changed, and the sophisticated, unrelentingly melodic sound the Beatles pioneered isn’t particularly hot these days. In fact, the artists who’ve captured the public imagination in recent times are, by and large, operating in a universe in which the Beatles might as well never have existed: Hip-hop, electronica, house, contemporary R&B, and a dozen or so varieties of heavy metal have replaced the once-ubiquitous Beatlesque pop-song model. The chart sensations of the past few years — 50 Cent’s thugged-out hip-hop, Linkin Park’s droning rap-metal, Norah Jones’ pre-Beatles balladry — owe about as much to Rubber Soul as they do to ”Rubber Duckie.”
The Beatles, you might argue, don’t matter the way they used to. And it is true that in the modern mass-market music world, the Beatles get less respect than Ringo at a Rush convention. ”They call it contemporary hit radio because it’s contemporary,” says Ken Wall, program director of Little Rock, Ark., rock outlet 100.3 The Edge. ”I’m 38, and I’m not a huge Beatles fan. Until I hear Nelly doing ‘Strawberry Fields Forever,’ I don’t think they’ll be having a big influence on today’s pop music.” Adds Butch Charles, program director of Syracuse, N.Y.’s Top 40 station Hot 107.9: ”The way the Top 40 has been going these days — even Nickelback and Trapt — I don’t think any of it is getting its influence from the Beatles.”
But how about tomorrow’s pop? While the Top 40 realm has turned its Hot Topic-clad back on the Beatles sound, something strange has been happening: Beatlemania is quietly exploding among a significant segment of the youth population. For a new generation, the band has become the alternative to all the once-alternative stuff that has since become the mainstream. You might say the Beatles are developing into something entirely unexpected: young America’s biggest cult band. Mark Hoppus of blink-182 (who briefly considered calling their latest CD Our White Album) is among the Fab Four’s more high-profile standard-bearers: ”Of course the Beatles are still relevant. They changed the landscape of music forever. They are geniuses and heroes and will always remain relevant.”