We wanted a revolution and got one Essay: They held our hands through the 60's. And when all the screaming was over

the world had changed forever. The Beatles.

November 18, 1995|By Mike Littwin | Mike Littwin,SUN COLUMNIST

You can't hype the Beatles, though God knows it's been tried often enough.

In this latest incarnation of (enforced) Beatles hysteria, they've gone over the top, introducing a gimmicky "new" Beatles song (I won't listen; I can't listen; OK, I'll listen, but I won't like it), made, literally, over John's dead body.

And it doesn't end there. Throw in six hours of network TV and three new double albums from the Abbey Road archives, and you're suddenly mustache-to-mustache with Beatlemania redux, only with far less screaming.

Sounds like hype. Feels like hype. But, try as you might, you can't hype the Beatles.

Because it's like hyping the Marx brothers or the Normandy invasion. Some things are too big, too grand -- if that isn't too grand a word for rock and roll. The Beatles were always too big, bigger than Jesus, if you recall Lennon's famous words.

You have to go back to 1964 to understand. That was the year the '60s began. Sure, that's a parlor game -- best played after many beers, at 3 a.m., in your freshman dorm -- but here's the premise. The '50s, meaning that post-war era of peace and prosperity and sitcom contentment, ended when John Kennedy was killed.

It wasn't the end of the innocence. We're always going on about the end of the innocence, as if a Don Henley song title passes for philosophy. What it ended was the '50s mythology that was summed up by a commercial (what else?): progress is our most important product.

After a suitable period of mourning for what was and what wasn't, the '60s began, in search of a new, improved innocence. The '60s began on Feb. 9, 1964, when John, Paul, George and Ringo appeared on Ed Sullivan and the world changed overnight. Nothing (for white America, anyway) was ever the same again.

I recently watched a tape of the mad scene on the Sullivan show. Young girls screaming in a frenzy that was, well, orgasmic. Old Ed bemused. The lads playing their deceptively simple and yet, clearly, seductive songs. How does wanting to hold your hand come out sounding like sex?

Everything changed. And here's where it gets tricky. The more I think about it, the more I'm certain that not only were the Beatles the muses of the '60s, they were the '60s. There would have been no '60s without them, or at least not the decade as it lives on in our memory.

Ask yourself what the '60s were about. Not just a war. Not just a civil rights movement.

Beatles as pied pipers

It was a full-blown youth rebellion. The Beatles, the lovable moptops, who seemed so unthreatening at first blush (except to parents of prepubescent girls), who started out singing "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah," were the pied pipers, or pie-in-the-face guitarists. They didn't have an agenda, other than the music. Yet, without even meaning to, they stole the kids from their parents. They took them down the long (yes, and winding) road and never came back. They wrote it themselves: She's leaving home, bye bye.

They led these willing, wide-eyed, raised-on-Beaver-Cleaver kids into drugs, into psychedelia, into a clear disrespect for authority (parents, professors, draft boards).

If the Beatles didn't invent the counterculture, their music gave it validation. They were the Beatles; they had given their blessing, koo koo ka-choo. They opposed the war. They took drugs. They wore their hair long. They ob-la-di-ed, ob-la-da-ed. Their music said, more subversively even than Dylan's, that all the rules had changed.

Look, poetry lost out to Cole Porter and Ira Gershwin. The truth of the modern culture is written in song lyrics. There is nothing truer than Paul Simon's lyric that every generation throws a hero at the pop charts. The Beatles followed Sinatra and Elvis as surely as Louis XVI followed all the Louises before him.

When Elvis was king, before he learned the words jump and suit could be twinned, middle class white kids looked at him with awe and envy. The Beatles were different. They weren't dirty or ** greasy or dangerous and they didn't wear black leather. They were cute. And they had this wonderful gift for knowing just how much they could get away with, just where the limits were. Kids looked at them and said, "I can do that."

And they did. And they did it in a way that would, in a few years, nearly tear the country apart. You wanna have a revolution?

History doesn't lie (historians do, but not history): The Beatles were the '60s. The '60s were the Beatles. It's no coincidence -- or if it was, it was a distressingly unhappy coincidence -- that the Beatles broke up just as the '60s ended. It's as if they weren't needed anymore, as if somebody knew disco was on the horizon.

(Some would have it that the tragedy of Altamont sounded the end of the '60s. A better argument can be made that the '70s were a decade of exhaustion and nothing was really over till John Lennon lay dead outside his New York apartment building.)

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