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Tell Me Why: A Beatles Commentary
Twenty-five years ago the Beatles were hardly more than a rumor in the United States; an album and two singles had been issued on the VeeJay label, but with little publicity and less effect. Twenty years ago, in spite of the impending release of their eponymous two-record set, a k a “The White Album,” the group had already begun proceedings in its protracted breakup. The period in between those points is currently being dissected, fictionalized, marketed under the trade name The Sixties, but the more it is invoked the fuzzier it becomes in memory and in representation. The Beatles, who now enjoy a free-associative link with that period as firm as that of the butter with the bread or the fly with the ointment, suffer from a similar prevailing loss of focus on the part of nearly everyone in the audience. They were either a lounge act or the Second Coming, no one is sure which.
The Beatles are mysterious in many ways, and they are even more so now than they were two decades ago. It is difficult to reconcile the brilliant records they turned out collectively with the mostly weak and sometimes frankly bad work they later produced as individual performers. It is hard to reconstruct the extraordinary impact their work had when it came out, partially because there have been so few examples since of pop songs that burst on the scene as news. It is virtually impossible to account for the freight train of hits, one after the other for five or six years, with the greatest concentration coming between 1964 and 1966, during which time they issued twenty singles, two EPs, and nine LPs in this country, at one point occupying numbers one through five on the Billboard Hot 100 as well as the top two positions on the album chart. It is also difficult to measure their influence at this remove, their time being both too far away and not far enough.
There is a long-standing rumor that the crowd of girls who greeted the Beatles as they deplaned at Kennedy Airport in February 1964 were paid to be there by publicists. Even if the story has some basis in fact, though, the subsequent torrent of adulation directed at the four cannot possibly have been wrought by any trick of advertising. The sociological explanations are many, and they are all partly true: that American youths were bored with the prevailing blandness epitomized by all those Annettes and Fabians; that the country was seeking release from the gloom that set in after the Kennedy assassination; that the Beatles represented a combination of safety and rebellion, of sexuality and innocence, that managed to satisfy all parties at once; even, as Alix Kates Shulman has suggested, that they were a pretext for solidarity among girls. They were foreigners, which made them seem like a bolt from the blue, but…
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