Justin Moyer / The Beatles: It's time to let them be - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Commentary

Justin Moyer / The Beatles: It's time to let them be - pressofAtlanticCity.com: Commentary

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Justin Moyer / The Beatles: It's time to let them be

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Posted: Tuesday, July 23, 2013 12:01 am

Half a century ago, the Beatles were really busy. After Beatlemania broke out in 1963, they played more than 1,200 shows, recorded 12 LPs and appeared in five movies. Some followed the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, or admitted to trying acid, or spurned royal honors or claimed to be more popular than Jesus. Then, in 1970, they broke up.

But that didn't end Beatlemania. Not long before he was killed, John Lennon had to endure questions about a reunion while promoting a record he made with Yoko Ono. In 2009, the Fab Four were reintroduced to kids with the release of "The Beatles: Rock Band" video game. And Sir Paul McCartney - at 71, forced to imagine life beyond the scenarios outlined in "When I'm Sixty-Four" - still plays sold-out stadium shows.

Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were in a great band. They made more than music; they made history. But it's time to let them go. Like the Model T or the IBM Selectric, they once stood for perfection, but they just weren't built for these times.

The Fab Four are overrated. Sure, they blew baby boomers' minds on "Ed Sullivan" and, with bold concept albums and countercultural leanings, brought gravitas to rock-and-roll. But some of their peers - the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Doors, the Velvet Underground - were just as good. Shaping and responding to the adolescence of almost 80 million U.S. teenagers born after World War II, they caught a demographic wave that is still crashing over their children and grandchildren.

In 1964, 73 million people, or more than a third of America at the time, watched that fateful "Ed Sullivan Show" broadcast. This year, about 28 million viewers, or less than 10 percent of the U.S. population, watched the Grammys. Sheer exposure ensured the Beatles clicked in a way that Radiohead never will.

Kicking our Beatles addiction is bigger than an argument over whether "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" tops the Beach Boys' "Pet Sounds." Five decades of Beatlemania have twisted expectations about what a band should be and, wrongly, have convinced us that pop culture is made by icons, not people.

The Beatles' business model - youth with guitars making long records - has been in decline for more than a decade. I know this well - I started making records in 1996 and still perform regularly. By some measures, more songs are sold digitally than physically; sales of guitars are down; music licensing, which the Beatles largely spurn, is more profitable than radio play; and live shows, which the Beatles abandoned in 1966, account for almost 70 percent of top performers' revenue. Executives and artists tweaking the biz after the shock of iTunes, Facebook and Spotify are just fiddling while Rome burns, ignoring that the 40-minute album is toast.

Worse, some historians would have us believe the Beatles were pioneering gender-benders, played a vital part in the end of the British Empire and were instrumental in the collapse of the Soviet Union, a country they never visited.

The hyperbole distracts from who the Beatles were: gifted blokes who started out writing good songs about love, then wrote better songs about drugs.

Is projecting the hopes and fears of a generation onto a mere rock band wise? Nirvana, a compelling fusion of punk and, well, Beatle-esque melodies, was the last rock band a generation rallied around. That didn't end well. No one in two decades has taken Kurt Cobain's place. U2 is massively popular, but Bono saves children in Africa without defining street fashion or the liberal agenda. Magazines fawn over Bruce Springsteen, but at 63, he's a codger in a youth-dominated field. Most hip-hop is aggressively apolitical - in 2005, Kanye West said, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," but he followed up his bold proclamation by courting Kim Kardashian, not launching an anti-establishment movement.

"Kids, at parties, are putting on forty-year-old records!" Elijah Wald, shocked that his 12-year-old nephew loves the Fab Four, writes in "How the Beatles Destroyed Rock 'n' Roll: An Alternative History of American Popular Music." "Much as I love a lot of older music, I find that incomprehensibly strange."

When headshots of John, Paul, George and Ringo have adorned adolescents' walls from 1963 to 2013, something is either wrong with pop culture or wrong with teenagers.

In "God," a song from his first record as a solo artist, Lennon offered a cynical view of his former group: "I don't believe in Beatles/I just believe in me."

Don't nitpick about "Revolver," one of the best records of the 20th century. And listen to the White Album as many times as you want. But, like Lennon, we should be asking if there's something else to believe in.

Justin Moyer writes for The Washington Post.

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