A Point of View: Why are the Beatles so popular 50 years on?

The Beatles performing in 1962 for their first studio recording in Manchester The Beatles' first studio recording in 1962, soon after Ringo Starr joined the band

The Fab Four's music endures because it mirrors an era we still long for, says Adam Gopnik.

Over there this summer you are celebrating, as all of us over here know, a decades-old anniversary of uncanny auspiciousness: the Jubilee of an institution that has lasted far longer than many thought possible, transcending its native place in Britain to become a source of constant, almost unbroken reassurance to the entire world.

I'm referring of course to the truth that in a very few weeks we will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first concert, and first photograph, of the four Beatles.

I'm looking at the picture now. It shows the Beatles, as they would remain, together, John, Paul, George and now at last Ringo in place at the drums, taken in that afternoon before one of their first public appearances on 22 August 1962.

Hello, Goodbye

The Beatles return from a tour of Australia
  • First public appearance with Ringo Starr as drummer in August 1962
  • Last photograph of the group was taken exactly seven years later

And now I am looking at another photograph that shows the four in the very last photograph that would ever be taken of them - from 22 August 1969, exactly seven years later, to the day and, from the looks of the light, perhaps the hour.

There is something eerie, fated, cosmic about the Beatles - those seven quick years of fame and then decades of after-shock.

They appear in public as a unit on 22 August and disappear as a unit, Mary Poppins like, exactly seven years later. Or take their beautiful song "Eleanor Rigby". Though Paul McCartney can recall in minute detail how he made the name up in 1965, it turns out that in St Peter's Woolton Parish Church cemetery, just a few yards from where Paul first met John on 6 July 1957, there is a gravestone, humble but clearly marked, for one Eleanor Rigby.

Paul must have made an unconscious mental photograph on that fateful day and kept it with him through the decade. Even things that they did in a pettish rush become emblematic: they took a surly walk across Abbey Road because they were too exhausted to go where they had meant to go for the album cover, and now every American tourist in London walks the same crossing, and invests their bad-tempered stride with charm and purposefulness and point.

Man walking across Abbey Road Flickr user Mark Douglas gave his own rendition of the Abbey Road cover using a camera-timer and merging images of himself

The Beatles remain. It is no accident that the Queen's Jubilee, that other one, ended with Macca singing four Beatles songs. It wasn't just nice; it was only fitting. (Though it's a shame Ringo wasn't there to do the drumming.)

There's a popular video my kids like called "stuff people never say". Well, they don't say "stuff", and one of the things the video insists that people never say now is "I don't like the Beatles."

Everyone liked them then, and everyone likes them now. My own children fight with me about the Rolling Stones and are baffled by the Spinal Tappishness of Led Zeppelin (why do they scream in American voices?)

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Adam Gopnik
  • A Point of View is usually broadcast on Fridays on Radio 4 at 20:50 BST and repeated Sundays, 08:50 BST
  • Adam Gopnik is an American commentator and writes for The New Yorker

But the Beatles are for them as uncontroversial as the moon. Just there, shining on.

This is strange. Had the same thing been true for our generation - that the pop music that superintended our lives dated from before World War I - it would have been more than strange, bizarre. Why have they lasted?

The reason we usually give is that they reflected their time, were a mirror of a decade, the 60s, that we still long for.

But the longer that I have listened to them and the more that their time recedes into history, the more vital they sound.

I wonder, even, if truly historic pop figures don't always have a backwards relation to their time. Charlie Chaplin, one of the few artists to have a comparable allure, was at work after World War I, the era of the automobile and the machine gun, one of the most disruptive moments in human history.

But Chaplin's work, rooted in Victorian theatre and the Dickensian novel, evokes the values of the time before.

The city in City Lights and The Kid is the London of 1890, not the New York of 1920. His art, energetic on the surface, was elegiac beneath.

Charlie Chaplin (left) and Mack Swain in film The Gold Rush Charlie Chaplin's films evoked the values of a previous era

I think this is true of the Beatles, too. The Beatles were not provocateurs, though often mystics, and their great subject was childhood gone by, and what to make of the austere, rationed, but in many ways ordered and secure English world that they had grown up in, and that was now passing before their eyes, in part because of the doors they had opened.

Their most enduring work, the singles Strawberry Fields and Penny Lane, tell on one side of the dream memory of a Liverpool garden where a lonely alienated boy could find solace, and on the other of a Liverpool street where a bright, sociable boy could see the world.

Remembered sounds - of brass bands and 20s rick-a-tick ornament their music and children's books. The Alice books particularly, fill their lyrics.

Sexual intercourse may have begun, as Philip Larkin says, with their first LP, but their subsequent ones rarely had too much intercourse with sex.

Their greatest hit singles, She Loves You, and Hey, Jude are songs of avuncular counsel, wise advice given by one friend to another who has got in over his head in a love affair. Peter Sellers did a hilarious piece as a middle-aged Irishman in a pub, using the words of "She Loves You" as natural dialogue passed over the pub table. "You know it's up to you. Apologise to her." It worked not because it was so incongruous but because it sounded so congruous, so sensible.

Penny Lane street sign in Liverpool Landmarks such as this one found their way into Beatles' songs

The Beatles' music endures above all because we sense in it the power of the collaboration of opposites. John had reach. He instinctively understood that what separates an artist from an entertainer is that an artist seeks to astonish, even shock, his audience. Paul had grasp, above all of the materials of music, and knew intuitively that astonishing art that fails to entertain is mere avant-gardism.

We see the difference when they were wrenched apart: Paul still had a hundred wonderful melodies and only sporadic artistic ambition, while John still had lots of artistic ambition but only a sporadic handful of melodies. But in those seven years when John's reach met Paul's grasp, we all climbed Everest. (Not an arbitrary choice by the way: Everest was to be the title of their last album, and the place they had meant to go before they ended up going outside to Abbey Road instead.)

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The Beatles' gift was for harmony and their vision was above all of harmony”

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The fatefulness of their climb haunts many million others. I had moved with the girl who was to become my wife to New York city in the late fall of 1980, and it was with joy that we saw a birthday greeting from Yoko to John and Sean fill the sky just after we got there. That John was back at work in the studio, after five years away, as we soon learned he was, seemed a good omen for us. We were together in our tiny new home late at night when he was killed, just across the park. We might have heard the shots.

I don't think I've ever quite recovered from that night. My essential faith in the benevolence of the universe was shattered. Some compact that, at 20, I thought the world had made with me - that things turned out well, that you ended up in New York with a girl you were in love with and the Beatles across the park - seemed betrayed.

Or rather, I learned in a rush that night the adult truth, which is that the world makes no compacts with you at all, and that the most you can hope is to negotiate a short-term treaty with it - an armistice, which the world, like a half-mad monarch, will then break, just as it likes.

The Beatles singing in concert The Beatles were masters at harmonising

The Beatles' gift was for harmony, and their vision was above all of harmony. And harmony, voices blending together in song, is still our strongest symbol of a good place yet to come.

In the world of symbol and myth that music can't help but create, melody lies behind us, and calls us, as John's beautiful song "Julia" does, to our memory of a better past, or what we want to think was one.

Harmony as symbolic form always lies ahead, as the realised-here herald of a better world where all opposites will sing together as one. That's why even Bach and Handel ended their greatest works with a chorale - to cheer us on to a world we might get to by hearing a chorus that sounds like it's already got there.

Art makes us alive and aware and sometimes afraid but it rarely makes us glad. Fifty years on, the Beatles live because they still give us that most amazing of feelings: the apprehension of a happiness that we can hold, like a hand.

Here is a selection of your comments.

My own take is that rock and roll was running out of energy at the end of the 50's. The folk artists were beginning to dominate the scene. It wasn't just Bob Dylan, but dozens of folk musicians coming together in New York's Greenwich Village. But when the Beatles came along, they just overwhelmed the the folk music wave with their renewed rock and roll energy. The effect was amplified by all the other bands that came in with the British Invasion. It was like a corporate merger between the UK and the US that opened up whole new markets and demographics. You can see that energy coming together in the Beatle's Shea Stadium concert. Nothing like that had ever happened before. It was their moment and they owned it.

Jim Philips, Atlanta, GA, US

hen why were Led Zeppelin voted the "best band ever" a couple of years ago!

Paul Clark, Southend, England

I was born in 1950. So the sixties were my teen years,a post war decade when everything was new,we had the Beatles,James Bond,freedom of speech,dress, music,I was at Art School and I was having a ball.Nowadays I look back with great fondness for the sixties,and every Beatles song reminds me of someone or something.

Robert Neild, Bolton,England

I believe they are considered by many as the most influential music ever. But they are just a small part of such a wide area, more modern artists are influenced by Motown, many go back before the Beatles to the blues artists. Only those with limited musical knowledge sing such high praise for the band who made Yellow Submarine. I was born while the Beatles were still playing, most fans were not and have second hand knowledge of the band building on blind adoration.

Dan Smith, London

So I must be the only person in the world who can stand up and say they don't like the Beatles. As songwriters they are up there with the best and when their songs are performed by other people I can acknowledge this. But the whining, nasal voices with the naff pop music just sets my teeth on edge and I quickly switch off and find the rock / blues of the Stones an antidote. Maybe the Stones weren't original but at least they had soul.

GarGar, bampton, devon

Why are the Beatles still so popular? Because listening to their music now is like listening to rock-and-roll grow up. Their first songs sound disarmingly, deceptively simple (but really not so simple when you pay attention) and then the songs mature lyrically and musically in so many ways. It isn't always happy music, and it wasn't always pop, but somehow the evolution of their music makes every song interesting as a marker of their journey. They set the template for modern rock.

Reid Cooper, Ottawa, Canada

No, Mr. Gopnik, not everybody likes the Beatles. So, just for the record, here's me saying loud and clear... I don't like the Beatles.

Gary McGhee, London

I'm not sure that The Beatles are still popular just because of the memories they evoke (real or imagined). My 9 year old daughter loves them, and asks me to play their music at every opportunity. She knows very little about this time in our history - she just likes the music.....

Liz, England

"The Beatles were masters at harmonising" - yet very little is said how they achieved that. The Beatles, like many other groups of that era learned from the Everly Brothers.

Robert Isaac, Uxbridge, UK

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