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The long and winding road

40 years after the Beatles broke up, their appeal is as strong as ever. Renee Tibbs takes a look at why the lads from Liverpool still fascinate, long after they’re 64.

The cold concrete walls of the Cavern Club are dank with condensation, mirroring the sweat that drips off the crowd in a communal rainfall of anticipation. The joint is packed, with everyone bearing the push-and-shove nature of the rock audience beast to grab a first glimpse of the Fab Four. Shoes shuffle on a stone floor wet with beer and excitement and rain trekked inside by eager feet; paper cups are thirstily, unconsciously gulped at; watches are checked; heads bob.

When the lads take the stage the applause is more than loud: it is vociferous, carrying the good cheer of a crowd here to witness something more than top-notch pop pumped through second-rate amps. The iconic opening chord of ‘A Hard Day’s Night’ rings out and everyone yells and cheers and boogies like it’s 1964. But it’s not 1964. It is the evening of 16 July, 2009. 

The band is called The Mersey Beatles; they’re a tribute band playing in a tribute venue (the real Cavern was destroyed in 1973 to make way for the Merseyrail loop). Even so, tonight they’ve packed the Cavern more than any actual Beatles performance did. Here, you check your cynicism at the door; the crowd is a rainbow slice of the world. Their voices sing along because here, everyone knows the words. The accents are an aural mélange: American, Australian, Spanish, Irish, German, English, Liverpudlian. 

Now, in 2010, the Beatles are as big a phenomenon as they ever were. The question is, why? In an age where musical technology moves faster than 50 Cent’s trigger finger and Gen-Y apathy reigns supreme, is a band that broke up 40 years ago really still relevant? The music industry is united in the affirmative: everyone from Bieber to Gaga cites the Beatles as a major influence. Blink-182’s Mark Hoppus is adamant in his fandom: ‘Of course the Beatles are still relevant. They changed the landscape of music forever. They are geniuses.’ 

But what about the original Beatlemaniacs; the girls who screamed and cried and wet their pre-teen pants in hysterics at the mere sight of the Fab Four? Surely they’ve grown up into responsible housewives, slightly mortified about events of the past?

Well, no. Melbourne civil servant Robbie Thornton, 59, was only 12 years old in 1964 when she saw the Beatles at Festival Hall. ‘I was in the city when they arrived at the Southern Cross Hotel,’ she says. ‘More than 200,000 people turned up. The streets were jam-packed … it was true Beatlemania.’ She grows palpably excited when talking about the concert. ’I’ll never forget it. I’ll have to admit it was hard to hear them singing, the screaming was deafening … all I could do was stand there with tears streaming down my face saying “Paul, Paul, Paul” over and over again.’ 

Thornton has remained a fervent Beatlemaniac. She owns all original Parlophone vinyls of every album, all first edition CDs and all of the latest, digitally remastered CDs. She has also attended Paul McCartney’s Melbourne concerts – both of them. ’I’m hoping he’ll extend his current tour to include Oz,’ she says wistfully. ‘But I’m not holding my breath.’ 

Ahh, Beatlemania. Such fanatical and fantastical fandom might seem odd, but Beatlemaniacs stand together. ‘My newest friend on Facebook is a 25 year old from Iceland,’ smiles Thornton. ‘Our common bond? Our mutual love of the Beatles.’ 

Another Facebook fan, New Zealander Lucy Atkins, has the same Fab Four fever as Thornton, but at just 26 years old she never saw the Beatles live, nor did she live through the phenomenon. What is the appeal of a group that broke up 15 years before she was even born? ‘Nothing is Beatleproof and the mania is universal,’ she states, flicking her blonde hair emphatically. ‘It just proves further how wonderful they are that all this time later people are still going insane for them.’

In 2009 alone she attended concerts given by Paul McCartney, Plastic Ono Band, Ghost of a Sabre Tooth Tiger (Sean Lennon’s band), and Light (James McCartney’s band). In 2009, she also attended the Beatles Fan Festival in Chicago, the Beatles LOVE homage in Las Vegas, Liverpool’s ‘International Beatles Week’, and the Strawberry Fields John Lennon memoriam in Central Park, New York City. Beatlemania sure does take you places. 

So why does moptop pop endure in a post-modern, post-feminist, post-9/11, post-everything society where cynicism reigns absolute and singing of lady lumps and disco sticks passes as music credibility? ‘Even the cutesy…stuff seems timeless,’ muses Atkins, ‘and that’s not mentioning the stuff they did which today still sounds ahead of its time.’ Thornton backs her up: ‘Their musical appeal knows no bounds. I find it exciting that many of the posts (on the fan site) are from young people that … are now firm fans.’ 

Jaymz Clements, the editor of Melbourne’s largest music street-press, Beat, weighs in: ‘They laid the blueprint for any band that consider themselves to be songwriters, not just musicians,’ he explains. ‘In eight years they … pushed musical boundaries more than any one group had before.’ Their relevance remains crisp and clean in a musical industry that sometimes gets bogged down in its own self-importance. ‘Their legacy was felt all the way through the ‘70s and ‘80s when people were still figuring out the limitations,’ says Clements, ‘and now where we’re either stealing constantly from the past, or incessantly splintering genres off into ridiculous sub-parts.’ 

People have always idealised the past, but you can’t help but feel that a love for the Beatles is more than just a look back at the ‘60s with (round) rose-tinted spectacles. Sure, it was the hair, the clothes, the swaggering attitudes and the ridiculously exotic accents, but underneath all this was the excellence and originality of the music. From the self-penned simplicity of ‘Love Me Do’ at a time when no pop star wrote their own music, to the brash sexual danger of ‘Helter Skelter’ which famously acted as a catalyst for the actions of one Charles Manson, no-one has done it like the Beatles. 

In an era that is defined by instantaneously accessible information and major technological leaps, the Beatles give us a constant and consistent camaraderie. From last year’s release of The Beatles: Rock Band video game (released on 09/09/09, echoing the hypnotic ‘number nine’ refrain from the White Album’s ‘Revolution 9’), to the resurgence of popularity thanks to Atkins and a new generation of fans, the band is as accessible today as they were back in Thornton’s 1964. As Robert Greenfield, former associate editor at Rolling Stone, eloquently stated: ‘People are still looking at Picasso. People are still looking at artists who broke through the constraints of their time period to come up with something that was unique.’

 This is a story that doesn’t end with a rooftop concert, or a bitter legal wrangle, or a sidewalk assassination by a deranged hospital orderly. It is a story that keeps re-writing itself: with the release of the Anthologies in the ‘90s; with the release of 1 in 2000; with the re-release of all the Beatles music, digitally remastered in 2009; with the release of Rock Band. With the fans, old and new, who embrace and perpetuate the Beatles legend.

It’s the reason a tribute band gets a packed house on a Thursday night. We are a fast-paced and suspicious world that somehow needs the Beatles. They allowed us into their hearts, and we, in turn, allowed them into ours. 40 years on, that is where they remain.

Renee Tibbs is currently enrolled in the graduate diploma of journalism program at La Trobe University. This is her first piece for upstart.

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