Is it possible to get sick of the Beatles? It’s a question my wife posed recently, after my seven-year-old daughter dialled up the album A Hard Day’s Night on the iPod for what seems like the 2,000th time. My wife wasn’t so much frustrated as philosophical – her comment was really more of a thought experiment, akin to asking what would happen if the sun went dark.
The thought of overplaying the Beatles seems unfathomable to me. While there are times when I feel like I may have reached my lifetime limit for hearing Can’t Buy Me Love, I’m heartened by my kids’ genuine love of the music.
Sunday will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show and their introduction to North America. And commentators have already been emphasizing their cultural influence and their lasting impression on the collective psyche of the baby boomers. But to me, one of the extraordinary things about the Beatles is how, regardless of the prevailing musical fashion, they continue to cast a spell on children.
For youngsters, the most obvious attraction is their songcraft. I myself can attest to this: The first album I ever bought – at age 9 – was a cassette of the Beatles’ 20 Greatest Hits, which I played until it disintegrated. Let’s face it, their melodies are transcendent, and humanity is powerless to resist them. While some of their tunes are more palatable to the very young – think of the sublime simplicity of Yellow Submarine or All Together Now – their tunes appeal to music lovers of all ages.
But it’s also the mood of the songs that I think speaks to children. In his book Revolution in the Head: The Beatles’ Records and the Sixties, author Ian MacDonald points out that toward the mid-sixties, John Lennon and Paul McCartney’s nostalgia for their Liverpool youth began to inform both their lyrics and their sound. Take a song like Penny Lane, which Mr. Lennon himself said was an exercise in “reliving childhood.”
Indeed, a childlike whimsy runs through much of the Beatles’ later material, from the circus atmosphere of For the Benefit of Mr. Kite to the jaunty music-hall pastiche of When I’m Sixty-Four to the flat-out goofiness of Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da. Although my daughters enjoy contemporary top-40 hits too, I suspect that, like many kids, they find an innocence in the Beatles’ tunes that simply isn’t there in the music of Beyoncé, Lady Gaga or Justin Bieber. (Although as we well know, the Beatles’ subject matter is as racy and cynical as anything in modern pop – they just couched it in more insouciant language.)
But it’s not just the songs. The Beatles’ zany wit – at least in the early years – is another draw. Three years ago, I bought my younger daughter the DVD of A Hard Day’s Night for her fourth birthday. It was a bit of a gamble, since the film is a half-century-old pseudo-documentary shot in black and white. Both she and her sister immediately connected with it – in part because of the musical performances, but also because of the band’s bent humour.
While Richard Lester’s film is ostensibly a snapshot of Beatlemania in full frenzy, it’s actually a delightful comic caper that showcases the Fab Four’s charisma. (The film’s most famous punchline comes when a straight-faced reporter asks Ringo Starr, “Are you a mod or a rocker?” His tart response: “I’m a mocker.”) My girls have seen the film so many times they can recite large swaths of dialogue, replete with a thick Liverpudlian drawl.
Children go through significant changes in attitude and mental acuity in their first two decades, but the reason they rarely outgrow the Beatles is the diversity of their catalogue – there are different songs for different life stages. The winsome Love Me Do, for example, is a perfect soundtrack to a Saturday afternoon spent baking cookies with mom, while the seething, proto-metal romp Helter Skelter provides a cathartic release for the hormonal teenager.
As evidence of her own evolution on the Beatles, my nine-year-old has already disowned Yellow Submarine in favour of edgier, more mind-expanding fare such as Strawberry Fields Forever and Tomorrow Never Knows. Not only that, she has become increasingly fascinated with the lore surrounding the songs. She and a couple of her classmates have formed a Beatles club, and at recess, they huddle together to exchange intel about the band. She recently informed me that the seemingly nonsensical words to I Am the Walrus (1967) were Mr. Lennon’s attempt at satirizing Bob Dylan, whose lyrics he found to be ridiculously oblique. Such is her dedication to the subject that she’s even educating her dad.
Yes, my children are in the grips of their own Beatlemania. It’s hard to know when this obsession will abate, but I look forward to revisiting it with my grandkids.