Beatles set the standard for popular music for 50 years - thanks to Chuck Berry
This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 28, 2013: There was a time, more than two centuries ago, when the term “British invasion” would have instilled fear or outrage rather than hope. You know the story.
Fifty years ago, however, that term was more welcoming to American ears -- younger ears, anyway. It signaled the coming of a fresh song, its lyrics upbeat and memorable, by a rock group called the Beatles. They would set a new solid-gold standard for popular music, beginning with the release of their first studio album, "Please Please Me” in 1963.
Other British invaders who helped change the younger generation's taste in music during that same year included Mick Jagger, known for his stage antics as the legendary front man for the Rolling Stones. A home-grown game changer was Minnesota-born Bob Dylan, known for his philosophical tone and countercultural lyrics in tunes such as “Blowin’ in the Wind."
These were among performers whose styles and songs maintained a major influence over popular music in America for the rest of the century and beyond. Fifty years later, plenty of dots connect them and other influential singers and songwriters who emerged after the ‘60s. But the connections move in many directions.
The Stones, for example, count among their musical influences the blues, an American art form they helped to revive and popularize among young fans on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition to groups like the Beach Boys and the Everly Brothers, the Beatles stand in the shadow of the man regarded by some as the father of rock’n’ roll: St. Louis-born Chuck Berry.
Some argue that the Beatles happened to catch America's mood in one of its darkest hours and gave it a lift. They arrived in America in 1964 a few months after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In their songs, some say, America found hope. Others say the Beatles caught on because American listeners were captivated by the group's takes on Chuck Berry tunes, such as "Roll Over Beethoven" and "Rock and Roll Music," and their evolution of that music.
Another set of '60s' dots came out of influential Motown whose stars -- including Smokey Robinson and the Miracles and Diana Ross and the Supremes -- turned out hit after hit. Just as Dylan’s music frequently contained a social message, so did some of the tunes out of Detroit.
Fans could attach their own meaning, as with the 1963 R&B tune by Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.” Not only did it become the anthem of the civil rights movement, the song resurfaced to be associated with Barack Obama’s campaign and victory as the nation’s first black president. Other social messages followed in tunes like “What’s Going On,” Marvin Gaye’s hit about war, racism and strife and others by artists such as Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder.
The '60s and beyond were also the period during which music festivals flourished, including the Mississippi River Festival on the campus of Southern Illinois University in Edwardsville. The most famous of these events included the Monterey Pop Festival (1967) and Woodstock (1969). The latter and attracted 500,000 fans.
The festivals morphed into something bigger – huge concerts for causes. Notable ones included The Concert for Bangladesh in 1971, Live Aid to fight Ethiopian famine in 1985, Farm Aid, held that same year in Champaign, Ill., The Concert for New York following the attack on Sept. 11, 2001, and the Concert for Sandy Relief, held in New York last year to benefit victims of Hurricane Sandy.
Just as groups like the Beatles have revolutionized music in 50 years, producers and distributors have changed the way the music is delivered – mostly out of necessity in the age of the internet. The dots on this matter are still being connected.
At one time, the survival of the industry seemed to be threatened by such things as Napster that set up illegal free downloading services. But the he record industry fought back with prosecutions. And businesses such as Amazon and iTunes set up legal fee-based downloading services. It’s the way most consumers now buy and enjoy their music, as they wait, perhaps, for the arrival of the next musical group that matches the changes brought about by the Beatles.
Wikipedia photos clockwise from top: Joan Baez and Bob Dylan at the March on Washington; The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on the same day, Aug. 28, 1963, delivers the "I Have a Dream Speech"; President John F. Kennedy addresses the nation on civil rights, June 11, 1963; Alabama Gov. George Wallace, on the same day as the president's address, blocks the doorway at the University of Alabama.
During the next several months, we’ll look back and point to events today that have only a few degrees of separation from the big moments of 1963. It’s one way to help us connect the dots and understand how we got where we are.