Miracle on Abbey Road

A recent graphic encountered on the Internet offers an unusual take on the customary depiction of the Ascent of Man: instead of one figure depicting Homo sapiens, there’s four silhouettes striding into the distance, immediately recognisable to many as the quartet navigating a zebra crossing in St John’s Wood, London, on an iconic album cover from 1969.


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Published: Wed 20 Mar 2013, 8:33 PM

Last updated: Tue 7 Apr 2015, 7:16 PM

Abbey Road was the last album recorded by this ensemble and, intentionally or otherwise, the illustration referenced a 1960s comment by the Berkeley and Harvard academic (and countercultural guru) Timothy Leary: “I declare that The Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new human species, a young race of laughing freemen.”

Veritable nonsense? Of course. But that was an era when it wasn’t exactly uncommon for people to rip open the sleeves of Beatles records in a quest for Revelation.

There was also a tendency to perceive them as the harbingers of a revolution. That again is a gross exaggeration in many respects, but Artemy Troitsky, perhaps the most assiduous chronicler of Soviet popular culture, has an intriguing take on the phenomenon. “The Beatles,” he contends, “turned tens of millions of Soviet youngsters to another religion. They alienated a whole generation from their communist motherland.”

He over-eggs the case, no doubt. The causes behind the alienation of Soviet youth were multifarious. A hankering for the relatively unattainable fruits of western society was one aspect, albeit a significant one — but even in that context, The Beatles have to take their place alongside products such as Wrigley’s chewing gum and Levi’s jeans. It would be unwise to altogether ignore their influence as cultural avatars, though.

The Beatles’ first biographer, Hunter Davies, notes, that on a visit to Cuba in 1998 he unexpectedly “found the Second International Beatles Conference in full swing”. Cuba had by then moved on from its early perception of The Beatles as a counter-revolutionary influence.

You can’t find one of those in London or Liverpool — although the latter has its John Lennon International Airport. Yet the key to The Beatles’ universal influence has to be located in the west — the dent they made in international consciousness would have been inconceivable but for their initial influence in Britain, where their first album was released 50 years ago tomorrow.

Most of Please Please Me was recorded in a February 1963 session that fell a bit short of 10 hours. Unlike their first single the previous October, it rose to number one in the charts. Although an exuberant enterprise, even in retrospect, it doesn’t entirely set The Beatles apart from many of their contemporaries. The distinction lies in the degree to which they progressed in an incredibly brief span. The groundbreaking Rubber Soul came little more than two years later, only to be followed by Revolver, which often figures at the helm of lists of all-time favourite albums periodically reproduced by music magazines considerably more sophisticated and erudite than was the norm four or more decades ago.

It was followed by the quirkily titled Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, which in turn led on to the aforementioned Abbey Road. And then, perhaps crucially, the four Beatles went their separate ways. Had they persisted as a quartet, it is perfectly possible that the mark they made on the consciousness of a generation — primarily in the west, but also substantially beyond it — would have been diminished.

Last month, a bunch of current pop luminaries congregated at EMI’s Abbey Road studios to acknowledge their forebears by recording all the tracks from Please Please Me, in an enterprise facilitated by the BBC, which, perhaps despite itself, was instrumental half a century ago in propelling the phenomenon that became known as Beatlemania.

The latter was particularly significant in America, where it injected a dose of colourful optimism in the aftermath of the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Kennedy assassination. By then a cultural renaissance of sorts was under way in the United States, too, but it evolved into a mass experience only after Bob Dylan first heard The Beatles.

Conversely, it was Dylan’s records that helped lead The Beatles beyond the monosyllabic cliches of the early Lennon-McCartney originals.

At their origins and in their heyday, The Beatles had any number of rivals. Their supremacy wasn’t a consequence of talent alone. Sure, it involved inspiration. But there was also a great deal of perspiration. And fortuitous timing was another key, as was clever marketing.

That aspect of their mystique has never completely been unravelled, which may help to explain their enduring attraction not just for pop musicians and cultural theorists but for baby boomers unable to transcend - or adequately explain — their enduring fascination for Strawberry Fields Forever.

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