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AWE and AURA
"Suddenly one plus one plus one plus one equals . . . a thousand."
If someone were to ask you why the Beatles were so successful, what would your answer be?
It’s not as silly a question as it sounds, even though most of us would say it’s the music without a nanosecond’s thought. But while that may be the reason for the longevity of the Beatles’ success — and is at the core of why it’s assumed the Beatles will remain popular for generations to come — it is, if not incorrect, certainly incomplete as an explanation for how the world fell before the Beatles in the 1960s like so many dominos.
There were a great many things, deriving from a variety of factors, that stamped the Beatles as different from other rock acts — everything from their restless inquisitiveness and obsession with progress, to the simple fact that their status and their place in the timeline of rock meant they were often the first to do things, musically and otherwise.1 In fact, there are so many aspects to the Beatles’ uniqueness that it doubles back on them: even the language other artists use to describe the Beatles is unique (spoiler alert!).
At the same time — in what was at once inspiring and relatable to their early fans, and utterly confounding to their elders and detractors — the Beatles came from a distinctly average background. There were no prodigies here. They were lower working class,2 had no higher education, no musical training, hailed from a depressed port city disdained by most of the country, and looked — as Billy Joel said — “like my friends, like a bunch of wise guys.” Derek Taylor, their publicist (whom we’ll hear more from later), said that in a way this was one of the great incongruities of the insanity that greeted the Fab Four wherever they went: “You know, they’re so ordinary. But that hasn’t softened the effect they have on people, it’s enhanced it. Because the normality is so at odds with the fame.” Among other things, this apparent “normality” seems to have had another effect: exaggerating the singular language others used to describe the Beatles and their achievements.
To wit: how could such ordinary, untrained, unremarkable kids from dirty, depressed Liverpool write and perform such sublime music, and so much of it, so quickly, with such an arc of growth, and with such lasting appeal to so many people around the world? How could they become the Beatles?
It's this incongruity, and the difficulty in reconciling it, which is surely a factor in the extraordinary rhetoric the Beatles inspired in other artists, musicians and public figures. A stunning theme that comes up again and again is the invocation of a higher power, a reaching for some kind of spiritual explanation for the entire unlikely Beatles phenomenon — who they were, what they did, how the world responded, how it all unfolded.
Dr. Timothy Leary — psychologist, Harvard professor, and high priest of hallucinogenics — was among the first (and surely the most flamboyant) to use such language:
I declare that the Beatles are mutants. Prototypes of evolutionary agents sent by God, endowed with a mysterious power to create a new species, a young race of laughing freemen. 3
But he was far from the last . . .
Rick Rubin: “It’s much bigger than four kids from Liverpool. For me the Beatles are proof of the existence of God. It’s so good and so far beyond everyone else that it’s not them.”
Steve Harley: “I can't fathom it out at all. I'm a terrible romantic, and I like to think that God was at work here.”
Slash: “The combination of characters in the Beatles was a chemistry that came from on high.”
James Taylor: “My song 'Carolina in My Mind' says 'With a holy host of others standing round me', and that's how I thought of the Beatles. Everybody did.”
Shirley Manson: “That combination of songwriters in one band and at one time is luck that will probably never happen again. They were a collision of the stars.”
Billy J. Kramer: “It was as if God had dropped them out of the sky.”
Robyn Hitchcock: “If it was designed, if it was put there by a higher power or something from another planet, or the CIA, I could believe any of it.”
Sinead O’Connor: “I have this theory that the Beatles were actually the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, you know? Insofar as they changed the entire face of the planet.”
Sid Bernstein: “There was something about those four boys. The magic they had is probably unequalled in modern times.”
Ed O’Brien: “What the Beatles had in abundance was a kind of magic: magic in the music, magic in the characters, the timing of it was magic . . . in a way there’s something divine about them.”
Lenny Kravitz: “The combination of those four players was one in a billion. It has changed the planet. And I don’t know that it will ever be repeated.”
Ozzy Osbourne: “It was a divine experience. The planets changed.”
Colin Hay: “There’s something else going on. There was just — there was something divine about it, you know? I mean, I’m not a religious person, but there was something . . .”
Dennis DeYoung: “What they did in just seven years — it doesn’t make sense. It was a bolt of lightning that put John and Paul and George and Ringo in the same spot, close enough together that they could make that music. It’s one of the mysteries of the universe.”
Dave Koz: “I really wonder if there was some sort of divine thing coming through them. I mean, that’s the only way that you can sort of consciously explain it. Those four guys, at that exact time, they were tapped to convey a message that I guess the world needed to hear. I wonder if that will ever happen again.”
Rickie Lee Jones: “There was something larger . . . and it changed the world.”
Tom Petty: “This really starts to get into a spiritual level of perfection.”
These kinds of things are simply not said about other rock and roll musicians; they are unique to the Beatles. And they are mirrored by hundreds, even thousands of comments by other famous artists which are no less florid or eloquent (even if they don’t all attribute the Beatles to divine intervention).
A curious subset of these quotes demonstrates how perceptions of the Beatles reached hyperbolic extremes almost from the beginning of their fame. While the previous comments reflect an almost poetic impulse to ascribe the Beatles phenomenon to angelic forces, others illustrate how extra-terrestrial the Beatles themselves sometimes seemed. Apparently it’s not that far a leap from expressions of mere wonder to . . .
Elton John on going to London for a Beatles concert: “Like seeing God.”
Director Richard Linklater, multiple Oscar nominee: “The Beatles are God.”
Emmylou Harris: “They were like gods. Really. You just couldn’t get any higher than the Beatles as far as what music meant.”
Micky Dolenz: “I didn’t even want to meet the Beatles! I mean, what do you say? It’s like meeting God! What if Jesus Christ walked in this room right now?”
Chrissie Hynde: “I honestly didn’t think the Beatles were from this world.”
Bill Graham, legendary promoter and impresario who never got to stage the Beatles: “I’d like to believe in God, but I know the Beatles exist.”
Nick Mason of Pink Floyd: “They were God-like figures to us. They were in a strata so far beyond us that they were out of our league.”
Scott Ian: “I got to meet Paul McCartney one time. [It was] like being in the presence of a god. I didn't have a conversation, but I shook his hand, and that was like… [sticks his hand out and looks at in awe]. It's the closest I could compare to gods that are walking the earth with us.”
Al Goldstein on being part of a dinner party with John at the Four Seasons: “I felt like a chosen person to be in his presence; I had touched the face of God.”
Ivor Sharp, dean of Canadian commercial photographers: “I remember often meeting him, telling my wife I thought I’d become a ‘Lennonite.’ He had almost a messiahlike quality about him. There’s no question about that.”
Where does this over-the-top reverence come from? Think of any number of other bands and individuals that have risen to the pinnacle of worldwide success and lasting fame. They may have huge, devoted, even maniacal fan bases. But their fellow artists don’t ascribe ordained-by-the-heavens magic to their existence.
Why the Beatles?
We’re not going to pretend that there’s a definitive answer. Again, the first impulse is always to cite the music, the music, the music. And again, that is woefully incomplete.
First let’s take a step back and review some of the key non-musical ingredients that were indispensable to the Fab Four’s rise.
— Management. In Brian Epstein, they had a besotted and devoted manager who was convinced, in the face of all evidence to the contrary, that the rough, unworldly Beatles had world-domination potential. (If he could only clean up their more unsavory and rebellious edges a little).
— Hard work. The Beatles were probably the hardest-working band in the world — maybe ever. In the north of England, when they weren’t playing one of their hundreds of shows at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, they gigged relentlessly (playing three different towns in one day was not unheard of), while their notorious residencies in Hamburg had them working 8 hours a night, 7 nights a week, for months at a time. The formative Beatles practically defined Malcolm Gladwell’s “10,000 hours” theory of success.4
— Personality. They were unusually engaging as people, together and separately, with irreverent attitudes, a comedian’s razor wit, seemingly inexhaustible good humor, a complete absence of pretension, and an apparent mission to puncture stuffiness.
— Luck. They were the beneficiaries of an incredible number, far too many to detail here, of good breaks and happenstance. This by itself isn’t necessarily unusual — virtually all success stories require healthy doses of luck and good timing — but the number of what-ifs that could have, should have and would have derailed the Beatles’ career before it ever took off is enough to make you wonder if Providence really did have a plan for them.
If any one of these factors had been removed from the equation . . . poof, no Beatles. Each, in addition to extraordinary music, was essential to the story.
So there’s really no wrong answer, and there certainly isn’t one answer.
But there is a missing one. An often forgotten ingredient, a cousin, so to speak, of Personality. An x-factor that, like the comments at the top, touches on intangible, almost spiritual qualities . . . and was so often the ingredient that convinced people that the Beatles were anything but ordinary.
Charisma. Above all, group charisma.
Those who encountered the Beatles repeatedly speak of a powerful presence, almost an otherness, that surrounded the group. They describe an aura that bordered on the mystical.
And just as a reminder: we’re not talking about the fevered fanatical fawning of obsessed fans who meet one of their heroes. We’re talking about the impressions of often jaded professionals and of people who were stars themselves. Incredibly, much of the testimony is of the Beatles even before the Beatles were famous.
So let’s start at the beginning.
Graham Nash worked at a coffee bar in Manchester called the Two J’s, later to become known as The Oasis. He remembers the young Beatles coming in for a gig.
They came through the front door about three in the afternoon to set up their equipment, and every girl in there stopped dead in their tracks. It was like four Marlon Brandos had walked in. They had an innate, primordial swagger. Aside from the raw energy they put out, they looked fantastic. They were dressed in black leather and had that Beatle haircut. A total coolness emanated off them. They hadn’t even played a note, and the girls would swoon and faint. Fuckin’ fantastic.
Nash, as a member of The Hollies, would cross paths with the Beatles frequently as both bands toured Britain, gigging incessantly. The more he saw of them, the more he was struck by their freakish chemistry.
They were very protected by a filtering system between the four of them. They were always together, even if there was a room full of people and they were all separated. I got to see it all unfolding before my eyes. And I was aware that it was historical. It was almost spiritual. When you saw the Beatles and saw the effect they had on people, you knew something special was happening.
“It was almost spiritual, the effect they had on people.” Think about that for a moment: this is referring to a group that had no hit records, no fame, and no hype. You might almost be tempted to dismiss Nash as delusional, but he was the same age as the Beatles, from the same part of England, playing the same clubs . . . and his recollections are echoed by others. It begs for some kind of explanation, but it’s pointless to try and explain such an intangible thing in concrete terms. It’s enough that it was felt by many people, in many circumstances, over and over again.
Motorhead founder Lemmy, for example. The future hard rock icon hitchhiked from North Wales to Liverpool to see the Beatles at the Cavern Club after some girls he knew came back raving about them. The Cavern was a cramped, dank, sweaty cellar with no ventilation and humid condensation running down its peeling walls. No lighting rig, no sound system. Just a parade of local bands taking turns on its low-ceilinged stage.
The Beatles would come on stage and you were just awestruck. They had that presence which was very rare . . . you’ve either got it or you haven’t.
I’ll be honest with you, I was in Litherland Town Hall and [compère] Bob Wooler said, “Next we have a band called The Beatles.” I’d never heard of them. I didn’t know anything about them. There was never anything in the newspapers. But the Beatles came on and I knew. I thought, “These guys are going to be bigger than Elvis.” They were phenomenal. It was the energy; they just had something. You know people say, “What is a star?” I can’t explain it. It was just magic.
One of the more fascinating personal testimonies comes from the man who would end up producing almost all the Beatles’ records, George Martin. Martin was of a different station and generation than the Beatles. He was 36 years old when he met them (the Beatles were all between 19 and 21); he was a classically trained musician (they were completely untutored musically); and he was the head of EMI’s Parlophone record label, a small label amongst EMI’s many holdings, but an industry giant compared to the Beatles’ parochial anonymity.5 Reluctantly — almost out of pity in the face of Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s desperation — he agreed to give the band a recording test.6
Martin was not exactly blown away by the Beatles musically. He liked their voices well enough and found their self-contained lineup intriguing, but he did not hear any potential hits and he certainly didn’t suspect any genius. What he was blown away by was their presence.
It was a question of charisma — they had enormous charisma. Sparks flew off them while they were playing or when you talked to them. They had this quality that when you’re with them you are all the better for being with them, and when they leave you, you feel a loss. And you know, very few people have that. And I thought, well, if they have this effect on me, regardless of what they can do, they’ll probably have the same effect on an audience. I knew that if that could be transmitted to the stage or the screen or sound, they would sweep everything before them. I fell in love with them. It’s as simple as that.
The engineer for that first test at EMI was 39-year-old Norman Smith, a former jazz musician who would go on to produce Pink Floyd and have a string of international hits himself as “Hurricane” Smith.
Before they walked in, I thought to myself, “Well, here comes another nothing group.” But the moment they walked in, I thought, Wowee, this ain’t the usual type of group. There’s something different about these boys. There was some kind of aura when they walked in. Let's be honest: they were signed without anybody realising their musical potential. It was just that they had so much personality, and so much magic about them, that they had to do something.
All too often, ascribing qualities such as charisma or an aura to people is an exercise in projection. It’s a function of starstruck fans meeting the famous, often in situations saturated by the trappings of celebrity: intangible, fleeting experiences, seen through highly personal lenses, rarely accreting into consensus. But in the case of the Beatles, there seems indeed to be genuine consensus that their magnetism in person was a very real and rare thing, and that it was a major element, aside from any musical considerations, in the band’s appeal. Whatever you want to call it — charisma, presence, chemistry, aura, magic — the Beatles evidently had it to an almost supernatural degree.
Needless to say, when the Beatles did become famous, the aura around them inevitably multiplied. It didn’t change per se — it was there when the Beatles were essentially nobody — but now it would be experienced en masse, by all kinds of different people.
Back to Derek Taylor. Taylor was a journalist, and a decade older than the Beatles (he was even a few years older than Brian Epstein) when he began working in late 1963 as a publicist for the group.7 Taylor was himself entranced by the Beatles and observed how they entranced others on countless occasions, including on their first tour of North America in 1964. He recalled the wife of the mayor of Milwaukee showing up at the Beatles’ hotel at 9 am, demanding to see the Beatles so she could placate her daughter. “Personally, I think they’re disgusting,” she clarified charmingly. When eventually her young girl was granted an audience, it was the mother who “stammered and grunted and blushed and dropped her handbag . . .”
On another occasion, a lifelong friend of Taylor’s, then a Canadian newspaperman, asked Taylor to call him when the tour hit Vancouver so they could get together at the hotel. He had no interest in the Beatles, he assured Taylor, and wouldn’t bother them. But spending the day together, Taylor noticed his friend getting more and more “agitated.” Finally, just before the Beatles were due to hit the stage for the evening’s concert, the newsman rushed to John Lennon, put his arm around him and signaled for a cameraman he’d hired specifically for the occasion to snap a quick picture. Flabbergasted, Taylor asked him why he, a veteran of hard news, would ever do such a thing. His friend replied, “I had to. I couldn’t not do it.”
Derek Taylor: “You know, that’s what we call Beatlemania.”
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The examples are legion. Consider Richard Lester, the film director who was responsible for so many memorable pictures including “The Three Musketeers,” “Superman,” “The Ritz,” “A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum,” “Petulia,” and others. United Artists had contracted him to make a quick cash-in movie with the Beatles in order to exploit their fame before it fizzled out. (This low-budget movie, of course, turned out to be “A Hard Day’s Night,” one of the landmark films of the 1960s.) Decades later, Lester described meeting the Beatles in terms strikingly reminiscent of George Martin’s:
When the four of them came into a room, you felt good. You were enthralled. And it was over from that time on — that’s all I really wanted to do was to make that film. Because I felt there really was something marvelous in them. Having met them, the die was automatically cast.
The specific of “being in the room” with the Beatles seems to have acted as some kind of irresistible intoxicant. Just before the Beatles came to America for the first time in February of 1964 they spent two weeks playing the Olympia Theater in Paris, on the same bill as French star Johnny Hallyday. Playing guitar in Hallyday’s band was Mick Jones, who a decade later would become a founding member and the chief songwriter of Foreigner. Jones has his own being-in-the-room anecdote about the Beatles: after some time sharing the bill at The Olympia but not crossing paths personally, a stage snafu almost destroyed Jones’s prized Gibson SG.
While I’m trying to save the guitar Lennon hears me swearing and cursing. He comes up behind me, taps me on the shoulder and says, “Ey Wack, are you English?” I said yeah, and he said, “You should have told us! Come back to the hotel and have a drink with the boys.” From that moment on I was completely in awe of the Beatles.
In other words, as a professional musician sharing a stage, Jones admired the Beatles (as he has often attested). Being in their company, though, turned his admiration into awe.
Just before this, Robert Freeman, a photojournalist with The Sunday Times, shot the famous half-lit faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo that graced the cover of their second British LP, With The Beatles (and, perhaps even more famously, graced the cover of their first Capitol album in America, Meet The Beatles!).8 This was a man who had photographed the greatest jazz musicians of the day, including John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie and Elvin Jones, and had been inside the Kremlin to shoot Nikita Khrushchev. Yet he too was struck when he met the Fab Four. *
They were quite easy, young people. They were elegant and they didn’t look like pop stars at all . . . I got the impression they were very intelligent and somehow surrounded by a kind of aura.
*Realize that all the impressions date from a time when rock ‘n’ roll was considered by most outside its core demographic to be music made by morons, for morons. In the early 1960s, the idea that an adult would find any such musicians to have “an aura” about them, or charisma so overpowering as to “sweep everything before them,” would have been utterly laughable. It makes these early impressions especially compelling, because not only do they predate the Beatles’ international fame, they come from the days when nothing associated with rock ‘n’ roll (except maybe the money to be made) was taken remotely seriously.
The more you dig, the more you find support for the proposition that the success of the Beatles wasn’t based on music alone, that inexpressible extramusical qualities were at work. Taylor, in addition to his comments above, succinctly stated, “The Beatles, those faces, that time — most people say really it was the music. That was only a part of it.” We already heard Rickie Lee Jones saying that the “spirit and magic” of the Beatles was put into the music, but that “there was something larger than that that was happening.” Lamont Dozier, part of the immortal Holland-Dozier-Holland writing team that made Motown so successful, remembers, “It was more than just the songs that was making the Beatles so popular. There was something else about them.” Brian Wilson singled out the Beatles as unique among rock groups in that “I started digging them for their attitude and magnetism as well as the music.” William King, who with Lionel Richie founded the massive soul/funk group Commodores, says the Beatles were their primary model. Why? It was the music yes, but “add to that, charisma and magnetism. That is what the Beatles had in abundance. They glowed. They clicked together. We wanted to have that kind of close-knit relationship.” Marshall Crenshaw elaborates: “That’s what a lot of people forget now. I mean, whenever people talk about the Beatles now, they talk about them as artists, and they talk about them as individuals and stuff. But in the beginning it wasn’t like that; people were just bowled over by the presence that the Beatles had. And the music was just, like, extra.”
But, of course, what an extra. Multiply that presence by that music, and the product, as George Martin intuited, indeed swept everything before it. As Beatlemania spread across first England and then Europe, America and the world, people — just like Lemmy and Billy J. Kramer and Graham Nash back when the Beatles were, in Ringo’s words, “just shitkickers from Liverpool” — knew they were witnessing something unique and historic, but without necessarily knowing exactly what or why.
They were just special. Somehow, I knew they were amazing. I don’t know why; I’d seen quite a few shows. But something about them . . . I just knew that they were an incredible band. They were just in a whole different universe to other musicians.
Another iconic prog rocker, Greg Lake, saw the Beatles at almost the same time as Martin Barre and came away similarly awestruck.
They had this property which was almost spiritual: to be able to somehow be better than great. They would push you to a point where you couldn’t stand it emotionally; you didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. I saw it with my own eyes, it was a phenomenal thing.
And then there’s Ron Delsener, the legendary concert promoter and impresario whose career is the subject of the new documentary “Ron Delsener Presents.” He is both more expansive in conveying the personal impact of seeing the Beatles, and equally at a loss to explain it. Delsener was instrumental in staging the Beatles’ outdoor performance at Forest Hills Stadium, New York, during their first tour of America. A Frank Sinatra acolyte (Delsener came of age in the 1950s), here is how he remembers his state of mind after the concert.
I’m driving back and I said I’ve just seen something I’ll never see again in my life. And I was, like, almost crying, because how do I tell people what I just saw? It affected me that much. I was euphoric. I was lifted. I’d just seen the greatest presentation — and I thought Sinatra was my guy. Frank was magnetic; but the Beatles had it plus . . . it was like, wow, I’ve never seen a show, anything like this in my life, this is the greatest — it was a feeling that made me happy, and the whole world was perfect. Everybody was happy. We were all feeling so good. How do you keep this feeling captured for the rest of your life? 9
Such extraordinary responses to seeing the Beatles in person brings up an important note. The Beatles on stage did not leap around,10 dance, wear garish costumes, or strike self-conscious rock poses. They had no stage show. They had no “act.” All they did was play and sing — with an exuberant, joyous energy that obviously needed no artifice to communicate musical excitement. This absence of stage contrivance lends further credence to the insistence by so many that the Beatles simply possessed a rare charisma. Certainly no other performers in history have ever generated the same level of audience hysteria.
All the Beatles did was wag their heads, and they created more insanity and energy in the crowd than all kinds of masochistic whack-off antics, ending with Iggy Pop, ever could. It's the energy that gets created and transmitted, not how much kinetic energy the band puts on stage.
Mick Jagger sitting at the feet of Paul McCartney during the recording of the orchestra on “A Day In The Life.”
Fast-forward a few years. It’s the late 1960s. The Beatles are now much more than an entertainment phenomenon, they are cultural demigods and arguably the most famous men in the world. But the joined-at-the-hip “four-headed monster,” in Mick Jagger’s memorable words, was exhibiting signs of split personality. JohnPaulGeorgeRingo was increasingly John, Paul, George and Ringo, and tension had begun to fray the once impenetrable bond between them.
Yet the presence surrounding them, the aura that seemed so evident to outsiders, the charismatic magic that seduced all comers — this remained undimmed.
Billy Preston had met the Beatles in Hamburg, Germany, back in 1962 when he was a young Hammond organ player with the explosive Little Richard, and the Beatles were still an amphetamine-driven bar band. They became close and shared a mutual admiration even as their careers took them in different directions. What must have seemed like a lifetime later, in the winter of 1969, Preston was playing London with Ray Charles and made a casual visit to the Beatles’ Apple studio to say hello to his old friends. He ended up being drafted by the Beatles to join the fraught Get Back sessions.11 Preston:
It was fabulous. The guys were just — it’s such a glow when all four of those guys are together. Like, the room glows.
So here’s a keyboard virtuoso, who has spent the 1960s with some of the world’s most gifted and dynamic musicians, including Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Jimi Hendrix, visiting a group of old friends who are at a low point in their career and would effectively break up in the summer. And still he is struck by how, in their presence, “the room glows.”
This is affirmed repeatedly by others who found themselves in the Beatles’ midst in those late years. Jeff Lynne, while recording The Idle Race’s first album, got to visit EMI studios in late 1968 while the Beatles were recording what became the White Album — another project that was marked by tension.
Our engineers knew the guys at Abbey Road and they took us up there to say hello. The Beatles were so amazing; they had this aura about them. To be in the same room as the four of them caused me not to sleep for, like, three days.
Shortly before that, Neil Innes, the musical mastermind first of the satirical Bonzo Dog Doo-Dah Band and later of Monty Python, had begun spending time with the Beatles after they utilized the Bonzos as the faux-nightclub act in the “Magical Mystery Tour” TV film.
They were magic people. It’s almost impossible to describe. I think all of us who went through that period, you still get it from the music — there’s a kind of chemistry that touches things you can’t describe.
Ray Cooper is the flamboyant percussionist whose smiling, baldheaded and sunglassed visage has been seen on concert stages for decades. 50 years of playing on every rock star’s records and supporting them on tour has run parallel to his longtime involvement with British theater and film, bringing him into contact with legends like Laurence Olivier and Sean Connery. He has been surrounded by the most famous artists in the world since the 1960s and knows a thing or two about charisma.
The Beatles — all of them — had that. When they walked in the room, things changed. Things changed. There was an aura. Extraordinary people.
We need to take a quick detour here. In the same interview, Cooper pointed out that the charisma factor was a phenomenon of the individual Beatles (“there is still an aura, with Ringo and Paul”), not just the foursome. It would take an entirely separate piece to review the testimonies by those who met the solo Beatles, but a few will provide a taste.
Ringo? Gregg Bissonette, a world-class drummer who among countless credits has been a long-time touring member of Ringo’s All-Starr Band, confides that “I can’t say names, but I’ve seen people shake over the last ten years. Just come backstage and then just shake — you know, people that are big, big stars.” Sam Hollander, one of the top producers and songwriters of the 2010s, whose whole career has been based on collaborating with major stars, did some work for the first time with Ringo Starr and said, “You get in a room with this guy, and the one thing I would say is your head is about to get just crushed with the amount of physical energy and spirit.” Stewart Copeland simply says of his encounters with Ringo, “He is not as other men.”
George? Bobby Whitlock, the super-session keyboardist who practically grew up at Stax Records and was the main co-writer for Derek and the Dominos, recalls the time George Harrison briefly joined Eric Clapton on the Delaney & Bonnie and Friends tour. “When George walked in, the whole dynamics of everything changed. There was just — you could feel him coming before he was in the room, you knew something special was happening. He walked with a sense of peace and tranquility, and that projected out into the room. You could feel it before he was even there. You could feel him, his presence.”
Steve Lukather remembers the star-studded memorial concert held in 1992 for his friend and fellow Toto member Jeff Porcaro, one of the most recorded drummers in history during his short life. Lukather invited George Harrison to join the many other luminaries. “He walked into the room and there was a collective gasp. And I was already in a room with a bunch of famous people. It was just, you know — the aura. It’s definitely another level. I mean, there’s no question about that. And there’s nobody who’d argue that.”
Paul? The great Tony Bennett was nearly 40 when he first saw the Beatles, a jazz purist who loathed rock ‘n’ roll. Yet, he recalls, “I knew Paul was sprinkled with stardust the moment I saw him walk onstage. With some people in show business — a certain few stars — a magic shines through their every move, whether they’re performing or not.” The seminal English music and sports impresario Harvey Lisberg agrees that Paul’s charisma was not limited to performance: “He had a magic, there’s no question. And it was nothing to do with music, either; he had a magic in that personality.”
Tom Meighan, lead singer of top British band Kasabian, really felt it. He was engaged by the NME in 2014 to interview Paul for a 40th anniversary special about the Band On The Run album. “That's the first time I felt the aura of someone. It was the most freaked out I’ve been in my life. I was shitting myself. I didn’t even shit myself when I met the Stones. I felt nothing like that.” And James Corden, whose “Carpool Karaoke” has booked every global mega-star imaginable, says his encounter with Paul is easily the most memorable of his career. “I’d heard the phrase ‘stopped traffic’ before and I’d never really understood it. Until walking down Penny Lane with Sir Paul McCartney and every single car at the junction is stopped — and you cannot hear a single horn.”
John? The comments about John are astonishing.12 They also make it easier to understand the intra-Beatles dynamic: each of the other Beatles worshipped John in their youth, and despite roles and prominence that waxed and waned over the years, John remained the band’s de facto leader and most forceful personality.
Eric Carmen: John Lennon was the most charismatic person I’d ever met. Period. Bar none. I’ve met a lot of rock ‘n’ roll people over the years, some that I had idolized . . . and some were cool and some weren’t, but they all seemed pretty much human. John was really just overpowering in person.
Jay Messina: You know, from all the people that I’ve worked with — Miles Davis, you know, lots of big-name people — after five minutes everybody, for the most part, everybody’s the same. [But] John was just a magical person to be around. He just had — there was something special about this guy, even if you didn’t know his name.
Joey Molland: John would raise the room temperature, just by walking in. He had ferocious energy. He lit up the room.
Richard Perry: John Lennon was the most exciting person I’ve ever been in the studio with. His energy was overwhelming. The natural force and strength of his personality, he lifted everybody in the room up. I can remember very distinctly every minute with him; it was probably the greatest thrill of my career. He worked at a fast pace, he had amazing energy and electricity, and it spread to everyone else.
Alan White: He’d walk into a room, and you could feel the aura around him. It was huge — I mean, everyone would start revolving around him because he was emanating so much.
Elton John: I couldn’t meet John without being awestruck, and I knew him quite well. He’s the only person in this business I’ve ever looked up to, the only person. I’ve met my equals. I’ve met people who are great like Mick Jagger and Pete Townsend, who I admire tremendously. But they are not in the same league, I’m sorry.
Thom Panunzio: I never got over John being in the room. I think I could have worked with him another 10, 20 years and I would still feel that way. And later, when I met the other three Beatles at different times, I could hardly speak. After all the years being in the music business, all the years and all the people that I’ve been doing this with, it’s just something about those guys that is so special — something about them when they’re in the room.
Still, as Leonard Bernstein once observed about the Beatles: “Individually they were something, together they were IT.”
The late Alan White, longtime drummer for Yes, played on several early solo records and live performances with John Lennon, some of which included Eric Clapton. Around this time he also worked with Ginger Baker and Steve Winwood. For him, no atmosphere compared to Beatle atmosphere — even breaking-up-Beatles atmosphere.
The problem with being in a room with any one of the Beatles is that the whole room revolves around that one person. When you get two of them in the room and the whole room revolves around those two people . . . and I’ve been in a room with all of them together, it’s just unbelievable. It’s an aura you feel more than anything. It’s kind of scary — because it’s a very powerful kind of thing that they have together.
White’s recollections are seconded by another drumming giant, Jim Keltner, one of the greatest and most prolific session drummers of all time. Keltner has recorded and performed with practically every major artist of the last half century, including all four Beatles.
You always had to listen carefully when any of them were talking, and try to unscrew the “code.” And when a couple of them got together, just stand out of the way. You probably heard about the “inner circle”? It really was, because I did feel a part of the group of people, but they had a communication between them that was really a special bond. They speak of each other as brothers, or more than that, and sometimes you could see, almost feel something going on between them.
Richie Havens described his own reaction to meeting a couple of late-period Beatles — in a club filled with people like Jimi Hendrix.
I was sitting on one side of this table with John Lennon and Paul McCartney facing me. My tongue was completely tied to my tonsils. My mouth was on the floor. They had the conversation with me because I was just in awe. All I could do was sit there silently, taking in the experience, as if I was a tongue-tied fan.
But all four Beatles? Recalling his final experiences with them — the Let It Be and Abbey Road sessions in 1969, as the band was breaking up — George Martin still marveled. Even for him, after seven years of constant work with the band and an increasingly tense group dynamic which almost led him to refuse to continue as their producer, a mystical aura around the Beatles somehow remained intact. “There was just an inexplicable presence when all four of them were together in a room. Their music was bigger than they were.”
All of which brings us to a wonderful turn of phrase that comes courtesy of Robert Fripp. Writing in his diary in 1999, Fripp jotted down what he listened to that evening.
This evening's music has moved from Eddie the Elgar to The Beatles' "Revolver". Now onto "Rubber Soul". Were the Beatles the last example of group genius in Western popular culture?
“Group genius.” It has been said a million times about the Beatles that they embodied the alchemic concept of a whole being greater than the sum of its component parts; that when you take the four individual pieces and combine them, a chemical reaction occurs, a combustion which yields far more than A + B + C + D.
The metaphors have taken a variety of forms.
Robyn Hitchcock compared the Beatles to “a four-color separation photo”: break a photo down to its components and there’s a blue, but it’s too much blue; a red and it’s too much red. Put them together and not only are they in natural balance but additional colors and shades fill out the image.
Tom Hanks, giving the commencement address at Vassar College in 2005, used “the power of four” to make the point that great numbers of people aren’t needed to make a difference. After noting that engineers had calculated that removing 4 cars out of 100 was the difference between gridlock and free-flowing highways, he continued, “Take four musicians in a depressed area of England. Name them John, Paul, George, and Ringo and you have 'Hey Jude.’ Apply the power of four to any area and you will make a difference.”
Steve Jobs, in discussing his successes at both Apple and Pixar, said, “My model for business is the Beatles. They were four very talented guys who kept each other’s negative tendencies in check. They balanced each other, and the total was greater than the sum of the parts. And that's how I see business.”
Ken Burns, the great documentary filmmaker: “Look, one and one equals two, we know that. If not, airplanes don’t fly and trains don’t run and doors don’t shut. But the thing we want in our lives is for one and one to equal three: in our faith, in our art, in our relationships. And I think that the Beatles did that for me.”
Don Was takes the Burns model even further. The great bassist, musical director, and for the last decade, president of the iconic jazz music label Blue Note Records, is rhapsodic in his conviction about this multiplying magic . . .
“Suddenly, one plus one plus one plus one equals . . . a thousand.”
Group genius indeed. Bill Flanagan has said that when John, Paul, George and Ringo were together “there is a fifth thing that happens that’s not like any of the four of them.” And he offered a fascinating insight which is, essentially, an expansion on Fripp.
We don’t have – critics, academics, culturally – we don’t really have a vocabulary for the idea of a collective genius. You know, we want authorship. We want to say that movie was made by Martin Scorsese, or The Sopranos was made by David Chase, or Miles Davis made those records. And I think the Beatles really challenge that. They make us contend with the notion that four people together can create something extraordinary, and you cannot break it down and say this guy was the genius, or that guy was the genius.
Of course, Fripp and Flanagan are talking about the Beatles in terms of their musical output, but their formulation works just as well when it comes to the Beatles’ charismatic chemistry. Either way, maybe this helps explain the rapturous, quasi-religious language we hear other artists use in describing the Beatles; maybe, seen through our traditional lens as four “ordinary” individuals, the Beatles simply defy our vocabulary. They transcend our available means of definition or explanation, and become, for some people, divine. (Just for fun, take a peek again at that first group of comments at the top; you might read them slightly differently this time.)
There’s one more anecdote about all this aura stuff, and it might be the most bracing testimony of all about the Beatles’ strange energy. It amplifies the sensation of what might be called the compounding effect of Beatle aura — and the special alchemy that seemed to occur when, as Don Was analogized, all four gems were in the crown.
Chris Thomas is one of the most successful producer/engineers of the rock era. Celebrity and fame makes him yawn. This is a man who has worked closely and extensively with Pink Floyd, Sting, U2, Elton John, Pete Townshend, The Sex Pistols, INXS and many others. When the Beatles were recording The White Album in 1968, Thomas was engineering at Abbey Road and George Martin was producing. He tells the following story.
George Martin informed me that he wouldn’t be available. I can’t remember word for word what he said to me, but it was something like, “There will be one Beatle there, fine. Two Beatles, great. Three Beatles, fantastic. But the minute the four of them are there that is when the inexplicable charismatic thing happens, the special magic no one has been able to explain. It will be very friendly between you and them but you’ll be aware of this inexplicable presence.” Sure enough, that’s exactly the way it happened. I’ve never felt it in any other circumstances. It was the special chemistry of the four of them which nobody since has ever had.
So in the end, what are we left with? Observations, recollections, personal reactions; many of them quite eloquent. But no explanations. For there really is no explanation for the Beatles. No thumbnail precis can summarize their appeal. There are too many people who sensed something in the Beatles outside of recognizable experience. Those who want to think of them in miraculous terms can be forgiven their hyperbole. For what it’s worth, even George Harrison — the Beatle who had the most complicated relationship with their fame — understood that there was something celestial about it all.
“There was a magic chemistry that happened between us and somehow it got into the grooves on those records. You can take the Beatles separately and analyze all their energy, but when you put them together astrologically and chemically, something stronger takes place that even the Beatles never understood.”
It would be a fun exercise to enumerate a list of Beatles firsts and singularities and see how long it gets. Supported by artist commentary of course, maybe a future post?
Economically, John was a bit of an exception as he actually grew up in something close to middle class (certainly more materially comfortable than Paul, George or, especially, Ringo). Emotionally and psychologically, however, John was the least comfortable, as he was abandoned by his father at age 5, given up by his mother shortly afterward to his aunt, and after reestablishing a relationship with his mother as a teen, traumatized when she was killed by a hit and run driver.
This was no isolated outburst. On another occasion Leary proclaimed, “The Beatles are Divine Messiahs. The wisest, holiest, most effective avatars that the human race has yet produced.”
In some ways, their workload once the hits started coming became even more insane. The Beatles’ day-by-day calendar from late 1962 through the end of 1964 — with concerts, recording sessions, radio and television appearances, and all manner of ancillary obligations and the associated daily travel filling practically every hour of every day, not to mention feature-length movies and world tours, all while having to find the time, energy and inspiration to constantly write new original material both for their own demanding release schedule and for several other artists who came to rely on the Lennon-McCartney hitmaking team (Peter & Gordon, Billy J. Kramer, Cilla Black, etc) — has to be seen to be believed.
Martin loomed even larger to the Beatles because at Parlophone he had produced surrealist comedy records by the likes of Peter Sellers and Spike Milligan (as well as their famed troupe The Goons), which were adored by the Beatles, particularly John.
The Beatles may have been the most popular group in northern England, but unfortunately for them the north was considered barely a step above Neanderthal by the rest of the country, especially London. By the time Martin agreed to hear them, they had already been rejected by every other British record label. (Relying on a weak audition tape made at Decca Records, unwittingly hampered by an Epstein-curated set list emphasizing standards and show tunes rather than the Beatles’ more exciting rock and roll numbers, didn’t help.) Parlophone represented their last chance.
Taylor would remain with the Beatles for a year, leaving at the end of 1964 after a temporary falling out with Brian Epstein. He worked closely with top American groups, particularly The Byrds and the Beach Boys, until 1968, when he returned to the Beatles and their new venture, Apple Corps.
Freeman would photograph the Beatles extensively through the Rubber Soul LP, in December 1965.
The overwhelming exhilaration that Delsener describes at the outdoor Forest Hills show brings to mind a passage by Eric Olsen, the long-time journalist and the founder and publisher of Blogcritics. As he put it, the Beatles generated “an intensity of joy that slapped people in the face with the awareness that happiness and exuberance were not only possible, but in their presence, inevitable.”
The Hamburg-era Beatles were actually very different. Filled with booze and speed pills to get them through 6 to 8 sets every night and encouraged to mach schau [“make a show”] by club managers in order to attract and keep customers, the young Beatles indulged in quite the manic behavior indeed: they mocked, cursed and shouted at the often-brawling audience, variously giving them Nazi salutes and calling drunken patrons to the stage; ate, drank and smoked while playing; delivered a proto-punk brand of rock’n’roll at breakneck pill-driven tempos; dragged props on to the stage (John notoriously appeared with toilet seats around his neck); engaged in stomping contests to see who could break the stage first; and generally created and presided over an anarchic environment befitting one of the more debauched red-light districts in Europe.
Preston stayed for several months and contributed electric piano and organ to what became the Beatles final two albums: Let It Be (recorded first but released last), and Abbey Road.
One gets the sense that such impressions of John spread through the rock community. Jimmy Page, for example, never met Lennon (despite being a contemporary), but it certainly sounds like he’d spoken to those who did: “I really would like to have met John Lennon. I would have liked to have been in a group of people and just hear him talk. I would have liked just to feel his presence.”