If you didn’t grow up with the Beatles, the quality of the group that’s most defining — the degree to which they towered over the culture — is almost impossible to communicate in any organic way. I don’t mean to be patronizing to my Gen-X friends (although they’ve never been shy about patronizing me), but if you’re too young to remember the Beatles, you probably won’t get it. You’ll think: Okay, Michael Jackson meets Star Wars — I know, they were that big. But they weren’t. They were bigger. They may not have been bigger than Jesus, but they were as big as Jesus. Depending on how old you were (I was a little kid, which may have been the ideal age to drink in their incandescence), they enveloped you, spoke for you, and, simply by virtue of being in the world, made that world seem the rare and inviting and intoxicating place you always wanted it to be.
The eternal paradox of the Beatles is that their constantly shifting images and ever-changing music made their identity as a group not more fragmented and diffuse but more powerful and defined. They weren’t the mop-topped early Beatles or the natty silk-uniformed showmen of Sgt. Pepper or the let-their-hair-down hippie ruffians of those four iconic photographs included in the White Album or the tough, wise, saddened family-man cynics of Let It Be. They were all of them at once. And starting with Rubber Soul, the special quality that the Beatles’ songs took on was this: Every last one of them felt different from every other one of them. That’s why even the mediocre ones didn’t matter: They were all part of the story that the Beatles were telling — a story of endless mutation and endless possibility, of life revealed, of a joy that could take an infinite number of forms, the way that joy does every day. The Beatles were shape-shifters who acted out for the rest of us, in their music and images, the jubilation of life as a moment-to-moment discovery. In A Hard Day’s Night, they were shown, in their cheeky, frolicsome way, to be gods at play in the world (at the end of 90 minutes, they re-ascend to heaven in a helicopter), and their message had an elemental magic: We float above you — but really, we are you. And you are us. Read more