COVER STORY : What Made Them So Fab? : The Beatles grew from fresh-faced heartthrobs to artistic pace-setters of a decade. Yet who could have imagined they’d be a touchstone for generations to come?

<i> Robert Hilburn is The Times' pop critic</i>

Rock ‘n’ roll, each generation reminds us, is meant to be irreverent--suspicious, if not downright scornful, of anything handed down from earlier decades. The goal with each passing of the torch is to reject, discover and liberate.

So why do the Beatles remain the most revered attraction in rock after three decades?

“The television event of a lifetime . . . two new Beatles songs,” ABC-TV declares, hawking “The Beatles Anthology” documentary series that is expected to generate blockbuster ratings for a three-night run beginning next Sunday. There will also be an album, a home video collection (see accompanying box) and merchandise ranging from greeting cards to T-shirts.


It’s easy to see why baby boomers who grew up with the Beatles are caught up in all these memories. Nostalgia is a powerful force--and the Beatles charmed, unified and inspired a generation in the ‘60s.

The legacy of the Beatles, however, is best measured in their music’s continuing ability to enthrall new legions of listeners. For these fans, the magic of the Beatles doesn’t grow out of a generational bond--it springs solely from the music.

This power was dramatically displayed last year at the Seattle funeral for 27-year-old Kurt Cobain, whose music with Nirvana expressed the anger and alienation of his age in ways that led him to be called the John Lennon of his generation.

Like members of other acclaimed ‘90s bands, Cobain frequently spoke with disdain about his parents’ ‘60s generation. He scoffed at how the musicians and fans surrendered their lofty ideals and left for young people today a trail of broken homes, unsympathetic schools and bleak futures.

So it was surprising at the end of the services to hear the Beatles’ “In My Life” on a tape of Cobain’s favorite songs--the ones he listened to when trying to find relief, perhaps, from the tensions that drove him to suicide.

In retrospect, there was no reason to be surprised. The Beatles’ music has been touching us in deep and endearing ways for more than 30 years. It challenged and comforted, amused and amazed us. It is ultimately where the ideals and dreams of the ‘60s are best preserved.

Who would have imagined?


America’s love affair with the Beatles began as pure puppy love.

Imagine all the power of MTV today focused into a single moment, all directed at a nation of teen-agers eager to see their newest heartthrobs for the first time on TV.

That’s what happened when the Beatles made their U.S. TV debut on Ed Sullivan’s Sunday night variety show on Feb. 9, 1964. More than 70 million people tuned in to see the band, whose “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the nation’s No. 1 single.

One look was all it took. The Beatles were fresh, fun and fabulous. Young girls swooned at close-ups of Paul, George and Ringo--and groaned when these words were flashed over John’s close-up: “Sorry, girls, he’s married.”

Even parents got caught up in the enthusiasm. After the simmering sexuality of Elvis Presley and Little Richard, the Beatles seemed downright wholesome. Besides, it felt good to see their kids find something to believe in at a time when America was still mourning the death of President Kennedy.

The Beatles’ movie “A Hard Day’s Night,” released in the summer of 1964, added to the charm. The Beatles proved in the film to be not just cute as dolls, but unexpectedly witty and even devilish. On the way out of the theater, everybody wanted either to be a Beatle or be in love with one.

Who would have believed the heart of the Beatles story and music was still to come?


Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry were the great influences on the early Beatles music, but Bob Dylan helped spark the ambition that marked the Beatles’ middle period. Lennon and Paul McCartney collaborated on most of the material, but one of the two usually brought the dominant vision to the song.

Lennon, especially, recognized in Dylan’s folk-based commentaries the importance of purposeful lyrics and of looking inward for subject matter. While he began revealing more of himself as early as “Help” in 1965, the words to Beatles songs generally remained secondary to the music.

That changed in 1966 with three key songs on “Rubber Soul.”

The sinuous sounds of the sitar, adopted through George Harrison’s love of Indian music, gave “Norwegian Wood” an exotic aura, but it was the lyric’s tale of sexual seduction that showed the Beatles were upping the creative stakes.

“I once had a girl / Or should I say she once had me” was wordplay whose economy and nuance were worthy of the most sophisticated songwriter of any pop generation, from Cole Porter to Dylan.

“Nowhere Man” was an expression of personal and social apathy, in which Lennon matched Dylan’s imagery and bite:

Doesn’t have a point of view / Knows not where he’s going to / Isn’t he a bit like you and me?

But it’s “In My Life,” the song that Cobain would embrace a quarter-century later, that was the work for the ages, and it seemed astounding at the time that a rock ‘n’ roll star in his 20s could have come up with it.

Suddenly, everything seemed possible.

And for a while, we even believed it.


Lennon wasn’t the only Beatle growing as a songwriter. Even before “Rubber Soul,” McCartney gave us “Yesterday,” the wistful 1965 ballad that began: Yesterday / All my troubles seemed so far away / Now it looks as though they’re here to stay.

Though not as verbally ambitious as “In My Life,” the song carried the purity and sophistication of a pop standard. It is believed to be the most recorded pop song of all time--with everyone from Elvis Presley to Frank Sinatra taking a turn at it.

McCartney’s “Eleanor Rigby,” from the Beatles’ 1966 “Revolver” album, was even more of a breakthrough. It’s an adult narrative about loneliness--told through such indelible images as a solitary woman “picking up rice in a church where a wedding had been.”

“Penny Lane,” in early 1967, was another step forward, a song about life under the blue suburban skies filled with delicious satire and wordplay, all supported by the band’s growing use of marvelously tailored instrumentation.

Suddenly, the Beatles were no longer the property of the young. Adults--including respected musicians from the classical and jazz worlds--began noticing the music’s wonderful melodic sheen and imaginative chord changes.

Pop culture would never be the same.


The pop world stood still the day the Beatles released “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” in June, 1967. It wasn’t necessarily the best batch of Beatles songs, but it still took your breath away--a collection that seemed to move effortlessly in a dozen directions at once as it proclaimed the artistic independence of a new generation.

The legendary “The Beatles”--the so-called “White Album”--a year later was another work of supreme confidence and self-awareness. Indeed, the two-record set spread the riches over an even wider canvas--a smorgasbord of sounds and ideas that ranged from the silly to the spectacular.


By 1967, the Beatles were at the center of a cultural revolution that was questioning authority on all levels, and the band assumed the role of social commentators. That’s when the BBC invited the group to write a song for a program that would be the first-ever live global TV broadcast. With the world stage at their command, they performed “All You Need Is Love.”

The song started with a teasing military backdrop, then broke through with a gentle message that the most powerful weapon is the force of the human spirit: Love is all you need. The song became an anthem during the summer of 1967 . . . the Summer of Love.

All the time the Beatles were amazing us, they kept us off guard with songs that touched the child in all of us. They backed the adult aspirations of “Eleanor Rigby” with the sweet innocence of Ringo Starr’s sing-along vocal on “Yellow Submarine.”

And they peppered their boldest works, “Sgt. Pepper’s” and the “White Album,” with disarming asides, from the soft-shoe shuffle of “When I’m 64” to the playful Beach Boys salute of “Back in the U.S.S.R.”


There is something about great bands, from the Who and U2 to R.E.M. and Nirvana, that cleanses us emotionally--and the Beatles were masters at it, from the lovely “In My Life” through the calming “Hey Jude” and the hymn-like “Let It Be.” Of all the pieces in the Beatles’ musical puzzle, this may ultimately be the most enduring.


There was so much talent in the Beatles that it was perhaps inevitable that the members would eventually want to follow their individual visions rather than bend them to meet the necessary compromises of a band.

When you look back on the Beatles’ huge body of work, it’s amazing that they didn’t burn themselves out even sooner than 1970.

Beyond the landmark songs already cited, even a partial list of other classic Beatles recordings is staggering: “Across the Universe,” “Ballad of John and Yoko,” “Blackbird,” “A Day in the Life,” “The Fool on the Hill,” “Helter Skelter,” “I Am the Walrus,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” “Revolution” and “Strawberry Fields Forever.”

A piece of a generation and a piece of rock ‘n’ roll died when the Beatles called it quits.

“The dream is over,” Lennon sang in 1970 on his first solo album.

But he was only partially right.

Lennon knew that the Beatles could never again come together and regain the spirit of the ‘60s. But he underestimated the richness and humanity of the band’s own work. The magic of the Beatles’ music is that it allows us to continue to dream.