For those who grew up in the '60s, it is hard to think of life without the Beatles in one form or another. From carefree "lads from Liverpool" whose appearance in 1964 on the Ed Sullivan Show singing "She Loves You," "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" and "Please Please Me," to the introspective adults who, searching for their own peace, led many in that generation to Indian gurus and the philosophy of the East, the four were always an influence. Hence the shock of the shooting death of John Lennon Monday night. As one young woman said, "It's like losing part of the family."
Composer Aaron Copland once said, "When people ask to re-create the mood of the '60s, they will play Beatles music." In fact, the Beatles have sold over 250 million records worldwide, and their albums are still in print. The team of John Lennon and Paul McCartney wrote more hit songs than any other composer in modern history. Speaking of the two in a radio interview, popular music critic Richard Williams said, "It was McCartney who wrote pretty tunes, but it was Lennon who gave the band its hard edge."
The Times of London, in assessing the impact of the group said, "The Beatles launched the 'Swinging Sixties' and heralded a new style of life and an image of Britain abroad. Hairstyles, styles of dress, even styles of speaking . . . followed in their wake."
Former British Prime Minister Sir Harold Wilson praised Lennon's early work: "He gave the kids something to think about, he kept them off the streets, and did more than all the forces of law and order could have done put together."
President Carter added, "His spirit, the spirit of the Beatles -- brash and earnest, ironic and idealistic all at once --
From the beginning, even in pre-Beatle days when the group was known as The Quarrymen, Johnny and the Moondogs, then The Silver Beatles, Lennon was the leader -- rebellious, intense, whimsical, street savvy, provocative. In that aspect, he never changed. It was he, for instance, who in 1966 somewhat ironically made the observation that the Beatles were "more popular than Jesus Christ." (Not better or greater, he later pointed out, just more popular).
He was a strong opponent of violence -- evidenced in such songs as "Revolution" and "Give Peace a Chance." As such, it was natural that he became an outspoken critic of American involvement in Vietnam, even before such a stance was fashionable. Many "love it or leave it" Americans of an older generation found it particularly unpalatable to hear this from someone who wasn't even a US citizen, but young men and women facing direct involvement in the war through the military draft took the philosophy to heart.
Caught up in the turmoil and malaise of the '60s, many found the Beatles, and Lennon in particular, a rallying point. Though later music -- including the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," which some critics consider to be perhaps the most important rock album ever recorded -- would have drug-culture undertones, one did not have to be a part of that culture to enjoy or appreciate it. (Even Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops got such a kick out of it that they recorded a whole album of Lennon-McCartney songs.) The songs mixed poignance, satire, and irreverence, becoming to many a call for sanity in a world that seemed all too crazy.
With the breakup of the Beatles in 1970 and the revelation of the tensions that had plagued the group in latter years, some of the spark seemed lost -- an era had ended. Though Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, recorded seven albums, they withdrew for several years to virtual seclusion. Yoko managed the finances (Lennon was said by some to be worth up to $240 million), and John stayed home to raise son Sean. His most recent album, "Double Fantasy" was Lennon's first in five years, and embodied a new optimism. In an interview with a radio executive he admitted it was aimed at the audience that knew him in the '60s.
"You have to give thanks to God or whatever it is up there for the fact that we all survived. We all survived Vietnam, Watergate -- the tremendous upheavals of the whole world.
"We were the hip ones of the '60s, but the world is not like the '60s. It's a whole massive change, and we're going into an unknown future. But we're still all here. While there's life there's hope.
"I hope the young kids will like it as well, but I'm really talking to the people who grew up with me. I'm saying here I am now. How are you? How's your relationship going? Did you get through it all? Wasn't the '70s a drag? You know, well here we are. Let's make the '80s good because it's still up to us to make what we can of it."