Transcending the Generation Gap
The Beatles were technically not before my parents’ time, but they would have been too young to understand or experience the ‘Beatlemania’ period of the 1960s. The music that informed my parents’ adolescence and young adulthood – which would in turn become the soundtrack of my childhood, before I was old enough to independently seek out my own music – were artists who gained prominence during or after The Beatles’ disbandment in 1970: The Carpenters (1969 – 1983); ABBA (1972-1982); the Bee Gees during their disco turn (1975-79); Air Supply (1975 - present).
So I grew up hearing references to The Beatles’ status of a music legend without actually hearing most of their tracks or watching them perform. As a teenager, I glimpsed the iconic 1981 Rolling Stone cover of John Lennon and Yoko Ono (on the cover of a photography book in a bookstore) without having an inkling of who either of them were. The first Beatles track I probably listened to was The Carpenters 1969 cover of ‘Ticket To Ride’, which remade the track into a sentimental pop ballad (which seems to have been my parents' favourite genre), stripping off the grunge rock influences and sexual double entrende of the original 1965 track.
It seems rather telling to me that Richard Carpenter recalled the track “being played as an oldie one day in early 1969 [italics added]”, even though the track was only four years old at the time. To a Gen-Y music listener like myself, The Beatles’ music might come across as being ingenuously crafted but difficult to relate to: stellar remnants of a bygone time, signifiers of an tumultuous post-war period and sociocultural changes far before our time. There’s no denying the excellent and timeless lyricism in tracks like ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ (1964); ‘Eleanor Rigby’ (1966); ‘Let It Be’ (1970); and ‘Yesterday’ (1976), but I can’t help but feel somewhat distant and disengaged, as though I’m watching a critically acclaimed black-and-white movie from the Golden Age of Hollywood. The problem with being the voice of a generation (or the musical embodiment of its zeitgeist) may be the difficulty you pose to subsequent generations in feeling and relating to your message.
Perhaps The Beatles’ oeuvre, like Shakespeare and classic literature, is something that you can only grow into as you mature. So far, the only Beatles track that doesn’t feel ‘dated’ or distant in any way is ‘Here Comes the Sun’ (1969). It happens to be one of the few tracks to have been written and produced solely by George Harrison, and which earned him songwriting recognition on par to that of Lennon and McCarthy. I’m not sure if this is because of the medium or the message (Rolling Stone describes it as “one of the Beatles' happiest songs”), but the ingenious simplicity of the track’s (mostly acoustic) construction probably allows it to ‘transcend’ the musical tastes and preferences of different generations.
The lyrics present a turning point in the speaker’s attitude (from pessimism/fatalism to hard-won optimism) which coincides with the arrival of springtime:
“Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun,
and I say, It's all right
It's been a long, cold lonely winter
It feels like years since it's been here
Here comes the sun
Here comes the sun,
and I say, It's all right”
Harrison has revealed the inspiration of the track in his autobiography I, Me, Mine (1980), written while avoiding the tedium of the business-side of the music industry:
"Here Comes the Sun" was written at the time when Apple was getting like school, where we had to go and be businessmen: 'Sign this' and 'sign that.' Anyway, it seems as if winter in England goes on forever, by the time spring comes you really deserve it. So one day I decided I was going to sag off Apple and I went over to Eric Clapton's house. The relief of not having to go see all those dopey accountants was wonderful, and I walked around the garden with one of Eric's acoustic guitars and wrote "Here Comes the Sun"."
The core of the message is a timeless one (and also the backbone of many Academy Award Best Picture Movies): resilience in the face of adversity. When combined with Harrison’s understatedly brilliant compositional choices, the track manages to attain a kind of immortality, making the sensation of Beatlemania seem – for a few moments – contemporary.