The Beatles: Monsters of Media
In a memorable line from the 1997 movie Men In Black — while examining a tiny futuristic device that would purportedly replace CDs — MIB Agent Kay (Tommy Lee Jones) says, “Guess I’ll have to buy the White Album again.” Many in the movie audience could relate, as they may well have already owned multiple copies of The Beatles’ White Album , on vinyl, cassette, and CD. And that should come as no surprise to anyone, as the Beatles have sold more music than any other act in history: an estimated worldwide tally of somewhere beyond 1.6 billion units of records, tapes and CDs, or about one for every five current global inhabitants.
However, over the past 50 years, the Beatles haven’t dominated just our music world. Individually and collectively, the Fab Four have become Monsters of Media, through their many varied adventures into stage performance, film, television, art, books, magazines, memorabilia, and digital media.
But let’s start with just a few testaments to the popularity of their music. The Beatles burst out of the gate in April 1964, with the rapid (and rabid) surge of Beatlemania placing 12 of their newly released singles on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. At the same time, their songs had also locked up all of the top 5 positions on that chart. Before the year was out, the group would sell over 25 million records in the U.S. and over 90 million globally.
Through 1964 and 1965 alone, The Beatles turned out 11 No. 1 singles and 7 No. 1 albums on the American music charts. (They would end up with 20 U.S. No. 1 singles and 19 U.S. No. 1 albums overall.) They are the only musical group in history to have No. 1 singles or albums in six successive decades.
The single most-recorded (and almost certainly most-played) popular song in music history is “Yesterday”, released on the 1965 Beatles’ Help! album. The tune, which has been covered by an estimated 2,000 or more artists worldwide, has been broadcast more than 10 million times since its release, and is heard around the globe numerous times each day.
Music critics continue to debate whether the single most influential album of all time is Revolver or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band , and musical artists of every genre often cite one or both as a prime source of inspiration.
Upon its release in 1969, Abbey Road began selling at a pace of almost a half-million albums per day. Even after the group’s break-up in 1970, sales of its music continued, boosted by the releases of 1967-1970, Anthology 1, 2 and 3, and the collection of their No.1 hits, 1.
In the late months of 2009, after the long-awaited release of their remastered canon of albums/CDs, The Beatles sales figures surged once again by more than 2 million additional units over the short term.
Within the first few months of The Beatles oeuvre becoming available for purchase and download via Apple’s iTunes in late 2010, more than several million downloads had taken place, with Abbey Road being the most popular album download and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ being the most popular single download. There is every indication that new fans and old alike are adding to their ever-expanding Beatles music collections.
Attendant to the early Beatlemania of the mid-60s was the production of vast amounts of Beatles memorabilia and merchandise, as well as the fanatic collection of all things Beatle. Today, there are numerous websites devoted solely to the sale, purchase, trading and collecting of Beatle artifacts, collectibles and memorabilia. It is now possible to obtain virtually any desired item, from 45s and albums, to photos and ticket stubs, to autographs and record sleeves, to sneakers, postcards, magazines, dolls, coin purses, books, sheet music, drinking glasses, trading cards, drum kits, posters, wigs, shirts, board games, maps, figurines and commemorative books.
Speaking of books, The Beatles and their founding members have spawned a publication industry, with unauthorized biographies, photo essays, tell-alls, inside looks and anecdotal coverage galore. Most good-sized American libraries carry a solid shelf or three of books by and about the Beatles. I, Me, Mine by George Harrison is thus far the sole authorized autobiography of a Beatle.
By 2000, The Beatles Anthology, a massive documentary-style tome recording the story of the Beatles as seen through the eyes of the band members themselves and a few close associates, was available at bookstores. That book roughly paralleled the musical trajectory traced by the sequentially-released double-CD packages of Anthology 1, 2 and 3, and by a 6-hour documentary television series broadcast in November 1995.
The Beatles had, of course, honed their musical craft via live stage performances. Their early career was marked by numerous nightly appearances in German nightclubs and in The Cavern Club in Liverpool. Throughout 1963, the four lads appeared in shows almost daily at one venue after another all about the United Kingdom. By the peak of their popularity from 1964 through 1966, The Beatles had crossed the United States on three different occasions, and had also toured the UK, Scotland, France, Italy, Spain, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany, Japan, the Philippines, Australia, New Zealand and Hong Kong. Their final U.S. tour of 14 dates in August of 1966 culminated in what was until then one of the largest audiences ever to gather to hear popular music — a screaming throng of 45,000 fans at Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles.
That early Beatles tradition of performing live on stage in front of fans has been carried on most assiduously since the early 1970s by ex-Beatle Paul McCartney. Starting with more than 150 tour dates with his group Wings from 1972 through 1979, and continuing with over 500 dates on more than a dozen solo tours since 1989, he has built a worldwide audience into an income juggernaut. As recently as last year, Sir Paul was netting as much as $10 million annually in personal touring revenue, making him Great Britain’s first billionaire rocker. The world’s most commercially successful popular music songwriter (according to Guinness World Records), Paul has been the most prolific of The Beatles, churning out perhaps 50 albums of various types since 1970, as well as numerous music videos, video albums, classical pieces and soundtrack contributions. His most successful solo and Wings albums have included 1982’s Tug of War, 1973’s Band on the Run, and 1974’s Venus and Mars.
In contrast, John Lennon’s untimely death and reluctance to once again step into the spotlight limited his sole post-Beatle live performance to a Madison Square Garden audience in August of 1972. The resulting Live in New York City album went gold, as many Americans treasured this rare glimpse of the newly-reclusive Lennon. While Lennon’s discography after The Beatles includes some 30 albums, a great many are repackaged compilations, and a few consist of experimental music or collaborations with Yoko Ono. His best include 1971’s Imagine, 1974’s Walls and Bridges and 1980’s Double Fantasy.
George Harrison’s most significant public performance of his solo career was at the 1971 Concert for Bangladesh, for which he conscripted friends Eric Clapton, Bob Dylan, Ravi Shankar and others to raise money for refugees of the Bangladeshi war of liberation. In addition to participating in a variety of other benefit concerts over the years, Harrison also undertook a U.S. tour in 1974, and a tour of Japan in 1991 with Eric Clapton. Harrison produced a total of 17 albums after the break-up of the Beatles, with the stand-out success being 1970’s All Things Must Pass, and several making it to the top of both the U.S. and UK charts.
Consigned throughout much of the Beatle years to a raised dais behind the drum kit, Ringo Starr emerged after 1970 as a movie and television actor and a soloist in his own right. It wasn’t until almost 1990 however, and the formation of the first ‘Ringo Starr & His All-Starr Band’, that Ringo emerged as a live performer with staying power. Over the past 20 years, he has taken the stage with an ever-changing variety of rock ‘n rollers, playing hits from his Beatle days as well as those of his fellow performers. To date, Ringo has also produced 16 post-Beatle studio albums, reaching as high as #2 on the U.S. charts.
Ringo has far surpassed his fellow former Beatles when it comes to film and television acting. Of course, all four of the lads were responsible for the commercial success of (most of) their joint Beatles movies: A Hard Day’s Night (1964), Help! (1965), Magical Mystery Tour (1967), Yellow Submarine (1968), Let It Be (1970). John Lennon was the first to jump into a non-Beatle movie, 1966’s How I Won the War, and he later produced some avant-garde films in collaboration with second wife Yoko Ono.
Within a few years, Ringo had his acting opportunity, taking a role in Candy (1968) then another, alongside Peter Sellers, in The Magic Christian (1969). He played the role of fellow rocker Frank Zappa in 1971’s 200 Motels. Following among his more than a dozen films were 1973’s That’ll Be the Day, 1974’s Son of Dracula, and 1980’s Caveman, on the set of which he met his second wife, Barbara Bach. Ringo also parlayed his talents onto the set of Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends (1984-1986), where he served as both narrator and conductor.
Paul McCartney’s solo forays into films have primarily been from behind the camera, as creator, composer and producer, though he also starred in 1984’s Give My Regards to Broad Street, a commercial flop notable only for its soundtrack. His interest in art and animation led to 1981’s Rupert and the Frog Song.
Far more heavily involved in film production from behind the camera (and behind the scenes) was George Harrison. Handmade Films, the company he founded with Denis O’Brien in 1978, was the financial force behind Monty Python’s Life of Brian. The company’s successful flicks included The Long Good Friday (1980), Time Bandits (1981), The Missionary (1982), and Bullshot (1983), as well as the flop, Shanghai Surprise (1986). Harrison also produced soundtracks for Wonderwall, Water and Shanghai Surprise.
John Lennon had launched his first skiffle group shortly before attending the Liverpool College of Art. His interest in drawing and writing never ended. Throughout his early years, he had penned the Daily Howl, a collection of his writings and satirical drawings. A collection of his pieces was published as In His Own Write (1964). He followed with A Spaniard in the Works in 1965. A posthumous collection, Skywriting by Word of Mouth, was published in 1986, along with several series of his drawings.
Ringo is a fairly recent convert to art, taking up first a mouse and then a computer tablet in the late ‘90s. Though he has also occasionally worked in acrylic on canvas, most of the drummer’s work is computer generated, consisting of colorful stylized graphic faces of varying expression.
McCartney first took up painting in 1983, after years of admiring the work of such artists as Willem de Kooning, Magritte, Claes Oldenburg, and Andy Warhol. When the Beatles were casting about for ideas for an album cover in the mid-1960s, Paul introduced the others to the artist Peter Blake who went on to help create the classic album cover art for Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band . The first gallery exhibition of Sir Paul’s paintings — including his portraits of such fellow rockers as David Bowie and John Lennon — was staged in 1999 in Germany. Paul also became the first rock star to design postage stamps, for The Isle of Man, in 2002.
One of the latest and most imposing Beatles ventures began with discussions between George Harrison and Guy Laliberté, a founder of the Cirque du Soleil performance troupe, in 2000. Years of negotiations between the surviving Beatles, their bandmates’ executors and estates, Apple Corps Ltd., MGM Mirage and the Cirque culminated in the creation of Love, the theatrical production staged at the Mirage in Las Vegas by the Cirque. Produced continuously since April of 2006 within a theater rumored to have cost in excess of $100 million to create, Love continues to enthrall and enchant with a story loosely structured about The Beatles’ artistic and metaphysical journey.
And, still carrying on the legacy of those lads from Liverpool today are numerous Beatles tribute bands around the globe, replaying all of those glorious hits of all the intervening decades, allowing us to relive Beatlemania for just a while longer.
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