On November 15, Apple’s home page promised that the following day would be one that we would “never forget.”
The next day, Apple revealed its big surprise: The Beatles had arrived on iTunes.
On the Internet, the immediate reaction to this momentous announcement was: *yawn* — followed by an avalanche of snarky and derisive comments.
The gist of most of the comments was that Apple’s announcement was too little, too late. Typical remarks (with the snarkiness removed) ranged from “This is fine…but too much hype, hardly worthy of taking over Apple’s home page for a day” to “Who cares about some old band that broke up 40 years ago?”
Is this criticism deserved? Mostly, yes. But not entirely.
Apple had spent years pursuing the group. On several occasions, it appeared that a deal to get the Beatles on iTunes had been struck. But they all turned out to be false alarms — until now. At times, it seemed as if the pursuit of the Beatles had become Steve Jobs’ personal Holy Grail. To finally succeed, is indeed a major coup.
But that makes it a big deal for Apple. Not so much for us.
It’s also true that, until Tuesday, there was no place on the Internet where you could legally download Beatles music. iTunes is the first and (at least for now) the only location where you’ll find Beatles music.
This too is a big deal. But again, more for Apple than for the rest of us.
If you are any sort of Beatles fan, you’ve probably already purchased the CDs you want — from a single album to the thirteen album Box Set. Even if you want to buy a Beatles album today, you can likely purchase it from Amazon for less than the cost of downloading the same album from iTunes. For example, the Beatles’ Red and Blue greatest hits albums sell for $12.99 each at Amazon. On iTunes, they go for $19.99 each! This is not the sort of pricing designed to encourage sales or excitement.
iTunes offers the ability to easily download individual songs. Do you have an urge to own “Hey Jude”? With iTunes, it can be on your playlist within a minute. That’s worth something. Even for albums, there is the lure of immediate access. Perhaps that’s why, as I write this, 16 of the top 35 best-selling albums in iTunes are by the Beatles. Frankly, I was a bit surprised to see this level of success. But not shocked. Clearly, despite the scoffing comments on Twitter, a lot of people are glad to welcome the Beatles to iTunes.
And therein lies the biggest part of what makes the Beatles on iTunes a big deal: The Beatles.
Yes, they are a band that broke up 40 years ago. Two of the members are no longer alive. The majority of people alive today weren’t even born when the Beatles were releasing new albums.
And yet…the Beatles remain above and apart from every other performer that has come along since. That’s why Entertainment Weekly listed the Beatles as the #1 Greatest Entertainers of All Time (officially defined as 1950-2000). The Beatles remain at or near the top of almost every other similar list.
In the brief span of time from when they attained international fame to when they broke up (1963-1970), the Beatles set numerous milestones. Here are the five that stand out the most for me:
• Arrival in U.S. I’m not talking about the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show or Beatlemania in general. True, it was all pretty incredible. You may think you’ve experienced a level of mass hysteria that compares to it. Trust me, you haven’t.
And the Beatles’ physical appearance, starting with their mop-top haircuts, changed the look of a entire generation of young males.
But more than anything else, it was the music.
From the first time you heard songs like She Loves You or I Want to Hold Your Hand, you could tell the Beatles were more than just another preteen craze. Especially impressive was that they composed many of their own songs. And played the instruments themselves; there was no backup band. This is dime-a-dozen common now. But it was incredibly rare back then. Yes, there was Chuck Berry and a few others. But a group of white kids? From England no less? Unheard of.
• Hard Day’s Night. Thanks partly to Richard Lester’s great quick-cut editing (preceding the same style in music videos by at least a decade), but mainly due to the humor and personality of the Beatles themselves, this movie holds up spectacularly well. Even back in 1964, it was something special. Can you imagine any other similar group from that time (The Beach Boys?, The Four Seasons?) doing anything comparable? No. Actually, to my knowledge, a movie like this has never been duplicated. All other successful performance movies by rock artists are based on live concerts.
• Rubber Soul. With the release of this album, the Beatles stretched the definition of “rock music” into directions it had never gone before. From “Norwegian Wood” (with its use of the sitar) to “Michelle” to “In My Life,” the Beatles were making a statement: Good rock music could be more than a hook and a backbeat.
Although not on the album, “Yesterday” was released during the same period. In contrast to the Beatles’ mostly electric music, it was an acoustic ballad. It remains the most covered song of all time.
• Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. The Beatles’ previous albums had been building towards this: the concept album. It was not an album intended to be merely a collection of hit singles and lesser songs, each standing on their own. Rather, it was an album intended to be listened to from start to finish, in a manner similar to how you would read a novel or watch a movie. Even the cover of the album contributed to the overall effect — and remains perhaps the most well-known cover of all time. The music was an eclectic mix of styles, again unlike anything else that had been done previously — and set the stage for what came to be called psychedelic rock. From “A Little Help from My Friends” to “A Day in the Life,” Rolling Stone ranked it as the number one album of all time.
The concept album became common throughout all of rock after this — for a period of time. More recently, you can thank the Internet, with its emphasis on individual song downloads, for helping to kill it off.
• Hey Jude. The four minute coda of this song (with its ceaseless repetition of “Na-na-na-na-na-na, Hey Jude”) extended this song’s length to over seven minutes — unheard of for a single. That didn’t stop it from remaining #1 on the Billboard charts for nine weeks, tied for the longest stretch for any song up till that time.
As with almost everything the Beatles did, “Hey Jude” blazed a path — leading to an acceptance of longer song formats by a variety of other artists (such as the Rolling Stones and “You Can’t Always Get What You Want”).
So yes, despite Apple’s hype, November 16 will not wind up being a day we will never forget. As for the Beatles — that’s a different story.