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Robins: The Beatles challenged Americans to think

The Beatles first American debut was live on

The Beatles first American debut was live on the Ed Sullivan show in front of an estimated 73 million Americans on February 9th 1964. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Express Newspapers

This reflection by then-Newsday music writer Wayne Robins was printed on Dec. 14, 1980, a few days after John Lennon was shot to death in Manhattan.

The most significant gift that John Lennon and the Beatles bestowed upon those who grew up with them was crystallized a few nights ago in an exchange between CBS-TV's Charles Osgood and disc jockey-author-singer Jonathan Schwartz. Schwartz had mentioned during a special on Lennon that one of the great pleasures of listening to Beatles' songs was that you could read between the lines of the sometimes ambiguous lyrics.

Osgood's response was logical: "But in reading between the lines, you stand the chance of reading wrong, right?"

Schwartz' response was unhesitant: "Of course."

In that moment, Schwartz had identified one of the many things that made John Lennon and the Beatles so awesome, so much more than a band that played rock music, more than an entertainment phenomenon. They achieved something that no other entertainer, nor for that matter any other public figure in recent memory had been able to do: They taught people how to think.

For a long time, the Beatles' influence was so all encompassing that they were also perceived as showing their minions what to think. It is entirely likely, in fact, that having leadership of the so-called counterculture thrust upon them contributed to their eventual breakup.

"It's like learning how to swim," Lennon said in an interview published in the January, 1981, issue of Playboy magazine. "The swimming is fine, but forget about the teacher. If the Beatles had a message, it was that. With the Beatles, the records are the point, not the Beatles as individuals. The people who are hung up on the Beatles and the '60s dream missed the whole point when the Beatles and the '60s dream became the point."

The swimming might not have always been easy, but it might have been unimaginable without the Beatles. They began in Liverpool, a grimy English seaport town. Lennon was the son of a merchant seaman. They were infatuated with the sound and fury of American rock. Lennon's idol was Elvis Presley; Paul McCartney, with whom Lennon first played in a band called the Quarrymen in 1956, was influenced strongly by Little Richard, whose idea of gospel at the time was holy-rolling shouts of liberation such as "a-wop-bop-a-lu-bop, a-wop-bam-bam," ecstatic shrieks that formed the basis of the secret language of rock and roll.

Secret language. That is what was embodied in the Beatles' first records: "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "She Loves You," "Please Please Me," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Can't Buy Me Love." There was something immediately familiar, yet unutterably new about those sounds, that revived rock after six years of lassitude (from 1958) when Elvis Presley went into the Army. There had been good rock songs between 1958 and 1964. But none of it had anything to do with the way people looked, thought, or felt.

The Beatles changed all that. They made rock and roll with an intensity, sexuality and humor that made people feel that that was the way they wanted to live. The early Beatles' songs were raw and aggressive. But their aggression wore a smile.

It was also permanently addicting in an unconscious manner. "One of my children was just 4 when the first Ed Sullivan Beatle program occurred [in 1964]," the poet and critic Reed Whittemore wrote in the New Republic in 1969, "and the 'yeah, yeah, yeah' in a stirring love song released him instantly from whatever small influence we had upon him. His head began to bob, he stamped his feet, he went off to find a drum -- and grow hair. He has never recovered."

The early Beatles were a remarkable combination of instinctive talent and public relations genius. The latter was courtesy of Brian Epstein, a Liverpool record store owner who began managing the band in 1961 when it was playing its raw, rhythmic rock at a local club called the Cavern. It was Epstein who was responsible for the matching Edwardian suits and mop-top hairdos that made the Beatles look both outrageously unconventional and affectionately adorable at the same time, a balance that was a key to the width and depth of their immediate success.

Epstein promoted the Beatles with a degree of skill unmatched since the Greek army convinced the citizens of Troy to accept delivery of a wooden horse. But no amount of hype or media manipulation would've had any effect -- at least not for very long -- if the Beatles hadn't had the talent to grow beyond their initial hysterical acclaim. Although they had been completely unknown to most Americans before "I Want To Hold Your Hand" and their first Ed Sullivan TV appearance, John Lennon and Paul McCartney had been playing together for eight years. In fact, Lennon and McCartney began their collaboration in the same year (1956) that Elvis Presley moved from Memphis' small Sun Records label to national exposure on RCA Records.

A friend of McCartney's, George Harrison, joined them in 1958. The band called itself Johnny and the Moondogs before changing it to the Silver Beatles in honor of Buddy Holly's band, the Crickets. In 1960, the band, with drummer Pete Best and an art student named Stu Sutcliffe, began commuting to Hamburg, Germany, playing nonstop, high-intensity rock for five, six, eight hours a night and developing the stamina that would help them survive the physical and emotional rigors of Beatlemania.

In 1962, Sutcliffe died of a brain tumor (he had left the band some months earlier), and Ringo Starr, who had been performing with another top Liverpool group, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, replaced Best on drums. The point is that the Beatles were experienced professionals, not just lucky amateurs, by the time they arrived in the United States.

The Beatles played rock and roll with a style and skill, with personality, yet coherence, that had never been heard before. Both McCartney and Lennon were gifted melodists, who composed almost all of the Beatles' material, but Lennon added something more: a tad of rebellion, a strong jolt of sexuality, and a lacing, unpredictable wit.

[words missing in clipping] the Beatles' songs their cutting edge and expansive perspective. The innocence of the earlier hits soon gave way to complexity and subtlety, even in straightforward rockers such as "Ticket to Ride" and "Help!" On "We Can Work It Out," Lennon and McCartney made it clear that there was more to relationships then a sudden, obsessive buzz, that a relationship was a constantly changing situation with two people making sometimes difficult adjustments.

Lennon and McCartney's first single to specifically deal with the way they perceived the world beyond romance was "Nowhere Man" (1966), a song whose lush harmonies contrasted with an indictment of materialism and conformity. "Paperback Writer," meanwhile, ironically showed the Beatles' distaste for lowest common denominator culture.

There was nothing hypocritical about that. The Beatles might have had a tremendous mass audience. But rather than appealing to the most marginal intelligence of that potential audience (as, for example, most television sitcoms do), the Beatles challenged their listeners, encouraged them to question their assumptions and expectations. To read between the lines, even if it meant reading wrong.

The year 1967 was the zenith. The ambitiously arranged singles "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Penny Lane" were teasers for the main event, the album "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band." Months of rumor, hints and innuendo preceded the release of the album in June, 1967, which helped make it the most obsessively anticipated work of popular culture in history.

It was an album wed forever to the events of its time. It was the soundtrack to the so-called "summer of love" in San Francisco; it helped fuel the mythology of the hippie movement; it dwelled on the sharing ("A Little Help From My Friends"); psychedelics ("Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" was widely thought to be an anagram for LSD, and Lennon's images, such as "picture yourself in a boat on a river with tangerine trees and marmalade skies" did nothing to dispute this); meditation ("Within You, Without You" by George Harrison); the generation gap ("She's Leaving Home"); optimism ("Getting Better") and the futility of conventional lifestyles ("A Day in the Life," which made clear the Beatles' suggested alternative: "I'd love to turn you on").

Besides defining its time, "Sgt. Pepper" changed the direction of rock. In the early days, the Beatles profoundly affected the only two other rock artists who've ever been legitimately compared to them, the Rolling Stones and Bob Dylan. Lennon and McCartney had written the Stones' first single in 1963, "I Wanna Be Your Man"; Dylan had been awed by the Beatles' dominance of the charts (eight of the Top 10 songs at one point in 1964). The power of the Beatles' hits inspired Dylan to turn from folk music to rock and roll in 1965.

"Sgt. Pepper" encouraged musicians to go beyond rock and roll. Songs no longer had to be two or three minutes long. Instrumentation could vary from Indian sitars to symphony orchestras. The recording studio became rock's new frontier.

The euphoria of that summer soon soured. A year later, the double album called "The Beatles" (also known as "The White Album") marked the beginning of the band's retreat. As if to symbolize the band's dissent, the forceful harmonies that had marked their best past work were replaced largely by solo vocals. Lennon and McCartney were no longer writing together.

That year Lennon had also met Yoko Ono, the Scarsdale-reared, Sarah Lawrence-educated daughter of a wealthy Japanese banker. Ono had a moderate reputation in the avant-garde art world. They married in March, 1969, at the Rock of Gibraltar, and held public honeymoons in Amsterdam and Montreal. At those "bed-ins," Lennon and Ono invited reporters. The purpose: to give high profile to their opposition to the Vietnam War.

Ono was blamed by many for the Beatles' split, but there were other factors. There were some disastrous business deals, including the abrupt collapse after seven months of Apple, a naively run London boutique. Epstein's death in August, 1967, from a drug overdose left the band without career direction and business acumen. The Beatles bitterly argued over who was going to guide them. McCartney wanted his father-in-law, New York attorney John Eastman; Lennon wanted record executive Allen Klein. (Lennon won that round, but a near-bankrupt Apple Records folded in 1973.) The acrimony between Lennon and McCartney was palpable in the movie "Let It Be" and in 1971, McCartney went to court to have the Beatles legally dissolved.

Politics and personal difficulties dominated Lennon's life for the next five years. With Ono, Lennon made bizarre records such as "The Wedding Album," which caused shock waves because it featured them nude on the cover, as well as the explicitly political "Sometime in New York City," which featured songs supporting radical leaders such as Angela Davis and John Sinclair.

On his own, post-Beatles records such as "Plastic Ono Band," "Imagine," "Mind Games" and "Walls and Bridges," Lennon showed a searching, introspective side. The music was more spare than on Beatles' records, the lyrics more direct and specific, with none of the grand, poetic allusion of his late Beatles' work.

His life-style revealed a man suffering from self-doubt. He went from primal scream therapy to an 18-month alcohol binge. He was separated from Ono for nearly two years during that period (approximately 1972-74). Press reports of crude behavior -- rowdiness in a nightclub, putting a sanitary napkin on his head in a restaurant -- made it apparent that Lennon was undergoing a crisis, trying to figure out what to do with the rest of his life.

In 1975, Ono gave birth to a son, Sean, and Lennon found some answers. He withdrew from music and the public eye to become a "house husband," raising Sean while Ono took care of some long-standing financial tangles. Their fortune grew (a recent estimate put it at between $150 [million] and $200 million) as they purchased prime real estate throughout the East Coast, from Laurel Hollow to Palm Beach, Fla. They made the news pages when a cow from one of their upstate Delaware County dairy farms was sold for more than a quarter-million dollars.

Last summer, Lennon and Ono resumed their musical activity and recorded an album in New York, "Double Fantasy," which was released last month. While the record broke little new musical ground, it did reveal that time spent "Watching the Wheels," as one of the songs goes, served its purpose, as Lennon and Ono celebrated the joys of parenthood, family life, and a deep, ongoing love affair.