What would the world have been like without the Beatles?

Danny Boyle and Richard Curtis’s film, Yesterday, imagines what might have happened if the Fab Four had never existed. Guardian writers and Beatles experts offer their own alternative histories.

Alexis Petridis: ‘The 60s wouldn’t have swung so dramatically’

Towards the end of Jon Savage’s masterful book 1966: The Year the Decade Exploded, there’s a telling line from an interview with the Who’s Pete Townshend, surveying the disparate pop scene in December of that year. “It needs the Beatles,” he said, “to sort things out.”

It’s a remark that gets to the heart of the Beatles’ importance. Blessed with exquisite taste and with – in Paul McCartney’s phrase – their “antennae always up”, their albums tied together the various strands of 60s pop into a series of coherent developments. Beatles naysayers point out that a lot of the innovations of the 60s weren’t theirs, that they tended to be sparked by others’ ideas – from Bob Dylan’s lyricism to the Band’s rootsy, back-to-basics approach to the vast debt to black American music that runs through their catalogue – but, aided by the fact that they were just better songwriters and more alive to the possibilities of the studio-as-extra-instrument than anyone else, the Beatles tended to hone those ideas to their point of greatest effect. Pop psychedelia may have fomented at the recording sessions for the Byrds’ Eight Miles High in December 1965, but it found its most potent expression in the records the Beatles released over the next two years. By collating, curating, embellishing and developing, the Beatles gave pop form, they acted as a unifying force.

Perhaps the 60s might have swung without them – 1962 hits including the Crystals’ He’s a Rebel, the Beach Boys’ Surfin’ Safari and the Marvelettes’ Please Mr Postman suggest pop was already in the process of escaping the post-rock’n’roll doldrums before they exploded into the global consciousness – but they wouldn’t have swung so dramatically. Pop wouldn’t have had anything like the cultural impact that it did, it might have remained a series of scattered developments that never coalesced into a world-shaking force. It needed the Beatles to sort things out.

 Alexis Petridis is the Guardian’s chief pop and rock critic.

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1 thought on “What would the world have been like without the Beatles?”

  1. All the writers suggest in interesting ways how the world would have been without the Beatles, but as an American teenager in l963, one who saw the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan’s stage in August l965, and now as a 70-something writer with an upcoming book of essays (February 2020, Mad Creek Press) about the profound personal, intellectual and cultural changes brought about by the Beatles, especially Lennon, I’m pretty sure the US would have been drastically different without them. We’re a big country, and there really wasn’t just one style of music big enough to collect all the growing unrest and political/personal itches its population was trying to alleviate. Surf music: good for frugging, but too insubstantial. Jazz? Urban, yes, but would probably meet too much resistance from teens who liked rock and roll. Folk music covered more territory, as did Motown, but the US needed something HUGE, and that was the Beatles. The growing unrest against the Vietnam War, and especially the mind frame of the returning vets could have nudged the more experimental types of jazz into wider appreciation, or aligned with more folkies, but there was something about the transportable energy of the Beatles — all over the media– that worked to merge different segments of the population. And the Beatles advanced, not just musically, but politically and personally. You can’t say the same for Elvis, or Jan and Dean. Could one build a conduct of life around the Four Seasons? The Beatles offered something larger, and though not everyone were fans, their power could not be ignored. Just a few quick thoughts to the question. The Beatles were a gift to the world, that’s how I see them. The gift seemed to be respected for a short while, but then things got out of control. To millions, they remain a gift. I think that’s a good thing. Thanks, Sibbie O’Sullivan Wheaton, Maryland USA

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