News From Terre Haute, Indiana

December 5, 2010

MARK BENNETT: Apple peels The Beatles’ legacies down to the music

Mark Bennett
The Tribune-Star

TERRE HAUTE — It looked so minimal.

Thirteen albums. Two-hundred and 13 songs. Classic album artwork and photos. Lyrics that became part of the culture.

All reduced to a thin 6-inch by 8-inch piece of plastic.

Actually, the plastic holds little relevance. It’s simply an oversized gift card for any recordings sold by digital music retailer iTunes. At least, with a “Hey Jude” era picture of The Beatles on the card’s front, there’s some tiny, physical manifestation of their incredible body of work.

For children of the 1960s, such as myself, memories of The Beatles come in layers, with their joyful, strange and innovative music at the core. Coated around those sounds, like rings on a tree, are mental snippets of late-night arguments with friends about song meanings, news clips of their “Ed Sullivan Show” performance, videos of their unceremonious final concert on a London rooftop, where you were when you first heard “Abbey Road,” legends and fables about their breakup, and Howard Cosell’s announcement on ABC’s “Monday Night Football” that John Lennon had been shot and killed.

Beatles music has always come with baggage. Well-guarded baggage.

That’s why those iTunes gift cards seemed so slight when I spotted a cluster of them, hanging on a metal peg in Best Buy on Black Friday. The arrival, on Nov. 16, of The Beatles’ complete catalog — all 13 studio albums and 213 songs — on a digital format came with hype from Apple, owner of the iTunes online music service, calling it a day fans will “never forget.”

That’s doubtful. Even though long-running legal battles left The Beatles as one of the last holdouts to allow their profitable music to be digitally downloaded, that breakthrough day — Nov. 16, in case you’ve forgotten — will undoubtedly get lost alongside fans’ memories of the “Yellow Submarine” cartoons, Yoko and the Maharishi. The iTunes release date already is being overshadowed by an onslaught of Lennon-related films, timed to coincide with Wednesday’s 30th anniversary of his murder in New York.

Yet, there’s significant benefit to their step into 21st-century technology via iTunes.

It has the power to do what The Beatles themselves longed for — the format essentially strips away those coats of mental paint applied since the ’60s, leaving only the music for newcomers.

Sure, by downloading their entire catalog (for $149), buyers still get access to digital versions of lyric sheets, photographs and album cover art. But younger fans may not share the older generation’s fascination with such stuff. The Generation X’ers and Millennials have grown up listening to their music on iPods, Zunes and mp3 players, and have never spent an hour reading the liner notes inside Bob Dylan’s “Blood on the Tracks” LP. Most kids have never unfolded a vinyl “White Album.” In fact, many got only brief exposure to the condensed visual images of albums on CD before switching to digital. They collect their favorite single songs, one by one, either through unauthorized digital filesharing or with legal purchases on services such as iTunes.

The concept of concept albums — an art form The Beatles created with 1967’s “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” — is fading.

“So there probably won’t be another ‘Tommy,’ ” said Glenn Gass, a music professor at Indiana University, where he teaches the history of rock and roll. “Tommy,” of course, was a 1969 double-album rock opera by The Who. Green Day’s “American Idiot,” a monster success from 2004, and various rap albums are among the few examples from the past decade of cohesive, song-by-song storytelling, Gass said. Instead, albums nowadays are simply a bundle of a dozen singles, just as they were before “Sgt. Pepper’s.”

Gass’ students and their peers typically grab digital versions of the songs they like best, by one or several artists. That’s a change from 1982, when Gass started teaching his rock history class at IU.

“The question they most often get wrong [now] is, ‘What album is this [song] from?’” he said. “And it didn’t used to be that way.”

The Beatles’ emergence on iTunes magnifies the change. As a band, Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr “worked hard to sequence [the songs on] their albums the way they wanted the songs to flow,” Gass said. The idea of a 20-year-old using a $1.29 digital download to pluck the song “Polythene Pam” from the medley on Side 2 of “Abbey Road” — a 16-minute, eight-song tour de force — may seem like heresy to a baby boomer. But such cherry picking will happen, because, as Gass said, “people just don’t listen that way” any more.

That’s a nostalgic wound. Hard as that is for aficionados such as me to accept, that shift is not necessarily a bad thing. Young listeners get to meet The Beatles just as their parents (or grandparents) did — through their songs. The Beatles stand out because of their musical skills as composers, singers, recording artists and instrumentalists. The rest is just details, layers of legends that can obscure their true uniqueness.

Without their guitars, drums and keyboards, their lives involved some unheroic circumstances. Lennon, abandoned as a child, wound up leaving his wife and child, too. McCartney did time in a Japanese jail on a drug charge. Harrison often reminded fans that he was actually a poor example of the religious person he was reputed to be. Ringo and the others argued like brothers, stopped speaking to each other for long stretches and sued one another.

Pretty ordinary … until you hear the four of them tear through “I Wanna Be Your Man” — sounding boisterous, yet tighter than steel cable.

“The music stands up,” Starr aptly told USA Today last year.

And that’s what a college kid, with ear buds plugged into her Zune, gets with a digital download of a Beatles song — time-tested, great music. She’s also making a commitment to this band from her dad’s youth, because iTunes charges more for Beatles downloads — $1.29 per song (instead of 99 cents) and $12.99 per album (rather than $9.99) — than nearly all of its other artists.

Like many of his age, the 54-year-old Gass wistfully mourns the evaporation of such experiences as sitting between two stereo speakers at 2 a.m. “with a friend beside you going, ‘Wow.’ ” But he also enthusiastically uses his iPod, enjoying its ability to retrieve a Fats Domino recording once out-of-print and unobtainable in the pre-digital era. McCartney, Gass pointed out, appreciates the technology, too, and “just likes hearing a good song.”

“I think that,” Gass added, “is a healthier attitude” than lamenting change.

A teenager who downloads “Blackbird” may miss out on the rest of “The White Album” and all of the drama that went into its making. On the other hand, with an uncluttered mind, he’ll spend 2 minutes and 19 seconds with just McCartney’s poetic message of encouragement for broken people. There’s purity in that, too.

Lennon once said The Beatles weren’t heroes; “We were four guys … We were just a band that made it very, very big. That’s all.”

Their quality of their art, the music, is the only reason the world is still listening 40 years later. The digital era reinforces that reality.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or