It’s 50 years since The Beatles’ first album. But the Fab Four’s popularity in India continues unabated..
Last month, while figuring out the best way to get more people to use pedestrian crossings, the Kolkata Traffic Police had a brainwave. Instead of tired rhymes and billboards with celebrities giving advice, they decided to let an iconic album cover by The Beatles do the talking. The hoardings featured the Abbey Road cover with the Fab Four crossing the road in single file and the question: “If they can, why can’t you?”
Why pick The Beatles though? The answer is simple. As the Kolkata police said: “Universal popularity”. After all, what other band has such enormous reach, across countries and spanning generations, more than 40 years after it broke up.
Formed by John Lennon in Liverpool in post-war Britain, initially, the band featured different line-ups and was known by names such as the Quarry Men and Johnny and the Moondogs. It was changed to the Silver Beetles and then The Beatles in tribute to The Crickets in 1960. Though he had played with them earlier, Ringo Starr officially joined Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison in the band on August 18, 1962, replacing Pete Best.
Their early songs were up tempo, cutesy, pop ballads such as ‘Love Me Do’ (their first single released on October 5, 1962), ‘She Loves You’, ‘All My Loving’ and ‘Can’t Buy Me Love’ (the love you take is equal to the love you make indeed). Their debut album, Please Please Me was released in the U.K. on March 22, 1963, and this year marks the 50th anniversary of the release.
By mid-1963, Beatlemania had swept through Britain like a tidal wave. The Beatles were greeted by hordes of hysterical girls, so overcome with emotion on seeing their favourite band that they couldn’t stop screaming and crying. The next year, the U.S. was bitten by the bug and the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 paved the way for the British invasion of bands likeThe Rolling Stones and The Who entering the American market.
The Beatles, particularly George Harrison, became interested in Indian music and culture during the filming of Help! in 1965. After meeting Ravi Shankar in 1966, Harrison came to India to learn to play the sitar, forging what would become a lifelong association. The group was used the sitar in some of their songs and were credited with popularising Indian classical music in the West. But Delhi-based sitarist Pandit Shubhendra Rao (48), a student of the late Pandit Ravi Shankar, begs to differ: “It’s not that Indian music was not there before. The Beatles were instrumental in taking it to the masses.” He does not think that songs such as ‘Norwegian Wood’ and ‘Within You, Without You’ are a good mix of Western music and Indian classical. However, he adds, “It was okay at that time when the sitar and Indian music were relatively unknown because it introduced a new sound. It was a very honest experiment and a great stepping stone for the world to realise that, other than the guitar, there was a whole world of other instruments.”
Fifty years after their first album, The Beatles are still unbeatable. Why? Banglorean Ria Andrews (19) says, “Part of the reason was the mushy songs. Any girl would love a guy singing those songs to her. I don’t blame the girls for going crazy over them. I would have been screaming too.”
Mumbai musician Sidd Coutto (33), who also plays in a Beatles tribute band called The Bottles, says: “What I like about the songs are that they’re catchy and simple, arranged very well. Almost everybody knows Beatles songs, no matter where you’re from. And if you play them well, people enjoy them. Everybody is into it.”
After The Beatles broke up, they all pursued their own interests. They never played together again. Lennon was shot dead in 1980 by a deranged fan and Harrison died of cancer in 2001.
The news of Lennon’s death affected Sanjay Iyer (58), Bangalore-based writer and teacher, personally. He says, “The news of the assassination came through to Bombay (where I lived) by the early afternoon of December 9, 1980. That evening, Ronnie Desai and his band, The People, were supposed to play a concert called ‘Beatles 4Ever’. Nobody could have dreamed that Lennon would be dead at the age of 40, and the band that evening dithered about whether they should perform or not. They eventually did, and it remains forever in my memory as a wonderful way to bid goodbye to an era.”