- The Washington Times - Saturday, October 8, 2005

Today is John Lennon’s birthday. He would have been 65. This was an age milestone for Lennon and the generation who cherished him and the music of the Beatles.

It is also an occasion to consider the musical question asked by Beatles drummer Ringo Starr on the band’s landmark 1967 album “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band”: Just what happens one year after age 64? (The song “When I’m Sixty-four” was composed by Lennon and Paul McCartney. Albums were vinyl discs played on record players.) Surviving Beatle McCartney is 63 and Mr. Starr is 65.

At the time of its release, “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” was the most influential album ever produced. It was largely Lennon’s work. In fact, Mr. McCartney said the album’s success surprised him. Lennon later ridiculed Paul for questioning his brilliance in conceptualizing the album, which re-invented the Beatles and assured them a prominent place in the history of rock-‘n’-roll.

Ed Sullivan brought the Beatles to this country in 1963. Their distinctive appeal won the hearts of teenagers and adults. The Sullivan TV appearance caught the attention of record producers, and soon the Beatles dominated the record charts.

Despite their success, the Beatles had other options in case the music business didn’t work. Mr. Starr and Mr. McCartney planned to open hair salons. Lennon planned to go to art school. The late George Harrison most likely would have performed for another band. Fortunately, the music business did work. It became the rock-‘n’-roll industry.

By 1967 the Beatles felt they had come to an end as a band. But Lennon had a grand plan for a new album. Mr. Starr and Harrison were in the dark. Lennon worked some with Mr. McCartney but mostly alone.

If “Sgt. Pepper” had failed, as some nonbelievers predicted, the Beatles would surely have been nothing more than a tiny blip on the rock-‘n’-road radar screen. Instead, the Beatles created a new musical universe where they were the masters.

In addition to birthing rock-‘n’-roll, the Beatles are credited with starting many social movements including gender equality and homosexual rights. Perhaps sociologists and historians give the Beatles too much credit. These movements, they say, would have occurred naturally. Yes, but when? The Beatles also birthed the Now Generation.

The undisputed fact is the Beatles were change agents and the group they appealed to, teenagers, wanted change. By 1967, teenagers were fed up with the Vietnam War, racism and conventionalism. The Beatles led the way, and the world’s youth followed.

On “Sgt. Pepper,” Lennon addressed the big issues of the time, including age. Why should adults dictate behavior to the young generation? Lennon felt they were fully capable of determining their behavior without the consent of an outdated rules-based system that produced an unequal and discriminating society.

Age was an important issue to Lennon. Why should the young generation follow the older generation’s failures, he asked.

The younger generation trusted the Beatles. In the 1960s, the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30” became a popular statement and a rallying cry for teens and the counterculture.

But today Lennon, Mr. McCartney, and Mr. Starr are or would be well beyond 30. Can we still trust them? Or to paraphrase a question asked in “When I’m Sixty-four,” do we still need them? Do we still need what the Beatles represented?

The Beatles became international rock-‘n’-roll stars, and their fame still exists. Hundreds of Lennon and Beatles followers will gather today at the “Imagine” mosaic in Strawberry Fields in New York’s Central Park and in other parts of the world. The mosaic was named after Lennon’s most memorable solo recording “Imagine.”

The followers will include today’s younger generation as well as people like me who have reluctantly progressed into the older generation. We will remember and rejoice in the freedom and spirit the Beatles liberated in the 1960s. Although, I was a pre-teen at the time, I instinctively felt the Beatles had changed my future and the future of the world.

Our spirits were freed to do great things in the world. We ended segregation. We demanded an end to the craziness that was Vietnam. We demanded accountability in Watergate. We demanded politicians hear our voices. We demanded a better country and a better world.

Do sociologists and historians give the Beatles too much credit for social change in our country? I don’t think so. They deserve the credit and the respect we have for them. Yes, we still trust them. Yes, we still need them. Beatlemania rules.


A member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum, and a Washington writer.

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