Those are the bare facts. They don’t tell you that as a child, Lennon loved to read Lewis Carroll and to fight in the street. They don’t tell you about growing up in a working-class neighborhood in Liverpool in the early ‘50s and always feeling shut out. They don’t tell you what it was like to play seven hours a night in Hamburg, popping pills, drinking too much, reinventing yourself and – without knowing it – reinventing rock ‘n’ roll. They don’t tell you what it was like to be voted the top group in Liverpool in 1962. And they don’t tell you what it was like to have the world – for a while anyway – revolve around a rock ‘n’ roll group.
Most important, they don’t tell you the difference the Beatles made. In rock terms, it was all the difference in the world. Until the Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll was strictly American; no British act had ever made it in the United States, and in Britain, no English act ever could compete with an American one. Until the Beatles, the 45 was rock ‘n’ roll’s aesthetic unit. Though the Beatles were wonderful single-makers, they reinvented the LP by treating Rubber Soul as a whole and not just a collection of hits and covers. And until the Beatles, the idea of a rock ‘n’ roll group that presented itself as a group (as opposed to Johnny Cash and the Tennessee Two, say) and thought of itself as a group (they didn’t commission songs, but wrote their own) was a foreign one. With the Beatles, rock ‘n’ roll became rock – self-conscious, increasingly respectable even as it offended, and capable of acting out its pretensions. The effects of all this were not simply internal: it is the central point of the Beatles that they made an impression on nearly everyone. The record industry went on to become a multi-billion-dollar industry. British and American culture connected in a way they had not since the Revolution. As the counter-culture grew and gained authority, a model of collective spirit was established every time a Beatles song came on. And along the way, rock stars replaced movie stars as the popular talismans of the culture.
And still, none of this tells you what it was like to hear the Beatles. It was fun, a combination of cheek, smarts, and irrepressible ego. When John Lennon opened his mouth, you heard the sound of someone who knew exactly what he wanted and how to get it, of someone who knew that what he had devoted his adult life to was good for a laugh, but more than a joke. It was loud, a combination of energy, size, and high spirits. When John Lennon opened his mouth, you heard the sound of someone who was announcing his place in the world, who was making demands. It was the sound of someone expecting get a response. And he almost always got one, in movie theaters where the crowd sang to Hard Day’s Night, in concert halls where girls screamed and threw jelly beans, in the London Times when it declared the Beatles to be Artists, in a courtroom when Paul McCartney announced that he was suing Lennon and the others and dissolving the Beatles. When John Lennon leaned into a microphone, he was expecting to hear more than the sound of his own voice in return.