The Beatles changed the course of music history. But what if they hadn’t?
Can you imagine music, culture or life in general without the past century’s defining moment in music history? Just try to picture our world without the Beatles. It’s like going down a rabbit hole and finding hundreds more rabbit holes in front of you. Your mind spins, your head hurts, and when you think you’ve come up with a cohesive and plausible vision, the reality of your delusion sets in.
“Too depressing. No Beatles: no British Invasion. No British Invasion: no Stevie. No Brucie. No Byrds. Bob Dylan doesn’t plug in. Depressing,” said Steve Van Zandt of E Street Band and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Yes. All of that. And more.
Nevertheless, we conducted a roundtable on the subject with several music history experts.
Alternate music history roundtable: Lance Burson, Jim Berkenstadt, Todd Berryman, Darlene Love and Dave Bickler.
Our discussion began with the following: Without the Beatles, would the Rolling Stones have been the heir apparent to the crown? Would Dylan have plugged in at Newport 1965? Would there have been a British Invasion, or would the California sound — either northern or southern, Motown or Stax — have produced a wave strong enough to fill the vacuum of a Beatle-less world? Would singer-songwriters like Dylan and Paul Simon have had even greater influence?
And culturally, could any singer or band have created the youth movement which redefined hairstyle, fashion and attitude?
Todd Berryman, DJ and treasurer of all things music, weighed in: “A few things would have changed dramatically. Mersey Beat would still have been around, but the British Invasion would have likely been much more muted. The Rolling Stones would have likely chased their blues muse, to the point that pop stardom would possibly have eluded them.”
Possibly. Most in our roundtable thought the Stones, not true songwriters at that point and too focused on American blues, would not have been the same sonic force as the Beatles. But Jim Berkenstadt, The Rock and Roll Detective and author of The Beatle Who Vanished, thought differently. “It’s quite possible that the American blues, which was starting to influence the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and John Mayall, might have turned into more of a blues-rock event, as opposed to the British Invasion pop rock that came across with the Beatles, Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Dave Clark Five, and Herman’s Hermits. Maybe the Stones would have started a blues-rock movement, before another band would be good enough to come along and start sort of a pop-rock movement.”
Berkenstadt continued: “The interesting thing the Stones did was they took the blues of Willie Dixon and Muddy Waters and those guys who they admired and made it more interesting. Gave it more of a backbeat and rocked it up a little more. Whereas here in America, the blues guys were all singing these down-and-out ballad-type blues. The Stones picked up on more of the sexual blues numbers and either used the more upbeat songs or made tunes more upbeat. Keep in mind that Elvis’ first hit, ‘That’s All Right,’ was an Arthur Crudup blues song. By picking up the beat and giving it a little bit of energy, his first hit was actually a blues song. That’s why I argue the Stones would have figured it out and someone would have helped them find a single that would top the charts.”
The early 1960s saw the civil rights movement gaining traction, but segregation still kept blues musicians of color from dining, staying and performing in certain venues. Without the Beatles’ influence on music history, would white musicians have covered the blues and brought the genre to those venues, and would the blues have made an even greater impact on music history?
Todd Berryman weighed in: “In America, Stax and Motown would have much more prominence in the musical landscape. James Brown’s influence, as a result, would be much more prominent. I think psychedelic rock would have still happened, but it would have come through the Grateful Dead more heavily than, say, the Janis Joplin / Jefferson Airplane model — which is to say the folk base would probably carry the day. Musicians like the Velvet Underground would have still surfaced, and possibly more dramatically, since the Beatles weren’t precisely a touchstone for them anyway.
“And since the models for the Band were, to some extent, the same things the Beatles had, they would have possibly become the landmark band that would move us forward.
“In short, I think the Americana / Cosmic American music vibe would have been the center of the universe, paired with a greater sense of true rhythm and blues, at least stateside. Over the pond, it might have been more music hall / pop driven, but the influence would probably be coming more from our direction — the British Invasion wouldn’t have had the same impact.”
Writer, comedian and music aficionado Lance Burson said, “According to Albert Goldman’s bio on Dylan, he’d already made the decision to plug in a year earlier and just waited until he had a band together he liked. I think [in an alternate, Beatle-less universe] Dylan and the Band and thus all of the ‘California sound’ with the Byrds, Flying Burrito Brothers, etc., still happen, but maybe slower. I think heavy metal, Dylan, alternative music and punk all still happen but maybe with different people and performers than those who directly formed because of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan.”
The Ed Sullivan Show was indeed the explosion point that propelled countless kids to pick up a guitar and dream. Dave Bickler, vocalist of the Grammy-winning “Eye of the Tiger,” was one of those kids. He said, “I think there was something in the air already. The Beatles got to be so popular first of all because they were great; that was a given. But music was always going to change and it was a great leap over. It accelerated that. You look at the charts: after the Beatles came to America, the charts changed from Bobby Vinton and that sort of old guard — maybe with the exception of Elvis, who was kind of a maverick. But it all changed. There was an explosion of new music.”
Darlene Love, singer, actress and member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, wrote in her autobiography, My Name Is Love, about the arrival of the Beatles after the assassination of John F. Kennedy: “And then, just six weeks after the president was killed, four messengers from the east arrived breathlessly to announce that the mourning period was officially over.”
She shared her thoughts on music history if there had been no Beatles: “The British Invasion was coming because they were already big in Europe. This is the Promised Land; this is where it all started. So if it wouldn’t have been the Beatles, it would have been someone else. It was the time. It was the time for the Rolling Stones and the time for all those other European groups to come over here.”
Lance Burson said, “I think [without the Beatles] songwriting is less sophisticated. The psychedelic scene had already started in San Francisco with Jefferson Airplane, Quicksilver Messenger Service and Moby Grape. But I think the Beatles made them more focused and refined. I think the Beatles sped up the rock movement to becoming popular and literate and huge. So maybe we have different groups and artists and it takes five to 10 years longer.”
Just consider one singer-songwriter in particular: James Taylor released his first album through Apple Records. No Beatles: no Apple Records.
And beyond the long hair and changes in fashion, the Beatles cracked the cultural wall in so many ways.
Lance Burson said, “John Lennon’s outspokenness politically influenced so many artists. That may have never happened if the Beatles never existed. Bob Dylan made rock and roll literate, and the Stones, Kinks and other British bands made rock dangerous, dirty and fun. But the Beatles gave it all life, credibility and immediate success.
“One side note,” Burson continued, “Charles Manson would’ve never heard ‘Why Don’t We Do It in the Road?’ or ‘Helter Skelter’ or ‘Revolution.’ Does he have his family to murder people? Does Sharon Tate live and change blonde bombshell actresses and make people forget Marilyn Monroe?”
And finally, Jim Berkenstadt puts the Beatles cultural phenomenon into perspective. “If there were no Beatles, then there would not have been probably their greatest message to the world, which was their June 1967 broadcast. It was the first time in the history of the world and technology that all the satellites going around the earth were connected at the same time for a worldwide simultaneous live broadcast. England was asked to come up with something to represent their country. They went to the Beatles and John Lennon wrote ‘All You Need Is Love.’ He wanted to have an impact on the entire world at the same moment and knew how powerful and what an opportunity that was. Just think if that opportunity had been given to Kanye West or Nine Inch Nails or somebody else. The Beatles sang to the world: ‘Here’s our message to you: All you need is love; love is all you need.’ So imagine if there were no Beatles; that message would not have gone out in 1967. I always think of it — that the band that had the most power in the whole world chose that opportunity to make the world a better place.”