Rebirth of the Beatles

“Rock Band” and remastered CDs give the generations new chances to come together

By Jere Hester
|  Tuesday, Sep 8, 2009  |  Updated 6:59 AM CDT
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The Beatles are leading a new British Invasion.

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The latest craze out of Britain is “silent disco” where folks, listening to different music on headphones, shake their respective booties on the same dance floor to the beat of their own drummer or drum machine. “Silent disco” is apparently a big hit at weddings where older and younger guests can groove to separate tunes.

Before bashing the Brits on this soundless silliness, let’s remember they also gave us the Beatles, who on Wednesday will be offering the generations new ways to, well, come together over music with the dual debut of “The Beatles: Rock Band” and the group’s remastered CDs.

The hype machine, of course, has been in overdrive for weeks about the pricey double offering, seemingly a risky move in a slow economy where both the video game and recorded music businesses are struggling. But the Fab Four, who arrived in the U.S. 45½ years ago to thousands of screaming fans at Kennedy Airport, boast a history of living up to – and exceeding – great expectations.

The key to their success, the subject of countless books, articles and documentaries, always has come down to one simple thing: the music.

The Rock Band setup, though, seems anathema to many older fans, especially those of us inspired by the Beatles to learn to play actual musical instruments. But the genius of the move is that it offers youngsters whose parents weren’t alive when the Beatles broke up a way to experience the music in a form that’s familiar to them: the video game.  It certainly will give families – ranging from kids to grandparents – something to play together come the holidays.

The remastered recordings, meanwhile, will let fans raised in the post-vinyl era listen to the Beatles the way the group meant the music to be heard, free of the muddy mixes that marred the first digital releases two decades ago. The box set also offers newcomers an instant Fab Four collection, good for immediate immersion, from “A Day in the Life” to “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away.”

None of this is cheap. The Beatles: Rock Band retails for $250, while two CD sets – one in stereo, the other a special, limited-edition mono version – each go for about the same. The CDs also will be sold separately.

But getting even richer doesn’t appear to be the prime motivation for Paul McCartney, Ringo Starr and the families of John Lennon and George Harrison. The video game and CD releases are more about preserving the group’s legacy, while drawing new fans into the fold.

“For us, let's remember that the central thing is our music is getting played,” McCartney told The Observer of London. “That's the bottom line.”

The Beatles, blamed by many for making the first big rip in what became the Generation Gap, have helped bridge the chasm in the nearly 40 years since they split: a recent Pew Research Center survey discovered the group is among the top four favorite musical acts of Americans 16 to 64.

That’s an extraordinary finding in an age, where, with countless website and TV channel choices, there’s a niche for every possible interest. Music, even in its segmented forms these days, offers one of the few opportunities for a mass, collective experience. As cheesy as it can be, there’s a reason “American Idol” is TV’s No. 1 show.

While the Beatles’ songs are timeless, McCartney, et al, realize they’ve got to keep up with the times to get the music heard. Of course, they haven’t taken the plunge into the deep end of the digital pool. The songs have yet to be set for an iTunes release.

That may come sooner rather than later: Wednesday, 9-9-09, an important, once-in-a-millennium date in Beatles history (the number nine is big in Beatledom; “Revolution 9” and "One After 909," to name a couple examples), not only marks the Rock Band and remastered CD debuts. Apple, named in honor of the Beatles’ recording label, is set to hold its annual September product launch.

It’s unclear whether health issues will permit Steve Jobs to participate, or whether there will be an announcement regarding the Beatles and iTunes. But given the timing, the event likely will be watched even more closely than usual.

In the age before recorded music, songs were passed from generation to generation by singing and playing them together. The mediums may be changing, but the impulse to share music isn’t, especially when it comes to the Beatles.

So maybe when we’re older, losing our hair, many years from now, we’ll be at the wedding of someone not ever born yet, dancing, sans headphones, to a Beatles tune – all together now.

Hester is founding director of the award-winning, multi-media NYCity News Service at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. He is the former City Editor of the New York Daily News, where he started as a reporter in 1992. Follow him on Twitter.


 

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