Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2006 | Features

We Love Them (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah)

By Shelbi Thomas
As students embark on a magical mystery tour of the 1960s, they realize the enduring appeal of the Beatles.

A UI student of popular culture examines the cardboard cutouts in a rare copy of the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band album.

In 1963, a country mourned the loss of its president—and sorely felt the absence of its rock 'n' roll idols.

Where were the artists to soothe America's soul with their music? Chuck Berry was in jail. Elvis was making movies. Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran were dead, while Little Richard had become a preacher.

At this defining moment in American history, which song played like a national soundtrack in every coffee shop and on every radio station? Dominique -nique -nique s'en allait tout simplement....

If this innocuous piece of French folderol courtesy of the Singing Nun was at odds with the energy and dynamism of the rebellious '50s and '60s, America was about to get back on track. Waiting in the wings was another group of musicians who would transform popular music and culture in headline- and history-making fashion.

As covered in the UI music department's course "World of the Beatles," four Liverpool lads took America by storm with their charm, charisma, mop top hairstyles, and unique interpretation of rock 'n' roll. Greeted with unprecedented fan frenzy, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr would become the best-selling and perhaps most influential pop musicians of all time. Even today—36 years after they split up—the Beatles have sold more than one billion albums.

One evening a week throughout the fall semester, some 20 UI students revisit the '60s—for most of them, a curiously attractive yet ancient period of history—to learn more about the Beatles and their world. Against the backdrop of the group's career and songs, they explore topics ranging from the civil rights movement to the Vietnam War. As adjunct assistant professor Donna Parsons, 90BM, 93MA, 01PhD, tells them, "[The Beatles'] music literally is in step with what's going on in the world."

Never before had a music group sparked a global revolution like Beatlemania. From Germany to Japan, teenage girls fainted from excitement at the mere mention of the Fab Four. Fans stocked up on millions of dollars' worth of Beatles merchandise, and guys grew out their crew cuts to emulate the shaggy Liverpudlians. The Beatles' seeming omnipresence on radio, television, and the silver screen even led to Lennon's controversial claim that the group had become "bigger than Jesus." That remark may have been debatable—not least to the outraged religious groups who responded with an anti-Beatles movement—but the foursome's impact on popular music is both undeniable and lasting.

As well as crafting their own lyrics, the Beatles introduced tape loops, overdubbing, and sitars on their quest for the perfect tune. While their first album, Please Please Me (1963) took a mere day to record, 1967's Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was the result of five months of meticulous fine-tuning. Other artists desperately tried to keep up with their innovative music. "What sets [the Beatles] apart is that they were never satisfied," says Parsons. "They were always looking for a new sound, a new way."

As far as Parsons is concerned, these popular musicians' ingenuity places them among the ranks of the great classical composers she's studied as a lifelong piano student. "For me, it was Bach, Beethoven, Brahms, and the Beatles," she says.

The '60s come alive for students in adjunct assistant professor Donna Parsons' "World of the Beatles" course.

While not everyone recognizes the Beatles' merit, Parsons maintains that much can be learned from studying popular culture. As they examine the icons of a particular place or time, students gain insight into cultural attitudes and beliefs and discover what people were responding to in their world. From Western politics to Eastern culture, they find such knowledge easier to retain when intertwined with '60s tunes.

"Sometimes you have to explain that there's academic integrity in teaching a course on popular culture," says Parsons. "We look at society, culture, and history, and how this music has impacted it. Yeah, we're listening to music, but how are lyrics different from poetry?"

Parsons was introduced to the group by her older brother and has since made the band's music the soundtrack to her life. She finds it particularly hard to talk about the band's break-up in 1970 and Lennon's assassination ("Everyone says they can remember where they were when JFK died," she says. "For me, it's John Lennon."). Such unbridled passion is one reason students—most of whom were born after Lennon's death—quickly fill up two sections of her course each fall and spring semester, as well as a three-week summer session.

Parsons peppers her lectures with quotes from the band, its contemporaries, and Beatleologists—scholars who continue to research and write books about the group's impact on society. She shows clips from the Beatles Anthology DVD in the multimedia-friendly Phillips Hall classroom. Although they've seen the rise and fall of boy bands in the '90s, students still laugh in disbelief at the sight of Beatlemania—thousands of adoring girls who yank out their hair and scream so loudly at a concert that the group can't even hear itself perform.

When the professor passes around books and records, like the original Sgt. Pepper album that a residence hall porter gave her on her latest research trip to England, students literally get a grasp on the '60s. Parsons also hopes they'll make connections between that decade and current events. Through two research papers and seven journal assignments, students might consider how the Concert for Bangladesh that George Harrison organized in 1971 compares with more recent benefit concerts or examine how the Beatles are portrayed in contemporary television shows like The Simpsons.

Along the way, they realize how the music of the '60s—not just the Beatles' songs—continues to influence and resonate with a new generation. "Students claim that everything they hear today can be traced back to the 1960s," says Parsons. "For many of them, the decade represents a time when rock 'n' roll came of age."

Students also try their hand at writing song lyrics. When they discuss their struggles, Parsons reminds them that even Lennon and McCartney—often called the greatest songwriting duo of the 20th century—didn't just magically crank out chart-topping tunes. "That's what I'd like students to understand," she says, "that part of that development comes from within, constantly pushing yourself to raise your bar."

Studying the band's history also gives these 20-year-olds the unique opportunity to connect with another generation. Parsons encourages students to ask their parents whether they watched the Beatles' early appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show and how the music of the '60s affected them. "Some students tell me that the reason they're taking the class is to better understand their dads," she says.

Pat Harrigan, a secondary education and political science junior from Chicago, regularly calls his parents to tell them about the course. "They always ask how it's going," he says. "I think they're jealous." Apparently, such Beatlemania is contagious. Students only faintly acquainted with the band's music going into the course become knowledgeable critics and fans by midterm. "I run into [students] around campus, and they tell me they can't stop listening to the Beatles," says Parsons, who once received an e-mail at 3 a.m. asking her to settle a roommates' dispute about who penned a particular Beatles tune.

By the end of the semester, students' iPod playlists often contain more Wings and John Lennon and the Plastic Ono Band than Black Eyed Peas and Green Day. "[Before the course,] I was a fan," says Harrigan. "Now I'm obsessed."

"World of the Beatles" does more than provide students with an appreciation for the band's past accomplishments, though. As Parsons says, "It's about realizing what four young men from humble backgrounds did to change the world in a positive manner, and knowing that you, too, can have an impact."