Donna Parsons is a lecturer in music and honors at The University of Iowa, where she teaches a wide array of courses—from Jane Austen to the Beatles. During the past 12 years she has spent part of her summers in England where she divides her time between research on the Beatles and the British music scene and archival research on the Victorian writer Michael Field. Parsons’ field research focuses on locating venues where the Beatles performed during their formative years and examining the ways in which Lennon-McCartney songwriting was influenced by childhood experiences and Lancashirean culture.
What makes the Beatles so great?The Beatles and their music constantly transcended barriers. The Fab Four’s pursuit of artistic perfection on stage and in the studio, as well as their musical imagination, set a standard that few musicians have achieved or even sustained.
It is one thing to consider the Beatles’ rich and diverse song catalog, and yet another to look at their personal story. We tend to forget that the group began as a mediocre cover band trying to get gigs in Merseyside clubs. The number of hours they spent honing their craft in Liverpool and Hamburg forged their identity and ignited their creativity. Their humor and collective will to succeed never deserted them even after they became the most influential band in the 1960s.
As a group the Beatles were a powerful entity that changed so many aspects of popular music. The Lennon-McCartney songwriting partnership challenged them and their peers to not only write their own material but to compose anthems that critiqued social issues and examined aspects of love, self-doubt, and even states of being.
The group’s live performances set records for attendance and box office receipts, and their screaming fans reached painful decibel levels. The sheer number of hours the Beatles spent on stage made them a tightly knit group that could knock out songs in a few takes when the lads had limited time in the studio.
They continually broke new ground—whether it was in their desire (thanks in part to their “colorful” explorations) to experiment with sound, to work as a studio band, or to confound fans and critics alike with their enigmatic lyrics.
Yet it goes beyond all that.
The greatness comes from the sheer intensity of the connection fans of all ages feel with the band and their music. It comes from watching performances where Ringo drums with pure joy, and John, Paul, and George give each other furtive looks. More importantly it is the power of their music to inspire and give hope during personal moments of vulnerability, doubt, or confusion that sets them apart from other bands.
The Beatles’ diverse catalog will speak to your every mood and provide direction. Let’s think about relationships. Lyrical themes run the gamut: the realization that you are in love (“I’ve Just Seen A Face”), wondering whether you want to commit (“If I Needed Someone”), intense desire (“I Want You [She’s So Heavy]”), the acknowledgement that love has run its course (“For No One”), and knowing when it’s time to just “Let It Be.”
The World of the Beatles lectures are organized as chapters in a story. Each week we focus on an element that answers the question, “Why the Beatles?” For me the most harrowing part of this narrative occurs in the final chapter, where we discuss Lennon’s murder and the impact his death had on the surviving Beatles and their fans. As I near the story’s conclusion, I find my voice beginning to crack, my eyes swelling with tears, and my knees wanting to buckle. John’s death was my first realization that life was unjust and cruel. It felt as though I had lost a close member of my family.
Lennon and the Beatles spoke and continue to speak to our dreams, our fears, and our desire to live a better life. That’s what makes them so great.