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The Stones, Dylan, The Beach Boys and Beatles at 50

These musical pioneers—still rocking today—changed our culture forever

The Beatles, the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan. The names alone read like an incantation, a stirring evocation of the glory 
days of rock and roll, a litany of artists who inhabit the very soul of what we have come to think of as classic rock. They are immortalized in their music, of course, and in one form or another they are all still performing. Even the Beatles, whose hopes for a meaningful reunion died in 1980 with the murder of John Lennon, are routinely enshrined onstage by Paul McCartney, whose brilliant live shows in recent years have been moving tributes to his peerless former band.

Hard as it may be to believe, all of those artistic titans celebrated 50th anniversaries this year. How did that happen? Asked about the prospects of the Beatles’ longevity when the band started out, McCartney once replied that he and Lennon “couldn’t see playing rock and roll beyond 30.” He turned 70 this year. As for Ringo Starr, who is touring, he hoped to one day be running “a string of hairdressing salons.” Keith Richards told me in an interview that “the chart I was number one on longest was the Next One to Kick the Bucket.” Now he’s 69 and the Rolling Stones have scheduled dates for this year and seem likely to perform in 2013 as well. The Beach Boys recently released a lovely new album and did a celebratory tour. And most extraordinary of all, Bob Dylan, who is 71, continues to perform year in and year out and remains as fascinatingly enigmatic as ever.

Photo: Getty Images

Why do audiences still care? The music itself is part of it. All those artists earned their stature the old-fashioned way: by the quality of their work. Not only do their early records more than hold up, they’ve grown in meaning and importance. They also have grown in influence. No doubt, electronic dance music may be the sound of this moment, Jay-Z towers as the latest in a long line of hip-hop poet/entrepreneurs, and shock-pop divas like Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj owe more to Madonna than to ’60s icons. But any artist in our fragmented musical world who is still working in the beleaguered genre of rock and roll—from U2 to Grizzly Bear to Grace Potter to Liz Phair to Bon Iver to Mumford & Sons—owes quite a sizable debt to at least one of these storied ancestors.

Each of those pioneers is emblematic. The Beatles represent the possibility that what starts out as pop music can eventually become art. Describing the transformative impact of the Fab Four, Mick Jagger told me when I interviewed him for Rolling Stone, “Critics in broadsheet newspapers would try to explain why the Beatles were brilliant musicians and wonder—were they as good as Bach? Pop music had never attracted that kind of attention.” Bob Dylan first made it possible to think of popular music as a means of changing the world and then created a whirling style of psychedelic poetry derived from the Symbolists and the Beats. Everyone felt his touch. As Jagger once put it, “He definitely influenced me as a writer. Everyone was influenced first by the protest writing and then by the surrealist writing. You realized you could do it because he showed the way.”

Photo: Getty Images

The Beach Boys, meanwhile, told a definitive American story: the westward movement to a land that was simultaneously a paradise and the sun-drenched finale to the dream of endless expansion. Despite the bikini-clad girls, the shiny cars and the ribbons of highway, California is the place where the endless summer ended. Even in the Beach Boys’ frothiest hits you can hear the nostalgic tug of an innocence that has been forever lost. Brian Wilson, following in the visionary footsteps of Phil Spector, designed vocal harmonies and luscious pastel soundscapes that capture all of that beauty and heartbreak. Finally, the Stones, in their swagger and defiance, defined rebellion in a revolutionary age. Jagger’s sexual conquests are legion, and Richards still stands as the hedonist who has tried everything and survived it while remaining ever ready to get back on the road.

These artists finally remain alluring because no one has risen to replace them. That may sound crotchety, and it certainly doesn’t mean that younger artists aren’t making great music. But as the music world shrinks—in sales, in significance, in the ephemerality of digital downloads—flesh-and-blood legends just loom larger. How many times can a renaissance occur? And how long can even larger-than-life heroes live?

The Stones love to say that they were first asked if their tour would be “The Last Time,” punning on one of their early hits, in 1969. It hasn’t been so far, but one day, inevitably, it will be—for them, for the two surviving Beatles, for the Beach Boys and for Dylan as well. So that’s why these 50th anniversaries mean so much. Because of the music itself, absolutely, but also because these artists are still here to share it with us.                                                   

Photo: Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images 

Rolling Stones: Dezo Hoffman/Rex USA/Everett Collection