In the spring of 1964, walking across the Eastman Quadrangle, Edwin (Ned) Ferguson ’66 heard someone shout from a first-floor dorm room: “They’re on!” He rushed to the room, which was covered with Beatles photos and posters, and gathered with eight or nine others around an AM radio to jam to “She Loves You.”
Ferguson, now a physician living in Madison, Wis., has remained a devoted fan all these years. He sings to his digitally remastered Beatles CD box set every night before bed, and hires a band several times a year so he can play along to Beatles songs.
“No group will ever be remembered with such love 50 years later,” he says.
The legendary British foursome will be remembered with great pomp and circumstance in February—the golden anniversary of the month the group debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show, gave birth to the British Invasion, and ushered in the frenzy known as Beatlemania.
The University’s Institute for Popular Music, dedicated to promoting the scholarly study of music produced primarily for commercial consumption, will celebrate the occasion with music by faculty and student performers at 8 p.m. February 9, exactly 50 years, to the hour, since an estimated 73 million viewers tuned in to see and hear the Beatles. Lectures by experts on Beatles music and equipment will be coordinated with the event.
The first of its kind in the United States and only the second major academic center for the study of popular music in the world (the other is at England’s University of Liverpool), the institute received attention from around the globe when it opened in 2012. With an advisory board of leading scholars from the United States and the United Kingdom, it supports research in musicology, music theory, ethnomusicology, and performance, as well as five existing majors and programs, including courses on the Music of Black Americans and Progressive Rock in the 1970s. Future plans include the creation of predoctoral and postdoctoral fellowships.
Founding director John Covach says that after years of visualizing such a distinguished repository of musical knowledge at the University, the time for such an institute has arrived.
“The field of musical scholarship tends to be a very conservative field, not politically, because many musicians are liberals, but in the sense that oftentimes you have people who know more about papal tax records in the 16th century than they know about American Idol,” says Covach, who has dual appointments in the College’s Department of Music, where he’s the Mercer Brugler Distinguished Teaching Professor, and at the Eastman School, where he’s a professor of music theory. “Years ago, there was nothing about popular music that seemed to scratch the itches that made them study classical music. But today, people my age who are chairs of departments and tenured professors all grew up listening to the Beatles, and they don’t have a sense that popular music is second rate. There is no bias or cultural divide.”
Covach, both musical scholar and performer, was five years old when he begged his father to go to the store to buy the first Beatles album. It was sold out, but his father brought home the Beatles’ second album instead, which had been released that day. He listened to it relentlessly on a record player with a nickel taped to the tone arm, singing along while jumping on his bed with neighborhood friends. When his grandmother took him to see A Hard Day’s Night, the 1964 British comedy starring the Beatles, she had to hold him up throughout the film so he could see over the heads of the standing, screaming, mostly female audience. (She took him to see the film again a few weeks later, after the excitement died down.)
There’s little question that the Beatles defined a pivotal moment in musical history, for the group and for a generation—and beyond.
“The Beatles are absolutely one of my favorite groups, and I suspect that I own more of their music than the average fan,” says Cassia Kuhn ’15, a film and media studies major who has collected “every studio album from the band and each member’s solo career, a few compilation albums, live performances, and plenty of bootlegs. I find it fascinating that they were at, or at least close to, the start of so many trends found in rock and other genres.”
Jacob Arthur ’14, a music major, owns every Beatles album. He appreciates that the band pushed the envelope so far that “it has become difficult for artists to find barriers to break down that the group didn’t already tend to.”
Richard Sorrell ’66, who has taught history at a New Jersey community college since 1971, offers a popular course on the social history of rock and roll, devoting multiple weeks to the Beatles. He attributes the band’s success in this country to three factors: the enormous hype preceding their Ed Sullivan Show appearance, the emotional catharsis that needed to happen following the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and the sheer number of youthful baby boomers yearning to express themselves musically.
The professor thinks people often underestimate how influential music can be. He says he’s instantly transported to another era when a Beatles song comes on the radio: “If I hear ‘I Wanna Hold Your Hand,’ I think of them on the Sullivan show. Any song from Sgt. Pepper, I think of when I started graduate school in Buffalo. The first time I ever heard ‘Get Back,’ I was driving to school for a substitute teaching assignment. I can instantly see those images.
“They are by far the most musically talented pop group of all time.”
Sorrell remembers having to help persuade the upperclassmen in his dorm to let him and some 70 others watch the Sullivan performance on the basement television. The older students, who “were into Peter, Paul, and Mary and the Kingston Trio and thought rock and roll was beneath them,” finally relented.
Ferguson, who caught a Beatles concert with Sorrell in 1966 just before the band stopped touring, was part of that basement crowd. “Their vocal harmonies were in sync, their guitar work was impeccable, they shook their heads and their long hair flopped back and forth,” he says. “It was breathtaking.”
The Institute for Popular Music has organized several events marking the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ first American tour.
- Feb. 5: Noted instrument expert Andy Babiuk will discuss the Beatles’ musical gear.
- Feb. 9: Walter Everett, professor at the University of Michigan and author of two books on the Beatles, will talk about the band’s legacy, a presentation followed by a concert featuring University faculty, staff, and students backed by the Rochester band, the Smooth Talkers.
- Feb. 9: John Covach’s Coursera course, The Music of the Beatles begins. During the spring semester, Covach also will teach an on-campus course on the Beatles.
That sentiment resonates widely, even if looking only at the popularity of the free courses Covach teaches through Coursera, the free network of massive open online courses, or MOOCs. Enrollment in his two-part History of Rock course has exceeded 100,000 students since last May, when it launched, with nearly 3 million video views worldwide. Meanwhile, nearly 17,000 people have signed up so far for The Music of the Beatles, which will go live, fittingly, at 8 p.m. February 9 and track the musical development of the band through its relatively short but distinguished six-year run. The group “was an interesting blend of a number of qualities that we tend to appreciate in popular music, all in one very tidy little act,” Covach says. The music was always authentic, mostly happy, and often avant-garde, and each member had a distinct personality.
Not everyone finds the group unceasingly endearing, however.
“Toward the end I’d moved on to other music,” recalls Chuck Brush ’66, a retired research and development director who lives in Arizona and once saw the band perform at a Cincinnati baseball stadium. For a music appreciation class during his senior year at the University, he wrote a paper on ways the Beatles used harmony and counterpoint. He got a bad grade. “It probably wasn’t that good to begin with, but the professor was an old-school type who probably wanted a biography of Beethoven.”
Covach, who received special dispensation to stay up past his bedtime to watch some of that famed Ed Sullivan Show performance, maintains that people can’t fully understand American culture without becoming familiar with the venerable group’s music.
And that goes for scholars who never were fans of the Beatles.
“You cannot talk about the history of the presidency in the 20th century and, if you’re a Democrat, only study presidents who were Democrats because you think the Republicans were misguided,” he says. “An album like Sgt. Pepper is important because it was important to so many people who were involved in the events of the 60s.
“The world sort of stopped,” he says, “and everybody listened.”