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The 10 Who Count the Most

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The Beatles

They were the pop event of the century, four lads who changed our music and our minds as they went from Liverpool to Abbey Road

Let’s agree that the most momentous opening line in history is “Let there be light.” A close second is “Meet the Beatles.” They arrived in America in February 1964, a few months after John Kennedy’s devastating assassination and just as the Elvis-model pop stars were spent. They put their mouths close to the microphone, shook their mops and emitted their high harmonies. Suddenly the world was new again.

They were four leather boys from Liverpool when Brian Epstein, their future manager, spotted them in late 1961. He envisioned them as double vanilla: attractive to girls, inoffensive to their mums. By the time they released “Love Me Do” almost a year later, they were in collarless gray suits, longish hair and neat slots for publicity purposes: flip John Lennon, cute Paul McCartney, shy George Harrison, clownish Ringo Starr. The result: international hysteria.

They could have been just another dog biscuit for snapping teen hormones, but their gifts were too explosive. Witty and brave, they rose to meet a generation that was ready to treat rock as art song, revolutionary anthem and public diary. But they would be the sweetest of revolutionaries, always taking some lyrics from the book of love, even while basing others on the Tibetan Book of the Dead. By 1967, when they released Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, the Sistine Chapel of rock, their music was a fun house of backward tracks, overdubs and distortions, too complex to re-create live. “They wouldn’t accept the mundane,” says George Martin, the recording studio genius who produced their albums. “They were always looking for frontiers to cross.”

Their lives were a fun house too, especially after Epstein, who had kept their wilder impulses in check, died in 1967. Dropping LSD, communing with the Maharishi, pulling up to their Apple boutique in London in John’s psychedelic-painted Rolls-Royce—every year they went deeper into themselves and took millions along for the ride. But it was a rough ride, and it shook them to pieces. John’s marriage foundered; so did Ringo’s. Then John met Yoko Ono, and the two of them plunged into a bliss all their own, posing nude for a joint album cover and staging their “Give Peace a Chance” bed-in to promote world harmony. John and Paul each brought in new would-be managers that the other hated. In 1970 the Beatles dissolved for good. On a winter night 10 years later, Lennon was murdered by a befuddled gunman. Suddenly everyone who had grown up with the Beatles was old.

But the Beatles are like the Himalayas, vast and ageless. They have more gold albums—47—than any other recording group in history. Lennon-McCartney remain the most successful songwriting duo, with 23 No. 1 hits in the U.S. Though the three surviving Beatles don’t see much of one another—George has vowed that there will never be a reunion “as long as John Lennon remains dead”—there is a reunion every time a Beatles song plays. And they’re likely to play on forever.