In the early sixties most Americans viewed England as Winston Churchill’s private estate; through the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and civil disobedience of Robin Hood and his merry band of scavengers. We never knew the location of Sherwood Forest - yet it seemed overly-crowded and in perpetual conflict with malicious horsemen compared to the untapped Smokey Mountains of Tennessee and occasional hillbilly bad boy.
Hair styles for men ranged the gamut between military and cartoonish. Either you adopted a flat-top; that being both sides head skinned and seared like a lamb chop courtesy a poorly conceived electric razor, then leveled on top; or a 180 degree head skinning leaving a patch of greased tumbleweeds sprouting above. I never gave it much thought until the day of the last great invasion.Our nation was still mourning the death of John F. Kennedy, awaiting the verdict from the Warren Commission. Kennedy’s assassination stirred vigorous debate due largely to the Abraham Zapruder silent home movie of the assassination. Some clung to the lone gunman theory; others claim the Zapruder film shows a projectile coming from a grassy knoll within range of Kennedy motorcade.
America was in a foul mood; then something unexpected happened – the British Invasion; the Beatles arrive. John, George, Paul and Ringo. Even more so; an optimistic, jubilant single called, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” finds its way into the pulsating hearts of America’s pre-teens.In all honesty I was a Rolling Stones fan. I penciled their name all over my school notebooks. To me, the Beatles where mildly entertaining compared to the roadhouse blues and coarse guitar work of Keith Richards and Brian Jones. Besides, how could you get past a band who named themselves after a Muddy Waters song? What the hell was a Beatle?
We were still under the influence of Memphis soul and firmly in the grip of rock & roll. Elvis reigned supreme while Jerry Lee Lewis raised hell around the perimeter. Chuck Berry still had a hold on the naughty girls but that was about to break after a fling with an underage child.Suddenly, one small 6’’ 45 RPM recorded single, was about to transform AM radio.
Few recognized the coming upheaval. At first it seemed almost comical – four young men from Liverpool, England – a place, so not on the world map – sporting longish hair and bangs and wearing custom made suits with pointed boots, could throw a wrench in the depressed world clock and jar us out of a spiritually imposed coma seemed improbable.On December 10, 1963 - CBC Evening News ran a five minute special on the Beatles. Within moments request lines lit up all across America. In less than three weeks, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” sold nearly a million and a half copies. America was blitzed with a Beatles papering – five million posters of the supposed young lads who spoke with funny, endearing accents, covered the landscape. Most didn’t realize there was nearly a decade in age separating the Liverpool quartet and their young admirers. Then the screaming began – Oh, those shrieks and rapturous tears!
It was a challenge being around a group of teenage girls. Something peculiar was taking hold of them – much like attending an old fashioned revival as the holy-spirit grabs believers around the ankles tossing them about like a stuffed doll. They were possessed. Boys? Suspicious!To that point, Elvis owned most female affection and was holding the passion right into their early twenties, but even he was losing his supremacy. It was as if someone dropped a curtain on the past, cleared the stage and opened with a new show. Lights out Elvis!
Miles across the Atlantic Ocean an ambitious merchant had an original thought and put it in action – that person would soon be the Beatles first manager, Brian Epstein."I was immediately struck by their music, their beat, and their sense of humour on stage – and, even afterwards, when I met them, I was struck again by their personal charm. And it was there that, really, it all started," says Epstein after catching the band at the Cavern Club on Mathew Street in Liverpool.
Epstein worked in the family department store, in the record department. He absorbed not only the music but sales techniques of his peers. Although he understood marketing he had little understanding of contracts and the music business. That would cost songwriters Lennon and McCartney dearly through rights giveaways of original material by way of publishing house Northern Songs; that still haunts today.From a teenage boy’s perspective change came too fast and with consequence. Like so many young men of my time keeping pace with the Beatles meant growing hair below the ears and dressing apart from the crowd. Our house was a battlefield. Pops took offense with our non- conformity. He saw it as a threat to his position in the community and at times embarrassing.
A good part of America was not accepting. By this I mean, the Beatles seemed a harmless diversion, but any influence on people’s set ways, would be met with conflict – which played out home to home depending on family values. Sports and war personalities were the measure of a man – musicians – way too radical and unemployable to be considered members of a stable family.I remember meeting my mother at a Kroger’s supermarket downtown Jeffersonville, Indiana and having a woman walk up to her and ask, “How can you live in the same house with a Beatle?” We are talking about me having hair no more than an inch or two in length. Another incident solidified the necessity to one day move. I was waiting for a bus on my street corner when a woman walks up and spits on me. She then castigates me for looking like a Beatle. As I’m getting on bus – she spits again. This is when the bus driver injects – “You can’t be spitting on girls mama.”
That first wave of Beatlemania sweeping America was refreshing. The rest of the world viewed the Beatles with great curiosity and embraced without reservation. They were eloquent, stylish and confident trendsetters; above all – big fun!They were made for television. Ed Sullivan took a fancy to the group. They came absent the kind of criticism Sullivan endured for showing a sexually charged Elvis doing the infamous leg-tremble.
Colonel Tom Parker managed and mismanaged Presley’s choices of film projects. The singer’s potential was wasted after his debut in ‘Love Me Tender’ on Hollywood schlock. Busty bikini clad playmates, dumb scenarios; fast cars, contrived storylines, lured young women into theatres and filled the Colonels bank account but did nothing to secure Elvis a life immortalized on film.The Beatles on the other hand stood with an art-film maker – Richard Lester. He chose to craft a comedy integrating their personalities - Hard Day’s Night, starring John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Ringo Star and George Harrison; splendidly shot in black and white and loaded with great songs. Plenty of singles recordings ripe for top-forty airplay.
Lester and writer Alun Owen tapped into an evolving film genre by following the rhythm of the new wave of British film making and allowing the individualities of the Beatles dominates. The film follows two days in the life of the band- and yes, plenty of screaming.I caught the film with my brother Wayne at the Rialto, 4th Street just south of Chestnut in Louisville, Kentucky. Elvis even played there in 1955. I figured nothing this carefree and blissful existed in our home sphere but was willing to believe otherwise. We returned a couple years later multiple times for the Beatles follow-up film, ‘Help.” The Beatles were a welcomed fantasy in our world, far removed from the claustrophobic melodramas playing out at home and in high school.
Where Elvis came across as slow and coy, the Beatles fired on all cylinders – much like the Marks Brothers in Night at the Opera.“And I Love Her, I Should Have Known Better, Tell Me Why, I’ll Cry Instead along with Hard Day’s Night,” played endlessly on radio.
Early on, Lennon and McCartney established themselves as songwriters seeking out covers of their songs amongst the many middle-of-the road singers who inhabited BBC radio. In many ways, that’s where your credentials as inspired song writers were validated.It was the willingness and compromise between the two that brought the collaborations into the realm of superior works of music.
Lennon and McCartney admired the partnership and completeness of hit songs scripted by the duo Carol King and Gerry Goffin who wrote such hits as; “Will You Love Me Tomorrow, One Fine Day, (You Make Me Fell Like A ) Natural Woman, Some Kind of Wonderful.”The process was based on listening and setting all egos aside.
Lennon and McCartney had a style and tone to their approach. Lennon had an edge and creative fiction writer’s way of telling a story, detached from any instrument. McCartney, the more proficient musically, could pick up a guitar, hammer away at the piano or build from an exquisite bass line, a song in a more traditional manner. There was a bond of trust between the two allowing each to ask for help when a song was near completion and hopefully find a solution for a challenging bridge or verse. It was about having another point of view. They thought nearly alike but different.
John’s originals came from a place a great distance from McCartney’s. Titles like; “I Am a Walrus, Come Together, Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds, Strawberry Fields Forever,” all required complex, innovative arrangements and instrumentation.McCartney’s; “ Hey Jude, Yesterday, Fool on the Hill, Blackbird, Here, There and Everywhere seemed as if they could have been conceived in the Mecca for songwriters – Manhattan’s Brill Building.
Together – they were able to bring the colors, shapes and universality of the moment into such hits as; “A Day in the Life, Day Tripper, A Hard Day’s Night, She Loves You, and the hit that started it all, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.’They never resented others for the remakes of their songs. Paul admitted he liked some of them more than their own versions. There are thousands; from jazz, to folk to pop to rhythm & blues covers. It was the melodies and harmonic possibilities that attracted other artists.
I for one was drawn to the sound of the band. Each recording came fully arranged and with specific parts for each player.I used to test my parents over dinner with everything from Stravinsky’s “Firebird Suite” to John Coltrane’s long playing “India.” Both would surpass the duration of sit down dining and linger into study time. Pops patience was tested with Coltrane’s bag-of-snakes-dance and ferocious energy emanating from his soprano saxophone on a song called “India” causing him to shut it down during dinner. It was all burning - churning barks and squeals for fourteen heroic minutes. Then one evening I serve up the Beatles “I Feel Fine.” At two minutes and ten seconds it took multiple plays to complete first course. I was enamoured with Ringo Star’s drumming. He had adopted a jazz rumba beat I was familiar with and played it with great authority throughout. Towards the end the band does this breakdown section leaving Ringo to fill in with a couple syncopated strokes of the toms and snare drum. I found myself spinning the single over and over just to hear that fill. Needless to say, it was received with the same enthusiastic welcome as Coltrane.
One of the major casualties of Beatlemania was local disc jockeys. The old guys who spoke with a sweet Southern drawl or brain popping teenybopper cadence were tossed aside in favour of younger men with a fake British accent. Not only was tone a requirement but DJs were now expected to meet the public in a manner unheard of before. There would be all sorts of gimmicky promotions. The new guy would ride around the city in horse and buggy mimicking what Americans perceived British lifestyle. The fellow would be draped in London’s chic Carnaby Street tailored garments. The sock hops that usually featured ten-piece cover bands playing the latest top-forty hits were now morphing into four piece units familiar with the recent Beatles catalog. This was a game changer.Foremost, the Beatles were a band that played their instruments well and were exceptional writers and singers. Most pop concerts to that point featured a single artist who coasted on the success of a solitary recording backed by a competent local band.
As the years gather the Beatles become the world’s finest studio recording band owing much to producer George Martin. Martin’s long service and aptitude within the walls of London’s top recording studios served the Beatles well. They were innovators; curious and demanding of themselves and the limited technology afforded them. The spent long hours finding the right groove, a sound for each song that gave it an identity. A drum fill, guitar riff, bass line – a vocal harmony that would set them apart from anything that had come before. Most hit records before were accomplished by employing the same collection of studio veterans then let producer fill in the holes. Standing on the sideline awaiting their turn; the artist.On a social level – the Beatles transformed the world. They spoke out much the same as the left-leaning union activists and songwriters of the times – the Weavers, Pete Seeger, Woody Guthries; many who were labeled communists. The Beatles got a pass. They were far more cheerful and easy to read. They were by now safe. The message was the same but the delivery was cloaked in sweet harmony, gentle verse, accessible humour and often complex experimental sound-scapes.
The hard hats demanded their heads but few actually took their demands seriously. By the early eighties those Southern men whose heads had been flattened and stripped of hair were now looking like Taliban tribesmen from the distant future.The Beatles also changed with the times. As the war in Vietnam escalated and the youth movement became more politicized the Beatles began acting their age and committed themselves to numerous causes. They experimented with mind-altering drugs and flirted with mystical shamans. They were in step with the times.
The vast catalog of songs and recordings captures the evolution and growth – from delicate tunes about catching a first kiss or a girl’s attention to putting the brakes on genocide.It’s never easy being all things to all people yet the Beatles covered a lot of ground in one decade leaving the planet humming unforgettable melodies that to this day, still impact our lives. I learned to appreciate them long after they packed it in April, 1970.
The world cried, begged and telephoned but no amount of coaxing could bring them back together. 44 years later, and considering their lives in between, perhaps it was the best decision.Rubber Soul, Revolver, Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Abbey Road, the Beatles, reigned supreme on my various turntables for years to pass. It’s been a Hard Day’s Night!