2/16/2009

Beatlemania

For me, and for most other people who were growing up at the time, the 1960s did not truly begin until The Beatles came along. Throughout most of the intense years of that headlong decade, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr were the acknowledged trailblazers, four distinct and spirited characters of English origin who casually kept to a swinging pace that was followed, to one degree or another, by the rest of us. Without The Beatles, and especially without the affirmative feeling of easygoing confidence that was sparked by their diligent outpouring of catchy songs, the 1960s would not have unfolded in quite the same way.

The Beatles favored a musical setup (two electric guitars, an electric bass, and a set of drums) that had been widely used by many rockers before them in the 1950s, but The Beatles gave it a different sound by adding a smooth layer of vocal harmonies. They also took it upon themselves to write their own songs (with John Lennon and Paul McCartney doing most of the composing, together and separately), an ambitious policy that encouraged other young musicians to do the same. When The Beatles first sprang into view in the early 1960s, singing and smiling with unfeigned vigor, it seemed as if they were infused with a rare magic that enabled them to succeed at whatever they attempted.

I know that I am hardly alone in proclaiming myself to be a wholehearted fan of The Beatles. It is reasonably safe to say that during every minute of every hour of every day, their songs are being heard, and being enjoyed, by untold numbers of grateful listeners, both young and old. In the decades since their first single, "Love Me Do" (backed with "P.S. I Love You"), was released on Parlophone Records in October, 1962, their music has succeeded in becoming pleasantly inescapable, providing a familiar soundtrack to the varied happenings of our everyday lives. To me, however, The Beatles have always had a special meaning, one that is above and beyond their general appeal as famous entertainers.

I was raised in California, in a suburb outside of San Francisco, but Warrington, the English town in Cheshire in which I was born in August of 1953, and in which my mother was born and grew up, is near the River Mersey and is less than twenty miles from Liverpool, the city in which all four members of The Beatles got their start in life. It was perfectly understandable, therefore, that my mother and I would have a warm feeling of local pride when The Beatles burst forth from The Cavern (the club, dank and tiny, on Mathew Street in Liverpool, where they first came into their own as aspiring musicians) and became celebrated all over the world.

Although I was living in California, my family connection to England allowed me to have a head start on Beatlemania. Before The Beatles actually made their first trip to America, and before any of my friends at school were aware of them, I had been able to read about them in the magazines and newspapers that my grandmother sent to us every week from Warrington. I knew that their records and their performances had received an unprecedented amount of interest within the United Kingdom. When The Beatles came to New York City in February, 1964, and made three television appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show over a period of three weeks, I eagerly watched each broadcast along with millions of other viewers.

After reading about The Beatles, seeing them perform on television made a deep impression on me. It was, without any question, a singular milestone in my youthful experience. The cheerful personalities and unstudied demeanor of The Beatles attracted me as nothing else had ever done. I found their irreverent attitude, and most particularly their frequent displays of ready wit, to be thoroughly endearing and utterly compelling. The Beatles and their music instantly stood out against the dullness and the conformity that served as a backdrop for my childhood. I fell under their giddy spell without any resistance whatsoever, and my life was irrevocably changed.

I did not comprehend the full import of The Beatles as I observed them on the screen in our family room. I was, after all, only ten years old, and therefore not yet given to serious judgments. I was responding in the moment, directly and honestly, but looking back it is easy to see why they gained my admiration and my loyalty. To my young sensibilities, they represented a striking mixture of freedom and pleasure. Their music was lively and hopeful, and the openness of their songs provided a distinct challenge to the narrow and oppressive instruction that I received at school, where I was being trained to accept the mindless ways of a "productive citizen." Their music comforted me and sustained me in the face of daily regimentation.

At the beginning, the unusual style and informal manner of The Beatles brought them nearly as much notice as the vivacity of their music. In America, where the hair on the heads of most boys was trimmed close and combed back, the longer hair favored by John, Paul, George, and Ringo provoked widespread curiosity and, in some quarters, even drew harsh utterances of irrational enmity. Many Americans, fearful of anyone who was even slightly different from themselves, acted as if The Beatles had come not merely from England, but from another planet.

The Beatles wisely chose to take everything in their stride. When craziness was all around them, to a degree that would have unnerved most people, they generally kept their cool. They were sharp and quick (and always funny), and they refused to play the fool for anyone. Although they were open and friendly in their dealings with the public, and tended to be exceedingly thoughtful toward their fans, they were not willing to be slighted or abused. When they were subjected to deliberately irksome questions from bellicose members of the American press, as usually happened, they tended to give cutting answers in reply, barely attempting to disguise their annoyance. They stood up for themselves, and they were not afraid to express their own opinions.

In August, 1964, The Beatles undertook their first tour of the United States, performing at major venues in cities across the country. Once The Beatles had shown themselves to good effect in America, their rise to the top of the musical world was fast and complete. The infectious delight of their songs was much too powerful to be denied. "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me," "From Me to You," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There," "Do You Want to Know a Secret," "There's a Place," "I Want to Hold Your Hand," "It Won't Be Long," "All My Loving," "Little Child," "Hold Me Tight" and "I Wanna Be Your Man" all had the effect of uniting listeners in a common mood of excited well-being. It seemed that The Beatles were truly unstoppable.

The Beatles also starred in their first film in 1964. With the release of A Hard Day's Night, written by Alun Owen and directed by Richard Lester, they gained new favor and were able to greatly broaden their acceptance with the public. The black-and-white comedy featured a batch of fresh tunes written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney (with "A Hard Day's Night" and "Can't Buy Me Love" becoming hits when they were released as singles), and it proved that there was more to The Beatles than most people had surmised. Even those who had been inclined to condemn The Beatles at first, looking down on them and resisting their songs, were now forced to admit that the four Liverpudlians could not be summarily dismissed as a passing novelty.

Although The Beatles were unquestionably talented, they also benefited from the deft skills of their manager, Brian Epstein, and their producer, George Martin. It was Brian Epstein, a local businessman from a prosperous family, who unfailingly believed in their potential and steered them, with single-minded conviction, from Liverpool to the big time. George Martin was the knowledgeable ally who carefully guided them in making records that established an unassailable standard of excellence in rock'n'roll. They also were indebted to Derek Taylor, an insightful journalist who handled their dealings with the press in 1964. Derek Taylor perceived, perhaps to a greater degree than any other observer, the true value of The Beatles as unaffected purveyors of good will.

By 1965, The Beatles had become the biggest thing in show business. Their records sold in astonishing numbers and their faces were familiar to everyone. They were honored by Queen Elizabeth II in a ceremony at Buckingham Palace (each Beatle was designated as an MBE, a Member of the Order of the British Empire), they performed for an audience of 55,600 fans at Shea Stadium in New York City during their second tour of the United States, they returned to American television for another appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, and they starred (this time in color) in their second film, Help! (which, along with "Help!" itself, featured "The Night Before," "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away," "Another Girl," and other new songs). They were young and famous and wealthy, but they retained their charm and did not take themselves too seriously.

At the end of 1965, The Beatles released their sixth album, Rubber Soul. It was regarded as a considerable step forward in the swift progression of their expressive abilities, with "Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown)" (which featured George Harrison playing the sitar for the first time), "You Won't See Me," "Nowhere Man," "Think for Yourself," "The Word," "Michelle," "Girl," "I'm Looking Through You," and "In My Life" being foremost among the sophisticated tracks that artfully showcased their undeniable growth as musicians and songwriters. The Beatles, having matured a great deal in a short time, clearly were seeking to stretch themselves into new realms.

After Beatlemania had swept across America, more performers from the United Kingdom soon began to follow, in a musical wave that included The Rolling Stones (who soon proved themselves to be second only to The Beatles), The Animals, The Dave Clark Five, Donovan, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman's Hermits, The Kinks, Manfred Mann, The Who, The Yardbirds, and The Zombies, among many others. For several years, it seemed that at least half of the songs being played on the radio in America were by British musicians. Any gang of boys who had guitars and drums, and whose hair was suitably overgrown (and whose speech was undeniably British), stood a fair chance of gaining a hearing from American ears.

In the meantime, my own devotion to The Beatles had grown stronger, taking over every part of my life. It was inevitable that both my appearance and my wardrobe would be thoroughly transformed. I had ceased to make regular trips to the barber, which brought blunt words of stern condemnation from my American father and from my teachers at school, and I began to comb my hair forward. The pants that I wore were so tight that I could barely bend over in them. I had my grandmother send me a pair of "Beatle boots" from Warrington, which I wore even though they pinched my toes. I tried to do all that I could to approximate the look of The Fab Four.

At home I listened to the radio for hours at a time. It was the golden age of AM, when rock'n'roll ruled the airwaves and the hits kept on coming, week after week after week. Nearly everything that blared out of the radio in those days was a pleasure to hear. In addition to a constant stream of unforgettable songs by The Beatles and other British stars, there was an abundance of American music from The Beach Boys, The Four Seasons, The Righteous Brothers, Lesley Gore, The Supremes, James Brown, Bob Dylan, The Byrds, Sonny and Cher, Dionne Warwick, Simon and Garfunkel, The Lovin' Spoonful, and The Turtles. The disc jockeys of KYA, one of the leading Top-40 stations in the Bay Area, were my daily companions.

I also was a faithful viewer of Shindig, Hullabaloo, American Bandstand, Where the Action Is, The Lloyd Thaxton Show, and other television programs that featured performances of rock'n'roll. My bedroom had become a hallowed temple of rock'n'roll in general and of The Beatles in particular, with a display of clippings and posters covering the walls. On weekday evenings, when I should have been dutifully occupied with my schoolwork, I was more likely to be carefully reading the latest reports of my musical idols in teen magazines. Most of my pocket money was spent on records.

The matchless pinnacle of my younger life was reached on the chilly evening of Monday, August 29, 1966, nine days after my thirteenth birthday, when I attended a concert by The Beatles at Candlestick Park in San Francisco. I went to the concert with Sam, a schoolmate who was my best friend at the time, and his older sister, Helen. We had seats in the upper stands. I later came to understand that I was particularly fortunate to have been at Candlestick Park on that evening, because it was the last concert of what turned out to be their last tour.

In August of 1966, The Beatles were not the same foursome of happy-go-lucky boys who had charmed the world in 1964. They had moved even further ahead musically with their new and daringly inventive album, Revolver, which had been released earlier that month, but they were worn out by the mass frenzy that surrounded them whenever they performed. They had privately decided to retreat from the extreme aspects of their worldwide fame, and they were no longer willing to appear in front of huge audiences. In addition, their American tour in 1966 had been marred by an outbreak of controversy, resulting from the publication of dissenting thoughts that John Lennon had voiced in regard to the future of Christianity. As I sat there in my wind-swept seat and waited for the show to begin, I did not know that what I was about to see would never happen again.

After short appearances by The Remains (a quartet from Boston), Bobby Hebb (who sang his current hit, "Sunny"), The Cyrkle (who had Brian Epstein as a manager and supposedly received their name from John Lennon), and The Ronettes (known for "Be My Baby" and other hits created under the direction of Phil Spector), The Beatles finally came out. I first glimpsed them, attired in mod suits of dark green, as they walked across the expanse of the playing field, waving at the crowd and surrounded by a circle of policemen. When The Beatles mounted the steps to the wooden stage and struck the first chord of their first song, Chuck Berry's "Rock and Roll Music," the entire stadium instantly broke into a collective spasm of wild-eyed ecstasy, which manifested itself in deafening screams, copious weeping, and bright flashbulbs. It was a moment of almost unbearable joy.

The actual performance by The Beatles was decidedly brief, lasting only half an hour, with no songs from Revolver. They raced through timeworn renderings of their more familiar songs ("She's a Woman," "If I Needed Someone," "Day Tripper," "Baby's in Black," "I Feel Fine," "Yesterday," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Nowhere Man," "Paperback Writer"), pausing only to deliver a few offhand comments to the crowd, as if they were openly acknowledging that any further activity on their part would be useless. It was as much as the four musicians and their overwrought fans could reasonably have been asked to endure. In view of the wide disturbance that prevailed in the park, a longer concert probably would have posed a threat to the safety of both The Beatles and their audience.

As soon as The Beatles had whipped out their final song, "Long Tall Sally" (with Paul McCartney pushing his voice to its highest register, in the unrestrained mode of Little Richard), they said goodbye to their screaming fans and ran off the stage, using an armored car to make a hasty escape from the ballpark. Suddenly, they were gone and it was over. At that moment, only The Beatles themselves, and those who were closest to them, knew that with the conclusion of their speedy performance in San Francisco, the extraordinary days of full-scale Beatlemania also had expired.

The armored car took The Beatles directly from Candlestick Park to the airport, where they boarded a plane and flew straight to Los Angeles. The next day, August 30, they were on another plane, heading away from America and back to England. A few months later, after each of them had taken time away from the onerous constraints of their former obligations (John appeared in How I Won the War, a film directed by Richard Lester, Paul composed a score for The Family Way, a film that starred Hayley Mills, George and his wife went to India, and Ringo spent time with his family), they resumed their mutual activities and undertook a somewhat reclusive life of writing and recording songs, extending the imaginative range of their music with each new single and each new LP, but they never went on tour as The Beatles again.

When we saw that The Beatles had departed, we got up from our seats and I went home in a state of advanced exultation. I could not believe what I had witnessed. I passed a restless night, my frame of mind being much too elevated to allow me any chance of sleeping. I had seen and heard The Beatles, the greatest attraction of the decade, and for one evening I had been as happy as anyone could ever hope to be. The memory of that happiness would remain with me long after the years of my youth were finished.

The concert at Candlestick Park in 1966 marked the end of Beatlemania, but it was not the end of my interest in The Beatles. Throughout my teen years, The Beatles and their songs continued to entertain me and inspire me. With each record that The Beatles released in the late 1960s, from Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band (the profoundly mind-bending album that they recorded after they had stopped touring) in 1967 to The Beatles (a double album in a white cover, containing thirty tracks in varied styles) in 1968 to Abbey Road (the farewell album that resulted from their last period of recording together) in 1969, I always found a strong reason to believe in the beneficent power of their music.