Yesterday (Feb. 7) was the 50th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America! I think it was on Feb. 8 that they first appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show.
I was eleven years old and in sixth grade in February of 1964. I was at that age when pre-teens look toward the teenage years with longing. Eleven and twelve-year-olds (and even ten-year-olds and younger, these days) wanted to imitate everything teens did: we wore their fashions, we incorporated their slang into our speech, and we went crazy for their music.
At school, the cool thing for us at that time was to collect Beatles’ cards, which came in packs of bubble gum, like baseball cards. Some had pictures of the whole group and others showed individual members – so we wanted to get as many as possible of our favorite – Paul cards became scarce very fast! On the back of the cards were facts about the Beatles as individuals or as a group. This is how I found out and memorized each of their birthdays, favorite colors, and other basic facts.
My favorite was Paul, but by seventh grade I’d switched to George, partly as an act of defiance – I didn’t want to be like most other girls who were head over heels for Paul. On TV, they showed shots of girls crying and swooning, mouthing “Paul” over and over again. How embarrassing!
George seemed to be to be sort of ignored. He was quieter and provided an accompaniment for the compositions of John and Paul most of the time. However, every album had at least one song written by George. Ringo was in the background, but he was different – and therefore stood out – than the others because he played the drums, rarely sang and didn’t compose any songs. He had a large nose. When I switched loyalties, George was the logical choice – good-looking, mysterious. What about John? Well, he was married…
I never had any illusion that I would actually ever meet any of the Beatles, much less entertain the idea of dating them, unlike many girls, it seemed. Or perhaps it was just a fantasy and so when the second Beatle to get married – Ringo – tied the knot, there were girls who were suddenly jolted back into reality by this fact. They threw away or ripped up their Ringo cards (if he had been their favorite) and one of my contemporaries felt so betrayed that she said, right in the hallway of our junior high, “I hate Ringo!”
We were a full ten years or more younger than the Beatles and we lived in the United States in a small town in Wisconsin. Get real! Even though I prided myself for being grounded in reality, I still never even considered John to be my favorite Beatle. The Beatles were a comfort to me in the difficult years of junior high. If I’d had a bad day at school, their songs could make me feel better again.
As for me, I was content to exchange Beatles cards whatever they were, and especially if they were a trade from the boy I secretly liked. He sat right in front of me in class. He was always nice to me, and later (too late) I realized he had a thing for me, too.
At home, my radio was always tuned to WLS in Chicago, which played the best hits of the early to mid ‘60s. I lined up in loyalty to the evening DJ, Ron Riley, who liked the Beatles and played their records often, as well as good songs by other singers. Others preferred Clark Weber, who was on in the morning. I would listen to him, too, as I got ready for school, but he was very old fashioned: he almost never played a Beatles song, and instead preferred musical styles such as bossa nova – boring!! It was Clark Weber that introduced me to the song The Girl from Ipanema and the band that had recorded it, Sergio Mendes and Brasil ’66, but I was a long way from appreciating music like that.
On my bedroom wall, I plastered pictures and posters of the Beatles from top (or as high as I could reach on a step ladder) to bottom. My parents were bewildered. None of their other children had ever gone crazy over a singing group or individual singer. None of my sisters ever went crazy over Elvis Presley. They leaned more toward folk music, which I thought was OK. My brother liked jazz and comedy, such as Allan Sherman and others. I heard so many of Allan Sherman’s songs that I memorized a couple of them and still remember them to this day!
Even though I had to share a stereo in the playroom of our house with my brother and whatever sister was home at the time, most of the time it was me and my friends that played records and danced to them. Before I had many records, we would play some of the 45s that my sisters had left lying around, such as La Bamba – we loved to dance to that song.
It didn’t take long before a trip to Dorothy’s Records on Main Street became a weekly excursion. Because of the Beatles, I started listening to rock n roll on the radio and purchased several singles (45s) of other artists. But the only LPs I bought were by the Beatles. 45s cost only about 50 cents, but LPs cost nearly two dollars!
For every action, there is an equal and direct reaction, and so it was with the Beatles. My brother, of course, professed to “hate” them and used a hole punch to punch out the eyes of their pictures on my album covers. He made fun of their long hair, changing “I Wanna Be Your Man” to “I Wanna Be A Man”. I didn’t find his antics amusing, but they were typical – anything I liked, he was determined to dislike.
In American society at large, there was also negative press about the Beatles: their hair was too long, their songs had dumb lyrics – all they said was “Yeah, yeah, yeah!” – and they were probably had a deleterious effect on young adolescent minds. Even songs that were anti-Beatles came out: Allan Sherman himself had one, to the tune of Pop Goes the Weasel, “I Hate the Beatles”. I was very disappointed in him for that!
It wasn’t long before the media criticism began to get political as the Beatles were under constant scrutiny. It was almost as if you were liberal, you liked them, and if you were conservative, you didn’t, or this was how I framed it in my mind. One of my friends was not allowed to bring Beatles records into her home and was discouraged from listening to them at all. Of course, this only piqued her curiosity, so when she was at my house, she asked to listen to the Beatles latest record and looked at my Beatles magazines. One time I let her take one home, which she begged me for, and she had to sneak it into her house and hide it under her mattress!
Alas, the magazine was discovered by her mother, who grew very angry, and destroyed it right then and there. I thought that was unfair – it wasn’t her property or her daughter’s – at least she could have told her daughter to give it back to me.
I got tickets to see the Beatles in 1966, which was their last formal tour, in Chicago. I went with my friend Val. My dad drove us down to Chicago while my mother stayed home worrying that the theater was in a bad neighborhood. He dropped us off at the International Amphitheater and came back to pick us up.
The venue was packed, and we were in the 104th row! Needless to say, the Beatles looked very small from our perspective – they would have been easier to see if we had watched them on TV! Most of the audience consisted of teenage girls, and most of them were screaming the entire time, so we couldn’t hear the Beatles very much either! In fact, I later heard that they would sometimes mouth the words to the songs, not really sing them, because the screaming was so loud that no one noticed. I don’t know if that was true or not. Wouldn’t someone have been taping for TV?
Anyway, I was not one of the screamers. I hated all that screaming and couldn’t understand why so many girls, including Val, did it. It gave me a headache to scream and I was frustrated because I really did want to hear the concert.
Also in 1966, the Beatles began to change – their music became more complex and less “poppy”. This siphoned off a lot of fans in our conservative small town, who felt the group was going in an undesirable direction. For some it was just that their songs became less danceable. The Beatles hype began to die down, especially after it was announced that the Beatles took drugs, which I refused to believe. They would never do that!! It was said that the Beatles’ use of drugs would lead impressionable young teenagers to take drugs also.
I remained loyal to the Beatles, but began to like other bands just as much and I eventually was buying records by others, especially Herman’s Hermits, the Beach Boys and the Doors, and when I was 14, the Monkees, who had taken the country by storm with their hit TV show about a singing group modeled more or less after the Beatles.
I got tickets for a Monkees’ concert too, in Milwaukee, but it was cancelled due to the fear of race riots. That was the summer of 1967 and the inner cities across the country were experiencing uprisings and lootings in black neighborhoods. Fear of this happening led other cities, like Milwaukee to cancel concerts that would attract a lot of people and imposed curfews.
By the time I went away to school, as a high school sophomore, Beatlemania had definitely quieted down. At that liberal high school nestled among the red rocks of Sedona, Arizona, I was exposed to many other kinds of music as well as bands I’d never heard of or at least never had listened to. It was the age of psychedelia and Haight-Ashbury; hippie fashions were the “in” thing – long hair, large bell bottoms and lots of beads.
As for the Beatles, they were very much appreciated, much more than I expected. It was their later music that the kids at my school liked, and I developed more of an appreciation for it also, as my musical education expanded. Rock music had exploded with hundreds of bands and solo singers all getting into the act. From every dorm room came the strains of Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jefferson Airplane, the Doors, the Beatles and many others. It was also when I got into soul music coming out of the Motown movement. In the common room, some danced to Motown hits or just chilled out with Procol Harem’s Whiter Shade of Pale – even today I can’t hear this song without thinking about that smoke filled common room!
My senior year I had a dorm room to myself. I put on the outside of the door a picture of John Lennon and Yoko Ono naked! The dorm head, one of the teachers who would come around and check our rooms, hated seeing that every day and asked me to take it down, which I eventually did.
From rock and soul, I moved on to folk and classical music, which I preferred for many years. By the early 1970s, the Beatles had broken up while John and George were recording solo albums, and Paul joined the band Wings with his wife, Linda. The new “in” things was disco, which dominated the airwaves for a few years. I never had any interest in disco and didn’t listen to rock music for many years, hardly at all during my college years.
1980 saw the tragic death of John Lennon in New York City, where he had settled with his wife Yoko Ono. I was living in Brazil at the time and there was an outpouring of emotion there as well as in the U.S. There were tributes by Brazilian pop singers such as Rita Lee, Milton Nascimento, and Caetano Veloso.
I felt his death as keenly as anyone, having come to appreciate John for the genius he was – but as usual, perhaps too late. I went to a Milton Nascimento concert in Natal shortly afterward, and he also did a tribute to Lennon. John and Yoko had released a few albums years earlier, but they had just begun a new era of creativity, and their new album, Double Fantasy, sold out quickly. It was sad – the new album was excellent and expressed so much of the love that they had for each other and for their family. Finally John was happy and enjoyed being out of the limelight.
Their son, Sean, was 5 years old when his father was murdered in front of the building where they lived. John had spent the last several years taking care of his son – he was “Mr. Mom” while Yoko took care of the business side of their life. Beautiful Boy is one of the most heart-wrenching songs of the relationship between father and son. I can’t hear it even now without crying. That song – in fact, the whole album expressed so much hope for the future – a future of domestic felicity with a simpler life of peace and harmony oriented toward family. It is all the more poignant listening to it after his death, thinking of how he composed it during a time that his heart was full of happiness and love.
Interestingly, if macabre, George Harrison was also attacked at his home. However, his home was in England; he was attacked with a knife, and survived. Guns are not in wide circulation in England. Some years later, George died of cancer, as did Paul’s wife Linda.
So there remain only two: Paul and Ringo, now in their 70s! Although they don’t perform together usually, most recently they ended up playing together at the Grammy Awards. They are no longer identified by our culture as part of the Beatles – young people today often don’t know about the Beatles at all; if they do, they may enjoy their music while regarding it as a relic of their parents’, or grandparents’(!), generation.