Friday, February 7, 2014

The Beatles

The first Beatles' single to be played on a U.S. radio station was, I believe, I Want to Hold Your Hand. That was in late 1963. But I didn't really become personally conscious of the Beatles until 50 years ago this week when they did their first American tour. On Friday, February 7, 1964, the Beatles landed at the just recently re-named JFK Airport to a tumultuous welcome, that The New York Times estimated included more than 3000 teens standing four-deep on the upper arcade of JFK's International Arrivals Building. (Equally importantly, they were also met by some 200 reporters and photographers who sparred with them at a humorous airport press conference.) All this was prelude, of course, to Sunday, February 9, when they appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show, watched by a TV audience of some 73 million people, myself among them.  To the extent that one can usefully date such things, that was probably the symbolic beginning of the 1960s Youth Culture.
Whatever else one might say on its behalf, The Ed Sullivan Show had never struck me as particularly exciting. But I remember vividly how very exciting The Ed Sullivan Show suddenly seemed that Sunday night. Of course, I myself still had very little sense of what it really meant and even less of a clue as to what it would soon mean for my generation. At just the right transition-point in the affluent, post-war baby boom generation's life cycle, teenagers went wild with excitement at this new sound (a creative marriage of pop, American R&B, and British working-class style) that seemed to suggest that the future might not mean just more of the same. Meanwhile girls especially responded en masse to the Beatles' evident and exuberant heterosexuality.
Within the still staid, still assumed to be predictable, Bronx blue-collar culture I somewhat restively inhabited, two responses captured what I'll call the establishment mood. I remember asking one of my classmates whether he thought the Beatles' hairstyle would catch on in America. He absolutely assured me that it wouldn't. Meanwhile, our English teacher, trying to introduce us to epic poetry, pointed out that an epic had to be about something great, that one couldn't compose an epic about the Beatles. How wrong they both were! How thoroughly the putative certainties of our narrow world were about to be exploded! At that point, of course, I didn't know how it would turn out, what that amazing musical revolution would come to mean in so many respects.
The Beatles began what has often been called the "British Invasion." In short order came The Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Zombies, The Animals, and, most long-lasting and most influential of all, The Rolling Stones. Pre-Beatles pop music's lyrics had been quite conventional. It was music to dance to (for those fortunate enough to have someone to dance with.) It was subversive only in the most minimal sense - in that it was something teenagers shared with each other that didn't include adults. (In those days, most of our lives still included adult activities and responded to adult expectations. So that was something new, a foretaste of much more to come.) But teen music, listened to on a transistor radio, was widely still assumed to be something one would grow out of. It certainly wasn't political, for example. In fact, the politically subversive music, such as it was in the 1950s and early 1960s, was "folk music," and that was more popular among certain sorts of adults than it was among teens (the same sorts of adults who would soon invent the incongruous "folk Mass.") Pop music itself was pretty apolitical and unserious, but that too would soon change.
Thanks also to the Beatles, record albums seemed to become more thematic - not just a convenient collection of songs but a vehicle for a coherent message. Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band would, I guess, be remembered as the best example of this. 
That was all still in the future when John, Paul, George, and Ringo stepped off that plane in New York 50 years ago today. In 1964 few fans - certainly not I - grasped what radical changes were in store for us all, and what we and the world would eventually come to look like as a result. As musicians, the "Fab Four" were creative geniuses. They were also young men of their time and place. The effect of their astounding creativity on that particular time and place produced a new sound to express a new spirit - the genuine spirit of an age of transition and turmoil. 

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