All the kids in the land (never trust anyone under 60) are atwitter over the fact that this month is the 25th anniversary of The Beatles’ arriving on this benighted continent. What do they know? Do they know that Yesterday is the most beautiful popular song written in our time? Or that there are standing orders that Hey Jude is to be played at my funeral march? Of course not. What do they know?
What they don’t know is that the “outrageous” Beatle haircuts, which spawned a world cascade of long-haired youths whose locks surpassed their sisters’, were meant as a spoof of the Royals. Well-bred English boys, especially those with blue blood, were always raised with beautifully cleansed mops of hair that descended to their eyebrows. The Liverpool lads, from their grimy background, thought it a hoot to ape the style and make fun of it. Bangs on adults. That’s why you still see that loathsome long hair on the subway today that still irritates you. The prissy little Edwardian suits with the funny collars were another send-up of the upper-class darlings. Y’r welcome.
What they don’t know is that the ranking band on the globe (meaning America) at the time, near the birth of rock, was Buddy Holly and The Crickets. (Buddy Holly perished in a plane crash—the day the music died—30 years ago this year, but that’s another column.) The Liverpudlians, who were into heavy leather and other strange substances in Hamburg bars, struck on a corny steal from The Crickets—taking the beat from the Beat Generation of Jack Kerouac and friends and coming up with The Beatles. It was pitifully imitative at the time. You know the rest.
What they don’t know is that Ringo Starr couldn’t play drums worth a lick. My uncle plays better. Several of my uncles, as a matter of fact. His catchy name helped. Also the humor. When they arrived in New York City for the famous appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, he was asked what he thought of Beethoven. “Great,” he said,“ ’specially his poems.” Ringo has just spent a spell in a liver farm with his second wife, actress Barbara Bach,
who used to display her ripe flesh in Playboy, because of their liking for the gargle. He is the first Beatle grandfather, courtesy son Zak— which is even funnier than Ringo.
What they don’t know is that when John Lennon made his celebrated statement that The Beatles were more famous than Jesus (you think Salman Rushdie is in trouble today!), he was not being arrogant, but mordant. He meant that something was wrong with society when four rockers could cause more fuss and rate more attention than Christ.
George Harrison lives with his second wife in a fortress-like Gothic mansion with spires and turrets at Henley-on-Thames.
The Beatles’ first appearance in Canada was a sultry Saturday evening at Vancouver’s Empire Stadium in 1964 before 20,621 writhing bodies that seemed to be all females, ages 12 to 16. The nervous police were keenly aware of another horrendous Vancouver happening sev-
en years earlier when Elvis Presley’s appearance in the same stadium touched off what The Vancouver Sun called “the most disgusting exhibition of mass hysteria this city has ever witnessed.” Ah, adults.
This time, there were only 200 casualties. The first-aid posts looked like disaster areas, filled with sobbing, vomiting girls. A teenage gang outside the stadium tried three times to bash down a gate. When they finally succeeded, police controlled them with German shepherds. The stage was ringed with four steel fences (“Beatle baffles,” they were called). A 200-man security force guarded the approaches. Police eventually halted the show after just 28 minutes when the prepubescent horde charged the stage. The Beatles dropped their instruments and sprinted to a waiting caravan with police-siren escorts. Toronto police, terrified, cancelled all leaves for the lads’ Labor Day appearance.
Paul McCartney now lives in a fortified forest estate in Sussex.
What they don’t know is that the Beatles triumphed because they exploited the American racial hang-up. The promoter who discovered Elvis had long predicted that if he could ever find a white boy who could sing “black” there was nothing but millions ahead. The Pelvis, driving WASP mothers wild with fear, proved him right.
The Beatles learned their chords and their driving beat as warm-up acts to Little Richard on his British and European tours. They worshipped at the feet of the legendary Chuck Berry, who, in his dotage, can still do his Duckwalk. They apprenticed as listeners and worshippers of American blacks who were accepted in Britain as they never were in their U.S. homeland—just as Paul Robeson was more appreciated in Moscow and London than in his own country, and Sammy Davis Jr. and the Will Mastin Trio found dates in Montreal and Vancouver when black entertainers were not considered the right acts in the right rooms outside of Harlem.
What The Beatles did, astonishing American mothers who found them “cute” and charming, was to export back to America black rhythms and wild abandon and infectious behavior that they had learned from the Little Richards and the Chuck Berrys who had been their idols.
There is, mark my word, still a residue of resentment of all this phenomenon among black musicians who recognize, ruefully, how the whole history of this thing evolved. The Fab Four sanitized soul. They sold Americans a beat that wasn’t quite acceptable—before.
What the heck. You know how it is. You can’t tell kids anything.
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