“In the increasingly mechanized, automated, cybernated environment of the modern world,… man’s need for his biology has become much more intense… Enter the Beatles – soul by proxy, middlemen between the Mind and the Body. A long way from Pat Boone’s White Shoes. A way station on a slow route travelled with all deliberate speed.” – Eldridge Cleaver, Soul on Ice (1965).
When the Beatles first came to the U.S. in February 1964, the Cold War was raging. Our country had invested in rich and diversified public school programs, reasoning that even lower middle class kids might contribute to the space race or to building bigger bombs. One such program brought a string quartet to entertain our “assembly” at P.S. 165 in Queens, New York, shortly after the fab four’s appearances on Ed Sullivan.
I listened to the recital politely. But my true love (or childhood crush) was rock ’n’ roll and I couldn’t wait to ask the classical players what they thought of my new heroes. Their response: “Fifty years from now no one will remember that these lads from Liverpool even existed.”
The quartet’s not-so-great Paganini, of course, proved to be better than their prognostication. Beatles music has remained enormously popular for half a century. And it transformed all of pop culture right from the start. The band’s influence remains powerful not just in music, but in film, video, art and literature.
When the fab four came on the scene, pop records were immediately disposable. “I’ll Get You,” for instance, B-side of the 1963-64 hit “She Loves You,” was released with a glaring mistake: John Lennon, unsure if the lyric was “make you mine” or “change your mind,” settled on “mange your mind.” This, no doubt, resulted from having a budget for only one take per tune. But a mere few years later, the band would spend months in the recording studio on each album, with lots of editing, overdubs and electronic effects. Rock music took on a perfectionism it hadn’t known, except, perhaps, on a few Phil Spector singles.
The cultural sea change, however, entailed more than just higher quality records, as Eldridge Cleaver suggested in Soul on Ice. The Beatles weren’t a healing balm after the JFK assassination, Cleaver asserted. They represented continued rejection of the Eisenhower years, initially signaled by Kennedy’s election.
Underlying this rejection was African-American pop culture. Cleaver quoted Norman Mailer: “It’s no accident that the source of Hip is the Negro… For the Negro’s equality would tear a profound shift into the psychology, the sexuality and the moral imagination of every white alive.”
Thus, after Brown vs. The Board of Education at Topeka, which outlawed segregated public schools, the sanitized, disembodied pop culture of the 1950’s began to unravel. “It is significant,” Cleaver wrote, “that the Twist and the Hula Hoop came at the end of the Eisenhower era.” And then the Beatles arrived.
“The popular music of urban Negroes – which was known as Rhythm and Blues before whites appropriated and distilled it into a product they called Rock and Roll,” the author of Soul on Ice continued, “is the basic ingredient, the core of the gaudy, cacophonous hymns with which the Beatles of Liverpool drive their hordes of… fans into catatonia and hysteria. For Beatle fans, having been alienated from their own Bodies for so long and so deeply, the effect of these potent erotic rhythms is electric.”
Add to this erotic surge the fact that most of the band’s audience were post-War “baby boomers” – the oldest, then, being eighteen, all of them a roiling jangle of adolescent and pre-adolescent hormones – and electric became explosive. The girls had to scream. The boys never got that image out of their heads.
Fifties and early sixties pop music had been dominated by the likes of Pat Boone, who covered r ’n’ b tunes but whitened them so much Pepsodent could have shared producing credit. Deracinated, emasculated and disembodied interpretations of songs like “Ain’t That A Shame” (by Fats Domino), “Tutti Frutti” and “Long Tall Sally” (both by Little Richard) made Boone the number two record seller of the period, just behind Elvis Presley.
The King, to be sure, paved the way for the Beatles. As Cleaver saw it, “(The beatniks and) Elvis dared to do in the light of day what white America had long been doing in the sneak-thief anonymity of night – consort on a human level with blacks.” But Pat Boone and Elvis Presley coexisted peacefully. Not so Boone and the Beatles; the fab four’s preeminence abruptly ended his career.
In a 2012 interview, the fifties star confided, “they had 5 of the top 10 records at once and were selling about 40 or 50% of all pop records… It knocked my record royalties into a cocked hat.” Once a superstar, Boone stopped performing, and turned to selling prints of Beatles oil paintings, some of which hang in Liverpool’s The Cavern to this day.
So… 50 years ago, white audiences were ready to hear black music played blackly. John Lennon said in an interview back then that his favorite act was an r ’n’ b girl group called the Shirelles (“Will You Love Me Tomorrow”), whose approach to vocal harmony can be heard in every song the Beatles performed during their first Ed Sullivan show. They opened their third Sullivan gig, on February 23, 1964, with “Twist and Shout” by Motown’s Isley Brothers. And a few weeks later, Capitol Records released The Beatles Second Album, featuring six rhythm and blues covers: “Roll Over, Beethoven” (Chuck Berry), “You Really Got a Hold on Me” (Smokey Robinson), “Money” (Berry Gordy), “Long Tall Sally” (Little Richard), “Please, Mr. Postman” (The Marvelettes) and “Devil in Her Heart” (The Donays).
On “Long Tall Sally,” Paul McCartney didn’t so much adapt Little Richard as channel him, just as he did Fats Domino a few years later on “Lady Madonna,” his homage to the great South Carolina singer/songwriter. And what became known as “the British invasion” in the wake of the Beatles appearance on Sullivan consisted, essentially, of English rock bands releasing and performing faithful renditions of African-American r ’n’ b tunes.
Half the tracks on the Rolling Stones’ first U.S. LP were just such covers: “Carol” (Chuck Berry), “I’m a King Bee” (Slim Harpo), “Can I Get a Witness” (Holland-Dozier-Holland), “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” (Willie Dixon), “Walking the Dog” (Rufus Thomas) and “Route 66” (Bobby Troop, a white writer whose composition had already been recorded by Nat King Cole and Chuck Berry). Their second album featured Berry’s “Around and Around” and “Come On,” as well as Bobby Womack’s “It’s All Over Now,” The Drifters’ “Under the Boardwalk” and Willie Dixon’s “Little Red Rooster.”
The Animals had a big hit with Sam Cooke’s “Bring It On Home to Me,” and great success, live and on record, with John Lee Hooker’s “Boom Boom Boom Boom” and Ray Charles’ “I Believe to My Soul.” Even the Dave Clark Five had a deserved Billboard chart-topper with their soulful version of Berry Gordy’s “Do You Love Me.”
All of these English rockers had completely assimilated African-American pop music, then re-presented it in a way that enabled white Americans to hear it for the first time as it truly was – un-sanitized, sensual and and sexy. Europe had been starved for records from the U.S. throughout World War II and the immediate post-war period. When budding musicians like John, Paul, George and Ringo; Mick, Keith and Brian; the Erics (Burdon and Clapton) and, yes, even Dave Clark and Mike Smith finally got their hands on vinyl from the States in the fifties, they couldn’t stop listening. Their obsession with black American pop, and their reproduction of it, became infectious. White America rediscovered the music, along with its physicality and subversiveness.
Years later, while in college, I realized that British bands' passion for rhythm and blues was similar to French New Wave directors' passion for Hollywood cinema in the late fifties and early sixties. Having had no access to U.S.-made films during the German Occupation, young auteurs like Francois Truffaut and Jean-luc Godard consumed them ravenously after the war, then reintroduced Americans to the cream of the crop with articles in Cahiers du Cinema and with their own movies, filled as they were with homages to Hitchcock, Ford, Hawks, Fuller and Lang, among others.
It was inevitable that groundbreaking New Wave filmmakers and British invaders would meet. Expatriate director Richard Lester’s A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, like French films of the period, was shot in black and white and energized with jump cuts. When the Beatles contemplated a documentary about themselves, John Lennon wanted Jean-luc Godard to direct it. Paul preferred Michael Lindsay-Hogg (son of Orson Welles, a god to the New Wave), who ultimately directed LET IT BE. Godard, instead, helmed ONE PLUS ONE/SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL with the Rolling Stones.
What early sixties French cinema and English rock ’n’ roll had in common was a new sense of internationalism in the aftermath of World War II. The planet had shrunk. 16 million American men and women lived in Europe for over 3 years during the war, spreading U.S. culture and absorbing that of the continent. This was in sharp contrast to the xenophobia both fueling and fueled by U.S. isolationism between the world wars.
When the Beatles arrived at Idlewild airport on February 7, 1964, regularly scheduled transcontinental jet travel was only five years old. Their PanAm Boeing 707 from London shared the tarmac with large, commercial turboprop planes. The rapid and continuing increase in international mobility also contributed to post war globalism that fused British and American rock and roll.
So did scientific advances. Cold war investment in education, referred to above, increased exponentially when the Soviet Union put Sputnik into space in 1957. And five years later, a mere nineteen months before the Beatles appeared on Ed Sullivan, AT&T and Bell Labs launched Telstar, the world’s first communication satellite. Hard to imagine a world before communications satellites! But that technology was so new, the band would participate in the very first transnational telecast, seen round the world performing “All You Need is Love” live via satellite on June 25, 1967.
By then, three years after Sullivan, the Beatles had changed the world and it had changed them. No longer “disembodied,” their white fans embraced black music and moved from the Twist and the Watusi to writhing at Grateful Dead-driven “acid tests” as well as to the music of the fab four. The boys themselves took LSD and recommended it to one and all. George Harrison wandered the streets of Haight-Ashbury during the “summer of love” while, in England, Paul McCartney helped introduce the world to Jimi Hendrix. John preached “love and peace,” later earning the enmity of J. Edgar Hoover and getting on Richard Nixon’s “enemies list” as an outspoken opponent of the Vietnam War. All the while, the group's music became stunningly bold, as songs incorporated sitars and tablas, orchestras, sound effects, complex time signatures and avant-garde experiments, and they pushed the bounds of existing recording technology.
All of which makes it feel a little weird to celebrate the Beatles’ semi-centennial with cuddly grandpas Paul and Ringo leading us in sing-alongs of the band’s safest songs. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s sweet to watch audience members who clearly fell in love while listening to this tune or that chiming in with such gusto. Delightful to see how deeply the two surviving Beatles love each other and how fondly they recall John and George.
But what I remember is the fab four as agents of change. I remember discovering Motown and Howlin’ Wolf and all kinds of great music because of the Beatles and the Stones. I remember coming to expect that each new record, from “Rubber Soul” on, would take me to places I’d never been. I remember, as a young teen, learning the term “consciousness” from the Beatles, and also learning that it was something to “expand.” I remember getting the idea from them that popular artists grow by taking risks, in and outside of their work. And that risk-taking was a good thing.