Supposedly, us baby boomers credit the assassination of JFK as the milestone, the defining moment for our petulant lives, but in reality, and in an actual, true sense, the biggest wallop my generation got was the arrival a few weeks later of the Beatles on their original US tour.
Young American brains went “Boom!”
(Illustration found here).
And the sound wasn’t from Oswald’s rifle, but the near-scream of Ed Sullivan on Feb. 9, 1964: “Ladies and Gentlemen…The Beatles!”
Sullivan had to yell because the audience was already near chaos.
Via the History Channel:
It is estimated that 73 million Americans were watching that night as the Beatles made their live U.S. television debut.
Roughly eight minutes before Fred Kaps took the stage, Sullivan gave his now-famous intro, “Ladies and gentlemen…the Beatles!” and after a few seconds of rapturous cheering from the audience, the band kicked into “All My Lovin’.”
Fifty seconds in, the first audience-reaction shot of the performance shows a teenage girl beaming and possibly hyperventilating.
Two minutes later, Paul is singing another pretty, mid-tempo number: “Til There Was You,” from the Broadway musical Music Man.
There’s screaming at the end of every phrase in the lyrics, of course, but to view the broadcast today, it seems driven more by anticipation than by the relatively low-key performance itself.
And then came “She Loves You,” and the place seems to explode.
What followed was perhaps the most important two minutes and 16 seconds of music ever broadcast on American television — a sequence that still sends chills down the spine almost half a century later.
Yes, indeed. A giant, swirling, nearly-subconscious sequence in a social/cultural shift that far-overshadows a presidential assassination — or maybe the two events, coming so close together in time, which in them days currently seems much slower than nowadays, gave emphasis to the power-surge of change which boiled up during the bottom end of the 1960s. However, to the vast, huge wad of middle-class American kids at the time, the Fab Four rocked the big boat.
Way-of-course, the JFK murder and all its reverberating noise wasn’t an ordinary event — and all us baby boomers remember where we were at when we first heard about it. Bill Clinton recalled as a high school senior he was in fourth-period advanced math class — we all got ’em.
Even me. But I was half-way around the world and in the dark. My little brother woke me up before dawn to announce the president’s been shot. I don’t recall why he was up that early, or why he was listening to the radio, or anything else. Long time ago, and a way-dark Japan.
And yes, the radio. My dad was in the US civil service attached to the Air Force, and he’d taken a two-year overseas post at a base just south of the city of Fukuoka, Japan, on the southern-most island of Kyushu. I don’t remember the name of the base, but it was located near the big US naval installation still at Sasebo. Maybe the reason memory eludes is because the base closed just after we arrived in September 1963 — two years became 10 months, and we returned back to our home on the panhandle of Florida the following July.
Enough time to miss first-hand the two biggest events for people in my time-frame — the Kennedy assassination, and the Beatles arrival in the US.
Yet enough time to gauge the reaction of both outside the American continental bubble — and though Kennedy was high in the news cycle during that winter and following spring, the Beatles it seemed were the news cycle. The music started the social/culture tsunami, and in Japan it was seemingly everywhere. I’d been listening to Japanese rock stations — the English-speaking military radio was like NPR, thus, no rock-n-roll — and although I couldn’t understand the language, a vast majority of the music was in English. And the Beatles came forth and quickly dominated.
Even after nearly 50 years, I can still faintly hear the DJ’s voice, first unintelligible, sing-song Japanese, then after a quick-pause, guttural, slap-dash English: “The Beatles, ‘Please, Please Me.”
Or any number off a long list of titles available at the time.
Indirectly, and far away, I was slowly eaten alive by Beatlemania.
Andrew Romano at The Daily Beast earlier this month looked at the impact of the Beatles on the US, and how the Fab Four defined a screwball pitch at society.
And how the tidal wave upset the American apple cart:
As performers, the Beatles would never be more magnetic than they were in the summer of 1961.
They were by far the most popular group in Liverpool.
And yet “it was all becoming a little too easy,” Lewisohn writes.
“They were toppermost but bored, John and Paul especially. The local halls were called ‘a circuit,’ and so it seemed: they were going round and round the same places on the same nights, week-in and week-out.
This was fine for other groups but not for the Beatles.”
The Beatles’ secret ingredient was arrogance.
I don’t mean that in a pejorative sense.
Arrogance—a kind of foolish, adolescent self-belief; an ignorant, intuitive certainty that your way is the right way—is the root of all great art.
Without it, talent and timing aren’t enough.
We all have a dash of it when we’re young.
In middle school we write Whitmanesque poems; in high school we start a Beatlesque band.
But then we weigh the odds and consider our options, and reality sets in.
Sometime around 18 we begin to assess ourselves more accurately—to find our proper rank in humanity’s big talent show.
Our ambition stops outstripping our ability.
And then we stall out and settle down.
The Beatles never did that.
Unlike most of us, they remained arrogant until their ability finally matched their ambition.
Arrogance was the reason they abandoned everything but music.
George failed out of high school and bailed on his electrical job.
John flunked art college.
Paul skipped his final exams, squandering his shot at university.
Ringo, who barely had an education, ditched his five-year machinist apprenticeship after four years to play drums at a summer camp.
Music was all the Beatles had left. It was their only shot.
Except this arrogance wasn’t a secret, though, not in a deliberate conscious form. We all felt the arrogance of pursuing what we all really wanted to do, and not what our parents, and/or, society told us — the 1950s had bored everyone to strangling tears. Yet, we were clueless to an alternative.
And as George reportedly quipped: “The Beatles saved the world from boredom.”
And made waves of change.
The one memory off the JFK shooting I can vividly recall is being pissed-off later that day because the base gym was closed in observance of the event. It was basketball season and I loved to shoot hoops for hours on end.
An athletic, jock-strap kind of kid prior to Japan, and afterwards, a wannabe writer and poet.
A major shift in one’s reality. Not because JFK was killed, but because of the arrogance of self.
I arrived back in the US a different kid, and seemingly everything and everybody around me was changed, too.
One peculiar aspect of getting old — I turn 65 in a coupe of weeks — is an ability to view shit from long distance, with an eye to the reality of it, ‘it’ being stuff from long, long ago. In this continuous revolution called life, the Beatles packed a wallop, and a lot of it was a bit over my head — at the time.
This particular scene in the train-car early in “A Hard Day’s Night,” always touched a chord in me, even at the first seeing — late summer 1964 — and even amidst a females-continual screaming, deafening in a small movie theater. The sense at that first screening was near-total subconscious, just a teenie-weenie blimp on a way-juvenile radar, but underneath a much-bigger implication.
Script found here.
SHAKE and NORM collect GRANDFATHER and are in the process of leaving the compartment when a fat upper class city Englishman, JOHNSON, attempts to enter. There is a bit of confusion and they get tangled up with each other.
JOHNSON: Make up your minds, will you!
At last SHAKE, NORM and GRANDFATHER sort themselves out and JOHNSON enters with his case. The other three go to coffee.
JOHNSON puts his case up on the luggage rack, then sits down. All his movements are disgruntled … he finally picks up his copy of the Financial Times and burying himself behind it, starts to read. After a moment he looks up, notices the compartment window is open. He gets up and without so much as a “by your leave” he closes it, glares at the BOYS and sits down again.
The boys exchange looks as if to say … “Hello, Saucy!!”
PAUL(politely): Do you mind if we have it opened?
JOHNSON (briefly): Yes, I do.
JOHN: Yeah, but there are four of us, like, and we’d like it open, if it’s all the same to you, that is.
JOHNSON (rudely): Well, it isn’t. I travel on this train regularly twice a week, so I suppose I’ve some rights.
RINGO: Aye, well, so have we.
He disappears behind his paper before the BOYS can say another word.
RINGO pulls a face at the raised paper and switches on his portable radio. A pop number is playing.
JOHNSON puts down his paper firmly.
JOHNSON: And we’ll have that thing off as well, thank you.
RINGO: But I ...
JOHNSON leans over and switches it off.
JOHNSON: An elementary knowledge of the Railway Acts would tell you I’m perfectly within my rights.
He smiles frostily.
PAUL: Yeah, but we want to hear it and there’s more of us than you. We’re a community, like, a majority vote. Up the workers and all that stuff!
JOHNSON:Then I suggest you take that damned thing into the corridor or some other part of the train where you obviously belong.
JOHN: (leaning forward to him) Gie’s a kiss!
PAUL: Shurrup! Look, Mister, we’ve paid for our seats too, you know.
JOHNSON: I travel on this train regularly, twice a week.
JOHN: Knock it off, Paul, y’ can’t win with his sort. After all, it’s his train, isn’t it, Mister?
JOHNSON: And don’t you take that tone with me, young man!
JOHNSON: (accusingly) I fought the war for your sort.
RINGO: Bet you’re sorry you won!
JOHNSON: I’ll call the guard!
PAUL: Aye … but what? They don’t take kindly to insults you know. Ah, come on, you lot. Let’s get a cup of coffee and leave Toby the manger.
The boys troop out of the door into the corridor. JOHNSON smiles triumphantly. He is about to settle down to his paper when there is a tap on the corridor window. He looks up and we see pressed against the window a collection of hideous Beatle faces.
PAUL: Eh, Mister … can we have our ball back!
The man jumps to his feet.
The deal was nobody got any kind of ball back.
Alas, my personal most-favorite Beatle, George, had only line in that whole thing…“But…”
But it was a big but, maybe.
And George died on my birthday — he did pop-up a most-neat answer during a press conference on that first tour in 1964:
Q: “Are you going to get a haircut while you’re here?”
PAUL: “No thanks.”
GEORGE: “I had one yesterday.”
And yesterday’s gone, but yet here we are.