An Ohio Yankee Camps at John Lennon’s House

Mendips map2

The address is 251 Menlove Avenue.

John Lennon lived here between the ages of five and 22. It was the semi-detached home of his indomitable Aunt Mimi, and her husband, George Smith. They called their middle-class domicile “Mendips.”

Lennon’s father had abandoned his wife and son. His mother, Julia Stanley Lennon, handed him over to be raised by her eldest sister Mary (Mimi) because she was ill-equipped to do so. It didn’t help that Lennon was a troublemaker who exhibited symptoms of ADHD. (And those were pre-Ritalin days.) Even as an adult his acid tongue burned more than a few people who ventured too closely.

When Lennon was 14, his beloved Uncle George died. Then, when he was 17, his world upended when his mother was struck and killed by a car driven by an off-duty policeman. It happened while Julia was crossing Menlove, a divided highway, just moments after she had left Mimi’s house. She was walking toward the northbound bus stop.

This is just opposite of where the southbound Liverpool city bus dropped me off.

As I alluded to in my last post, I didn’t have a map with me. So, as with Blanche DuBois on her streetcar named desire, I had to “rely on the kindness of strangers.” Such independence is good, however. It means you have to be bold and ask questions and engage with the locals. If the lady sitting behind me on the bus hadn’t overheard me ask the torpid driver several times about Mendips—then nudged me to get off at The Vineries—I might have ended up in Clock Face.

Mendips on Menlove Ave.

View of Mendips from northbound bus stop. Julia Lennon was killed near here in 1958 (11 days after Ohio Yankee was hatched.)

Not knowing where to go, I wandered across busy Menlove (carefully) and down The Vineries. A small sedan pulled up in front of a house, and a woman got out. I walked over briskly and asked if she could point me toward Mendips.

“Oh, it’s right around the corner, other side of the road. It’s the house with a blue plaque on it. You’ll probably see a crowd outside!” I thanked her and turned to leave, but she insisted on accompanying me to the corner to point out the house.

“Where you from, love?” she asked with a beaming smile. I told her North America.

“Well, I know that!” she said with a laugh, obviously recognizing my accent. “Where exactly?”

“From Ohio,” I said sheepishly. “In…er…America.”

I anticipated a dirty look or an “I’m so sorry.” But instead she told me she once visited America, and my state was one of the few she didn’t get to. I told her she must visit Ohio…but off the top of my head I couldn’t think of a reason why.

“Oh, you’re in luck!” she said, pointing across the street. “Only a few people!”

We said goodbye and I re-crossed Menlove, arriving at Lennon’s home as it started to drizzle and as the few visitors were packing into their car. Then a young guy appeared out of nowhere, phone at his ear, excitedly giving a play-by-play of his Beatles tour to his dad back home. We exchanged photo poses, and I learned he was from Colorado.

Pete and John2

Lennon and me. Seventeen years, one ocean, and worlds of talent apart.

Then Colorado guy left, and another car pulled up. About five or six people got out, all of them Asian except the tour guide.

“This is where John lived with his Aunt Mimi…” the guide dryly recited, as the crowd leaned in closely. I got the impression they either struggled with English, or didn’t know much about The Beatles.

The guide noticed me take a couple steps back. “It’s okay, you can listen,” he said. How thoughtful of him.

Tour guide wrapped up Mendips in two minutes, and while he and his charges walked toward their car, I asked if it wouldn’t be out of line to ask which way to Strawberry Field, which I knew was near Mendips.

“I’ll tell you, but you really should take my tour to properly see all the sites.” My bad angel wanted to tell him to go jump in the Mersey. But my good angel overruled and said He’s just trying to earn a living.

I left modest Mendips just before the jumbo, rainbow-painted Magical Mystery Tour bus arrived. Strawberry Field is only a half mile from where Lennon lived, on a hilly, shaded side street called Beaconsfield Road. It was a Salvation Army home for orphans, and Lennon used to climb the surrounding wall to play with the kids. Each year, the home had a big festival, and Mimi would later describe how Lennon always pestered her with “Hurry, Mimi, or we’ll be late for the festival!”

Strawberry Field gate

Strawberry Field. The gate is a replica of the original.

(This the same bloke who claimed The Beatles were more popular than Jesus, posed full frontal au naturel for an album cover, and made Nixon’s Enemies List.)

As the drizzle continued, I came upon a well-dressed man coming down the hill and asked him where Strawberry Field was. He told me I’d just passed it. So I backstepped until I saw the graffiti-framed strawberry-red gate marking the entrance. But other than the gate, which was locked, there wasn’t much to observe, since the Victorian building that once sheltered the children was torn down in 2005. There was only a partially built visitor center, and construction materials littered the grounds. (The tourist center opened in September of this year.)

I then walked down Vale Road, which Lennon once bicycled on, toward Woolton Village. After asking a few folks for directions, including one teen with a Scouse twang not unlike George Harrison’s, I located St. Peter’s Church, where John’s skiffle band The Quarry Men performed at a garden fete on July 6, 1957.

As the story goes, Lennon’s friend Ivan Vaughan introduced him that day (maybe the preceding evening, depending on the storyteller) to a younger chap named Paul McCartney, who lived in nearby Allerton and also played guitar. Paul knew the chords and lyrics to Eddie Cochran’s “Twenty Flight Rock.” He showed John, who was suitably impressed, and John offered him a position in The Quarry Men. This was the watershed moment that birthed The Beatles and, truly, altered the course of pop cultural history.

St. Peters Church_Woolton

St. Peter’s Church in Woolton. The plaque is under the left window.

I was the only one in the darkened lot outside the church, standing under a small plaque commemorating that meeting of future musical giants. I often think the adjective “surreal” is overused, but I can’t think of another word to describe how I felt.

After wandering around the quaint streets of Woolton, and eating a quick supper in the Istanbul Barbecue and Bistro, I returned to the bus stop at Mendips, intending to catch a bus back to the Travelodge in Liverpool. But I felt like I was glued to the house where “Please Please Me” and “I’ll Get You” were written. It was a kind of sanctuary. Protected by the National Trust along with the other three Beatle homes, I was glad it had avoided the fate of the Cavern Club, Brian Epstein’s old record store, and the Salvation Army home at Strawberry Field.

I joked to myself that, had I brought my tent along, I might have pitched it. The rain had stopped, and it appeared the Tragical History Tour bus was stationed in Liverpool for the night.

My dawdling at Mendips was rewarded when a tiny car pulled up, parked on the grassy berm, and a tiny man scurried over to the gate while jingling his car keys. He gazed at Aunt Mimi’s house for about 30 seconds. Then he abruptly turned and headed back toward his car. Strange, I thought. No keepsake photo of the house?

“Sir, would you like me to take your photo?” I asked, same as with Ken the Heartbeat on Mathew Street.

“Oh no, that’s okay, but thank you,” he said in a soft Liverpudlian accent. “I just pop in once in a while. I live just down the road in the village.”

This revelation led to a long and interesting conversation. He said his name was “John,” and he’d lived in the area all his life. He told me about the Cavern Club days, and how his wife (then girlfriend) was one of the groupies known as “Beatle-ettes.”

Woolton Village

The Grapes Inn in Woolton Village, the oldest pub in town

“Me mates and I used to tear up their Beatle photos, we were so jealous!” he laughed.

John told me he was allowed unlimited entrance into all four Beatle homes. He described how, a while back, he discovered an old guitar in his attic. It was a rare Framus model similar to what Paul used before he became a Beatle. John had given it to his grandson, but suggested his grandson might want to donate it to the National Trust.

“He’s a good lad. We met with Colin of the Trust over a cuppa. Colin was overjoyed. He said they’d been looking for that same Framus model for a long time. So in gratitude, he’s allowed us to enter any of the four homes for free!” (I got the impression John was no longer jealous.)

John actually offered to drive me over to Allerton to see Paul’s home. But it was getting late, and I needed to hail a ride back to Liverpool, so I thanked him but declined.

Anyway, I plan a Round Two in Liverpool. Not only are Liverpudlians friendly, but I’ll visit Paul’s house in Allerton. I’ll also seek out the roundabout at Penny Lane, located between Woolton and Liverpool, which I only glanced at through the bus window. Maybe Quarry Bank High School. There’s also John Rigby’s granddaughter, one Eleanor, buried in the St. Peter’s Church cemetery, which in my delirium I totally forgot about.  And, of course, George and Ringo.

I only wish I’d gotten John’s last name. If I had, I’d “pop in” to see him, and then the two of us could day trip over to Aunt Mimi’s for a “cuppa.”

This is the end of my “Ohio Yankee” series about my visit to Scotland and Liverpool.  Thanks for joining me.

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An Ohio Yankee Visits Liverpool, England

cilla

[An Apology: in my last post, I wanted to humorously discuss absurdity and pettiness in the office. (For you young people, it happens more often than you might think.)  Sort of a Dilbert-styled satire with a casual nod to the classic short story “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall Street.”  But my wife, who reads my stuff occasionally when she has the stomach for it, characteristically sidestepped the gist of my essay and, instead, took exception to my reference to urinals.  Also, my friend Tad politely noted some double entendres that were—believe me—entirely unintentional.  Anyway, I’m sorry if I offended anyone, and I promise today’s post will go nowhere near porcelain fixtures.  No guarantees about double entendres, though.]

When I decided to fly to Glasgow to visit my daughter’s family, one of my first actions was to open my world atlas and check the distance from Glasgow to Liverpool, England. In 1964, my friend John Hire and I became fans of an exciting musical group from Liverpool. I think this was concurrent to John instructing me about his older sister’s body parts.

I’ve been marveling at and studying The Beatles’ music…and the physical attributes of the opposite sex…ever since.

But in addition to visiting the home of The Beatles, I was also curious about Liverpool as a famed seaport city. During the 19th century, Liverpool was a thriving port for American merchant ships delivering cotton to textile factories in northern England, and also a busy departure city for immigrants. In the 20th century, U.S. naval sailors took shore leave in the city and sold their blues and early rock ‘n’ roll records to working-class English youth hungry for anything with a backbeat.

American writer Herman Melville (“Bartleby,” Moby-Dick) was a young merchant sailor who visited Liverpool in 1839 and wrote stirringly, in his book Redburn, about the profound poverty of this mecca of the Industrial Revolution:

Every variety of want and suffering here met the eye, and every vice showed here its victims…Old women, rather mummies, drying up with slow starving and age; young girls, incurably sick, who ought to have been in the hospital; sturdy men, with the gallows in their eyes, and a whining lie in their mouths; young boys, hollow-eyed and decrepit; and puny mothers, holding up puny babes in the glare of the sun, formed the main features of the scene…But these were diversified by instances of peculiar suffering, vice, or art in attracting charity, which, to me at least, who had never seen such things before, seemed to the last degree uncommon and monstrous.

Ferry Cross the Mersey

Ohio Yankee, looking for ferries on the Mersey

“Uncommon and monstrous.” Hard to believe it’s the same city. Liverpool in 2019 barely resembles the city of Melville’s time, or even when the Fab Four were growing up. The dock that existed in 1839 is now below ground about 200 yards inland from the River Mersey, the water having been “reclaimed” by land. In 2008 Liverpool was recognized a European Capital of Culture by the European Union (EU), which helped encourage urban renewal, exemplified by Liverpool ONE shopping complex. Liverpool is now a top tourist destination in the UK.

Since I had a limited amount of time in Liverpool, I listed my top priorities. John Lennon’s boyhood home at Mendips, Menlove Avenue, Woolton was the bullseye. If you don’t know who John Lennon is, he’s famous for being the only person to have his name on a major British airport.

Second to this was the Cavern Club, where The Beatles first made a name in 1961-63 while playing an astonishing 292 dates (little wonder that ensemble was so tight). Third was the location of Old Dock. Fourth was St. Peter’s Church in Woolton Village, where John and Paul McCartney first met at a garden fete on July 6, 1957. And if I had time, Strawberry Field, Penny Lane, and Paul’s boyhood home in Allerton.

st. george's

St. George’s Hall, from Lime Street station

I exited Lime Street Railway station and was confronted by the neoclassical splendor of St. George’s Hall and a sea of people and buses.  I poked around Liverpool City Centre toward what I hoped would be the Mersey. It took me a while, but I eventually found Albert Dock and Merseyside Maritime Museum. The museum receptionist told me about the reclaiming that turned Mersey water into land, and that the only way to see the original 1716 Thomas Steers’ dock, the world’s first commercial wet dock (later called Old Dock), was to take an underground tour. I didn’t have the time or inclination, but I did manage to get a peep at history through a viewing window on a plaza near the Hilton Hotel.

Staring through a glass capsule in the middle of a hotel plaza while a musician absentmindedly played Beatles songs on a cheesy organ, it was a minor struggle envisioning 20-year-old Melville squeezing his way through emaciated beggars and cripples in 1839 after disembarking his vessel St. Lawrence. But for a fleeting second, I was there.

Old Liverpool Dock

Old Dock…buried under the edifice of a luxury hotel

Close to Old Dock is Mathew Street, where the Cavern Club is located, although I didn’t immediately know it. I just wandered through streets and alleyways until stumbling upon a small crowd in a curving pedestrian alley. Then…boom. There was John Lennon, lounging against a wall.

Or, at least, a life-sized statue of him. It was positioned next to a sign indicating this was the CAVERN PUB. Not to be confused with Cavern Club…but so many businesses in this area try to link themselves with The Beatles, the proprietors may want you to be confused, just to get your business. There was also a wall of bricks with numerous band names inscribed on them, some famous, some unknown. Each band had performed at one time at the Cavern Club, which existed from 1957 till 1973.

I saw a man gazing at the wall for a long time. He appeared somewhat misty-eyed. I asked if he wanted me to take his photo.  He thanked me but declined. After chatting with him a little, I learned his name was Ken, and he was looking for his band’s brick. He said he was once in a group called the Heartbeats, and it had performed at the Cavern Club on three occasions in 1966.

Liverpool Ken of the Heartbeats

Ken the Heartbeat, in front of Mathew Street Wall of Fame

Ken let me snap his photo with my own camera.  After he left, I spent a good ten minutes looking for his brick myself, but with no luck. Ken was very nice, and I really wanted to find his brick.  But it must have tumbled through the cracks of time.  (NOTE: a Manchester band called the Heartbeats did exist in the Sixties, and they later became Herman’s Hermits. But Ken never said anything about being a pre-Hermit.)

Getting back to the Cavern Club…the Club, not Pub, is actually across the alley and downwind about a hundred feet. Or, at least, a facsimile of the original club. Believe it or not, the Liverpool home of The Beatles was demolished in 1973 to make room for a proposed underground (subway) air shaft, which never materialized. The basement club was later resurrected, but with a different entrance location, interior, and stage.

I don’t consider many things sacred, but on the stupidity scale, a demolition project like this ranks with a construction project on the U.S.-Mexican border.

The original entrance is marked by a black-and-white mural with photos and a club history. Another statue is here: Cilla Black (1943-2015), who was a Cavern Club hat-check girl, then began jumping onstage to sing, then became friends with The Beatles, then forged a very successful recording and television career.

While near Mathew Street, I tried to locate the site of the record store which genius Beatles manager Brian Epstein (1934-1967) owned when he first heard about the group. It was on busy Whitechapel Street. I asked a few people, but all appeared under the age of 75 and didn’t know anything. (Some, sadly, didn’t even know the name Brian Epstein.) As for the store, it may have been swallowed by a London or U.S. land shark wearing designer clothing.

epstein

Brian Epstein

Well, if I’m gonna visit Johnny L. at Mendips, I’d better get scooting. I made one more trip to Albert Dock, to the office of the “Magical Mystery Tour” (which conducts a guided bus tour) to get a map of Beatle sites. The price of the map was typically outrageous, and the tour folks typically tried to sell me a tour ticket, since “It’s really the only way to properly see all the sites.” I smiled and told them You say ‘Yes’ but I say ‘No,’ then headed to the city bus station for my own ticket to ride.

But not before dropping into the spanking new Museum of Liverpool. As if on cue, the museum was at that moment hosting a limited-run exhibit devoted to John and Yoko. I spent about a half hour here. Yoko had a big hand in the presentation, much of which was devoted to her and John’s social activism, which I was already fairly knowledgeable about (bagism, hairism, bedism, and other peace-isms).

What really hit me was coming off the elevator, turning the corner, and hearing “Imagine” at the moment I stepped up to the photo below.

Though a deserved classic, “Imagine” isn’t one of my favorite Lennon songs. But I must say, I got a little choked up. (I kept my tears in check, though, as I didn’t want the security guard embracing me.)

There was also a large wall with upwards of a hundred handwritten notes. A pencil and a pile of blank pieces of white paper were on a small table with a sign encouraging people to scribble anything about Lennon, The Beatles, the world, universe, jelly babies, or anything one had a mind to. All the notes would eventually be delivered to Yoko.

I kept it simple and just told Yoko that her late husband’s group has been a bright piece of an Ohio boy’s life since 1964, when he lived on 142 Sherbrook Road.

Then I walked toward the elevator.  I descended, left the museum, and made my way…a sentimental old man in a foreign city, haunted by memories…to 251 Menlove Avenue.

 

John and Yoko exhibit, Liverpool 2

 

Love “Forever Changes,” Part Two

50 years

In my last post, I raved about one of my favorite bands, Love. I gave some background on this under-appreciated group and started to discuss their third record, FOREVER CHANGES. Here, I’ll try to delve into this album in more detail. (Not an easy thing. Most reviews I’ve seen are limited to a few adulatory adjectives).

I called FOREVER CHANGES a “psychedelic masterpiece.” That description may do it a disservice. “Psychedelic” is a loaded term that implies drugs. But you don’t need hallucinatory drugs, or even a desire to musically replicate a psychedelic experience to enjoy this record.

Only one percent of wine supposedly improves after 5-10 years. Consider FOREVER CHANGES, then, like a rare bottle of vintage Cabernet Sauvignon.

First, the title. It supposedly originated with a comment bandleader Arthur Lee made to an old girlfriend. She was upset after he’d dumped her, and she reminded him that he’d promised to love her “forever.” He unsympathetically replied, “Forever changes.” But add the word “Love” in front, and the phrase takes on different meaning.

The packaging of this record is also intriguing. We have a clean white background with a multi-colored, animated design of the five band members’ heads, swirling and blending into a single image. The shape resembles the continents of Africa or South America. A blending and a harmony of races, cultures, and ideas. It’s apropos of the peace/love 1960s, and still valid in 2017 (more or less…pay no attention to the wall builder in the White House).

On the first two Love records, Lee’s forceful vocals, or Ken Forssi’s pounding bass dominated the mix. On FOREVER CHANGES, the vocals and instrumentation are more subdued and democratic. The predominant instruments are acoustic guitar and orchestral strings. This is rock music, however, so there’s electric guitar. But like my blogging friend Jim the Music Enthusiast noted, the electricity is used more for punctuation than overt statement.

Whisky-a-Go-Go concert poster, circa 1966, showing Love, Sons of Adam, and Buffalo Springfield

There are minor string and horn arrangements, and like SGT. PEPPER, they seem to organically grow from the song, rather than being plunked down indiscriminately. The arranger for the strings and horns was one David Angel, who had done theme music for TV shows like Lassie. But the melodies themselves were hummed to him by Arthur Lee, who had total control of the sessions.

Lee was an oddity in many ways. He wore untied combat boots instead of Beatle boots. According to one-time drummer Snoopy, he liked to stroll through the Hollywood hills with a harmonica, imitating bird songs. But in a world of sunshine and hippies, he was suspicious of peoples’ motives. He had a sensitive side (he wrote lines like “We can love again/Only God knows when”), but he also cast a wary glance at a lot of the forced “good vibrations” around him. So there’s considerable questioning on FOREVER CHANGES.

You go through changes
It may seem strange
Is this what you’re put here for?
You think you’re happy
And you are happy
That’s what you’re happy for?

(from the song “You Set the Scene”)

But questions were everywhere in late 1967. The Vietnam War was at a crescendo, and there are many veiled (and unveiled) references to that war in FOREVER CHANGES.

While performing in San Francisco, the band had visited a bar and met a recently returned Vietnam vet. He went into detail about what gunfire was like, and he described how blood looked after it gushed from an open wound. Lee didn’t forget this disturbing image. He later worked it into the song “A House is Not a Motel:”

By the time that I’m through singing
The bells from the schools of walls will be ringing

More confusions,
blood transfusions
The news today will be the movies for tomorrow
And the water’s turned to blood, and if
You don’t think so
Go turn on your tub
And if it’s mixed with mud
You’ll see it turn to gray

In a few lines, Lee forecasts “Full Metal Jacket,” conveys the nebulousness of the war, and describes how its ugliness had crept into American homes. And in “You Set the Scene,” he presents a challenge:

Everything I’ve seen needs rearranging
And for anyone who thinks it’s strange
Then you should be the first to want to make this change
And for everyone who thinks that life is just a game
Do you like the part you’re playing?

Not so much in these superficial and distracted days of smartphones and tweets, but in 1967 this was a major question. Youth, minorities, women, gays, and even soldiers and white-collar executives were challenging the parts they were expected to be playing. Does your career give you personal fulfillment, not just material satisfaction? Are you content with your social position? Your sexuality? Are you willing to play “follow the leader”? Do you like what’s happening in the country and in the world? If your answer is “No,” why not change or rearrange?

“The Daily Planet” is one of two songs where the studio group Wrecking Crew supplanted the regular Love band (the other song is the Johnny Mathis sendup “Andmoreagain”). Lyrically and musically, it’s like the Beatles’ “A Day in the Life,” combining several dissimilar arrangements into one song, and exposing the ludicrousness of life through a snapshot of daily monotony:

In the morning we arise
And start the day the same old way
As yesterday, the day before,
And all in all it’s just a day like all the rest
So do your best with chewing gum
And it is oh-so repetitious waiting on the sun

Love on same bill as Ian Whitcomb and Van Morrison’s Them, circa 1966

Lee, an often-imperious bandleader, deigned to allow guitarist Bryan MacLean two songs on FOREVER CHANGES: “Alone Again Or,” released as a (failed) single, and “Old Man.” Both are gently sublime and offer a nice counterpoint to Lee’s more incisive material. “Alone Again Or” is many Love fans’ favorite song, a mature and mysterious tune with touches of Spanish guitar, and a Tijuana Brass-styled horn break. “Old Man” is similar to Neil Young’s later, much more popular song of the same title. It may be more than coincidence, since Young was at one time considered as producer for FOREVER CHANGES.

(In 1997, Sundazed Records released a collection of Love-era MacLean demos that MacLean’s mother had discovered, on the album Ifyoubelievein. They were followed in 2000 by CANDY’S WALTZ. These minor-key romance songs are amazingly perceptive and ingenuous, and it’s a shame Arthur Lee vetoed them from Love).

Two other songs on FOREVER CHANGES that I should mention are “The Good Humor Man He Sees Everything Like This” and “Maybe the People Would Be the Times or Between Clark and Hilldale.” I won’t make an attempt to understand why “hummingbirds hum” or the significance of “pigtails in the morning sun.” I’ll just say, “Why can’t musicians create imaginative song titles like this anymore? Is it that difficult? Seriously, do we have to bring back Owsley acid?”

***

If I was stranded on a desert isle and only had a certain number of records to spin on my self-propelled turntable in my palm tree perch, I’d probably choose either of the first two Love albums, LOVE or DA CAPO, because they’re so much fun to listen to. FOREVER CHANGES doesn’t have their exuberance. But it does have a musical sophistication, an enticing marriage of instrumentation, arrangements and words that, along with new music by Lennon-McCartney, Brian Wilson, Bob Dylan, Syd Barrett and others, helped push popular songwriting into terra incognita. FOREVER CHANGES never sold many units, but it’s music that holds up very well 50 years onward.

The band broke up after FOREVER CHANGES. It’s the old story: drug abuse and interpersonal squabbles. But maybe they were also just exhausted. Arthur Lee later formed other Love bands, but it wasn’t the same. Years ago, the late Ken Forssi proudly told me: “We could do no wrong…We had something, and they call it magic.” I believe him.

Thanks for permitting me to share my love of Love. In closing, I’ll allow Love to have the last word. This elliptical slice is from “A House Is Not a Motel.” Until next time, Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah, and I’ll see you down on Go-Stop Boulevard with Plastic Nancy:

You are just a thought that someone
Somewhere, somehow feels you should be here
And it’s so for real to touch,
To smell, to feel, to know where you are here.

Let Me Introduce to You: The SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND Trivia Contest!

50 years

Sgt__Pepper's

June 1, 1977. Forty years ago today, Mr. Turley cut me a break in calculus, and my high school released me.

Almost as important: ten years to the day before that, the Beatles released (in the U.S.) their spectacular album SGT. PEPPER’S LONELY HEARTS CLUB BAND!!!

I love lists, even those controversial and ubiquitous “Rolling Stone” magazine lists, and I can’t recall one rock critics’ list that hasn’t placed this album solidly in the No. 1 position. It’s considered by many the CITIZEN KANE of pop music, the ultimate radical experiment in an era of radical experimentation, yet not so experimental that it alienated the masses. This record’s historical standing isn’t exactly hurt by its association with the greatest musical ensemble in the history of the Milky Way (or, at least, the planet Earth).

Please don’t stand up and throw tomatoes at me when I say this: it’s not number one on my list (duck, Pete!). And since the Beatles excluded their single “Strawberry Fields Forever” / “Penny Lane” from the LP, I don’t even consider it the Beatles’ best record. Sonically, it’s very cohesive, maybe their most cohesive album as far as sound and mood. But many of the songs here fall short when stacked against the best work of their other LPs, even the earliest.  I’d pick “Please Please Me” and “This Boy” any day over marshmallow pies and Henry the Horse’s waltzing.

There’s a lot of Paul here, which is good, but John got a trifle lazy, which is not good. I think the adventurous instrumentation and packaging, and the timing of its release have had much to do with its current reputation. SGT. PEPPER kicked off the acid-soaked Summer of Love, which so many social historians and millennials love to associate with the entire 1960s. Also, the public was hungry for a new Beatles LP. The boys had quit touring, and it had been ten months since REVOLVER (today, it takes ten months for a band to decide whose song to sample).

SGT. PEPPER’S swirly, psychedelic motif hasn’t aged well, either, particularly on John’s song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” Producer George Martin truly came to the fore as the “fifth Beatle” on this record, so the music is as much him as the four lads.pepper

But… “With a Little Help from My Friends,” “She’s Leaving Home,” and “A Day in the Life” more or less created the mold for poetry and musicality in a four-minute pop song. In fact, classical giant Leonard Bernstein called “She’s Leaving Home” one of the three great songs of the century (does anyone know the other two?). A personal favorite of mine is Paul’s construction project, “Fixing a Hole,” where he allowed his mind to wander, and it’s very reminiscent of Brian Wilson’s beautiful, self-analytical song from the Beach Boys’ PET SOUNDS, “I Just Wasn’t Made for These Times.”

Since it’s summer and I’m too lazy to do a “Rolling Stone”-styled pontification on the cultural and musical significance of this record (the best recent article I’ve read about SGT. PEPPER, minus an annoying plug for the obligatory anniversary re-release, is here, if you’re interested), I thought I’d have some fun and offer a trivia contest. Like Mr. Turley’s exams, it’s open book. But the true Beatles fan shouldn’t need a book. Be careful, though! I have at least one trick question in case of a tie.

Hopefully, I’ll get more response than I did with my Gettysburg sesquicentennial quiz.

OK… Mr. K will now challenge the world!

  1. Name two clues, in the music or sleeve art, that Paul is dead.
  2. Give the names of at least five members of the Lonely Hearts Club Band (not including the Beatles themselves).
  3. What are the names of the three children in the song “When I’m 64”?
  4. What was the inspiration for John’s song “Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite”?
  5. Name the band and album that Paul claims inspired him in the making of this album.
  6. Who sings “With a Little Help from My Friends”?
  7. What is the name of George’s token song, and what stringed instrument is prevalent on it?
  8. Which song was covered two years later at the “Woodstock” concert (and was one of the highlights of the subsequent movie)?
  9. Name the band and album that spoofed this album almost a year later.
  10. Why is this the greatest album ever made? If you don’t think it is the greatest, which album would you choose?

Thanks for participating! Just pop your answers into the longitudes comments section. I’ll list the answers and the winner(s) in a couple weeks. Till then, give this classic a spin, and I hope you all enjoyed this show!

P.S. Very belatedly: “Thank you, Mr. Turley.”

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Lighting Fires in 1967: The First Album by The Doors

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There are things known and there are things unknown, and in between are the doors of perception – Aldous Huxley

A year ago today I wrote about the year 1966 in popular music. 1966 was a watershed. Greying, traditional singers and song interpreters were being pushed down the record charts by young rebels sporting Beatle haircuts, paisley shirts, and leather boots, many of whom wrote their own songs. Blues, soul, surf, and folk music were colliding head-on with ringing guitars, creamy vocal harmonies, and an infectious rock backbeat. This musical amalgam was both fresh and exciting. But… just under the surface of this “jangle pop,” unknown forces were bubbling.

The leading lights in rock music – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and the Rolling Stones – had sampled hallucinogenic drugs by 1967. In addition to being curious about mind expansion via chemical transport, they also wanted to explore the architecture and limitless tapestry of sound, language, and ideas. Instead of merely an affirmative “Yeah, yeah, yeah,” a lot of probing questions were being raised. Minds were floating downstream, and mothers were now standing in the shadows.

1966 was also the year the Beatles stopped touring to concentrate on recording, and the year of John Lennon’s incendiary (at least, in America) comment “I don’t know which will go first, rock ‘n’ roll or Christianity.”

January 1967 was ripe for revolutionary music like that of the Doors.

I was 9 when I first heard the Doors’ single “Light My Fire” on AM radio. Although a truncated, radio-friendly version of the album cut, this song’s hypnotic rhythms, exotic instrumentation, and potent vocals temporarily pushed the Beatles and Monkees out of my head (and it’s still my favorite song). But not until college, when I scraped some dollars together for the first eponymous Doors album, was I really able to grasp this band’s awesome power.

The Doors were maybe the world’s first “existential” band. They somehow were able to marry rock and blues music with Nietzsche, Blake, Freud, and Eastern mysticism, yet still managed to have hits and make teenage girls swoon… as well as older women. My mother heard me playing that first album one day during summer break:

“Peter, who is that singer?” she yelled down to the basement.

“His name’s Jim Morrison.”

“I love his singing! I haven’t heard a voice like that since Frank Sinatra!”

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Engineer Bruce Botnick, producer Paul Rothchild, singer Jim Morrison.  Botnick and Rothchild had a large role in the making of the first Doors album.

Before long she was joining me in the basement to gaze at the rock god pictured on my album sleeve, as well as listen to the songs – which include the climactic finale “The End.” If you’re familiar with the lyrics to “The End,” you’ll understand how awkward an experience this was for me.

Anyway, I could rattle on and on about the Doors and that first explosive album, a true classic, unleashed to the world on January 4, 1967. But others have reviewed it much better, and I only have so much space here. So here’s merely a quick song-by-song summation:

Break on Through (To the Other Side): the first single, and maybe the definitive Doors song. Beastly, guttural, and relentless, I’ve always thought of it as an aural interpretation of sexual intercourse. But that’s just me.

Soul Kitchen: sneering and funky, and a perfect follow-up to the opener. Something strange is being cooked up in this kitchen. Not sure what it is, but it’s pulling me inside.

The Crystal Ship: a gorgeous song. Drummer John Densmore has said it’s about Morrison’s breakup with a girlfriend, but there are many other interpretations.

Twentieth Century Fox: this song ties in Morrison’s and organist Ray Manzarek’s film studies at UCLA. But I don’t think Morrison is singing about Shirley Temple.

Alabama Song (Whisky Bar): written by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, from their satirical opera “Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny,” it’s the song that convinced Elektra founder Jac Holzman to sign the Doors, after seeing them perform it at the Whisky a Go Go in L.A. One of the strangest covers ever chosen for a rock LP, it nonetheless shows how eclectic the band was.

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Elektra Records founder and CEO, Jac Holzman

Light My Fire: written by guitarist Robbie Krieger, the short version of the Doors’ second single climbed to No. 1 in July 1967, and the band never looked back. The album version, with both a keyboard and guitar solo, is far more riveting. José Feliciano later had a No. 3 hit with a Latin-tinged acoustic rendition.

Back Door Man: a lot of old blues songs were covered in the ‘60s, most not very well. One notable exception is Cream’s version of Robert Johnson‘s “Cross Road Blues.” Another is this Willie Dixon song, which the Doors made into their own. Morrison was still in the soul kitchen, only now he was sampling long-legged chicken.

I Looked at You/End of the Night/Take it As It Comes: I lumped these three songs together because they’re similar in tone and structure and seem to comprise three sections of one song, and they also provide a slow glide into the final song. Dark and sinister, the key song/line for me is “Some are born to sweet delight/Some are born to the endless night.” The universe can be a hostile and indifferent place.

Suddenly, we arrive at…

The End: I didn’t know what to make of this 12-minute epic when I first heard it. It’s less a song than a series of short poems set to psychedelic raga. Morrison sounds like he’s intoning a dark sermon, taking the voyeuristic listener on a weird journey into goldmines, riding on snakes and blue buses. The section about the killer walking down the hall is chilling (Truman Capote‘s seminal non-fiction novel “In Cold Blood” was published just before the song was recorded).

Unbelievably, “The End” was recorded in only two takes. According to Holzman, the second half of Take 2 was so intense that, as the closing notes faded, producer Paul Rothchild turned to him in the booth, and with a stunned look said “Jac, this is why we do what we do.”

(Thanks for letting me share one of my favorite albums… stay tuned, because in March I’ll be recognizing the 50-year anniversary of another classic debut: “The Velvet Underground and Nico”).

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1966: A Very Good Musical Year

50 years

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Listening to Spotify the other day, I landed on a band whose songs never fail to make me feel good: the Turtles. Remember them? Their No. 1 hit “Happy Together” is one of the most beloved anthems of the 1960s. Grade school lyrics, for sure, but absolutely luscious choral harmonies.

Years ago, when I began buying their records, I discovered the Turtles were not just a one-hit wonder. From 1965 to 1970 (in addition to their biggest song) they strung together a glittering necklace of golden tunes: “It Ain’t Me, Babe,” “Let Me Be,” “You Baby,” “She’d Rather Be With Me,” “She’s My Girl,” “Can I Get to Know You Better,” “Outside Chance,” “Is It Any Wonder,” “You Showed Me,” “Lady-O,” and many others.

The Turtles even recorded a version of the Kingston Trio’s “It Was a Very Good Year.”  Frank Sinatra heard it and loved it so much he did his own version… in inimitable Sinatra style, of course.

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The Turtles in 1966. L-R: Al Nichol, Chuck Portz, Howard Kaylan, Jim Tucker, Mark Volman, Don Murray.

The Turtles were one of the few groups able to combine the best genres of ‘60s pop music – British Invasion, folk-rock, baroque pop, and flower power – and they did it with a warm, southern California smile. They flirted with weighty themes during their five-year existence, but they never took themselves too seriously. For me, the Turtles typified the sunny side of the ‘60s. And the sun was never brighter than in the year 1966.

It was a very peculiar and particular time in American history, when the music was ruling the world.

– Howard Kaylan, lead singer of the Turtles

Fifty years ago was a transitional time in popular music. The rock songs of 1966 bridged the folk, garage, and surf rock of the early ‘60s with the hard rock that came later on. It was also still an innocent time. The pied piper of the era – the Beatles – were still writing love songs and had only recently started experimenting with more exotic arrangements, instruments, and lyrics, like in “Rain,” “Norwegian Wood” and “Eleanor Rigby.” They’d also taken the hallucinogen LSD (at least, John and George had). But they’d yet to alter minds with their psychedelic masterwork, the LP “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” (which arrived the following year).

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The Barbarians, with hook-handed drummer Moulty, had a minor hit with “Are You a Boy or Are You a Girl?” This was a crucial question in 1966.

On the radio, AM was still king in 1966. And AM radio played singles (45 rpm records), not album cuts. So the songs had to be brief but catchy. This format required artists to squeeze in their ideas in under three minutes. At minimum, you needed a verse, chorus, and bridge. Lyrics didn’t matter, but you had to have a catchy melody. Harmonica might provide a slight blues or folk feel, and guitars had to ring and chime. In 1966, most bands copped either the cheery, up-tempo Beatles or the bad-boy Rolling Stones. Some of the more adventurous tried covering Dylan (other than the Byrds, these attempts usually failed).

But the icing on the cake was multi-part vocal harmony. Great harmonies separated the men from the boys. They transformed modest two-and-a-half minute melodies into miniature symphonies. Not surprisingly, the best harmonizers had a big year in 1966: the Beatles, Mamas and Papas, Turtles, Beach Boys, Byrds, Hollies, Association, and anything Motown.

Also, in 1966 you didn’t have to be a virtuoso or author your own songs to ride the carousel of success. The Turtles used crack outside songwriters for most of their singles. Many of the biggest hits of ’66 were by teens who’d only recently purchased their first guitar. Tommy James was only 16 when he and the Shondells recorded the smash “Hanky Panky,” which went No. 1 in ’66. The members of the band Question Mark and the Mysterians, who had a No. 1 with the organ-driven “96 Tears,” had parents who were migrant farmers.

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The Leaves were the first of many groups to record the song “Hey Joe.” Leader Jim Pons is in the middle.

One of my favorite rock ’n’ roll rags-to-riches stories involves Jim Pons of the Leaves. Pons had never touched an instrument. But he formed a band to entertain his college fraternity brothers.

In ’66, the Leaves recorded the very first version of the four-chord song “Hey Joe.” It became a surprise hit in Los Angeles. Pons was then asked to join the Turtles on bass, right when “Happy Together” was riding the charts. When the Turtles disbanded, he joined Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, touring the world and appearing in Zappa’s film “200 Motels.” He parlayed his film experience into a job as video director for the New York Jets football team, which lasted till his retirement over 20 years later.

And it all started with an itch to play “Louie Louie” at frat parties!

Won’t you tell your dad get off my back / Tell him what we said ‘bout ‘Paint it Black.’

– from the song “Thirteen” by Big Star

Looking at the year-end Billboard chart reveals that rock artists weren’t the only players in 1966. Soul music (the Supremes, Miracles), crooners (Sinatra, Jack Jones), and even novelty songs (“Winchester Cathedral”) were also represented. This diversity of styles was good, since the local swimming club didn’t have to change the radio dial to appease both parents and kids. Chuck and Susie could dig the Kinks, Standells, or Monkees while slurping their ice cream, and Mom and Dad could sneak sips of gin while humming Sergio Mendes and the Brasil ’66.

But this heterogeneous programming could also be frustrating. Imagine hearing a Four Tops song one minute, then a few minutes later the year’s No. 1 hit, the jingoistic “The Ballad of the Green Berets,” sung by an army sergeant. No wonder people rioted in Detroit!

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The Hollies were from Manchester, England. They broke the U.S. Top 10 in ’66 with “Bus Stop.” Graham Nash, top right, later teamed with David Crosby and Stephen Stills.

Things changed in 1967, after another sergeant came along (Sgt. Pepper). Then came large, outdoor rock concerts, spearheaded by the Monterey Pop Festival. Albums replaced 45s as the medium of choice, rock lyrics became deeper and darker, the Vietnam War crept into songs, and free-form FM radio – pioneered by an underground rock DJ in San Francisco named Tom Donahue – began compartmentalizing musical genres. Rock was finally able to rid itself of the likes of Frank, Jack, Sergio, and Sgt. Sadler.

Also, hard drugs entered the picture, which had a profound effect on the musicians and their music. The chiming guitars were becoming distorted.

In 1966, though, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and Janis Joplin were little known outside L.A., London, and Haight-Ashbury. Drug use was generally limited to a little pot or “a couple ‘o quarts ‘o beer” in Joe’s garage. And kids were still learning the chords to “Louie Louie.”

We were happy together, and it was a very good year.

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To Sir with Love: Knights and Dames in Merrie Olde England

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Recently, famed singer-songwriter Van Morrison was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II. The pudgy, red-headed imp with the soulful voice, who wrote “Gloria,” “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Tupelo Honey,” and the evocative albums ASTRAL WEEKS and MOONDANCE, is now “Sir George Ivan Morrison.”

I tried to find a quote from the queen as to exactly why she chose Morrison, as opposed to, say, Steve Winwood, or Richard Thompson. But she’s pretty low-key, and I couldn’t dig up a quote. Media outlets (many of whom just copy each other’s stories) say it’s because of Morrison’s contributions to music. Also, his promotion of tourism in Northern Ireland… (huh?).morrison

Morrison joins other high-profile rockers Paul McCartney, Mick Jagger, and Elton John as knights on the British chessboard.

Being a parochial American, I’ve always cast a dubious eye at this British honors business (actually, I should spell it “honours” out of respect for my distant cousins across the pond).   Why do some men get Sir’ed, and others do not? Why are some women Dame’ed, and others ignored? Why is this title-before-the-name stuff so significant?

I remember when Mick Jagger was knighted. I thought it insulting that Keith Richards wasn’t similarly honoured.  I asked my brother, “If Mick can get Sir’ed, why not Keith, too?”

“I think we both know why Keith wasn’t Sir’ed,” he deadpanned.

The British honours system is very complicated, comprising all sorts of orders and classes, both civil and military, and depending on the class, you don’t always get to be a Sir or a Dame. Queen_Elizabeth_IIblack garterThe tradition dates to 1348, when King Edward III of England established the Most Noble Order of the Garter to recognize men who displayed acts of chivalry. The order’s emblem is, of course, a garter, accompanied by the motto “Shame on him who thinks evil of it.”

I don’t know why anyone would think evil of an article of feminine underwear. Then again, I’m a 21st-century bullet-headed Yank, so what do I know?

This original order eventually expanded to other orders based on degrees of service or professional achievement. Some include The Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle (but isn’t the Garter the “most ancient”?); The Most Honourable Order of the Bath (which I assume recognizes cleanliness and hygiene); and The Most Illustrious Order of Saint Patrick (which recognized Irish peers in the UK, until 1922, when The Irish Free State seceded. Van the Man, however, is from Belfast, Northern Ireland, where he evidently works at a tourist agency).knights

In addition to orders, there are medals, which recognize bravery or good conduct, and decorations, which recognize specific deeds. There were three decorations related to India. But when India gained independence in 1947, these were somehow put on the back burner.

There have been a number of individuals who have either turned down their awards, or had them revoked. Believe it or not, Emperor Hirohito of Japan was a Knight of the Garter… until December 7, 1941.

My favorite rejection of one of these honours was John Lennon‘s. He and the three other Beatles were recognized as Members of the British Empire (MBE) in 1966. But three years later, Lennon returned his award insignia (against his Aunt Mimi’s wishes) to Buckingham Palace, with a note to the queen saying he was protesting Britain’s “support of America in Vietnam,” and for “’Cold Turkey’ slipping down the charts.”beatles

All joking aside, there are numerous individuals, most outside the entertainment sphere, who have done amazing things, and being honoured as a Sir or Dame brings their achievements to public light. For example, English journalist Esther Louise Rantzen is now a Dame due to setting up a charity for child protection, and another charity to assist people struggling with loneliness. Ebola virus survivor Will Pooley is now a Sir, honoured for his energetic efforts to prevent the disease’s spread.

And if you’re from outside the British Isles, you can be an honorary knight or dame.  Like Rudolph Giuliani or Edward Kennedy.  Or Hirohito.

The Sir and Dame stuff is also good fodder for late-night comedians, and for dumb Yanks like me who have nothing better to write about.

As I’ve always said: it’s better to be Sir’ed than slurred, and better to be Dame’ed than damned.

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Ladies and Gentlemen, THE BEATLES! Let’s Bring ‘em Out!

50 years

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U.S. Press: Are you embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?

John: No, it’s great.

Paul: No.

Ringo: Marvelous.

George: (giggling) We love it.

John: We like lunatics.

Thus started the first of many U.S. press conferences for the Beatles.  John’s witty remark “We like lunatics” was typical of the cheeky humor the band used to win over so many Americans, both young and old.  But the humor wasn’t necessarily strategic.  Although different personalities, all four really were fun-loving and outgoing, and excited as can be to be in the home country of their rock ‘n’ roll idols.  And throughout their career, they never let success get to their heads (just a few illicit drugs, that’s all).

The stamp of approval in middle America came when Ed Sullivan introduced them on Sunday night to a then-record setting 73 million television viewers.  Sullivan was respected and admired around the country.  If someone of his age and stature could showcase four long-haired English musicians with their amps cranked… well, they must be alright!beatles6

Before Sullivan could even finish his introduction, he was drowned out by the screams of the New York studio audience (their biggest fans, at least in the beginning, were 94.3 percent young and female).  Those of us watching on TV at home were transfixed.  Finally, we get to see them.  And they’re more exciting than we’d anticipated.  Dressed in tight-fitting, matching suits.  Paul beaming and bobbing.  George a little nervous, but harmonizing with Paul (he was actually recovering from the flu).  John stoic and in command.  And Ringo sitting high in the back, tossing his mop of hair to the beat.

The first song was “All My Loving.”  Next came “Till There Was You,” a tune from “The Music Man,” and which further endeared them to parents.  Then “She Loves You.”  Later in the show they did “I Saw Her Standing There,” and closed with their No. 1 hit, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

The Beatles’ first live appearance in America was an unequivocal smash.  A week later they did a second show in Miami Beach, where they posed with another cultural icon,  Cassius Clay (Muhammed Ali), who was training for a fight with heavyweight champion Sonny Liston.  A third show was aired on February 23 (though it was actually taped early in the day of their February 9 show).

***

A lot of people, primarily of the World War II generation, considered the Beatles a fad.  How could four kids from Liverpool with a fan base of fainting girls sustain any kind of artistic credibility?  The naysayers can’t be faulted too much, though.  Musical fads were around going back to the 1920’s and the Charlston, and they happen today every few years.

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But the Beatles had sustainability because they wrote their own music, it was pioneering, ever-changing and had popular appeal, and they wrote a lot of it.  And, they had a visionary leader in John Lennon (and producer in George Martin).  Their appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” sent a shock wave throughout music and popular culture that continues to this day.  Folkies like Bob Dylan and the Byrds suddenly bought electric guitars.  Leonard Bernstein started dissecting their musical structures.  And thousands of kids across America started garage bands to emulate the British musicians that, after February 9, 1963, U.S. record companies were signing to contracts right and left.  Here are just a few of the musicians who followed the Beatles to American shores in the “First British Invasion”:

  • The Rolling Stones
  • The Kinks
  • The Who
  • Petula Clark
  • Gerry and the Pacemakers
  • Herman’s Hermits
  • The Yardbirds
  • Dusty Springfield
  • Peter and Gordon
  • The Small Faces
  • The Troggs
  • The Zombies
  • Tom Jones
  • Chad and Jeremy
  • The Moody Blues
  • The Spencer Davis Group
  • Van Morrison and Them
  • The Animals
  • Lulu
  • Dave Clark Five
  • Donovan
  • Georgie Fame
  • The Hollies

***

I hope you’ve enjoyed this three-part 50th anniversary tribute to the Beatles as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it (and reliving my childhood).  If you don’t have any Beatles records (hard to believe, but I guess it’s  possible), I urge you to treat yourself to some great music.  The Beatles are one of only a few artists whose music can be said to be “timeless.”  They appeal to all genders, ages, cultures, socio-economic classes.  The one message they stressed over and over was Love.  That’s really what it’s all about.

And in the end

The love you take

Is equal to the love you make.

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How a Teenage Girl from Maryland Helped Launch the Beatles in America

50 years

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The term “Beatlemania” was being tossed around in the United Kingdom several months before February 9, 1964. The Liverpool lads already had hits in their homeland, starting with “Please Please Me” from a year earlier (see Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released).  They’d released two albums, the first named after their debut single, the second titled “With the Beatles” (“Meet the Beatles” in the U.S.).  They’d performed tirelessly in Hamburg, Paris, Sweden, Scotland, Wales, and all over England (two of their tours included American singers Roy Orbison and Tommy Roe).  They’d appeared on English regional television and the BBC.

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Brian Epstein, manager of the Beatles

On October 31, 1963, Ed Sullivan was at London’s Heathrow Airport when the Beatles returned from their Swedish tour.  He witnessed firsthand the swirling circus – earnest journalists with their stencil pads, dozens of flashbulbs popping, hundreds of shrieking, prepubescent girls.  Sullivan later claimed he hadn’t seen such hysteria since Elvis.  He contacted Beatles manager Brian Epstein, and the two worked out a deal for three headline appearances on Sullivan’s show.

The U.S. frenzy over the Beatles started like a slow-moving freight train in December 1963.  First, the “New York Times” printed a Sunday feature article on the band.  Next, a London news bureau offered a piece on the Beatles to Walter Cronkite, who aired an in-depth profile on the “CBS Evening News” on December 10 (and received an immediate phone call from his buddy, Sullivan).  Most importantly, genius manager Brian Epstein launched a $40,000 media campaign in the U.S.  It included heavy radio rotation for the recent English hits “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then a U.S. re-release of “Please Please Me.”

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WWDC-AM disc jockey Carroll James, with fan Marsha Albert (later photo)

But here’s an interesting footnote: a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert, from Silver Spring, Maryland, helped kick-start the radio blitz.  She’d seen the Cronkite broadcast, and wrote Washington D.C. disc jockey Carroll James with words to the effect “Why can’t we have music like that in America?”  James was impressed by the letter.  He secured an import copy of “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” then let Albert herself introduce the record.

Ten years before, Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips played a record, “That’s All Right (Mama),” by an unknown truck driver named Elvis Presley.  It ignited the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll.  Well, the same thing happened now.  Before long, WWDC phone lines were lighting up.  “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was soon a hit in greater Washington D.C.  Then other U.S. stations took the cue.  Then Capitol Records lifted an eyebrow.  They rush-released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 26, three weeks ahead of schedule.  The song was all over the radio throughout January ‘64, and on February 1 it was the No. 1 single in the country.  The freight train was now out of control.

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Paul McCartney and John Lennon

(Personal note: a very hip girl in my kindergarten class named Dana Moriarty brought the record in for Show-and-Tell.  After so many sing-alongs of “My Country Tis of Thee” and “This Land is Your Land,” this amazing new Beatles sound was revolutionary to our 5-year-old ears.  Wherever you are, Dana… I am forever in your debt)

And that’s why 5,000 fans invaded JFK airport on February 7 to greet four “mop-topped” boys from merry olde England, who looked like cheerful aliens, but blended melody, harmony, rhythm and electricity like nobody before.  After the JFK assassination, a dreary nuclear Cold War… and Pat Boone… Americans wanted an upbeat, refreshing diversion.  The Beatles provided it.  All the band needed now was the proper venue to push them over the top.  And “The Ed Sullivan Show” provided that.

Ladies and gentlemen, stay tuned for a “Really Big Shoooo!”

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The Origins of BEATLEMANIA

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John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr… collectively, The Beatles.

I wasn’t sure how to begin this essay about the Beatles’ debut appearance in America, on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964.  There are so many clichés.  The two biggest are probably “You just had to be there,” and “A watershed moment.”  Both are true, of course.  Even the children and grandchildren of Baby Boomers can agree with the latter statement.  I know I’ve said it before, but I can’t think of another artist more important to 20th century music.  That includes Louis Armstrong, Robert Johnson, George Gershwin, Elvis Presley, and Haircut One Hundred.

But I don’t think today’s youth can begin to understand the “You just had to be there” sentiment.  In 1964 there were no i-Tunes, MP3s, or YouTube.  No PCs with internet.  No texting or tweeting.  No cable television flashing repetitive images of the latest industry-groomed pop sensation.

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Elvis, during rehearsal with Steve Allen in 1956

Instant global communication was decades away.  All we had were some still images, a couple pinup-style fan publications like “16 Magazine,” AM radio, and word of mouth.  If you were lucky, you’d catch a glimpse of a musical act on variety television, like the shows hosted by early TV legends such as Sullivan, Steve Allen and Milton Berle.

***

When rock & roll took off in the mid-50s, Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, Bo Diddley and others made limited TV appearances.  But these earliest rock performers were typically treated like baubles whose popularity would soon fade.  And there was often friction between the hosts and performers.  For example, Steve Allen was a jazz snob who took a dim view of rock music.  So when Presley performed “Hound Dog,” Allen poked fun at the song by dressing The King in a tuxedo and having him serenade a basset hound.

Sullivan, famously, had issues with Diddley and Buddy Holly.  He confronted Holly backstage over the choice of his performing “Oh Boy!,” which he thought was too wild.  Holly stood his ground and insisted on performing it, however.  Sullivan’s response – believe it or not – was to mispronounce Holly’s name as “Hollered,” and to deliberately turn off the mike to his electric guitar.

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Buddy Holly, looking away from Ed Sullivan in 1958

Sullivan’s confrontation with Bo Diddley was even worse.  He wanted Diddley to perform Tennessee Ernie Ford‘s “Sixteen Tons,” but Diddley instead did his own R&B hit, “Bo Diddley.”  According to Diddley, Sullivan afterwards told him “You are the first black boy that ever double-crossed me.”  Diddley came close to physically attacking Sullivan, but his manager held him back.  Diddley never again appeared on Sullivan’s show.

After the first wave of ‘50s rock & rollers, there was a lull in rock music.  Elvis had joined the army, Holly had died in a plane crash, and the hits were drying up for Lewis,  Chuck Berry, Little Richard and others.  So for a few years, the charts were dominated by crooners and girl groups like the Shangri-Las, Shirelles, Ronettes, and Crystals, who didn’t play instruments nor write their own material.  Many of the singles were written by “Brill Building” partnerships like Goffin-King, Lieber-Stoller, Mann-Weil, Barry-Greenwich – and the greatest of all, Bacharach-David. (and, weirdest of all, infamous “Wall of Sound” producer Phil Spector).

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Brill Building songwriters Carole King and Gerry Goffin

The male singers were mainly vanilla pretty boys like Fabian, Frankie Avalon, and Bobby Vinton.

Folk music was bubbling out of Greenwich Village, but it had yet to shed its collegiate, coffeehouse veneer and hybridize with rock.

Surf music had a little excitement, but other than the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean and a few others, it was primarily instrumental and had difficulty catching fire nationally.

So the stage was set for something new.  A band that looked and sounded different.  Whose members played their own instruments, wrote their own songs, who were also physically attractive and had personality.  Who combined the vigor and danger of early, electric rock & roll with catchy melody and clever harmony.

But absolutely nobody could’ve predicted the cultural explosion that occurred soon after Pan Am Yankee Clipper Flight 101 landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964.  Two days later, on Sunday evening, 73 million Americans tuned in to The Ed Sullivan Show to hear these words:

Now, yesterday and today our theater’s been jammed with newspapermen and hundreds of photographers from all over the nation, and these veterans agreed with me that this city never has witnessed the excitement stirred by these youngsters from Liverpool who call themselves The Beatles.

Don’t touch that dial!

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