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.

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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

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[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.

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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.

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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

 

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

50 years

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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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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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“Puff, the Magic Dragon”

50 years

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Next month will be 50 years since the Peter, Paul and Mary song “Puff, the Magic Dragon” reached number two on the Billboard Hot 100 charts.  What a  neat little song!  It was maybe the first “pop” record I ever owned.  I have a fuzzy memory of it being a 45 rpm yellow vinyl copy.  It wouldn’t be long before music would be all-things Beatles.  But in the spring of 1963, folk music was still very popular, and along with the Kingston Trio, New Christy Minstrels and others, PPM was one of the most popular folk acts.

The song has an interesting history.  According to Wikipedia, it had its start with an Ogden Nash poem, “Custard the Dragon,” about a “realio, trulio little pet dragon.”  A Cornell University student named Leonard Lipton borrowed Nash’s idea.  He penned his own poem in 1959 about a boy named Jackie Paper and his dragon friend Puff, who lived by the sea near a land called Honalee.  Jackie grows up and leaves behind the phantasmagoric world of childhood, leaving Puff alone and sad.

Lipton had a friend who happened to be Peter Yarrow’s housemate at Cornell.  He supposedly used Yarrow’s typewriter to write the poem, then forgot about retrieving the paper when he left the room!  Yarrow found the paper, provided music for the poem, recorded it with Paul and Mary in 1962, and a year later the song became a hit.  It’s just a simple homage to childhood, but it struck a chord in a lot of people (including yours truly, who hadn’t yet left Honalee!).  In a gesture you don’t often see anymore, Yarrow gave Lipton half the songwriting credit, and Lipton gets royalty payments even today.

Discussion of “Puff the Magic Dragon” isn’t complete without bringing the infamous marijuana controversy into the mix, however.  Marijuana??  Talk about leaving the land of Honalee!  Yes, even as early as a 1964 Newsweek article, this simple, uplifting tune was accused of having veiled drug references.  The name “Puff” was said to imply a puff on a marijuana cigarette.  “Dragon” was a reference to taking a “drag” on a joint.  Jackie Paper’s surname was supposed to imply rolling papers.  And so on.  I’m not sure if anyone ever suggested playing the song backwards.  Maybe that came later with the “Paul is dead” rumor.

Yarrow, Paul Stookey, and the late Mary Travers strongly denied the allegations.  And I believe them.  (Not sure I believe John Lennon’s defense of his “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”  If that song isn’t about dropping LSD, then I need to catch a slow boat to Honalee).  As PPM’s concert audience got older, the threesome made sure to do “Puff” at the beginning of their shows.  This way, the kids and grandkids could hear it before falling asleep!

Only a few months after “Puff,” Peter, Paul and Mary scored a number two hit with Bob Dylan’s protest anthem “Blowin’ in the Wind.”   They also performed the Pete Seeger-Lee Hays song “If I Had a Hammer” alongside Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. at the March on Washington for civil rights.  So 1963 was a very significant year for the group.

I’d love to verify if that little piece of vinyl I once owned was actually yellow.  My mom saved a lot of things, but unfortunately she didn’t hang on to“Puff.”  Maybe she threw him out when she got rid of my Beatles lunchbox.

Beatles’ “Please Please Me” Single Released

50 years

beatles

January 11, 2013 will be the 50th year anniversary of the UK release of the Beatles’ second single, the John Lennon composition “Please Please Me.”

In early January 1963 the Beatles were still relatively unknown outside Liverpool, England and Hamburg, Germany.  They’d signed to EMI Records in England in 1962 and were being produced by George Martin and groomed by Brian Epstein.  Their first single was Paul McCartney’s “Love Me Do,” released on October 17, 1962.  But the song only hit number 17 in the UK.  “Please Please Me,” however, was important for several reasons.  Here are a few “firsts” about that song:

  • 1st Beatles song to reach number one on the British charts, hitting that position on February 22, 1963
  • 1st Beatles single to be released in the United States
  • 1st Beatles song to be broadcast in the U.S. (by a Chicago DJ named Dick Biondi in February 1963)
  • Broadcast during the Beatles’ first national television appearance on “Thank Your Lucky Stars,” January 19, 1963
  • 1st and title song on the Beatles’ first album

Musically, “Please Please Me” was a big step from “Love Me Do.”  It had a faster, more upbeat tempo.  It also featured harmony that would typify many of the Beatles’ early and mid-period songs.  Paul sang the same high note for the verse, with John dropping his voice through the scale.

It was a technique “the boys” had learned from the Everly Brothers song “Cathy’s Clown.”   “Last-night-I-said-these-words-to-myyyy-girl.”  By itself, Paul’s single-note vocal sounds odd.  But combined with John’s descending melody, it created an exquisite harmony.  Then John and George’s guitars pumped the song back up to the second verse.  The chorus “Please pleeease me, WHOA YEAH, like I please you” drives the song home!

The combination of melodic, upbeat vocal harmony and forceful electric guitar was fairly new – it’s been referred to over the years as Merseybeat, the Liverpool Sound, British pop, “ear candy” – but it helped change rock ‘n’ roll as we know it!  please please me

The Beatles didn’t take off in America until a year later with their release of the U.S. number one “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” followed by their historic appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”  This would officially kick off the British Invasion of rock musicians with long hair, matching suits, and cool accents (think Herman’s Hermits, Dave Clark Five, the Stones, Animals, Kinks, Hollies, etc.).  But “Please Please Me” was where the ball started to roll, musically.

(Note: if you’re interested in the roaring 1960s, I hope to be doing more of these 50th anniversary posts.  While the first couple years of the ‘60s were an extension of the ‘50s, things started to kick into a higher gear, at least culturally, with the year 1963.  So… Happy New Year, and Happy 5oth Anniversary of the ‘60s!)