Part generational memoir and part cultural history of the sixties, Beatleness is the first book to tell the story of the Beatles and their impact on America from the fans’ perspective. When the Beatles arrived in the United States on February 7, 1964, they immediately became a constant, compelling presence in fans’ lives. For the next six years, the band presented a nonstop deluge of steadily evolving sounds, ideas, and images that transformed the childhood and adolescence of millions of baby boomers and nurtured a relationship unique in history. Exploring that relationship against the backdrop of the sexual revolution, political assassinations, the Vietnam War, and other events, Beatleness examines critically the often-heard assertion that the Beatles “changed everything” and shows howthrough the interplay between the group, the fans, and the culturethat change came about.
Beatleness incorporates hundreds of hours of in-depth fan interviews and includes many fan vignettes. Offering a fresh perspective and new insights on the Beatles phenomenon, it allows readers to experienceor re-experiencewhat it was like to be a young person during those transformative years.
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Setting the Stage
A UNIQUE CONFLUENCE OF FORCES was in play at the end of the Kennedy era that maximized the impact the Beatles would have on the United States, making it possible for them to become the unique phenomenon they were. This is not to say it was all luck or timing, but our immediate response to the Beatles and their overall impact, up through today, was enhanced by events and circumstances at the moment of their arrival.
There were about fifty million young people in the Beatles' potential core fan base when they came to America — more potential fans than any previous performers could possibly have had in their lifetimes. And the Beatles were able to reach this biggest-ever audience on a scale no previous performer enjoyed. When Elvis appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1956, 65 percent of American households had television; seven years later, when the Beatles appeared in that same time slot, they could be seen in 90 percent of American households.
During that same seven-year time span, the transistor radio had become cheap, ubiquitous, and essential to even the youngest music fans. With the little white earplug, for one ear only, it was the first in a long line of personal music devices that have been necessities for every generation since. Future Beatle fans were the first young people who could go into a drugstore or appliance shop, spend a few judiciously saved allowance dollars, and transform their music into an on-the-go companion.
Not only did the Beatles have more powerful and effective channels to reach their huge audience but the particular consciousness of this audience made them especially receptive to the band and what they seemed to represent.
Throughout the brief Kennedy era, American sensibilities were continually challenged and disrupted by innovation of all kinds. The pace of technological and cultural change had been increasing since the Industrial Revolution, but by the mid-twentieth century, wartime R&D and postwar prosperity led to a quantum leap in the pace of change. Events demanding that we rethink old assumptions, recalibrate the realm of possibility, and consider new ideas were commonplace. Emerging social trends were reflected back to us through popular culture, hastening the pace of change.
In order to understand how the Beatles were both a disruption and a continuation of Kennedy-era trends, we need to take a brief, Beatlecentric and youthcentric look at the cultural landscape on which they landed. How did this dazzling array of newness — and the cultural cognitive dissonance it caused — set the stage for the Beatles arrival?
The New Frontier and the Power of Youth
The election of 1960 gave America its youngest President, a man who embraced change and asked his country to do the same. He took time during his numerous press conferences to explain how this or that policy or scientific achievement would enrich American lives. He was competent, forward-looking, and made us believe everything would be okay.
With Hollywood looks and charm, Kennedy was a sharp contrast to Eisenhower, the bald old man who had occupied the White House for the previous eight years. The twenty-seven-year age gap between them — the largest ever between an incoming and outgoing president — created a new national vibe of youthful optimism and possibility. Though Kennedy, like his predecessor, was a war hero, he was a new kind of hero for a new decade — inviting us to value the arts, reach for the moon, and embrace the moral imperatives of freedom and justice. The young husband and father, frolicking with his beautiful family, seemed to have a stake in the future that transcended politics.
Kennedy's vision was of a New Frontier, a concept that especially resonated with young people. Foreshadowing the sentiment Bob Dylan would express three years later in "The Times They Are A-Changin'," Kennedy said "our concern must be with the future" because "the world is changing" and "the old ways will not do."
Understanding the broad implications of unprecedented change, Kennedy asked all Americans to be pioneers on this New Frontier, with a special call to the "young in heart, regardless of age." Kennedy talked about the need for courage and strength, especially with regard to the USSR, and reminded us that mankind has "the power to exterminate his species seven times over." First-generation Beatle fans were the first generation to grow up in a world where this was possible, when reality had become this absurd.
In office less than two months, Kennedy went on television to introduce the Peace Corps, a new initiative that would send young Americans abroad not as warriors with guns and bombs but as ambassadors with slide rules and books. This idealistic effort, seeking peace instead of war, recognized and sought to harness the power of youth to promote positive social change on a global scale — the same youth power the Beatles would tap into in a few short years. The ascendancy and energy of youth, embodied in Kennedy himself, was a strong cultural current in the early sixties and would only intensify throughout the decade.
Young people were becoming aware of their growing power, but were not always in perfect sync with their youthful president. In June 1962, Students for a Democratic Society adopted the Port Huron Statement, a manifesto offering a vision of a new, participatory democracy and a thoughtful, scathing critique of the military-industrial complex. The youth movement, both on and off campus, embraced many of that document's themes, such as racial equality, reduced militarism, and humanity's "unfulfilled capacities for reason, freedom, and love." These youth movement concerns would soon be reflected in the lyrics of Lennon-McCartney, whose band, that very same month, had their first recording session in the London studio they would in time make legendary.
Good Rockets, Bad Rockets
On April 12, 1961, Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin became the first human launched into outer space, rekindling America's fear of losing the space race. In response, Kennedy asked Congress for nine billion dollars to fund the Apollo program, saying, "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the Moon and returning him safely to the Earth." Nine months later, John Glenn became the first American to orbit the earth and a hero to many young Americans. The mission was hailed as a great achievement despite the fact that two Soviets had already done this.
Americans of all ages were completely sold on the space program's wow factor; we were proud of it and paid attention to each televised launch. Toys such as Mr. Mercury and Saturn Rocket appeared. The space race seemed to suggest that science would solve all our problems.
But not all rockets were friendly. We were asked to envision a future of peace and prosperity, with technological wonders for all, while living with the real possibility of annihilation at the hands of the Soviet Union. And while the Soviet Union was far away, Cuba was a lot closer to home.
In April 1961, a US paramilitary brigade invaded Cuba's Bay of Pigs, only to be defeated three days later. This misadventure in Cuba was one of many US attempts to overthrow the Castro regime, which, as Americans were constantly reminded, was a Soviet proxy and Communist presence a mere ninety miles from Florida.
Four months later, East Germany began constructing the Berlin Wall with the stated purpose of keeping out Western "fascists," but the real goal was ending defections to the West. This powerful symbol of East-West tensions heightened the public's anxiety about an eventual confrontation with the Soviets. Americans who were nine or ten at the time still remember hearing news reports of people killed attempting to escape East Germany.
These were the days of "duck and cover"— a ritual performed by schoolchildren all over America. There was something vaguely scary about the drill, but it was also fun in that it broke up the routine of the school day, much like the more mundane fire drills. But fire drills were practice for an emergency kids could understand; lining up in the hallway and crouching under desks were preparation for something much more amorphous and scary. Yellow and black fallout shelter signs suddenly appeared on buildings across America, making that amorphous threat a real part of daily life.
Just as duck and cover was being phased in, an older, more familiar ritual was eliminated when the Supreme Court declared officially sanctioned prayer unconstitutional. The 1962 ruling was widely — and correctly — seen as a step toward a more secularized society, and led some to see greater urgency in a Cold War against "godless communists."
Though children across America would no longer begin their school day by engaging with an invisible authority figure, they would, beginning in February 1964, begin their day huddled in joyful conversation about the Beatles.
October 1962 brought a significant Cold War update: Soviet missiles capable of hitting the US were discovered in Cuba. Normalizing Cold War anxiety, Kennedy said, "American citizens have become adjusted to living daily in the bull's eye of Soviet missiles located inside the USSR," but missiles ninety miles from the US were an "unjustified change in the status quo to which we had to respond."
Along with some saber rattling, Kennedy called upon Khrushchev to "move the world back from the abyss of destruction" and to search for permanent solutions. The situation was soon defused, but the sense of impending annihilation was driven deeper into the American psyche.
American children who would become Beatle fans sixteen months later didn't fully understand the Cold War but lived with a vague sense of potential, ultimate danger. A woman who was ten at the time recalls, "Any time an airplane flew by we thought it might be the Russians or Cubans coming to bomb us. My friends and I played out our fears by joking about airplanes being missiles, but we were scared." Another woman who was nine at the time said, "I remember seeing Khrushchev and Kennedy on TV. I thought they were saying 'the key to Khrushchev' instead of 'Nikita Khrushchev'; I always wanted to know what the key was but never asked."
Origins of a Quagmire
While Cold War anxieties over nuclear annihilation were periodically triggered by dramatic, singular events, an ongoing war of the more conventional kind, but generating far fewer headlines, was steadily escalating below the radar of America's increasingly fragmented attention. Following through on commitments made by his predecessors, Kennedy continued sending advisors to help the South Vietnamese fight the communists to the north. By the summer of 1963, the US had sent fifteen thousand "advisors" in the form of US servicemen, and one hundred had been killed.
American boys suddenly faced the frightening prospect of actually fighting the evil communists they'd been hearing about for years, and were increasingly aware that they had no say at the ballot box. Two years later, that awareness would reach the Billboard charts via Barry McGuire's "Eve of Destruction." For the time being, the previous year's chart-topping "Soldier Boy" by the Shirelles continued to provide a romantic and timely cultural script.
The Cold War and the Vietnam "conflict" made the world look chaotic and uncertain, but Kennedy seemed to have it all under control. Children too young to understand but old enough to sense tension could put world affairs out of their minds, with Guerrilla Poncho Gun Sets and Easy Bake Ovens. Grown-ups could keep their anxiety at bay with Valium, "a little yellow pill" two and a half times more potent than the suddenly old-fashioned Librium, introduced only three years earlier. Hooray for science, always offering something new to improve our quality of life.
Freedom and Liberation
Four months into the Kennedy administration, young Freedom Riders went south to challenge segregated travel facilities and met with so much resistance that Attorney General Robert Kennedy had to send four hundred federal marshals to protect them. After much violence and many arrests, travel facilities were desegregated. And while this was more evidence of the arc of the moral universe bending toward justice, it was a new and disorienting change from "the way things had always been," especially in the South.
Protests erupted again in the fall when the University of Mississippi violated a federal court order by refusing to allow James Meredith, a black student, to register for classes. After two people died and dozens were injured, Meredith registered for classes and segregation came to an end at Ole Miss. Another victory in the struggle for civil rights, but more change to absorb. That same week, Bob Dylan appeared at Carnegie Hall, performing "A Hard Rain's A-Gonna Fall" and other songs of "protest" and social justice, in evidence of a new social consciousness bubbling up within popular youth culture.
Emboldened by victories and undeterred by violence, bigotry, or defeat, Martin Luther King Jr. launched a series of protests in Birmingham, Alabama, in the spring of 1963. He was arrested, not for the first time, and spent a week behind bars, writing the now famous "Letter from Birmingham Jail." The protests of Birmingham's black youth were met with police dogs and high-pressure water hoses.
Americans of all ages, the vast majority of them white, watched this violence on television from the comfort of their living rooms, dens, and rumpus rooms. These televised riots were stunning and suggested a tipping point had been reached. President Kennedy was deeply disturbed by what he saw and sped up the drafting of a comprehensive civil rights bill.
Young America was watching the civil rights movement gain momentum and become increasingly violent, trying to make sense of it while listening to The Crystals' "He's a Rebel" and doing "The Loco-motion," many of them unaware that these were black artists they were enjoying. These were Nat King Cole's "Lazy Hazy Crazy Days of Summer." Daily exposure to black artists and the activism of widely popular celebrities such as Harry Belafonte, Sidney Poitier, and Louis Armstrong helped raise the consciousness of white audiences. Enjoying the Marvelettes, Mary Wells, Sam Cooke, and Sammy Davis Jr. in prime time after watching black students get attacked by dogs and water hoses on the evening news only added to young people's uneasiness about the world they were living in.
The civil rights movement gained enormous momentum throughout the spring and summer of 1963. In April, Kennedy again addressed the nation, reaffirming his commitment to civil rights on both moral and legal grounds. He announced that major civil rights legislation would be submitted to Congress that summer. The morning after outlining his plans, Medgar Evers, a US veteran and civil rights activist, was assassinated by a white supremacist.
Things like this aren't supposed to happen in America, and the murder brought new urgency and outrage to the civil rights struggle. In late August, more than two hundred thousand Americans of all races participated in the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. The three television networks sent more than five hundred cameramen and correspondents to cover the march — more crew than covered the Kennedy inaugural.
The struggle for black civil rights was unrelenting — and nationally televised. Those old enough to understand the chaos saw daily reminders of the cruel contradiction between America's enshrined belief in freedom and equality and how those beliefs were put into practice. People of all ages, but especially the young, were becoming increasingly uncomfortable with the hypocrisy they saw around them.
Gender and the Status of Women
The first oral contraceptive was marketed to physicians in 1961; the IUD soon followed. These advances are often cited as kick-starting the "sexual revolution"— something of an overstatement considering that married couples didn't have direct legal access to contraception until 1965. That said, women, married or single, with sympathetic doctors, had access to birth control throughout the Kennedy era.
With motherhood now a conscious choice, women had more control over all aspects of their lives, including the freedom to explore their sexuality and professional aspirations. Women's ability to consider new possibilities for their futures, and the empowerment that went with it, was a genuine threat to the status quo.
A new sexual morality was starting to emerge among young people. According to a Harvard University dean, "the pleasant privilege of allowing girls to visit boys' rooms" has now become "a license to use the college rooms for wild parties or sexual intercourse." The dean went on to say that 90 percent of the students have high moral standards, to which one student responded: "Morality is a relative concept projecting certain mythologies associated with magico-religious beliefs." The times they were a-changin'.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beatleness"
Copyright © 2016 Candy Leonard.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Preface to the Paperback Edition xi
Preface to the Original Edition xv
1 Setting the Stage 1
2 Something New: Ed Sullivan Show to A Hard Day's Night February 9, 1964-July 1964 22
3 British Boys: A Hard Days Night to Help! August 1964-November 1965 58
4 The Embodiment of Cool: Rubber Soul to Revolver December 1965-January 1967 95
5 I'd Love to Turn You On: "Penny Lane"/"Strawberry Fields Forever" to Magical Mystery Tour February 1967-December 1967 131
6 We All Want to Change the World: "Hey Jude"/"Revolution" to Abbey Road January 1968-December 1968 168
7 The Last Leg: Abbey Road to Let It Be January 1969-May 1970 211
8 Beatleness Abounds 254
Discussion Questions 311