30 Jan How I Remember the Beatles and the British Invasion
I was 10 when I saw the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. Music wasn’t a part of my life yet. I was aware of it and, in fact, had enjoyed a few of the summer hits, like the Tornadoes’ Telstar (1962) and Beach Boys’ “I Get Around” (1964). But I wasn’t following any bands. That was for kids much older — the twelve-year-olds, say. I didn’t know who the Beatles were until a friend told me. Afterwards, when I heard “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” on the radio, I wondered what the fuss was about. Their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show changed my mind.
It was a media event. Even my parents were talking about it before the show came on. Virtually everybody in America watched Ed Sullivan on Sunday nights. So, really, it was impossible to miss the Beatles. My mother said all the talk show hosts had fought over who was going to get the Beatles first. Ed Sullivan’s variety show — airing at a family-friendly 8:00 PM and offering an act for every taste — made the most sense. And Sullivan pretty much owned TV at the time.
What amazed me about the Beatles wasn’t the music at first, it was the spectacle. Keep in mind that the only heroes for boys at that time were soldiers and sports stars. The aura of our fathers’ triumph in World War II dominated our daily play. If we weren’t digging into our backyard dirt, striving to be G.I. tough, we were trading bubble gum cards of professional baseball or football players. I played my share of “Army” but had no interest in sports and was starting to geek out on the fringes with interests in comics and monsters and private art projects that I hid in my closet. The spectacle of the Fab Four — these commanding young men — holding sway cooly over countless hysterical girls, was a revelation. Here was real power, even a form of magic.
In other words, here — on stage as a musician — was an alternative path. I could hardly sleep that night. My mother heard me bouncing in my bed and came in to ask what the problem was. “I’m pretending to be a Beatle!” I said. She laughed. Little did she know that I would become a musician and spend years on the road chasing the dream musicians chase.
However, I didn’t become a Beatles fan immediately. The Beatles were just a part of the mix. There was so much good music coming from every direction at the time. I was just as happy with the Gary Lewis and the Playboys’ “This Diamond Ring” as I was with the Beatles’ “Help,” both hits in 1965. I didn’t see the Beatles’ movies until years after their release. I did watch their cartoon show on Saturday mornings and I remember many pleasant melancholy nights humming “Michelle” as I pondered my latest crush.
Dare I say it? I became a Monkees fan first! The Monkees — with their madcap weekly TV show (directed by Paul Mazursky) — were accessible as the Beatles were not. Obviously, the Monkees copied everything they could from the Beatles and their show was a pale imitation of Richard Lester’s brilliant direction of the Beatles in their first two films. Perhaps the Monkees’ mediocrity made them a more comfortable fit for aspiring musicians like me. Still, when the Monkees were revealed to be a pre-fabricated fab foursome of non-musical actors (with the exception of Mike Nesmith), I and so many other fans left them cold. In truth, only Mickey Dolenz had no musical training and eventually the Monkees took control of their own music. In hindsight, they got a raw deal because half or more of the pop and rock hits on the charts in the 1960s had been penned by professional songwriters (like Carol King and Neil Diamond) and performed in the studio by hired guns like Hal Blaine (drums), Leon Russell (keys), and so on. Even the redoubtable Peter, Paul, and Mary had been a fabricated trio, not some organic creation of the primordial folk pond.
The Monkees were entertainment. Nothing more, nothing less. But we cool teens couldn’t see that at the time because we were chasing after authenticity — the real deal, the original, the genius, the revolutionary, the iconoclast. The one thing we didn’t want was another Hollywood hype. So, by the late sixties, it was very important, perhaps most important, that a musician write his or her own songs and make his or her own records. That’s where the Beatles won out. By the time they released Magical Mystery Tour, you had to pay attention to them, if you hadn’t already — because they kept doing the coolest musical things. But there was still question about them because they released at the same time an odd, undisciplined movie to accompany the album. As a result, some critics worried that the Beatles would tank themselves with excess and self-indulgence as so many others had in this, the age of excess and self-indulgence.
The Beatles dispatched those doubts once and for all with the amazing Sergeant Pepper’s. The first time I heard “A Day in the Life,” I was stunned. It was more than “a tune” or “a song,” it was a profound experience: it took me somewhere, it left me with things to think about, it haunted me. The Beatles followed up quickly with the greatest album of all time, officially titled The Beatles but now referred to as the “White Album.” It became the sound track of my life when I was 15. Musically it offered everything from folk to heavy metal. Above all, it set the standard for musical auteurism, illustrating how serious musicians experiment, explore, and achieve excellence in the studio. Your indie rock favorites today would not be who they are without the White Album.
That said, the Beatles were not the British Invasion. Not really. There was the Who, Cream (Clapton), the Moody Blues, and Fleetwood Mac, to name only a handful. Even Hendrix came to us via Britain, accompanied by two brilliant English sidemen. So much good music from such a small country but made possible only by the irrepressible and thoroughly original roots of American rhythm and blues. Rock music is nothing less than one of life’s miracles and, when I’m feeling optimistic, this achievement, as much as anything humans have put their hands to, gives me hope for the future.