On Sunday February 9th, 1964, I sat in my small rocking chair in the living room of my family home. An older sister was there, as were my parents, who stopped what they were doing in the kitchen to watch the next performers from the Ed Sullivan Show, on our old black and white T.V. Of course, I’m talking about watching the Beatles for the very first time, 50 years ago.
That moment had a very special significance for me, because it was the first cultural event I can remember. It is said that CBS Anchorman Walter Cronkite had decided to show a news clip of the Beatles performing shortly after President Kennedy was assassinated, in an attempt to cheer up a mourning nation. I can’t help but believe that such timing played at least some role in the early success of the group. The Beatles themselves expressed doubts as to the reception they would receive in coming to America. No doubt Americans were ready to embrace something new and positive after the stunning loss of a young and charismatic president.
Having three older siblings probably played the most integral role in my expanded exposure to pop culture at a young age. When you wake up in the morning and your older sisters are playing popular music on the radio as they prepare for school, and your older brother is building and playing his collection of 45 rpm records, you become familiar with music that someone your age might not normally notice. So instead of just listening to my “Smiley the Lion” records, I was hearing the Beatles as well.
In our house there came to be other reminders of the group. There were more T.V specials that showed the group in concert, highlighted by screaming and fainting teenage girls. We had a Beatles board game, and a sister who collected Beatles cards that were issued by Topps, the same company that specializes in sports bubble gum collector cards. I seem to remember watching the Beatles on T.V. in cartoon form as well.
As years went on, I lost track of what the Beatles were doing. Although I would be aware of new songs on the radio, I remember thinking that some of the new songs were strange compared with the older music. I couldn’t understand the group’s temporary fascination with eastern mysticism either, though some of their contemporaries seemed to imitate that tendency.
I can’t remember even being aware of the foursome eventually breaking up. I liked some of the music from the solo careers, particularly Paul McCartney and Wings, but I remember having an unfavorable reaction to some of John Lennon’s music.
Late in my enlistment in the army, I had a roommate who was a true Beatles aficionado. He filled me in on a lot of trivia about the group. I remember telling him that I liked the earlier music better than the later material, which was opposite to what many people I knew had expressed. The more my friend told me, the more I questioned my personal affinity for them, especially John Lennon. It seemed to me that he was the guy who had made controversial statements that often required apologies for damage control, such as the “We’re more popular than Jesus” quip.
The 1970’s seemed to be a turbulent decade for Lennon, ending with his tragic death in 1980. “Imagine” was his best selling single. Listening to the words seemed to me like a subdued anthem for communism, set to musical accompaniment. The Madison based Freedom From Religion Foundation uses the song to open their radio programs. On the opposite end of the spectrum, Lennon briefly claimed to have become a born-again Christian, but before long became disenchanted. The link to an article with the details is below.
One winter day I came out of a local grocery store and got in my can. When I turned on the radio, the hourly network news was on. The anchor played a clip from the Beatles first American performance and announced “It was 25 years ago today that the Beatles first performed in America, what I time that was.” I couldn’t believe 25 years had gone by, and now it’s been another 25 years. The second 25 years went by much faster than the first.
There is no doubt that a musical phenomenon like “Beatlemania” will probably never be duplicated. The Beatles had an indelible influence on the culture at large as well. Case in point: While styles always change, I never saw a male with hair much longer than a crew cut before the Beatles sported their mop hairdos.
In reflecting on the time that has passed, I eventually wound up with my sister’s Beatle cards. When I came home on leave from army basic training, my father proudly informed me that he sold them, along with scores of other sports and collector card sets, to an interested buyer. He seemed thrilled that he had procured 45 bucks for me in exchange for what he deemed a “ couple boxes of junk.” The sister who passed them along to me has said many times since that she is no longer fond of the Beatles musically, and seems almost embarrassed at having been so infatuated by them as a youth. I also acquired all my older brother’s record albums when he passed away ten years ago. They were damaged in a fire that destroyed my home in 2009. I don’t know what happened to the board game.
All in all, thinking of the Beatles makes me realize how much water has passed under the bridge in my own life since my first recollections of them.
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