The release of the Ron Howard documentary film “Eight Days A Week” and the re-release of a remastered version of “The Beatles Live at the Hollywood Bowl” has not exactly restarted Beatlemania, but it has rekindled interest in The Band From Liverpool That Changed Everything.
News Arts Editor Jeff Simon and Pop Music Critic Jeff Miers share deep affection for the Fab Four as individuals – John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr – and as a band. Here, they share a recent conversation about why the Beatles were – and remain – so special.
SIMON: I was more than a bit of a snobby brat at 17. So when Top 40 radio poured out the first Beatles Record I ever heard – “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – I thought it was the most shameless bid for female hysteria I’d ever heard.
That’s what all the Beatlemania stories were warning us about what was coming to our shores. And then, a couple hours later, when I heard the glorious guitar jangling of the B-Side “I Saw Her Standing There,” I instantly became a fan. I’ve been one ever since.
It wasn’t just that “I Saw Her Standing There” was musical guy-talk,;it was that neo-Buddy Holly guitar rockabilly. Paul playing Chuck Berry bass lines? Man, where do I sign? John singing Larry Williams’ “Dizzy Miss Lizzy”? I can, to this day, sing Williams’ “Bony Maronie” and “Short Fat Fannie” at the drop of an inhibition. There were OUR KIND OF GUYS.
And that’s what they’ve been ever since, no matter how long and winding the road’s been. Another movie might have referred to some of that initial skepticism from all the 17-year-old male brats out there, but then who the devil would want to see that one?
MIERS: That’s a cool perspective. “I Saw Her Standing There” is pure fire, no question, and yes, it marks the Fabs as much more than a “boy-band”. But “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” while it has super-corny lyrics and thinly-veiled sexual references and all of that, is so well-written. It sounds so much simpler than it actually is. The modulation in the bridge is awesome and unexpected – a great example of the Lennon-McCartney unschooled intuition. Their ears were incredible, and you can already hear that in “I Want To Hold Your Hand.”
SIMON: Well right here, I guess, is the right time to bring up an idea you’re going to hate. I’m not sure I love it myself.
But in Elijah Wald’s book “How The Beatles Destroyed Rock and Roll” his point is that the very process depicted in the movie is what began to re-segregate music that had been racially integrating at lightning speed. In other words, the Beatles were – you’re going to love this – in the tradition of Paul Whiteman and Guy Lombardo. That’s what they did when they moved into studio art rock and away from public performance and dance music. What do you think of THAT?
MIERS: Such a deep strain of anti-intellectualism in Wald’s thesis. I find the notion somewhat absurd. The Beatles, by furthering the harmonic, sonic and cultural possibilities of popular music, were “re-segregating” it? Meaning what? That only white Europeans were going to be able to “understand” more sophisticated popular music? That infuriates me. Music is music; it demands to be explored, and the brave-minded take up that challenge, wherever they happen to come from.
SIMON: No argument from me. But if you dovetail it with this movie, it’s telling you that what were watching is how The Beatles began a process of removing it from the process of being truly “popular.” Now we know that as things turned out, that was hooey but it does make you wonder what might have happened if they had somehow been able to continue enjoying live performance.
MIERS: Good point. In a way, it’s just a plain shame that they were ahead of the technology, if only by a few years. I wholeheartedly believe that not being able to hear themselves, and knowing that the audience couldn’t really hear them either, was a big factor in their disillusionment. By the end of the ’60s, the Stones had pretty much invented stadium rock, and along with the Grateful Dead, had helped to pave the way for the birth of true sound engineering. Imagine the Beatles cranking through something like the Dead’s Wall of Sound. Wow.
That said, the other factor in the disillusionment had to do with being considered pretty little pop stars. That was not going to fly with them. Too intellectually curious, and too musical to have settled for being boy-toys. Also, the reading, the involvement in the burgeoning hip culture, the interest in art and the musics of other cultures, and yes, the LSD and marijuana – really, one can’t close Pandora’s Box once it has been opened.
SIMON: Totally agree. Here is where I drag in through the back door my incredibly good luck at being able to sit next to Paul McCartney at a round table interview (with 15 other people) for 45 minutes and, later, to interview in Niagara Falls, Richard Lester who directed “A Hard Day’s Night.”
It seems they wanted to get into movies from Day One, practically – the very second they hit big. But as you say, there was no way they were going to do it the Elvis way i.e. as a dumb plowboy used by Hollywood. They were going to do the using. That’s what’s so terrific about “A Hard Day’s Night.” Paul’s movie “Give My Regards to Broad Street” was lousy but, by God, it’s HIS movie, no one else’s. Looking back now, it’s amazing – and wonderful – how much freedom they had to continue reinventing themselves whenever they pleased. And what amazing collaborators they had to help them – Lester, Brian Epstein and George Martin. Someone ought to make a movie about them. No one would go see it but what amazing human beings they were.
Here’s another thing I’m going to insist on dragging through the back door at the risk of being self-aggrandizing: When I took my daughter to London when she was 15, the airline momentarily delayed delivering our luggage. I had to go down and retrieve it where the concierge stashed all the other luggage. One of the guys who worked down there was bragging to his co-workers that he just scored two tickets to a concert everyone wanted to see in London that night. He’d gotten them from Richard Lester, who didn’t know him but just said “Hey you want to go see so and so tonight?” Just to be nice. He was that kind of guy. All those British Beatle boosters were amazing in just that way.
MIERS: Yes. The freedom! That’s what it was about! I think that was their gift to everyone – a bit like what Whoopi Goldberg says in the Ron Howard movie, about how the Beatles made it all right for her to be herself, because they were so clearly being themselves. I love that. Consider that, without them, the idea of “pop” performers writing their own songs, full engaging and participating in the production process, song arranging, picking what singles to release, and ultimately, forming their own record company – these would all be fantasy. I can’t help but see it all as a case of the workers seizing the means of production for themselves, and loving every damn minute of it. It was a call to all, to explore their own possibilities.
SIMON: Yeah, yeah, yeah. But I still say you’ve got to give gigantic props to EVERYONE who, right from the beginning, knew how much more they were than a “cute” boy band – who knew, for instance, that there would actually be people who bought literary nonsense (literally) from Lennon called “In His Own Write” and “A Spaniard in the Works.” Right from the beginning there were so many people who understood how very much bigger they were than the stuff that was so gigantically easy to sell.
They had an incredible privilege in this world. Right from the beginning, people really understood them.
MIERS: You are so right. That’s absolutely true. I don’t believe that happens in the “pop” world so much any more. The magnetism they had was more than simple sexual magnetism – it was real charisma, of the sort that only truly talented and open-minded “seekers” exude. It floored George Martin from the beginning. He wasn’t just “on the bus” ; he was fully invested in the trip.
My relationship with them is different than yours. The first album I ever heard was “Let It Be.” My parents had it and played it often. The next album I heard was “Abbey Road” and then I kept proceeding backwards to the beginning. By the time barely-walking-me was falling in love with the Beatles, they had already broken up. So my interpretation of the early stuff was colored by my immersion in the later, more sophisticated material. I lived my own version of Beatlemania, but I never knew the world when they were actual in existence. I suppose it’s a relationship born in nostalgia for something I’d never actually experienced. No matter. It felt real. Still does.
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