It Was Forty Years Ago Today
The Beatles, through a child’s eyes and ears
(Published November 11, 2010)
Last winter I purchased all the remastered Beatles albums, not just because I was keen to hear top-notch recordings of their body of work, but also because the 40th anniversary of the band’s break-up seemed like a good time for a critical reassessment. Because of the production methods and innovations of George Martin, as well as the Beatles’ imaginative energy and standards of excellence in the studio, it is universally understood that their work has a distinct materiality. In other words, whatever else can be said about any Beatles song as a musical composition or performance, the band’s recording of that song is an essential component of their creative efforts. (This point has been belabored for decades, most often in the case of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.) With that in mind, it was a genuine pleasure to hear these recordings in their most pristine form, especially channeled through the six speakers of my car stereo. It’s a cliché to suggest that I was hearing these songs for the first time, but the experience was very much like that.
Something else—something contradictory—was going on in my mind, however, as I absorbed the bright, joyous track “Penny Lane.” I was thrilled with the sound quality, which certainly provided a kind of “newness” for me, yet I still responded to the song much as I did when I was in the second grade. I first heard “Penny Lane” on the radio one morning before walking to school, and suddenly I remembered that morning in great detail. Maybe this was a Proustian moment, or perhaps the kind of sensory recall that the folks in the Actors Studio are always on about.
The remarkable thing is that this sensory experience carried over to all the other Beatles albums, and while listening, I had several vivid recollections that drove home a point that I had put aside long ago. It was a simple notion: because I was born at the right time, I filtered the entire Beatles phenomenon through the distorting prism of a child’s imagination. I was a wee lad when the Beatles arrived on American shores, and from that point on I misunderstood or reinterpreted almost every aspect of the Fab Four experience. The following is a brief history of the Beatles and their music as I originally understood them. In my opinion, it’s vastly superior to my current “correct” understanding.
I was almost five years old when Beatlemania took hold in our house, which put us about a year behind the rest of the nation. “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and “A Hard Day’s Night” were the soundtrack to my little world, and wasn’t it neat that the Beatles ended every song with the chorus “yeah! yeah! yeah!” Their best song was one that I thought was called “She Was Just Seventeen,” even if we could never find it at the record store. For an earlier birthday I had received a toy guitar and something called a “Beatle wig,” which I wore during performances for home movies to everyone’s great amusement. I put all that funny stuff aside when I learned that much was being made of the Beatles’ haircuts.
Almost every male my grandfather’s age, in our neighborhood at least, had some complaint about the Beatles’ hair, or the length of my hair, or the length of my little brother’s hair. I was in the first grade by then, I had seen the band on television several times, and my best friend’s older sister had plenty of postcards and magazines about the Beatles—and this time the grown-ups were wrong. The Beatles’ hair was big and round, not long. Good grief, parts of their ears were still visible. All of my ears were visible, so why was everyone being so mean about it? Then one afternoon at the record section of Woolworth’s, I came across the cover of Rubber Soul. Oh, okay. Even though I sided with John, Paul, George, and Ringo on this issue, it was obvious that they were troublemakers. The band was deliberately growing their hair even longer, just to show all the grown-ups they could. This very act initiated something known as “the generation gap,” which everyone at church was talking about. The Beatles were more than likely already in trouble for doing this.
All the Lonely People
Even though the Beatles were in trouble for the haircuts, it was obvious from their Saturday morning cartoon series that they always had fun. All four of them had to run or hide from the crowds who wanted to cut off their hair, which is what the song “Help!” is about. Paul and John wrote a new song every Saturday—sometimes two—and then they played tricks on people. Even though grown-ups didn’t like all the hair, a lot of them definitely liked the Beatles’ music. In fact, on the TV variety shows each evening, grown-up singers performed Beatles songs, but these were usually sad songs presented with the lights turned low. This is because the Beatles had recently become sad for all the lonely people. I saw at least three different stars sing “Eleanor Rigby” on television long before I heard the original. My great-aunt Evelyn, with whom I watched untold hours of television in the den of my grandmother’s house, once calmly remarked after that song, “There’s a lot of lonely people in this world.”
This was news to me, at age seven. A lot of lonely people? I only knew of two, and one of them had just found a husband, if what my mom and our next-door neighbor were always talking about was true. Anyway, this explained why every new Beatles song was so sad, like the one about the Lady Madonna who was having a tough time feeding her kids and sewing her own stockings. What was going on? Once again, my best friend’s older sister offered insight into the matter: “Michelle” was so sad that part of it had to be sung in French, or they would not play it on the radio. If that were true, then I couldn’t see why any of “Yesterday” was in English, but my dad’s youngest sister, who owned a lot of cool records, had mentioned that some Beatles songs were sung in German for the people of Europe. There’s no telling what kind of lonely people those songs were about.
In any case, being a tender-hearted kid, I was bothered that no one attended Eleanor Rigby’s funeral. Like the woman Mom and our neighbor talked about, wouldn’t it have been nice if Eleanor and that man in “The Fool on the Hill” had found each other or at least swapped Valentine’s Day cards? He could bring flowers; she could bake some cupcakes. I actually fantasized that scenario, now that I was interested in girls. I stopped worrying when I was told that the Beatles were sad because they were completely worn out from running away from all the people who were chasing them. They were too tired to play any more concerts, anywhere, which is what “A Hard Day’s Night” is about. They had been working like dogs.
Even as a devoted fan, I was having second thoughts about a particular Beatle, namely, John Lennon. Due to an off-handed comment my dad made about “Norwegian Wood,” I was deeply troubled that John would burn down a house. But Dad had also mentioned in passing that some of the Beatles were not as smart as they thought they were. Then one afternoon a serious-sounding man on a TV program played a section from “I Am the Walrus,” and he mentioned that it was “a John Lennon song.” I heard it again on the radio the next morning, and frankly, I had never heard anyone sound so hateful in any song. He seemed to be spitting out the words, and he came across like some of those leather-jacket guys in the motorcycle movies. “Mr. City policeman sitting pretty little policemen in a row . . .”
He was making fun of cops! The rest of this scary song made no sense, but I gathered that John was sneering at everything he saw while waiting for the van and eating cornflakes. Not only that, but in another song he had laughed when a man died in a car crash. I was somewhat disenchanted, to say the least, even if “Yellow Submarine” really was the best song in the world and fun to sing with the whole class.
Fortunately, information that revealed what the Beatles (and John Lennon) were really all about came to me courtesy of Mrs. Arnett, my third-grade teacher. For some reason, during one month all of our studies were focused on Great Britain, and Mrs. Arnett introduced to us, via books and records, a peculiar country called England. This introduction formed the entire basis of my understanding of the Beatles. I would no longer be a child: I was an American third-grader with a comprehensive knowledge of the English people.
According to Mrs. Arnett and some books from the school library, people in London drove on the left side of the road. Instead of grabbing a burger and fries, they would eat fish and chips—wrapped in newspaper! An elevator was called a “lift,” which made perfect sense, and trucks were known as “lorries,” which was just nuts. But speaking of nuts, Mrs. Arnett informed us that the most important thing about English people is that they are “eccentric.”
Very strange habits and hobbies are encouraged in England. It’s okay to wear odd costumes and say crazy things, and in fact, being eccentric with words is what helped Mr. Lewis Carroll write Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. That’s where nonsense poetry comes from. It’s why we can enjoy the silliness of “The Walrus and the Carpenter,” even if it makes no sense.
I was wide-eyed as my teacher imparted this knowledge. Walrus, you say? Now it’s all coming together, as the Beatles might say. John more than likely knows Mr. Lewis Carroll, since they both live in London, and all his songs use made-up words for fun. “See how they snied” sounds a lot like “the slithy toves.” “I’m crying” is very much like “I weep for you, the Walrus said.” John’s not an angry juvenile delinquent; he’s the Walrus! The grown-ups in America who are unhappy with the Beatles probably just haven’t heard that John, Paul, George, and Ringo are eccentric.
Now that I knew the Beatles had been encouraged by their English countrymen to be silly, play pranks, wear wild-looking clothes—grow their hair long—and write nonsense songs, I had in hand a key that would unlock all the mysteries of those songs. It also helped, visually speaking, to know that London was the setting for the stories in this music, and that everyone involved was insane—I mean eccentric.
For example, I loved how Mr. Kite and the Henderson family could stage a circus right in their own neighborhood; we could never get away with that on our street. As for “Penny Lane,” I knew exactly what it looked like: the hustle and bustle of a city street, with the barber, the banker, the fireman, the nurse, then those blue suburban skies becoming visible after the rain (the banker never wears a “mac,” which is British for raincoat, by the way), and, best of all, that shiny fire engine with the clanging bell. I had been there dozens of times, having pored over the crammed, super-busy pictures in various Richard Scarry books about fire stations, motorcars, and a crowded city called Busytown. (Obviously, the Beatles read books other than Through the Looking-Glass, and What Alice Found There.)
But speaking of “the girl with kaleidoscope eyes” and those marmalade skies, or how everything is a dream in the strawberry fields, I was once again happy that the band was friends with Mr. Carroll.
I also admired how the band would go to Royal Albert Hall and make music with an entire orchestra or the Salvation Army, like they did with Sgt. Pepper. Mrs. Arnett had told us all about the royal family, so I figured the Beatles had to be careful around them, just as Alice was wary of the Red Queen, but in a fun way. I had seen the band on television making jokes, so maybe Buckingham Palace was a silly place, too. Only in England could you make a record at sea; I loved the sound of the Yellow Submarine’s engine, and it delighted me when the captain made his announcements and then started singing with the group.
In fact, the Beatles were so eccentric, they were always inviting lots of people over to their house to join in singing and making records, and not just at Christmas. All of this convinced me that the most important words the Fab Four sang were “And our friends are all aboard, many more of them live next door,” but maybe that’s because it was an easy song to sing at my young age. Nonetheless, it was clear to me that eccentric people and Londoners enjoy more fun stuff than Americans do, and that’s probably why we did not have our own Beatles. &