Tuesday, February 04, 2014

It Was Fifty Years Ago Today.......

FEBRUARY 9, 1964- not a date that springs to mind when considering historic events. Though I was glued to my TV along with 73 million other Americans, I didn't know the actual date until recently, but it could legitimately be called "The Birthday of Boomer Culture".  Deride Boomer Culture if you will, but it still resonates, even with people who's parents are too young to remember it- I've seen teenagers at concerts singing along with Beatles songs, they knew the words by heart.  We didn't know it then, but everything changed on that February evening in ways we could not have imagined.

A little perspective to begin, if I may, for those of you laboring under the misfortune of youth.  In 1964, World War II was as close in our national rear-view mirror as is first Iraq War is today.  World War I was  as close as Vietnam.  World War II vets were fairly young men in their 40s and Kennedy, a WWII veteran, was considered too young for the presidency by some.  We were still very much a Black and White world with wide-spread ownership of color TV still being a few years away.

We had a Sylvania Halolight black and white TV, it had a soft light surrounding the tube.  Very cool stuff!  (Do watch the ad at the link)

My Dad was a "Ford man", so we had a brand new 1964 Ford Galaxy 500 in the driveway.

I was 10 years old, attending a Catholic school that was a five-minute walk from my very vanilla suburban house.  Just three months earlier was November, 22, 1963, the day our first Catholic President was killed in Dallas, a day that shocked my young sensibilities and introduced profound sadness and tragic loss into my neat, idyllic and insulated child's life.  Well, that and the constant drills in school for the eventual nuclear war- I actually hoped that when it happened, it would happen on a school day because I didn't have a desk at home to protect me.
The "Vanilla House"

Upon reflection, the JFK assassination was the first step in growing up.  It connected me to the world at-large, for the first time, as I related to what these people were talking about on the TV.

As to music, my recollections at that age consisted of the "Big Band" stuff that my parents played on the phonograph and, for some reason, Eydie Gorme singing "Blame It on the Bossanova" on the car radio, a popular song of the day.  In my memory, it seems as if it was playing incessantly.  I'd heard people talking about Elvis, but my parents were too old for that "Rock 'n' Roll noise" as they called it, so I didn't hear much of it.  I'd sometimes see "American Bandstand" on the TV, but they were all older kids and the music just didn't click for me.

We all watched the "Ed Sullivan Show" on Sunday nights, though.  It was a family tradition in our house, as it was for many families of the day.  It was what was known then as a "variety show" with acts as varied as comedians, ventriloquists, jugglers, musicians, singers, dancers and, of course, Topo Gigio.

That was about this time that small, hand-held "transistor radios" had become the "must have" gadgets of the day.  Actually, it was the FIRST of all the "must have gadgets"that would follow.  A technology born in the burgeoning space program, these little radios, for the first time, allowed people  to listen to the radio without being in a building or a car.  It was one of the modern miracles of the early 60s, to be able to walk down the street, with an earplug in one ear, listening to the radio!  I had one.  It was the first of the many gadgets I would by, and still buy, over the course of my life.  I don't recall what I listed to, it didn't matter, the magic of that radio was enough.  But that was about to change.

I can't recall when I first heard of the Beatles, but I'd assume it was from the giggling little girls at school.  They were the first, and the boys followed.  A female cousin was wild about the lads but, I must admit, I was skeptical (even before I even knew the definition of the word).  I then started hearing about these Beatles on my transistor radio, what we now know as "the buzz" was unmistakable.  "Beatlemania" was soon sweeping the nation as "Beatle boots" and "Beatle wigs" appeared in stores as fashion was being transformed for the next half-century, and beyond.  It was literally impossible to turn on a radio or TV without hearing about the Beatles.  By the time they arrived in New York, America was eager to surrender to their new British invaders.

But it all began in earnest on a Sunday evening as four young men from Liverpool forever altered the course of popular music, and popular culture, with this broadcast on February 9, 1964:

It would be a nice touch if I could say that, at that very moment, I felt the Earth shake and I was immediately transformed.  It didn't, and I wasn't.  The truth is, it opened a door, but an important door.  The appeal of the Beatles, for me, sprung from well-written, yet simple songs, with which I felt an irrepressible urge to sing along while I was listening.  There was an indescribable, yet unmistakable familiarity that I felt and still feel.  I felt that they were singing for me.  They were the right band, at the right time in my young life, with easily digestible music that sated my newly acquired taste for music.

In a nation of 191 million people, 73 million watched their debut on the Ed Sullivan Show- 38% percent of the population.  Even in our current pop-culture-saturated society, I can't imagine a contemporary pop music act garnering that kind of audience as, a percentage, particularly when you consider that you either watched it live or you didn't watch it.

The Beatles grew and matured quickly, as did we and our tastes.  The difference between a 10 year-old and a 15 year-old is enormous, much like the cultural differences between 1964 and 1969 and the Beatles provided a soundtrack for that growth.  Each successive album signaled a departure from the last as they pioneered the development of popular music from "catchy ditties" and Rock 'n' Roll to recording art, blending technology and diverse musical elements as on display on the album "Rubber Soul" and everything that would come after.   In August, 1966, the Beatles performed their last "official" live concert in San Francisco, preferring to spend their energies in the recording studio such as "Revolver", the seminal "Sgt. Pepper's", along with "Magical Mystery Tour", "The White Album" and "Abbey Road".

As revolutionary as they were, the career of the Beatles was remarkably short.  In 1969, they performed together live for the last time atop their studios in London, chronicled in the 1970 film and album "Let it be":

And it was over.  When looking at the clip from 1964 juxtaposed with that from 1969, it looks like decades had transpired rather than a mere five years.  Upon reflection, it felt like that, as well.

They all went on to successful solo careers but The Beatles were always more than just a collection of parts, it was musical serendipity tailored for its age.

Practically speaking, that period of time we call "the 60s" largely ended on that rooftop in London in 1969, though the afterglow continued until the dawn of Disco.  It was, however, born on a flickering black and white screen on that February evening in 1964 and I feel incredibly fortunate to have experienced it.

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