By Tom Robotham
In December, 1963, my sister received a package from her “pen pal” in Scotland. Inside, was a 45 rpm record made exclusively for the “official fan club” of a band called The Beatles. Although Beatlemania had not yet come to America, and I was only 7 at the time, I was immediately intrigued by the four faces on the cover—and after we placed the disc on our white-plastic record player and set down the needle, I was struck by the exuberance of their Christmas greeting. Thus, I was primed for the monumental event that would occur two months later: The band’s first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, on February 9, 1964.
Now, as the 60th anniversary of that debut approaches, I can’t help reflecting on the band’s enormous influence on my life—and what it was that made them so magical.
I’d already fallen in love with music, thanks to my mother, who was a piano and voice teacher. She sang all the time, while doing chores around the house, but favored the standards of the Great American Songbook. I remain exceedingly grateful for this, since it ingrained in me a love of melody. It was my sister, however—four years my senior—who first introduced me to the music of our generation, through her collection of 45s. I remember liking, especially, Bobby Vinton’s 1962 hit “Roses Are Red.” My own collection back then was limited to kid’s stuff like Fess Parker’s renditions of Disney songs. Not long after The Ed Sullivan Show appearance, however, she gave me her copy of “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and I was off and running. I can confirm that it was my first “real” record, since I still have it, and it’s marked in ink with the numeral 1.
I still have all of my old 45s, in fact, and it’s fascinating to thumb through them. There’s “Secret Agent Man,” by Johnny Rivers, “Red Rubber Ball,” by The Cyrkle, and several dozen more. I loved them all—but The Beatles’ records stood in a class by themselves. Unlike those other groups, which simply made great songs, The Fab Four became role models for me. If I could have, I would have grown my hair “long,” like them, but my mother wouldn’t let me. Eventually, though, she did agree to buy me a pair of “Beatle boots”—and then, for Christmas 1965, my first guitar: A Danelectro. The following spring, I signed up to play and sing in the end-of-the-year school talent show.
The song I selected was “Run for Your Life,” from Rubber Soul, the first LP I ever owned. In retrospect, I realize that it was an odd choice, since the lyrics are creepy (“I’d rather see you dead little girl than to be with another man”), but at the time I just thought it was a catchy tune. So did all my friends, and that was one motivation: I’d hoped to impress a girl in my class, with whom I was utterly smitten.
That was one remarkable thing about the Beatles: the way they captured girls’ hearts. As one of the commentators in Ron Howard’s superb documentary Eight Days a Week observes, nobody had ever witnessed anything like it—not even with Frank Sinatra in the ‘40s or Elvis in the ‘50s. I figured that if I could learn to play and sing Beatles’ songs, maybe I, too, could radiate some of that magic.
They certainly seemed to have more of that kind of charisma than any other band at the time. This was due in part, I think, to their sweetness. The Rolling Stones were nearly as popular, but they were much darker and edgier. (Think of the contrast between “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” and “Satisfaction.”) Also, unlike the Stones, the Beatles had no front man—they were like four brothers, equal in stature, in their matching suits and haircuts. And yet each had his own distinct personality.
Because of these qualities, “they made everybody feel welcome,” as Whoopi Goldberg says in Eight Days a Week.
This came from their hearts. In 1964, when they learned that their concert at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, FL, would be racially segregated, they refused to play unless that policy was changed—and they prevailed.
They didn’t set out to be revolutionaries, of course, nor did they aspire to become idols. They just wanted to make music, which is why they quit touring in 1966. I was only 10 when that happened, so I never got to see them live. In some ways I’m glad of that because their concerts had been more spectacles than musical experiences. At the Shea Stadium show, in fact, they couldn’t even hear themselves playing over the roars of the crowd. In spite of my early fascination with their personas, it was the music that mattered to me.
One can’t mention the music without acknowledging the enormous contributions of producer George Martin, from his suggestion that “She Loves You” begin with the chorus rather than the verse, to his idea to write a string arrangement for “Eleanor Rigby.” He helped them grow as musicians. But from the beginning, their own sparks of genius were there.
One indication of this is that even their early, simple songs endure. A far greater indication is how dramatically their music evolved in such a short time. It’s really astonishing that just two years after they recorded “She Loves You,” they were creating songs like “Norwegian Wood,” and “Nowhere Man,” with its expression of existential angst—and a year after that, “A Day in the Life,” with its weird yin-yang quality: a perfect reflection of the contrasting characteristics that Paul and John brought to the band, respectively.
Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band came out the summer I turned 11, so I was still too young to fully appreciate its sophistication—certainly still too young to understand the trippy vibe of “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.”
As the Beatles’ music was maturing, though, so was I, and it was Abbey Road, released when I was 13, that truly ushered me into adolescence. This may explain why it remains my favorite of their albums to this day. I especially loved the seamlessness of side 2—and it continues to blow me away—but I also loved the variety of side 1, from “Octopus’s Garden,” with its charming child-like quality, to “I Want You (She’s So Heavy),” which foreshadowed the prog rock that I would come to love in the 1970s.
My love for them was so deep at that point that I was heartbroken—as so many millions were—when they split up. And like those millions of fans, my ears perked up whenever rumors of a reunion were afloat.
That possibility was obliterated on December 8, 1980, when John Lennon was killed. I was out of college by that time, working the night shift at my first newspaper job in New York. It had been a quiet evening but then, suddenly, bells started ringing in the wire room, as they did whenever a big story was breaking. I was the first to check it out, and when I tore the sheet off of the Associated Press machine, I went slack-jawed. “A man tentatively identified as former Beatle John Lennon was shot,” it said, “and taken to Roosevelt Hospital.” A short time later, news came that he had died.
After collecting my thoughts, I told my editor that I was going out to do a community reaction story, and I immediately headed to my favorite bar. Yeah, I did so partly so I could drink among friends, but I also knew I’d get some good quotes for my piece. It was a great blessing to be able to do that. Writing for publication about a man who had had such an impact on my life was deeply cathartic and eased my grief.
Still, I’m not sure my article captured the essence of what John meant to me, nor am I sure I fully understand to this day, my 60-year fascination with the Beatles. For the nation, they came along at just the right time—less than three months after the Kennedy assassination. Americans needed something to take their minds off their sorrow, and the Beatles fit the bill. I remember the assassination as well, but I was too young to fully feel the effects. For me, they played different roles: piquing my sense of wonder—and love of song—in early childhood; giving me an outlet when my attraction to girls first began to stir; helping me grapple with the cultural upheaval of the late ‘60s, and serving as a constant through all the changes that have come since, in my personal life and in society. With all that in mind, I’m awfully glad I was there to witness the phenomenon first hand.