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Phil-osophically Speaking: February 6, 2014

The British Invasion

When I tell young people that I remember the British Invasion, you would think by their astonished expression that I was talking about the War of 1812. Was it really that long ago when the Beatles hit these shores with the force of a Category 5 Hurricane? Well, think of it this way: Fifty years before 1964, the Guns of August exploded over the continent of Europe igniting the First World War. So 50 years back is certainly a significant passage of time.

I was only six years old when my mother and sister excitedly opened up the newspaper on the kitchen table to read the latest about the Beatles’ arrival. I had never heard of them and innocently asked who or what were the Beatles? They’re a singing group, my mother replied, and they have long hair. That they were another singing group had no interest for me, but a man having long hair was a novelty and piqued my interest. This was before Haight-Ashbury, the Age of Aquarius and the counter-culture revolution. Despite their locks, quite conservative in retrospect, they were, at least in their earlier incarnation, well attired, well groomed, well-spoken and essentially non-libidinous.

Contrast the Beatles, whose name most (there are several versions of its provenance) came from the 1953 film The Wild One, where a motorcycle gang refers to their sexy girlfriends as Beatles, to their greatest competitor, the Rolling Stones. Mick Jagger and company seemed like musical desperadoes by comparison. The Rolling Stones cachet was like that of the old movie director Raoul Walsh, whose idea of a tender love scene was burning down a whorehouse. This was dynamite in an era that was just beginning to liberalize itself from traditional cultural and sexual mores. The Beatles, however, were more successful than the Stones and any other group to tap into the growing and vast teenybopper market and ultimately dominate it. By 1963, the Beatles debut album Please Please Me was number one on the hit parade where it stood for an unparalleled 30 weeks. Brien Epstein, their agent, enthusiastically predicted that the Beatles were going to be bigger than Elvis.   

By now the Beatles habitually headlined tours and were literally burning up the record charts. I feel privileged to have seen their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, where I witnessed Beatlemania for the first time. The way the girls swooned and screamed was a sociologist’s dream in observing group behavior. Teenage girls screamed their lungs out for a young Frank Sinatra, but once he started to sing, the old Bobby Sox generation, as my mother aptly pointed out, you could hear a pin drop.

Was this mindless frenzy a condition solely related to the Baby Boomers? The screaming was as much a rite of initiation for themselves as it was a testament of their adoration for those four mopheads. Regardless of the hysteria, their songs were melodically compelling with a catchy synthesis of rock, folk and classical elements. There is no gainsaying that the flowering of their music was marvelously creative throughout the Sixties, expanding stylistic frontiers with sophisticated and innovative experimentation.

How good were they? Well, that depended on who you asked. The conservative intellectual William F. Buckley Jr., a classically trained musician, was utterly mystified by their visceral appeal. Trying to divine exactly what the fascination was all about, he spent a couple of trying hours listening to his teenage son’s vinyl records only to conclude that the Beatles were just “god-awful.”  On the other hand, a friend from college, an amateur musicologist, would laud them as the greatest composers of music since Beethoven. I don’t think that either Buckley or my friend got it quite right.

My own view, one I probably share with most, is that the Beatles are incontestably the greatest rock group of all time. If that feeling is, in reality, axiomatic, then that is indeed impressive considering the band dissolved before any Beatle had reached his 30th birthday. They are certainly number one in the court of public opinion. Consider that they are the bestselling band in the history of the United States, had the most number one albums on the British charts, hold the record for the most number one hits on the Hot 100 and that they are the bestselling band ever. Moreover, they made two hit movies that, for zaniness and laughs, bore not inconsiderable comparison with some of the classic Marx Brothers movies of the 1930s.

The first Beatles song I remember was “I Want to Hold your Hand.”  It was, of course, a number one hit. But the Beatles did more than hold our hand; they’ve held our hearts for a half century now and we remain unwilling to let them go.