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The Beatles Are Here!: 50 Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember
Edited by Penelope Rowlands
Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill/Workman Publishing
Reviewed by Karl Wolff
The Beatles. When the Fab Four hit American shores in 1964, everything changed. You can't say that for too many things, especially in our fragmented, hyper-mediated, pop culture saturated culture. The title of the book says it all: The Beatles Are Here!: 50 Years After the Band Arrived in America, Writers, Musicians, and Other Fans Remember. What makes this anthology stand out is the quality and variety of its contributors and Ms. Rowlands's own personal history with the band. While hipsters (the current iteration, not the Jazz Age and Beat Generation versions) try to out-obscure each other with their esoteric musical tastes, the Beatles were mainstream and corporate. (They signed to a major record label.) Who liked the Beatles? Everyone. It is a challenge to think of a pop cultural milestone that has universal appeal. The original Star Wars blockbuster phenom from 1977 to 1983 comes pretty close, since it appealed to non-science fiction fans.
When the Beatles played on Ed Sullivan in 1964 and at Shea Stadium, everything changed. Elvis was mere prelude. The opening essay sets the mood. "My sisters and I grew up despising Welk and all those of his ilk, so when the Beatles showed up, we felt the way the French must have felt when the GIs swarmed into Paris in August 1944." The Beatles ushed in the British Invasion. For decades, American music - blues, jazz, rock, etc. - had influenced British musicians. The Beatles reversed the tide. Elvis was a shot across the bow of Frank Sinatra. In the Thirties and Forties, Frankie had been the teen pop icon beloved by screaming teen girls. When the Beatles played Ed Sullivan, Frank was done. Sinatra must have the felt same way the members of Whitesnake felt when Kurt Cobain played the first chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit."
Some historicizing is in order. The band didn't just come out of nowhere. Numerous contributors remember the Beatles TV appearance shortly after the Kennedy assassination in late November 1963. With their optimism and energy, they were a means for a nation to heal. And while the anthology is full of warm memories and a not undue amount of nostalgia, the anthology includes some wonderful variations on the Beatles. There are radio Djs from the era recounting the rabid fandom of Beatlemaniacs. But we also get to read travel writer Pico Iyer's take on the Fab Four. The original newspaper feature by Gay Talese is included, along with the original typos and fuddy duddy snark at the young kids with their long hair and skinny ties. "Cut those sideburns, Mattingly!" To be fair, Talese was doing journalism back in the day when type was set manually.
David Thomson, the film critic, interlaces his memories with the Beatles filmography. Biographer David Michaelis recreates his memories of the Beatles but augments it with a deep reading of the lyrics and his academic career in English literature. Michaelis draws the pop culture of the Beatles into the larger tributaries of English literary tradition. There are others. Facebook encounters of long lost friends and the eminent wit of non-fan Fran Lebowitz gives her take.
Where an anthology about the anniversary of the Beatles could have been a love-fest or a tar pit of reactionary nostalgia ("Things were better in the past. Modern life is awful."), Penelope Rowlands gives the reader a varied and enjoyable collection of anecdotes, pop culture analysis, and Sixties history. It is also a wonderful relic of what fandom was. And Beatlemaniacs are sure fanatical about their band. Before Team Edward and Team Jacob in the Sparkly Mormon Vampire Supernatural Romance saga, there was Team Paul and Team John. Sure, there was Team Ringo and Team George too. But Paul was dreamy and John was so totally a poet!
All mockery aside, the Beatles created the zeitgeist of the era and transformed music, pop culture, fashion, cinema, you name it. They also represented a band that was mainstream and part of the monoculture. This monoculture came into being with the transition from radio to television and the dominance of the Big Three (NBC, ABC, CBS) until the retirement of Johnny Carson in the Nineties. (It should be noted, I'm painting the picture in broad strokes and speaking in generalities.)
Before there was Star Wars, before Cheap Trick at Budakon, before all that, there was the Beatles. It was fifty years ago today ...
Out of 10/9.5 and 10 for Beatlemaniacs
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