by Rick Krueger (Thanks to Brad Birzer for his encouragement in the comments on his Sgt. Pepper at 50 post.)
“Bliss was it in that dawn to be alive, But to be young was very heaven!”
— William Wordsworth
I was definitely young — just over 2 years old, in fact — in February 1964, when this came on my grandparents’ TV:
It’s the first thing I remember. It felt like Wordsworth’s “very heaven.” And it instantly led to the first two things I remember wanting: Beatles records, and a Beatles wig.
My birthday is in November, so I have no idea how my parents pacified me till then. I have a vague memory that my mom re-purposed a yellow fringed toilet seat cover and I became a blond Beatle for a while. Whether that’s fact or imagination, you can see the outfit I got when I turned 3 after the jump:
The other present I got was my first record album: The Chipmunks Sing the Beatles’ Hits. Which was cool (of course I have it on compact disc now), but wasn’t what I really wanted — real Beatles records. My older brother had those. I loved them.
I loved them so much I snuck up into his room when he wasn’t around and played them. And wrote on them in crayon. And somehow took a chunk of vinyl out of The Beatles’ Second Album. Which is probably one reason why, when he got to high school, my brother recruited me to practice football tackling and wrestling with him, even though he was 10 years older.
For the next three years, I loved the Beatles unreservedly. Grooved to the music whenever it came on CKLW radio, begged to stay up whenever they were going to be on evening TV, watched their Saturday morning cartoon every week. Then, in 1967, the unthinkable happened.
The Beatles grew mustaches — and their music got hairy to match. At the age of 6, I couldn’t get behind it; it didn’t have the streamlined snap, the effortless good cheer I’d come to crave. So, other than an occasional enjoyable viewing of A Hard Day’s Night and Help on the 4:30 movie, the Beatles faded into the background.
Flash forward ten years to 1977. Thanks to proggers like Yes and ELP, I’ve found rock music I can unabashedly love again. It’s Thanksgiving weekend at my uncle’s cottage, and I’m back from Black Friday shopping with a brand new copy of Works Volume 2 in my hands. After the first play-through, I need a palate cleanser. Next to the turntable are my older cousin’s records — including Rubber Soul, Revolver and Abbey Road. My cousin won’t be there for the weekend; the mustaches don’t bother me any more. Why not?
By now, I knew the Beatles’ early efforts were pretty basic stuff — lean, effervescent pastiches of early rock, blues and country, with clever greeting card sentiments for lyrics. (A Hard Day’s Night is my favorite album from the pop years; you can hear the sheer delight they take in stretching the formula, adding a new chord, changing up the rhythm, slipping from harmony into a scream.) So even in its edited US version, Rubber Soul was a revelation: a sharp, cogent take on folk rock that mixed in flavors of Motown, soul, Indian music and classical elegance. And the words kept up with the new maturity of the music — John Lennon never wrote better lyrics than the hallucinatory “Norwegian Wood” and the understated “In My Life,” and Paul McCartney rang the changes on the possibilities of the love song with “I’ve Just Seen A Face,” “You Won’t See Me,” “Michelle” and “I’m Looking Through You.” No wonder Brian Wilson rose to the implied challenge of, in his words, “a whole album with all good stuff!” and started working on Pet Sounds.
Revolver upped the ante and broadened the Beatles’ range again, with the able assistance of producer George Martin and engineer Geoff Emerick. Beyond the novelties everyone knows like “Eleanor Rigby” and “Yellow Submarine,” there was a deeper dive into esoteric extremes (George Harrison’s “Love You To,” Lennon’s thoroughly bizarre “Tomorrow Never Knows”) along with grittier guitar rock (“Taxman,” “I Want to Tell You”) and sunnier soul (“Got to Get You Into My Life”). Fast forward to Abbey Road, and I heard — after Sgt. Pepper’s psychedelia and the fractured The White Album — one last gloriously eclectic collage, embracing ferocity (“Oh! Darling”) fruitiness (“Maxwell’s Silver Hammer”?!?), the heavy (“I Want You”) and the sublime (“Something” and “Here Comes the Sun”). The closing Pop Symphony medley (George Martin’s term), with its consistently fine ensemble playing — and a drum solo by Ringo! — was the icing on the cake.
Meanwhile my older brother had grown up, moved to Chicago, and was trying to make it playing percussion in a rock band. The next summer, I spent most of a visit to his place riveted to a new book he had bought, The Beatles Forever by Nicholas Schaffner. Forty years on, it’s still one of the best books I’ve ever read on Beatlemania, combining a warm but honest overview of the Fabs’ music, career and cultural impact with about 400 photos of people, album & singles art and memorabilia. (An imagined conversation — Me: “Oooh! I had that tea tray!” My brother: “Yeah, but it’s mine now. Only fair after what you did to my records.”)
Since then, my love of the Beatles’ music has never wavered. Why? From my point of view, John, Paul, George and Ringo grabbed everything rock had become through 1962, brought it to a larger audience than ever before, then widened and deepened its range more than anyone could have imagined for eight solid years, adding to its possibilities as they went. They wrote and performed an astonishing number of great songs that millions loved, thousands of artists wanted to tackle, and songwriters ranging from Paul Simon and Bob Dylan to classical composer Ned Rorem admired. (Just about anyone can sound good covering even a minor Beatles tune. Google “Ted Nugent I Want to Tell You” for a random example.) Not only did their experimental period pave the way for progressive rock, they inspired at least 15 years of great guitar pop from rockers as diverse as The Monkees, Todd Rundgren, Cheap Trick, Elvis Costello, Marshall Crenshaw and the Smithereens.
And ultimately, I still love the Beatles because, when I put their music on shuffle play, every song (OK, not “Revolution 9”) makes me smile, or laugh. Or get teary. Or want to dance. Or play air drums. Or dash over to my keyboard set-up to figure out how they did that. Or …