Friday, February 21, 2014

The Miracle of '64

There was so much hype for so long about the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first trip to America and first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, that I missed the actual anniversary days. The first Sullivan show was February 9, 1964.

 Though I saw that Sullivan show and liked them well enough, I personally didn't have my Beatles satori moment until 1965, when I sat in a near-empty movie theater in Manhattan (behind either Bob Dylan or one of many lookalikes) and watched their second film, Help! Now I still score pretty high on the Beatles quizzes that were floating around this month.

 But from the January Rolling Stone cover story I learned that I wasn't alone in initially missing the Beatles significance--neither did his record company. (Of course, I was in high school and this was supposedly their professional expertise.)

 Here's a few key graphs from that story (this is the link but not all of it is online.)

 The story quotes Jonathan Gould in the book Can't Buy Me Love concerning the clueless executives of Capitol Records, who owned the U.S. rights to release Beatles records but didn't think it was worth their while. Then one of their executives read an article in Variety:

 "...Variety reported that the Beatles' most recent single, "I Want To Hold Your Hand," had become the first British record to sell a million copies before its release. The band's previous single, "She Loves You"--which had been rejected by Dexter on behalf of Capitol--had also surpassed a million sales, and the group's second album, With the Beatles, sold 500,000 copies a week after its release.

 'This meant,' writes Gould, 'that in a market one-third the size of the United States, the Beatles had released as many million-selling singles in 1963 as the entire American recording industry.'" 

 So Capitol decided to release some Beatles tunes, but in due time. But people took matters into their own hands. From the RS story (by Mikal Gilmore):

 "On December 10th, Marsha Albert, a 15-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, saw a rebroadcast of the CBS Morning News report from November 22nd disparaging the Beatles and the frenzy they inspired in England. Albert wanted to hear more of the music. She wrote to a local station, WWDC; the disc jockey there, Carroll James, located a flight attendant for a British airline, who brought a copy of the 45 rpm "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on her flight to Washington, D.C.

 After the record arrived, James invited Albert to WWDC's studio. In the early evening of December 17th, Albert announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in America, here are the Beat­les, singing 'I Want to Hold Your Hand.' " "The switchboard just went totally wild," James later told Bob Spitz in The Beat­les: The Biography. Callers – apparently not all of them teenagers, since WWDC was an MOR station – wanted to hear the song again, and again."

 And 50 years later, again and again.

The Beatles were a phenomenon throughout 1963 in the UK but America discovered them just over two months after the unspeakable trauma of the assassination of President Kennedy, who symbolized hope and the future.  The Beatles did not replace that exactly.  But they did offer another kind of hope for a future with a different kind of joy in it.  Especially for those who were young then--the early and middle boomers--it was a Way.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

Our Icons and Their Stories

In the 1960s it was becoming clear that pop culture was becoming American culture.  By now that seems perfectly normal.  The media covers pop music and movie stars as our royalty, television shows and movies like the latest artistic and cultural events.  Scholars study Beatles lyrics and Doctor Who scripts.  The new myths of gods, goddesses and heroes are the scifi and superhero sagas.  But that didn't seriously begin to dominate until the 60s.

Early boomers will remember the roots of this change in the 50s and 60s, especially as icons of those decades and earlier reemerge in the news one last time.

The death of Phil Everly of the Everly Brothers reminds us that aspects of pop culture are really refinements of folk culture.  I've just been rereading William Eastlake's early novels and came upon this sentence: "The secret in creating anything new seems to lie in borrowing all you see and hear about you and adding one small touch."

That's often true in music particularly. Linda Ronstadt and Paul Simon talked about the Everly Brothers both in terms of the music they transformed and their effect on the music that followed theirs (like Simon & Garfunkel.)  (Ronstadt was even better in this Time Magazine piece, which requires registration.)

Adapting folk culture in a different way is seen in the life of Pete Seeger.  He only slightly changed folk songs (though his strengthening of the lyrics of "We Shall Overcome" helped it become immortal) but he applied them to contemporary issues with roots in the past, such as civil rights, an end to war and preserving the natural environment.  Here's Josh Marshall's remembrance, one by Bruce Springsteen,

To put it another way, as Marshall McLuhan did, each new medium (or form) at first adopts a previous medium as its content.  So we've seen in our early boomer lifetimes how television took program models from radio and movies, which had earlier adapted them from the stage.  As this essay says, the now classic early TV comedians brought sketches and approaches they adapted from vaudeville.  This was true of one of the great TV comedians and comic actors of the 1950s who died recently, Sid Caesar.  Here's more of what I've written on him and his innovations and contributions.

The death of actor Ralph Waite is an occasion to recall how deeply and for a long time he has been part of establishing a cultural image, first as the young father on The Waltons and most recently as a father and grandfather figure on the TV series NCIS and Bones.  I will also remember him for a little known but culturally evocative fantasy film about JFK called Timequest.   Here's a biographical obit.

Finally, the little girl who helped a country and a culture through the dark days of the Depression has passed away.  One of Shirley Temple's proudest moments was that in one of those movies, she held the hand of the immortal dancer Bill Robinson--perhaps the first time a white female had touched a black male on the silver screen.