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Back in the US of A’

There is something very English in the marriage of boredom and catastrophe, and the England that existed immediately after the Second World War appears to have carried that manner rather well, as if looking over its shoulder to notice that lightning had just struck a teacup. Reading the work of V.S. Pritchett or the absconded Auden, you pick up the notion that Europe had just come through a spell of bad weather, as though the only important question emerging from the war was about how it might have affected the course of English normality. The great horror was that things would remain the same, second only to a fear that things would never be the same again. The mood is captured nicely in “1948” by Roy Fuller, a poet who happened to spend his life working for the Woolwich Equitable Building Society:

Reading among the crumbs of leaves upon
The lawn, beneath the thin October sun,
I hear behind the words
And noise of birds
The drumming aircraft; and am blind till they have gone.
The feeling that they give is now no more
That of the time when we had not reached war:
It is as though the lease
Of crumbling peace
Had run already and that life was as before.
For this is not the cancer or the scream,
A grotesque interlude, but what will seem
On waking to us all
Most natural—
The gnawed incredible existence of a dream.

England appeared then to be a country of old men, a place in which dreams were routinely gnawed down by broken teeth, while America in 1948 appeared to the English like a stately pleasure dome, housing this great new phenomenon, the teenager, and busy with every kind of plan for the future, from abbreviated hemlines to the hydrogen bomb. The compulsions of teenagers have come to so dominate the world that we might sometimes forget they used not to exist. In 1900, for instance, 20 percent of American kids between ten and fifteen were in full-time employment and, even as late as D-Day itself, Andy Hardy represented a world where young people did useful things and had fun before going to bed alone at ten o’clock. What was the teenage market in 1945 but comic books, bobby pins, and the Toni home perm? But in 1948 the transistor radio was invented (kids could suddenly listen to music in their own rooms), and the 1948 Cadillac came with tail-fins and a radio console, a vehicle customized for teenagers and featured in a blazing new magazine called Hot Rod.1 It was also the year of the Kinsey Report. Ed Sullivan’s Toast of the Town was first aired in that summer of 1948 and it would eventually promise a world in which the likes and dislikes of young people in blue jeans could appear to run the culture.

In a bombed-out Liverpool, a dozen years later, new shining buildings were being erected and English normality was erupting into something of a classless, American-accented meritocracy: four cheeky lads with scuffed shoes, the Beatles, came bursting with new harmonies and even newer energies, and they appeared to be telling young people they had choices. “America used to be a big youth place in everybody’s imagination,” said John Lennon:

We all knew America, all of us. All those movies: every movie we ever saw as children, whether it was Disneyland or Doris Day, Rock Hudson, James Dean or Marilyn. Everything was American: Coca-Cola, Heinz ketchup…. The big artists were American. It was the Americans coming to the London Palladium. They wouldn’t even make an English movie without an American in it, even a B movie…. They’d have a Canadian if they couldn’t get an American…. Liverpool is cosmopolitan. It’s where the sailors would come home on the ships with the blues records from America.2

Devin McKinney’s intelligent study of the Beatles finds the four in a Liverpool coated in the grime of Empire; among the cellars, bunkers, and backstreets of postwar Britain, they “listened to America and lived on fantasies of everything their culture lacked.” McKinney listens to a tape of the sixteen-year-old John Lennon singing with the Quarry Men, the ramshackle group that preceded the Beatles, at a church garden fete. It is the day Lennon met Paul McCartney. “The music,” writes McKinney, “though it resembles rock and roll, sounds as if it owes nothing to any form, because it is so completely itself. It feels like ugly British kids make it, and sounds as if it comes from under the ground.”

The Beatles were somehow very British yet they sang with American accents, which shows you what Britain was becoming in those years. The group echoed the sound of America back on itself, only louder, newer, with more screams, and their story, rightly divined in this book, is about how they came to represent the thrill of rock music as a high form of dreaming in the present tense of history. It is exactly forty years since the Beatles landed at JFK. What did they bring with them apart from an instant legend of old Europe transmogrified by America? Greeted by “a squall of unmediated adolescent emotion,” the Beatles never questioned the meaning of the sobbing girls who crowded around them, or of the outraged adults who would later oversee the burning of their records. America was ready for something new in 1964, and the Beatles surprised even themselves at their agility when it came to meeting that readiness. “There were millions of kids at the airport,” said Paul McCartney:

We heard about it in mid-air…. The pilot had rang ahead and said, “Tell the boys there’s a big crowd waiting for them.” We thought, “Wow! God, we have really made it.” I remember, for instance, the great moment of getting into the limo and putting on the radio and hearing a running commentary on us: “They have just left the airport and are coming towards New York City….” It was like a dream. The greatest fantasy ever.

Ringo Starr, the drummer, showed all the excitement of a wallflower suddenly plucked onto the dance floor by the college jock. “On the plane,” he said, “flying into the airport, I felt as though there was a big octopus with tentacles that were grabbing the plane and dragging us down into New York.”3

That madness was a fulfillment of the promise of 1948: Elvis came first, then came the Beatles, but the Liverpudlians failed to lose themselves in Hollywood as Elvis did, and instead they began, after that first innocent bout in America, to travel into the nature of their own psyches and the character of their own time and place, journeys that still offer the most articulate definition of the decade. Looked at properly, the Beatles really were the 1960s: they started out as one thing and ended as another, and that is the core of their story, how they changed from ultra-melodic laughing boys to revolutionary art-heroes, making an entire generation imagine itself differently. Another story emerges too when you look at the Beatles’ music and its reception, a story about the cultural relationship between Britain and the United States, an odd friendship in which loyalties, enmities, and anxieties of influence have been animated in a climate of increasing American power.

The Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964,4 and the direct influence of that event is still being felt in new ways. In 1961, Senator John Kerry played bass guitar in a band called the Electras. The band rehearsed in the halls of St. Paul’s School in Concord, New Hampshire; they cut a record and described their music as “early surf.” Tony Blair’s band was called Ugly Rumours; he played guitar and sang. Only the other day, on a tour of China, a group of students asked the British prime minister to sing a Beatles song. He blushed and looked at his wife, Cherie, who picked up the microphone and gave a rather croaky rendition of “When I’m Sixty-Four.” John Edwards plays the saxophone and “admires” the Beatles. Former Governor Howard Dean plays the harmonica and the guitar and his favorite Beatle is George Harrison. Wesley Clark’s favorite album of all time is Yellow Submarine (Kerry’s is Abbey Road; Dennis Kucinich’s is The White Album). Who can forget Bill Clinton’s saxophone solo on Arsenio Hall? “There was not only a new sound,” said Al Gore, speaking about the Beatles to the editor of Rolling Stone. “There was something else that was new with the Beatles. A new sensibility…that incredible gestalt they had.” The great exception to all this is George W. Bush. He was at Yale from 1964 to 1968, and liked some of the Beatles first records. “Then they got a bit weird,” he has said. “I didn’t like all that later stuff when they got strange.” Bush also told Oprah Winfrey his favorite song is the Everly Brothers’ “Wake Up Little Susie” (1957), but overall he says he prefers country music.

The Beatles are the super-boomers’ house band. Even people who don’t care about popular music—especially those, one might argue—are conscious of how these English songwriters may have harnessed the properties of their own time, or were harnessed by them, down to every teenage sob and every kink of modern marketing. McKinney crunches the facts and pulps the possibilities before tossing everything into a great metaphysical soup, and his book carries sentences not unlike those Norman Mailer used to write forty years ago in the Village Voice:

Despite feeling paralysed at the center of the mania, the Beatles would draw their audience in by pushing it to new places. They would speak contentious, unprecedented words; offer upsetting, incomprehensible images of themselves; make disorienting musical noises. Just as their music would be the best and most challenging they had yet made, their collective persona would be more provocative, richer in dimensions than ambition or circumstance had previously allowed—or required. They would answer and interpret their suddenly hostile world in the language of symbol, the logic of dreaming; and they would, by accident and intent, seduction and aggression, tumult and meditation, sound early shots in the ferocious battle over consciousness which consumed the latter half of their decade.

If this seems a tad overheated, it’s only because the writer is very close to the heat: there has never been another group so perpetually involved as the Beatles were, and to seek the source of their power is to interrogate the culture of then and now to a degree only several degrees below melting point. You’ll forgive the prose for being a bit drugged when you get used to its modes of perception: McKinney is writing about a time, perhaps the first time, that history and society were apt to be understood through the movements of its youth, and McKinney is right for the job so long as one agrees that the occasion calls for something more infiltrating than the objective rigors of Hugh Trevor-Roper.

  1. 1

    For some of this information I am indebted to Lucy Rollin, Twentieth-Century Teen Culture by the Decades: A Reference Guide (Greenwood, 1999).

  2. 2

    The Beatles Anthology (Chronicle, 2000), p. 10.

  3. 3

    The Beatles Anthology, p. 116.

  4. 4

    The anniversary is marked by several publications and republications about the Beatles, including Martin Goldsmith, The Beatles Come to America (Wiley, 2004), a rather sweet beat-by-beat account of the band’s appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. “Such was the nationwide fascination with the Beatles that, so the story goes, crime decreased to almost nothing while the music played…. And evangelist Billy Graham broke his own rule of not watching television on the Sabbath, tuning in the Beatles to try to understand his three teenage daughters. After turning off the set, he proclaimed the Beatles symptomatic ‘of the uncertainty of the times and the confusion about us. They are part of the trend towards escapism. I hope when they are older they will get a haircut.’”

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