Lately some of the middlemen of British pop-music, the managers and agents, have been splashed with a little stardust of their own. In fact young Brian Epstein (manager of the Beatles among others) complains in his brief autobiography that he has been interviewed too often, that he is suffering from “over-exposure”—just like a star. He is not really a star. The prime reason for those persistent interviewers is that he never tells us what we all want to know: how much? and how do you make it?
Yet another interview was published a few weeks ago: “Are you a millionaire?—I refuse to answer that question…Has your fee for handling the Beatles and the other artists risen as their earnings have risen?—Yes, but there are all sorts of variations…At the moment I am receiving hardly any commission at all!” He doesn’t explain this odd statement very clearly; but at least he has touched, however daintily, on the most impressive result of his labors: money. This is more than he does in his book, where he insists that money is a mere by-product. “I would like to look after the Beatles in some way throughout their lives, not because I want a percentage but because they are my friends.”
Yet with such a quantity of cash acquired—and surely so much expended in dealings with press, radio, advertising, and the other organizations concerned with the working-girl’s paycheck—he might give the stuff a brief mention. We want to know how he made the Beatles so rich. True, he tells how he checked their shocking frivolity on American radio, plugging products regardless of financial reward. But any of us could have advised the Beatles on this point. What was Epstein’s special flair, his expertise? How did he do it?
Perhaps he didn’t. We see the suave, competent administrator behind the wild-eyed performers, and we think him a Svengali, a Frankenstein—or, alternatively, a ruthless exploiter of susceptible youth. But his book presents a very different Epstein—a gentle, tidy, worried man who took up with the Beatles because he liked their style, and learned how to manage them as he went along. The Beatles seem more ruthless than he. When they were mere local entertainers in Liverpool, the original three surprised Epstein by coolly dropping their drummer and taking on Ringo Starr instead—not for the drumming but for the Image. “Peter for ever, Ringo never,” chanted their former admirers, and came to blows with them. This unpleasantness worried Epstein more than the Beatles.
I am not convinced that it was Epstein’s organization which transformed these singing-boys into a cult, foisting them upon a gullible public. His other discoveries seem to be still little more than hard-working professional entertainers. He hoped to startle the world with Cilla Black (a solid British version of Dionne Warwick) and with Billy J. Kramer, “the best-looking pop-singer in the world.” I recently heard Kramer top the bill in a South London cinema, and he was not found scream-worthy. He pleased in the same way as the American group which opened the show—a modest company who admitted that though they came from Nashville, Tennessee, and had backed Elvis and all the Greats, “here we are, still playing for peanuts.” The audience laughed sympathetically; this group would never achieve cult status; they lacked star quality. And, despite one haunting little record, so does Billy J. Kramer. Epstein can’t create it for him.
Audiences for this kind of show tend to adjudicate as much as appreciate; they like to prophesy (and the mass media encourage this tendency) whether the performer will be a hit, rather than to respond directly. They react as a gambler does to a beautiful horse. We all noticed two other acts in this show which had the makings of cult. There were the Kinks and the Yardbirds—with their crazed blond page boy flinging himself across the platform to attract quite spontaneous sobs and yells. But their future depends on the waning taste for all-boy groups; and we now seem to hear more from teams of girls, replacing the boys’ flamboyance with a note of passive doggedness, a kind of drugged, slavish determination: “I’ll get you in the end.” I myself went to this show primarily to hear the American Ronettes—two slender, identical colored girls who jig and warble in unison while a third, plumper and more vital, belts out a message which seems to reveal the hidden strength of those remote, fragile little beings. According to the American singer, P. J. Proby, British singing-boys have excelled in skillful imitation of American Negro voices. If our girls can learn a similar trick, there might be an international future for another British cult, post-Beatle.
The Epsteins cannot create the cult-heroes. The Beatles began by establishing rapport with a specialized minority audience, a particular group of young people in a particular place. Only when they have hooked a reasonably discriminating audience can the publicity organization turn them into I dols with an Image—or, rather, into a fatuous fashion attracting people who are excited only if they think everyone else is. At this stage, the stars merely exist; nobody cares what they do anymore, for stardom is the enemy of talent. Last year, the Beatles could no longer be heard, were drowned by screams. Epstein writes that in Australia he “had the strange impression that the Beatles need no longer sing to draw this surging generous warmth from their fans”—an unfortunate choice of words (cinema managers claim that many of those little girls are wetting their pants in excitement) and the observation leads Epstein to a dubious conclusion. He wants the Beatles to have a Meaning. “I shall never know precisely what it is the Beattles provide nor what void they fill in people’s lives. But most certainly it is far more than pop music.”
Epstein is thirty, of prosperous parentage, and still apparently suffering from an uneasy upbringing which made too many demands on him. There are other Englishmen of his age and class who want the Beatles to have a Meaning. His book is more interesting if read as the testimony of an adult fan than as the confessions of a manager. For Epstein the Beatles represent the enviable life-style of a new generation, enjoying an ideal youth-time, relaxed and spontaneous—against his own memories of restriction and discomfort.
His father had done well at grammar school and in business: he moved his son up one rung, into the fee-paying sector of education. Little Brian went to a “public” school, where prestige and certificates may be purchased even for rather untalented boys. But Brian did not fit in, “ragged, nagged and bullied…not very good at forming friendships.” After his expulsion, his father worked him into another fee-paying school “with a reputation for producing executives and successful leaders of one kind or another.” In this spartan environment, Brian found solace in acting and art (not, he regrets, “a very worthy occupation for a red-blooded son of an Englishman”) and he thought up an agreeable career for himself—but father and teachers agreed that there was “nothing less manly than dress-designing.” Manliness and class distinction (perhaps accentuated by his Jewish upbringing) were getting him down.
Thirty years earlier he might have turned Communist and written poems. But times had changed, outside the “public” schools. He found a satisfactory world in his father’s Liverpool furniture store where, being “mad about the way things should be displayed,” he studied window-dressing, “entranced by the possibilities.” But old, red-blooded, manly England couldn’t let him off so lightly. They got him in the army for his “two-year punishment”; this was Coronation Year, a bad period for conscription, as I well recall. Just as we were all learning to live without the class system, it popped up and smacked us in the face with a national flag. This was especially hard on Private Epstein—a public-school boy. yet without the character and initiative to win the Queen’s commission; a ranker “not nearly good enough to be used” for the Coronation parade, which he would have enjoyed for “the splendid stage management and the majesty of the thing.” Finally he was charged with impersonating an officer, and discharged on psychiatric grounds.
He ran back to the Liverpool store, bought a car, listened to music (Sibelius, mostly), and watched plays. But these bourgeois art-forms palled. He tried being an actor, but found his colleagues phony. Back at the store, he took over the record department: and here the new generation came to his rescue. With religious awe he writes, prologue to his book: “In walked an 18-year-old boy called Raymond Jones, wearing jeans and black leather jacket.” He asked for a record made in Germany by a local group. “You won’t have heard of them,” said Jones. “It’s by a group called the Beatles…” Epstein went in search of them. He left his class and entered his locality. He went down greasy steps to a big damp cellar, very much afraid of “a lot of teen-agers who were dressed as if they belonged, talking teen-age talk and listening to music only they understand.” But here, at last, society wasn’t exclusive. He was accepted, not thought odd at all; and soon he was working for the Beatles. He had not realized that Liverpool, that low-class town, could be stylish and romantic. Suddenly it was the city celebrated by Edith Piaf, the seaport where youngsters could sail to Hamburg and, like Brahms, provide light music in a street of whores. The Beatles “had left school before they should,” writes bourgeois Epstein enviously. They had “thought more of their guitars than their General Certificate of Education and had spent a lot of time in sinful Hamburg.”
Epstein grew happier; but the store-owning father “quite rightly wanted to know whether I was employed by four leather-jacketed teen-agers or by him.” It was not good enough to treat the boys as a pleasant local act; they had to get class, to be made a success of. First Epstein fixed them a date at a “genteel little spot, an exclusive dormitory town.” Beatles, he insisted, must be paid in notes, not coins. “I believe that, as I have learned from the Beatles, so they have picked up some good habits from me.” He dolled them up in dainty clothes and took them to London to see the Queen. “We outgrew our beloved, lovely Liverpool.” The Beatles were no longer semi-skilled musicians, a local speciality, but almost part of the national heritage. (It was not until the Royal Command Performance that the adult, non-specialist press noticed the Beatles—and even then they thought Marlene Dietrich’s appearance more newsworthy.)
But Epstein knew how much they delighted the junior world and he believed, rightly, that older people would come to share his own enthusiasm. The Beatles are “British but un-English,” he explains, “in that they accept barriers neither of class nor sex. And for this all classes and both sexes adore them.” The British-English contrast may be obscure; what Epstein means is that the Beatles are not Standard English, not on the conventional anti-local class ladder. If a British entertainer has a local accent, he is still generally expected to be a comedian, who may sing serenades but never gets the girl. Until fairly recently that class of singer has not been too erotic (leave that to Americans like young Sinatra or Johnny Ray). The younger and more handsome they are, the more they alarm parents. But the Beatles are a safe combination of what girls like and what father can stand. They are not very good-looking, and besides there are four of them. Though they sing of private coupling, they imply a public party with smiling parents watching. They are clean beatniks, literate proles, masculine dolls—a sensible compromise. One of them, John Lennon, reviewing records in Melody Maker, jeers at chubby rival Cliff Richard: “His records are too Christian for me. But he’s a good lad and his mother should be proud of him.” The same tone could be taken with his own group.
They do not suggest aggressive rebellion. Epstein recalls “the 1955 wave of hooliganism in the days of Bill Haley and Rock Around the Clock.” British cinemas were wrecked during the first wave of rock-and-roll. Epstein contrasts this disturbance with the Beatles’ music—“remote from savagery…No-one levelled any charges at the Beatles, when the Mods and Rockers battled it out on the beaches of south-east England.” Contrast Elvis Presley. Few of the educated thirty-year-old males who admire the Beatles would admit to a similar interest in Presley. The poet Thom Gunn was the exception, defiantly accepting his Image as anti-social:
He turns revolt into a style, prolongs
The impulse to a habit of the time…
But the Beatles are safe. And yet they come from Liverpool—a name which suggests, to the Standard English, provincial barbarism and a notoriously violent working class.
Epstein, who is very class-conscious, wants his little troupe to represent the under-educated, the other ranks of Britain; yet he likes them to acquire conventional class prestige. Their “pinnacle,” according to a photo caption, was meeting the Royal Family. Then there was John Lennon’s publication of his unwholesome drawings and fables. (“To have and to harm till death duty part…Roger could visualise Anne in her flowing weddy drag, being wheeled up the aisle…’Should I have flowers all round the spokes?’ said Anne, polishing her feet rest…Luckily Anne’s father came home from sea and cancelled the husband.”)
A literary luncheon was held in his honor and attended by Knights. Epstein was proud, “deeply gratified that a Beatle could detach himself completely from Beatleism and create such impact as an author.” But he is still not satisfied with upper-class reaction. Twice he writes with horror about “the sprawling, appalling British Embassy reception,” where orders were issued and hair was snipped. “A pink-faced young Britisher…Young Englishmen with marvelous education…extremely difficult and unpleasant”—the ex-ranker is almost ranting at the ill-manners of the officer class. Another of his stable, Billy J. Kramer, once fled for his life from “a number of our future leaders” at “an aristocratic gathering.”
Epstein helps fill in the picture of an aggressive upper class—eager to “rag” and to cut off long hair—confronted by this new generation of civilized dockland boys, widely-traveled, self-taught, and unconcerned to prove their class status or their virility. This is an attractive idea—but unfortunately the Liverpool slums are still well stocked with violence and ignorance. The parental homes of the Beatles are more suburban than dockland. Three of them went to grammar school, through passing the “11-plus” exam (which still, in many towns, divides the children with prospects of a career from the future laborers, who are sent to a so-called modern school). They still talk of their schools and their teachers. Three of them became full-time students, studying art, writing plays, composing music. Their trip to Germany was typical of college-boy Bohemians. (Considering their talent, it is not surprising they succeeded in Hamburg; young Germans’ main interest in young Britons is to secure the words and pronunciation of American lyrics.)
Like many such groups—the Rolling Stones or the Kinks—the Beatles are students who seem to have rejected the normal status ladder and chosen to share the habits and mannerisms of the working class. They entertain “the masses” without apparently patronizing them; they mock the ballyhoo of the middlemen and the mass media in a sardonic manner which is very common among the masses themselves. John Lennon, in his forthcoming second book, jeers at TV religious programs and at pulp fiction. (“She pruned herselved in the mirrage, running her hand wantanly through her large blond hair…’He’s going to want me tonight,’ she thought.”) They make fun of “Pop,” not with the educated sneers of old-fashioned intellectuals, but sharing the joke in the gleeful manner of, say, Fats Waller. However British they may seem, the source of their craft and their attitude is in Negro America.
March 25, 1965