Beatlemania: Technology, Business, and Teen Culture in Cold War America
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
US: Apr 2012
André Millard has chosen a fantastic topic for his latest volume: the impact that The Beatles had on teen culture, business, and technology during the Fab Four’s tragically brief recording career (c.1963-1970). One might attribute the success of Liverpool quartet to a number of factors. The group entered the American consciousness at a moment when a generation of young Americans were not only strongest in number, but for the first time had real economic power via a growing disposable income.
Moreover, the intellectual climate was changing, as well. One generation had left the fields and farms for the greener pastures of the university and then the office building and now their children were afforded the opportunity to climb the social and economic ladders as well. (Some reluctant youths would find themselves more or less forced into university life as a way to avoid military service.)
That The Beatles’ music and the pop world in general swelled and exploded during these times is undeniable and has been written about ad infinitum but discussion of the causes and effects of this phenomenon are far from exhausted. The title of Millard’s book at least suggests that we will read something about this swelling and explosion somewhere in the 200 pages of his finished work. The trouble is, neither the author nor his work manages to hit the mark.
The book is too general, too disorganized, and too timid. Millard promises that he will not examine the Beatles as musicians, but instead focus on the relationship that the fans had on the products they consumed. But for all this talk of technology, business, and teen culture, there’s not much in the way of substance in any of those corners.
Millard undersells the cultural impact that The Beatles’ arrival in North America had. He acknowledges the sheer number of people who watched the group on Ed Sullivan’s variety show––73.9 million––but fails to explore the generation of musicians who were inspired by that very event, writing that “There must be a legion of rock stars and amateur strummers out there who wistfully look back to the Beatles on Ed Sullivan as their start”.
In truth there is a legion of rock stars and amateur strummers who consistently say as much––many of them went on to shape the rock and pop music heard by subsequent generations; others wrote books, made films, and authored essays buoyed by the energy of that historic night. That he doesn’t explore the effects further is especially worrying: We know what happened. Why doesn’t this author help us better understand what we already know?
He’s also quick to cast aside a fairly established notion, and one paramount in understanding Beatlemania–– that the Fab Four’s arrival served as a distraction for a nation in mourning. John F. Kennedy’s assassination remained fresh in the minds of the American public and its impact would have major repercussions on the generation that came to adore The Beatles. Kennedy was going to lead the nation out of Vietnam; his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson led the country deeper into Vietnam, in the very year that John, Paul, George, and Ringo arrived on these shores. By the time Paul McCartney announced he was walking away from the Beatle empire in 1970, many of those teenagers glued to the Ed Sullivan broadcast were either dead, returning from service, or had gone on to some other fate that was a result––either directly or indirectly––of the Kennedy assassination.
He writes that “it seems rather a stretch to assign the causes of Beatlemania to the aftermath of an assassination” and points to a single fan, author Bruce Spizer, who asserts that he was “over” the Kennedy assassination by “the holiday season of 1963”. It seems rather a stretch to assign Spizer’s reaction to that of an entire nation––let alone an entire generation. It also seems that Millard would appreciate the assigning of a pivotal moment, the shot heard ‘round the suburbs, if you will. How, then, do we account for the way in which the music industry and the larger culture changed after 1964? Millard isn’t saying much that’s more convincing than what’s already out there.
Beatle humor, Beatle fashion, and Beatle empathy were as unique to the Baby Boom generation as the Marx Brothers had been to the generation before and Eddie Murphy, Michael Jackson, and Justin Timberlake would be to generations after. That The Beatles were carefully packaged and sold by manager Brian Epstein is undeniable but equally undeniable is the charm and talent that the Liverpudlians possessed. The almost endless stream of imitators that sprang up after February 1964 speaks for itself, meaning that we cannot simply pin all this on sound business decisions. Yet, we also cannot overlook how this runaway success changed the entertainment industry at large, right down to how the music was packaged.
Millard could have easily spent more time discussing the format in which those early recordings were released––how the LP found purchase in the consumer market after The Beatles and why the EP never found its footing in the US the way it did in the UK and, what kinds of treasures the singles market offered for bands and consumers. The Beatles, let’s not forget, issued many important singles all the way to the end of the bands career––without “Strawberry Fields” and “Penny Lane”, for instance, there would be no Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and without Sgt. Pepper, the album market might not have been as interesting (for consumers) or lucrative (for acts and labels) as it would become. Albums, let’s not forget, changed the way an entire generation moved from house to house––once you graduated from college, you spent several subsequent years figuring out where and how to store all those albums.
A great deal of ink gets spilled on the Beatles’ roots, especially the connections that Liverpool––a port city––had with the United States long before Ed Sullivan, John Lennon, or even TV. But the placement of that chapter, 40 pages into the book, is maddening. The organization of this volume is surprisingly haphazard, as though the chapters were written and placed together on a whim rather than through sound reasoning.
Too much of the book gets caught up in the British connection with American art and not enough of it is spent discussing the American fascination with British art. He misses some important elements that race played in the Beatles’ success. This was, after all, black music they were presenting to a white audience, and yet these lads were safe as they appeared far removed from sharecropper shacks and housing projects. He also misses an opportunity to discuss the way in which young people attached meaning to Beatle lyrics, searching for clues amongst the rubble of walruses and brilliantly colored submarines and, perhaps even more regrettably, sidesteps the connections that emerged between music, technology, and drugs.
Millard’s fond of repeating anecdotes that come straight from The Beatles Anthology DVDs but, when discussing how the group did home recordings and experimented in the studio, he refers to “minds numbed by drugs”, an assumption that Ringo Starr if not squashes, then certainly dispels in that same series, pointing out that to drug to excess in the studio or anywhere in the creative process carried negative consequences for the band and its craft. But he doesn’t explore the way in which the recordings were “used” by fans to explore the canyons of their minds while dosing on acid or relaxing with reefer.
Drugs such as marijuana and LSD permeated most areas of the ‘60s culture and if the music didn’t come directly from an artist’s experience with drugs it certainly held on to the possibility that the listening experience could be enhanced with chemical refreshment or that the music might accompany such sojourns. Even straight-laced film producer Roger Corman admitted to taking LSD in order to better understand the Jack Nicholson-produced film The Trip.
None of this is really revelation––music has been part of drinking culture since time immemorial and continues to be to this day but this is a missed connection that could have made for some stimulating content.
On the same front, Millard writes wincingly about advents in recording technology, once more failing to explore the possibilities in much depth or to acknowledge that The Beatles were not necessarily forerunners they’re often credited as being. Plenty of avant garde composers had experimented with tape manipulation long before this lot and in the world of rock ‘n’ roll Frank Zappa, The Beach Boys, and even the Grateful Dead were arguably more pioneering in terms of where they took technology inside the studio. That individual Fabs were not always aware of how to work the technology is of some amusement to Millard but really shouldn’t be. Those limitations are often the very things that make room for innovation––and not uncommon among musicians.
Perhaps some of this awkwardness stems from the fact that Millard is an historian but apparently not an artist––his writing often betrays a fans amusement with the anecdotal and superficial that prevents him from diving headlong into the real issues. Other issues, however, move by reader and author at rapid pace––it seems logical that groupie culture should be discussed, as it is an extension of the teenage mania written about elsewhere in these pages. And it seems odd that there’s little mention of how a band that was almost wholly apolitical became an integral part of a generation’s politics, or that, again, despite the book’s title, the author almost entirely dodges the Cold War and its presentation in Beatle music.
If the intended audience for this work is the Beatle novice, there are many other fine books about some of the very issues Millard’s title promises––Peter Doggett’s You Never Give Me Your Money is one––and readers of all levels Beatle fandom might be better suited to starting there. Others, who are curious about the topics mention in this book’s title, might even consider writing their own.