Oooh, I need your love, babe
Guess you know it's true
Hope you need my love, babe
Just like I need you
(Shouldn’t it be “Just like I need yours”?)
As I told you in the previous 2 or 3 lines, I went to see The Beatles: Eight Days a Week – The Touring Years (director Ron Howard’s new documentary about the Beatles) last week.
Eight Days a Week is about what we might call version 1.0 of the Beatles — the pre-Revolver, pre-Sgt. Pepper Beatles who wore matching suits, cranked out hit single after hit single, and caused teenaged girls to be seized by fits of hysterics at their concerts. (One critic described those Beatles as “the original and best boy band,” and he was exactly right.)
The movie ends when the Beatles stopped touring in 1966, frustrated by the fact that those their audiences made so much noise that no one — least of all the Beatles themselves – could hear them perform.
I was in sixth grade when the tidal wave that was Beatlemania engulfed the United States. It was an amazing phenomenon – and a largely inexplicable one. I’ve spent a lot of time over the years pondering exactly why the Beatles had such an impact on us baby boomers . . . and I’m still pondering that question today.
As Oscar Hammerstein might have put it if he had been writing about John, Paul, George, and Ringo instead of Maria von Trapp, “How do you solve a problem like Beatlemania?”
Most Fab Four devotees would say that Beatlemania was primarily a product of the unforgettable pop songs that Lennon and McCartney cranked out by the dozen.
There’s no denying that many of the songs recorded by version 1.0 of the Beatles are extraordinary – more so the melodies than the lyrics, of course.
Generally speaking, the lyrics of Beatles 1.0 songs weren’t anything to write home about. As John Lennon admits in the Ron Howard documentary, he and Paul didn’t spend that much time on the words to their songs. (A case in point: the verse from “Eight Days a Week” quoted above.)
Lennon and McCartney were gifted tunesmiths, although their tunes aren’t quite as good as English composer Howard Goodall claimed in Eight Days a Week. (Goodall said that the Beatles had written more great melodies than Schubert, although maybe not as many as Mozart. Elsewhere Goodall has said that his shortlist of composers whose work changed all the music that followed it is topped by Beethoven, Wagner, and the Beatles. Really?) And there were a lot of other great pop tunes being recorded in the mid-Sixties.
The Beatles wouldn’t have been the Beatles without all the great songs, but those songs alone don’t explain their unprecedented success – to put it another way, the songs were a necessary but not sufficient condition for Beatlemania to happen.
I would never have expected to find the answer to my question in a senior thesis written by a Wesleyan University history student in. But Daniel Nathan Charness’s 2010 thesis – which is titled BeatleBoomers: The Beatles in Their Generation – hits the nail squarely on the head when he states that we’ll never understand Beatlemania unless we stop focusing only on the Beatles and start considering the Beatles’ audience. (You can click here to read the thesis in its entirety.)
|The cover of Charness's thesis|
That’s right, boys and girls. Beatlemania isn’t so much about the Beatles and their music as it is about you and me and our fellow baby boomers:
The explosive impact of the Beatles is easier to explain when it is viewed from the perspective of their audience. If it is already assumed that their music was good enough to appeal to a broad audience, this generational perspective allows us to examine why the Beatles – rather than any of the other bands that emerged during the early 1960s – became the most influential and enduring pop phenomenon of the 20th century. The Beatles were the perfect match for this generation of youth, not just because they were good musicians, but also because they possessed qualities that had a nearly universal appeal to baby boomers of all nationalities and backgrounds.
Most of Charness’s thesis is devoted to exploring those uniquely appealing qualities of the Fab Four.
As he notes, the Beatles had a great look — the haircuts and the matching suits – and appealing personalities. (Eight Days a Week aptly describes them as “cheeky,” but it was an innocent and inoffensive cheekiness.)
And after countless hours performing live in Liverpool and Hamburg clubs, the Beatles had developed a live act that electrified audiences. The lads looked like they were having a ball on stage – especially Paul – and the people who came to see them couldn’t help but enjoy themselves, too.
Charness’s arguments are persuasive, but I can’t say that he has entirely explained Beatlemania. Maybe that’s because he’s not a baby boomer – and so he can’t entirely appreciate what it was like to be a teenager when the Beatles exploded on to the pop music scene.
I’m not sure that we will ever get to the bottom of why the baby boomers responded to the Beatles differently than they responded to the Rolling Stones, the Beach Boys, the Who, and all the other great groups of the era – and why they still feel very differently about version 1.0 of the Beatles today.
But I believe that Charness is absolutely correct when he says that understanding the Beatles’ baby-boomer audience is key to solving the problem that is Beatlemania.
Charness’s thesis describes how the baby boomers differed from previous American generations, and ticks off the factors that made the boomers were so receptive to Beatlemania.
He correctly notes that “the baby boomers have refused to give up the band they grew up with.” (And we never will. If you want to take our Beatles records away from us, you’ll have to pry them from our cold, dead hands.)
But he kindly refrains from attributing our devotion to the Fab Four to the fact that we have always been a remarkably self-absorbed generation.
Let’s face it. We boomers will never be dissuaded from believing that ours is the most especially special generation of all. We view everything that happened during our formative years – JFK, the Vietnam War, Laugh-In, men walking on the moon, The Graduate, the Ford Mustang, Rocky and Bullwinkle, the Beatles – as being uniquely meaningful.
|(Those were the days!)|
Here’s a question for my fellow baby boomers: if you were older or younger than you are, who would be you favorite pop musician?
If you were older, Elvis Presley might have been your pop-music touchstone instead of the lovable lads from Liverpool. But given our age, Elvis is more of a curiosity – interesting and of some anthropological significance, but not one-hundredth as interesting or significant as the Beatles.
And if you were younger, perhaps you would feel the same way about Michael Jackson or Prince or Madonna as you feel about the Beatles.
But we’re card-carrying members of a generation that believes in the Beatles above all other musicians . . . as our children roll their eyes.
Don’t misunderstood what I’m saying, mes amis d'un certain âge. I’m not dogging on the Fab Four – I’m just saying that a large part of the reason that we deeply believe that the Beatles are special is that we deeply believe that we are special.
* * * * *
If you’ve ever seen film of the Beatles performing live, you know that the vast majority of the audiences at their concerts were girls — mostly teenagers who look too young to have had a driver’s license. In the next 2 or 3 lines, we’ll speculate about why that was . . . and also why so many of those girls grew up to be women who are still devoted to the Beatles.
Click below to buy a DVD of the Eight Days a Week documentary movie from Amazon.