The Beatles career exactly matched my teenage years. I was thirteen when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in Feb, 1964 and I was 19 when the Beatles performed in person for the last time on the roof of their Apple headquarters on Savile Row in London in Jan. 1969. The Beatles hit absolute dead center with baby boomers of my exact age, the high school class of 1968.
It was interesting therefore in Sidereal Days to write about the arrival of the Beatles on America’s shores from a completely different perspective. An established American rock & roll group would obviously evaluate the Beatles on a very practical basis as professional rivals, musicians and performers. They would also be assessing the Beatles on a more knowledgeable level than a knocked out teenage male fan or a screaming teenage girl.
While teenagers swooned to the Beatles, the fictional Sparrows are dissecting the music. They recognize that the chord structures are more varied, that the Beatles are singing rather complex harmonies, and that Beatles play a more rugged brand of music than anyone else with records in the stores.
The Beatles had an enormous advantage over their predecessors in rock & roll. Elvis could probably step out on a stage and convincingly belt out 15 or 20 rock & roll songs. Ditto for Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Dion and the Belmonts, Gene Vincent, Chuck Berry, the Everly Brothers and the other early stars of the genre. These early practitioners of rock & roll simply had no backlog of appropriate material to work from. They could draw on country music, perhaps jazz, gospel, the blues, Americana and dance music but there was as yet no reservoir of rock & roll tunes.
Then come the Beatles. At their proving grounds, the Indra, the Kaiserkeller, the Top Ten, and the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany, they had to spend four, five and six hours a night on stage entertaining not merely demanding audiences but dangerous ones. By 1962, five or six years into the rock & roll era, they had a fairly significant catalog of material to draw from—and draw they did. The Beatles likely could play 150 different numbers if pressed. They rocked up some old standards like Falling in Love Again and Red Sails in the Sunset, they studied the B sides of records which no one else paid attention to, they covered overlooked numbers like Buddy Holly’s Words of Love, pulled off convincing renditions of nonsense songs like Besame Mucho, and in the desperate search for new material delved into songs like Hippy Hippy Shake and into obscure artists like Arthur Alexander. They modified the lyrics and sang girl group songs like Mr. Postman and Chains.
This familiarity with a massive number and a huge variety of material supplied the Beatles with enough songs to keep their audiences happy through long hard nights in gangster bars. It also supplied John and Paul, the fledging songwriters, with a massive bag of musical tricks to draw from as they began to write and perform their own songs. They nicked little known guitar riffs and progressions from forgotten or overlooked artists. They melded big band conventions into their rock & roll. They soaked up influences from everything and everybody they heard and melded them into their own songs. And they topped all of this off with a hard edged sound that came from a thousand and one nights of playing together in front of audiences that insisted on excitement and expertise.
By the time the Beatles lit into an American TV audience of 73 million people, the cheeky, cheery, squeaky clean over-night success mop tops were probably the most hardened and experienced—in every sense of the word—rock & roll veterans in all the world. It’s no wonder the fictional Sparrows and all the other actual bands, came to gawk and remained to gaze on in spellbound wonder.
By the way in Chapter 78 of Sidereal Days I am the young kid that went into Medley Corner and wanted to buy “the Beatle record”, got confused when I was told there were three Beatle records and left because I only had seventy-five cents.