By David Watts Barton, The Sacramento Bee, February 6, 2004
It’s tempting to write off the media attention being paid to the 40th anniversary of the arrival in America, on Feb. 7, 1964, of The Beatles. People have been talking, thinking and writing about that moment for, well, 40 years. So, what’s new?
A handful of stars will do a tribute to The Beatles on Sunday night’s Grammy broadcast. Books and DVDs and CDs and articles keep coming. And no matter how much you love The Beatles, you’ve got to think: Isn’t this overdoing it?
Then you hear from a guy like Larry Kane, a veteran reporter and TV anchor in Philadelphia, who began his career reporting on The Beatles’ first tour of America, in the summer of 1964. And he relates a conversation he had in 1979.
“I was interviewing President Jimmy Carter just three days before he lost his re-election bid to Ronald Reagan,” Kane recalled recently. “And during a commercial break, the 39th president of the United States leans over to me and says, ‘Larry, I heard you traveled with The Beatles.
” ‘What were they really like?’ ”
Let’s face it: The Beatles were so talented, so culturally influential, so profitable and so passionately loved that Western culture – global culture, really – will never get over them.
Just ask Martin Goldsmith, director of classical music programming for XM Satellite Radio in Washington, D.C., and the former host of National Public Radio’s “Performance Today.”
“I’ve been doing classical music radio for 30 years, and I don’t think there’s a divide between The Beatles and Brahms or Bach,” he says. “If the definition of ‘classical’ is something that has lasted a long time, then they are as classic as Beethoven or Brahms. And I’m convinced that they will be remembered in 100, 200 years.”
It’s unlikely anyone was making such speculation on Feb. 7, 1964, when The Beatles arrived in a country that was already falling in love with them.
They were enormously popular in England and had been for a year.
“They were used to crowds and intensity and the interest,” says Robert Freeman, who shot several of their album covers (including the iconic “Meet The Beatles” cover) and accompanied them on their promotional tour in February 1964. He has collected many of his photos of the band in “The Beatles: A Private View” (Big Tent, $60).
“They knew that there’d been a lot of radio play and that Capitol Records had spent a lot of money on promotion, but they were very confident by themselves,” Freeman says. “They just took things in their stride.”
Still, the group had had just one chart-topping single in America (“I Want To Hold Your Hand”), they had daringly long hair and were English, for cryin’ out loud, so they were very likely a flash in the pan.
“I’d heard the music on the radio, and I loved the joyousness of ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand,’ ” says Kane, whose book about his time on the 1964 tour, “Ticket To Ride: Inside The Beatles’ 1964 Tour That Changed the World” (Running Press, $22.95), was published last fall.
“So I was waiting to see them. But I figured they were one-hit wonders.”
Seeing them perform on the Sullivan show changed that.
“I was blown away,” Kane says. “When I saw them that night, and they did ‘Till There Was You’ (a ballad from the musical ‘The Music Man’), I suddenly noticed the range of the music. Their harmonies were amazing, and they were extremely poised. It was clear that they had something that could grow.”
Classical expert Goldsmith says that even though few, including the group members themselves, thought this phenomenon would become what it did, many were impressed with the band’s music.
“In 1964, we didn’t know we’d get ‘I Am the Walrus’ and ‘All You Need Is Love’ and the suite that concludes ‘Abbey Road,’ ” says Goldsmith, who recently published the book “The Beatles Come to America” (Wiley, $19.95). “But even though they got more complex technically and their poetry got a little deeper and they called on a few more outside instruments, I’m not sure they made a better song than ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand.’ ”
“Structurally, it’s so wonderful, from that staggered intro and then an extra bar before the first verse,” he says. “And it’s such a sweetly profound musical composition. All the phrases in the verse go down, melodically – (sings) ‘Oh, yeah, I/Tell you something/I think you’ll understand …’ – but when they hit the refrain, they just soar up an octave (sings) ‘I want to hold your hand.’
“It lifts you. It thrills you.”
And, he adds, “They were great artists because they speak to that portion of the human heart that is about learning more about ourselves.”
Goldsmith even takes the simple sentiment of the song as one of its great, enduring strengths.
“On the one hand, it is sort of bubble-gummy,” he says. “But for anyone who’s been in love, there is that moment when you touch someone for the first time, which is earthshaking. So, it’s not any deeper or important than that first touch, but it’s very profound.”
Nevertheless, The Beatles met resistance when they first appeared, say local fans.
“When The Beatles stepped off that plane with those long haircuts, people were literally shocked,” says Scotty Bulloch, 71, of Carmichael, who was 31 and just back from a stint in the military when he saw The Beatles on Sullivan. “Men didn’t look like that.”
Marty DeAnda agrees. His dad was 33 when The Beatles were on Sullivan, and 13-year-old Marty wanted to watch.
“My dad hated rock ‘n’ roll, and I only got to see The Beatles on Ed Sullivan because my mom talked him into it,” says DeAnda, who now co-owns the Dig Music record label and manages blues phenom Jackie Greene.
“But the next day at school, that was all the buzz in the cafeteria … over our cartons of milk.”
Even Kane, then a 21-year-old reporter when he got the call to accompany The Beatles on their first concert tour later in 1964, received this warning from his father: “He said, in all seriousness, ‘Watch your back, they’re a menace to society.’ People really believed they were dangerous.”
But now, The Beatles are perhaps the most celebrated musical artists of the last century. They not only continue to influence; they continue to sell. And, say their partisans, the reason is simple.
“So much of their music evoked joy or was about joy,” says Goldsmith. In his book, Goldsmith quotes the legendary classical conductor Leopold Stokowski, 81, who played Carnegie Hall around the same time as The Beatles and took an interest in them.
“Someone asked Stokowski about The Beatles, and his response was, ‘Both The Beatles and I are pursuing the same thing: a vision of the ecstasy of life.’
“And that’s what they were doing: sharing their vision of the ecstasy of life.”
This was in sharp contrast, notes Goldsmith, to newspaper writers who called The Beatles “wailing weirdies” in generally disdainful coverage.
But there were those who always believed.
Kane recalls a conversation he had with The Beatles’ manager, Brian Epstein, while on tour with the band in 1964. Epstein, whose own vision of the band played no small part in its success, told Kane that The Beatles would last well into the next century.
“Naturally, I thought he was nuts,” says Kane. “But he was right, and I see no reason why they won’t sell into the next century. The reason they’re still selling in 2004 is not the ‘mania’ but that they created perhaps the greatest body of music assembled in our lifetimes, and perhaps beyond. There’s everything you can imagine in music in The Beatles.”
So be prepared for a 50th anniversary, a 75th and perhaps even a centennial and bicentennial. The Beatles arrived 40 years ago this weekend, and they arrived to stay.