A few weeks ago, I interrogated my memory of why I so intensely disliked The Beatles as a child and tween. Basically, I blamed the Fab Four for frightening me when I was seven or eight years old, when what actually frightened me was a wax museum Chamber of Horrors. Combine that with my extreme disinclination to be told what to like and what not to like, and you have the (silly) reasons I disdained The Beatles.
Yesterday, I read a tweet asserting The Beatles are “VASTLY overrated.” A tweet to which one especially curmudgeonly journalist I follow (and admire) replied “Dead. To. Me.” While I would not go nearly that far, I agree they are not overrated, other than in the sense that anything truly exceptional often becomes a caricature.
And I realized I never explained how I slowly reversed course on The Beatles.
To be fair, as a child, I generally heard their early pop confections (e.g., “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand”) or other songs which, I must be honest, do very little for me (“Yesterday,” in particular).
But in July 1978, a few months before I turned 12, the wretched movie Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. It is hard to earn a poor rating on IMDB, but this film earns a 4.1. It also has a 12% score on Rotten Tomatoes, with a somewhat more charitable Audience Score of 44%.
It is just not a good movie, despite a cast that includes Steve Martin, Donald Pleasance and George Burns…and some fine musical performances by The Bee Gees (as the titular band) and Peter Frampton (as Billy Shears); Frampton simply cannot act.
What the movie does have, though, is some interesting covers of The Beatles’ songs, including a soaring “Got to Get You Into My Life” by Earth, Wind and Fire, a powerful “Get Back” by Billy Preston, and a mesmerizing “Come Together” by Aerosmith. I would even argue the Earth, Wind and Fire version improves on the original in its sheer exuberance.
Those covers were played on the radio, not only on my favorite Philadelphia radio station, the Top 40 (plus) WIFI-92, but also on the classic rock stations I was slowly discovering: 93.3 WMMR, 94 WYSP and, a few years later, the more adult-oriented WIOQ 102.5 FM. This is how I came to hear the original version of “Come Together,” which I strongly associate with summer at Camp Arthur-Rita (long since closed) in Zieglerville, PA, about an hour’s drive of our home in Bala Cynwyd, PA.
Well, I spent the summer there minus the week-plus I was sent home with an epic case of poison ivy.
The extraordinary opening riff to “Come Together,” that slow hypnotic interplay of voice, cymbals, electric bass, drums and organ, was a revelation. This was not another one of those “silly love songs,” as Paul McCartney would call them in 1976. There was a lot more to The Beatles than I had ever realized.
The irony in the previous paragraph is that the first album I ever bought was Wings Over America; Wings—McCartney’ post-Beatles band—was my first favorite pop group, when I was about 10 years old. They would soon be toppled by Fleetwood Mac…then Peter Gabriel…then Genesis, who have reigned supreme since about 1981.
I still have Wings Over America on vinyl, by the way.
But I digress.
I do not know what possessed my 14-year-old self to turn on a rerun of Quincy M.E. that Monday night at 11:30 pm on our local CBS affiliate, when I should have been going to sleep. I almost certainly had never watched the show before, nor have I since then. For only a few minutes into the show, it was interrupted for a breaking news bulletin.
It was December 8, 1980…and the news was that 40-year-old former Beatle John Lennon had been shot and killed outside his New York City apartment building, The Dakota, where he had lived with his wife Yoko Ono.
In the course of writing this post, I stumbled across a fact I had either forgotten or never known—that most people first heard the news of Lennon’s death from Howard Cosell on a broadcast of Monday Night Football. Nor had I known that the garrulous Cosell and the cerebral Lennon were friends.
For my generation—born just after the end of the Baby Boom ended in 1964—this was our “where were you when JFK was shot?” moment. One reason I know this is that the normally loud and raucous bus ride to Harriton High School, where I was a freshman, was eerily quiet the next morning; nobody said a word. There was a girl a year or two older than me who always sat toward the front of the bus, where she would quietly play a cassette mix tape of 1960s folk rock; if memory serves, she just sat there, softly crying. She may have played some Beatles songs, but I cannot be certain.
Like many other people, I bought a copy of Double Fantasy (which regrettably I have since sold), the double album Lennon and Ono had recently released. The singles, “Starting Over,” “Woman” and “Watching the Wheels” would dominate the airwaves for the next year or so. And Beatles songs were ubiquitous as well—or, at least, I was far more aware of them.
Not that they were moving me, however, even as the Dutch musical act Stars On was recording and releasing their “Stars on 45” Beatles medley. On March 22, 1981, I typed out a five-page list of FAVORITE SONGS, 160 in total. In the SUPREME ECHELON were “Don’t Stand So Close to Me” by The Police and “Carrie” by Cliff Richard, still one of my 100 favorite songs. Included in the 134 HIGH ECHELON songs was a single Beatles song, “Come Together.” Five months later, as I detailed here, I began making my own cassette mix tapes. I created the second one (Stuff Vol. I, most likely December 1981) by flipping around my favorite radio stations and hoping for the best. Perhaps not surprisingly, the 9th of 10 tracks on side two was “Come Together.”
The following Memorial Day weekend, I listened (some while driving in the front seat of my father’s taxicab; thank you, Dad) to my first “Rock and Roll 500” on WYSP, which tended to be more “hard rock.” I dutifully (if somewhat sloppily) recorded the data in a hard-backed dark blue notebook; my tally showed The Beatles came in fourth, with 28 tracks (topped by “Hey Jude” at #32), behind The Who (30), Led Zeppelin (33— “Stairway to Heaven” was #1) and the Rolling Stones (38). The only other Beatles song in the top 100 was “A Day in the Life” at #89. Two summers later, that latter track would rank #2 overall on the WMMR version of the Rock and Roll 500, with “Hey Jude” at #7.
It was “A Day in the Life” that kicked my slowly-developing interest in The Beatles to another level. “Come Together” was cool, but this was something else entirely—epic, eerie and capped off by the best orchestral crescendo ever. Early in the summer of 1982, I bought (or acquired from someone?) used vinyl copies of The Beatles’ “Red” and “Blue” albums, a combined four-disc compilation of their best songs.
Yes, I still have them.
I likely bought a used vinyl copy of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band at the same time, and at some point over the next few years, I purchased Abbey Road, Revolver and The Beatles (aka the White Album).
For all that, I still resisted calling myself a Beatles fan, even as I liked more and more of their songs…and learned that Revolver was the #1 album in the United States the week I was born.
Remember the girl on my high school bus with her 60s folk rock mix tape? That idea stayed with me, even after she graduated (I now suspect she was a senior), and in July 1982, I started to make my 6th mix tape cassette. Side One was my spin on her mix:
|A Day in the Life||Beatles, The|
|Gimme Shelter||Rolling Stones, The|
|Colour My World||Chicago|
|25 or 6 to 4||Chicago|
|Summer Breeze||Seals and Crofts|
|Tuesday Afternoon||Moody Blues, The|
|Nights in White Satin||Moody Blues, The|
|Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds||Beatles, The|
|Suffragette City||Bowie, David|
|Ziggy Stardust||Bowie, David|
Note that I opened the mix with “A Day in the Life” and added “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” for good measure.
That October, I created Stuff Vol. VII (my 8th mix overall) by again recording songs from the radio. The 3rd track on Side Two was “Get Back.” meaning four of the first 135 tracks I put onto a mix were by The Beatles.
But that was it for nearly eight years.
In the interim, I enrolled at Yale, where two classmates continued my change in perspective on The Beatles. One was a freshman year roommate, a brilliant musician and composer whose opinion I still greatly respect (despite resisting his occasional entreaties to run for office); he regards The Beatles with an almost sacral reverence. The other was a freshman in a different residential college with whom I became close friends, despite his being 12 years older than the rest of us. He kept trying to get me to apprehend the context in which The Beatles emerged, to imagine what he lived through: the world of popular music before and after they began to record. I was insufficiently versed in musical history to grasp his lesson then, but I now understand what he meant. Mick Jagger’s ebullient speech inducting The Beatles into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame hints at the wasteland that was popular music around 1962-63. I may yet write a post exploring that moment around 1960 when it was uncertain whether rock or jazz would become the dominant mode of popular music (clearly, the former did), and the disparate roles played by The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Bob Dylan (among others) in resolving that question.
Finally, in July 1990, I closed out Side Two of Stuff and Such Vol. XIX with three tracks from the “White” album: “Dear Prudence,” “Martha My Dear” and “Julia.” These were the 1,025th through 1,027th tracks I put onto a mix, recorded off a CD version of the album. I would eventually get Abbey Road and Revolver on CD as well, followed by Rubber Soul in 2006.
And it would be another 8½ years until the 8th Beatles track (“I Feel Fine”)—#1,484 overall—appeared on Stuff and Such Vol. LXIV. “She’s a Woman” followed in March 2000 (#1,585), with “Got To Get You Into My Life” (#1,682) making it an even 10 that November.
The following June, however, is when then dam began to break. I recorded four Beatles songs on a two-cassette mix I created for a road trip (Philadelphia to Ann Arbor, MI). Three more would follow in 2002, two in 2003, two in 2004, three in 2006-07 (including what is likely my favorite Beatles song, “If I Needed Someone” from Rubber Soul) and one in 2009; I was now up to 25 Beatles songs out of 2,649.
Finally, in July 2010, that number increased by 10 when I put the entire Abbey Road Side Two medley on disc eight of an 11-CD mix I created for a trip to Philadelphia.
|You Never Give Me Your Money||Beatles, The|
|Sun King||Beatles, The|
|Mean Mr. Mustard||Beatles, The|
|Polythene Pam||Beatles, The|
|She Came In Through the Bathroom Window||Beatles, The|
|Golden Slumbers||Beatles, The|
|Carry That Weight||Beatles, The|
|The End||Beatles, The|
|Her Majesty||Beatles, The|
I added one final Beatles track (“Everybody’s Got Something to Hide Except Me and My Monkey,” #2,799) in June 2012, meaning that through August 2015 (the last time I updated the database, unfortunately), 36 Beatles tracks were included among 3,305 total tracks (1.1%). A similar 1.3% (124) of the 9,560 tracks in my iTunes are Beatles tracks; for context, see here.
When I first began assessing my favorite tracks, albums and artists in the early 1990s, The Beatles languished between my 51st and 35th favorite artist; they were only that high because I owned six of their albums. By 2005, however, the last time I formally analyzed my musical tastes, they had risen to #12; this is roughly where they would rank were I to perform this analysis now.
It had been, dare I say it, a long and winding road, but 30 years after visiting Louis Tussaud’s Wax Museum in Atlantic City, NJ, I had more than made my peace with The Beatles.
Who are very much NOT overrated.
Until next time…
 According to page 37 of the December 8, 1980 edition of the Philadelphia Daily News.
 Technically, HIGH ECHELON (124) and ALSO HIGH ECHELON (10), because I did not remember the latter until after typing up the former.
 After a recount, there may only be 26.