As we celebrate, incredibly to many of us, the 50th anniversary of the release of the iconic Sgt. Peppers album, this June 2017, let’s take a step back from the point of view of a 60s survivor who is now IN his 60s.
I was 12 years old at the start of 1964. It was a perfect age for the Beatles to come along, and grow up with. As I matured, so did they. What a great ride!
The 60s, an increasingly mythical era, arguably began on November 9, 1961, the date Brian Epstein decided to walk down the steps of the Cavern Club.
There were a lot of crucial moments in the history of the Beatles. One huge moment was John Lennon’s decision to let Paul McCartney join his precursor band, the Quarrymen. Another was Lennon’s allowing George Harrison aboard, despite Lennon’s feeling that Harrison was too young.
But the 60s would have been unimaginably different without the Beatles. And those in line at the Cavern who were annoyed as Epstein was ushered past them and down the soon-to-be historic steps of the dingy venue, well they could not have understood what a gigantic moment in western culture Epstein’s appearance meant.
Epstein was a complicated man. Both gay and Jewish in a time and place that was intolerant, he was looking for something, and found it in onstage at a noon rock show performed by four scruffy boys, which at the time included the handsome, popular Pete Best on drums.
His psycho-sexual attraction aside, Epstein saw the potential the group had, and after repeated viewings of the band, offered to manage them.
Epstein had never overseen a musical group before the Beatles, though he had successfully managed his parents’ phonograph record shop for a number of years.
The determination he brought to the effort to get the band a recording contract is legendary, as is his correct assessment that the Beatles would be “bigger than Elvis.”
Few others believed that at the time. Despite an enthusiastic local following in Liverpool (and to an extent in Hamburg, Germany) the chances that the future Fab Four would become the biggest music act of their generation and indeed the next half century appeared to be nil.
Epstein set out to make it happen by cleaning up their look and their stage act, and by bombarding England’s record executives with phone calls. He was able to get his calls returned due to the size of his retail music business, but was still rejected for months, including by Decca’s Dick Rowe, who rightly or wrongly has been made one of the biggest goats in music history: the man who turned down the Beatles!
In his autobiography, Epstein claimed Rowe told him “Guitar groups are on their way out, Mr. Epstein.” Rowe later denied saying those words, but they ring true. The pomposity and smug self-assertion are typical of record executives of that era, and beyond.
One hideous task the Beatles left to Epstein was the firing of Pete Best. In what may be the most sordid moment in Beatle history, the hapless Best was sacked in favor of the more talented Ringo Starr. The cowardly Beatles never spoke to Best again. Yet, the switch had to happen. Ringo was the right man for the job.
So then, Bigger than Elvis? It took the instincts of producer George Martin to take Epstein at his word, not to mention at first reluctantly allowing the Beatles to record their own material. Martin’s suggestion that they speed up the tempo of “Please Please Me” was critical, and his prescient words afterwards were: “Gentlemen, you have just recorded your first number one record.”
The Biggest Act of All Time
Claims to be the “biggest” are of course difficult to properly judge. How do you measure the Beatles against Bing Crosby, who sold 50 million copies of “White Christmas” alone, still the biggest-selling single of all time? Or how do we compare the Beatles to PSY on YouTube’s most-watched videos list, with some colossal ten-figure number of views?
The answer most often given is by raw total certified sales, where the Beatles reign supreme according to most sources. The numbers and claims vary, but let’s call it a quarter billion “units” in sales for Mr. Epstein’s protégés. Those are units people shelled out cash for.
But the sales amounts of the Beatles is just one aspect. The cultural impact of the Beatles is almost impossible to describe to those who didn’t live through it, male hairstyles being one monster example. Clothes, absolutely. But perhaps most importantly, attitude. You could now be who you wanted to be, and be “cheeky” about it.
The 20 number one singles by the Beatles may be topped someday. But not the total domination of the U.S. music sales charts by the Beatles in 1964. At one point the Fabs transcended belief by holding down the top five positions, a feat that is probably unbeatable.
How that happened is admittedly a fluke, thanks to another classic goat in the Beatles legend, Capitol records executive Dave Dexter, who passed on their early singles, giving them over to smaller labels. That “She Loves You” was a mammoth hit in the U.K. failed to impress Mister Dexter, and it took a bit of manipulation by Epstein, including the impending appearance by the Beatles on the highly popular Ed Sullivan show, to finally pressure the buzz-cut wearing Dexter enough to grudgingly release “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
Much is made of the psychological impact the Beatles had on a North America still reeling from the JFK assassination. Again, having lived through it, I’ll verify it was a massive factor. Kennedy was the first young-looking president, and to many of us, he symbolized a new era. It’s impossible to overstate the grief we felt at the time after Dallas. The Beatles came along at exactly the right moment, that winter.
The Beatles never looked back from the Ed Sullivan appearances, and from then on, sold themselves. They were “good copy” and were in huge demand on all media. Their first movie was a smash, and won over many of the dubious adults. By mid-1964, Brian Epstein had been proven right: the Beatles were indeed bigger than Elvis.
Could it happen again?
The Case for “Bigger than the Beatles”
Due to the unique circumstances of the gestation and break-out of the band, it’s going to be very tough indeed to top the Liverpool Lads. The creative tension between Lennon and McCartney resulted in hundreds of brilliant songs, which their recording engineer Geoff Emerick recently compared to Mozart. He says such creativity comes along every couple hundred years.
Analysis of the Beatles catalogue is intimidating. The chord structures, the harmonies, and the delivery are nearly beyond belief, and playing them is electrifying. One is tempted to take Emerick, whose fine autobiography “Here, There and Everywhere” outlines the Beatles creative process as well as his own studio contributions, at his word. They can’t be topped.
Somewhere out there, I believe, lurks a talent overwhelmingly potent. It’s probably a group of people who have been playing for a long time together, singing together. They have supreme love for each other, yet are challenged by each other. They may be multi-generational, even a family. They look good, sound good, and inspire fanatical devotion amongst their fans.
They write songs that are simply great, that transform us, challenge us. They will release album after album of astonishing material, that will rock our world and blow our minds.
And they will need luck, a lot of it, to find someone to handle the thankless task of promoting them. The next Brian Epstein will have to have the patience of a saint and a belief in his clients that will be comparable to a crusade. He or she will have to push and prod, using every trick in the book and some new ones besides.
The next Epstein will be obsessed yet measured, powerful but not overbearing. He or she will love his band, and they will love him or her. “Brian was one of us” as McCartney has said. But, it took until just a few years ago, in 2014, for the manager of the Beatles to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Better late than never, but still, that’s pretty sad.
Our current era is, to be frank, somewhat grim. Politically, culturally, even spiritually, there aren’t a lot of bright spots out there. If a band came along that was Bigger than the Beatles, it would mean a cultural paradigm shift. They would be more than great musicians, they would be cosmic ambassadors, announcing a new world, a better way to be.
We as a world need it.
So, as many of us honor the magic of Sgt. Pepper, I say come on, musicians young and old alike. Form up, shape up, sing and play like no one has ever done before. I dare ya.
Beat the Beatles.
by Kyle K. Mann
June 4, 2017