I was in my first period art class when I learned John Lennon had been killed. That was December 9, 1980. He’d been gunned down outside his New York City apartment at approximately 10:50 the night before. Howard Cosell broke the news to the sports world at the tail end of a Monday Night Football game between the Dolphins and Patriots. I would have been in bed at the time, so didn’t hear about it until I got to school the next morning. I hope this doesn’t sound callous but it really didn’t affect me all that much. I mean, I knew who John Lennon was. I certainly knew who The Beatles were. It still made no sense to me when Mr. Hess, my sixth grade art teacher, started crying. Cut me some slack here. I was only eleven. What did I know from rock and roll history? My parents weren’t even married yet when John, Paul, George and Ringo took America by storm with their historic February 9, 1964 appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. They stopped touring two years later, lost their manager, Brian Epstein, to a medical drug overdose a year after that, and in September of 1969, less than two months after I was born, John Lennon secretly informed his band mates he’d be pursuing a solo career. The break up was made official in April of 1970, a little over three months before I stuck my hands into the middle of my first birthday cake. If you’re wondering, the cake was chocolate and I was adorable.
I grew up listening to music, and I specifically remember seeing the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album in the middle of the upper level of my dad’s old wire record stand. It was in there with albums from The Four tops, The Temptations, the Manhattan Transfer, and a couple multi-record collections of songs that, even then, were considered moldy oldies. I listened to all of it, sometimes because I wanted to and sometimes because I had no choice. But by the time I was choosing and buying my own music, The Beatles were no longer and my version of the British Invasion referred more to bands like Led Zeppelin, Black Sabbath, Judas Priest and Iron Maiden.
It’s been fifty years since the boys from Liverpool first set foot on American soil. Now that I have a fuller understanding of what “Beatlemania” meant to rock and roll music as well as to what’s now considered pop culture, I’m sorry nothing like that, nothing even close to that has taken place in my lifetime. I don’t spend a lot of time lamenting the fact that I’m not twenty years older but I really do wish I could have been there. I asked my father what he remembered about that time and couldn’t help being a little disappointed when he told me he really didn’t get caught up in all the “hoopla.” Seriously? How could you not? The entire country was still in a funk from the Kennedy assassination. Suddenly, you’ve got these four young, dynamic characters with an entirely new brand of energy and enthusiasm. How could you avoid being completely swept away? My dad was one of the more than 73 million Americans who tuned in for that Ed Sullivan performance. He said, “I did make sure I was in front of the TV that night. It was electric. Even through the TV you could feel the excitement… The Beatles,” he explained, “were really a relatively short lived group. During that time their music changed tremendously; more experimental, a totally new sound, and some of their music really made you think.”
Singer, songwriter, and Rock and Roll Hall of Famer Billy Joel is one of countless musical artists who list The Beatles among his biggest influences. At that time, American blues had been largely pushed aside by R&B and soul, and the sanitized pop stars and pop music coming out of Hollywood really didn’t have much to offer. Let’s face it. Venus had a catchy melody and all but clean cut Frankie Avalon and the like wasn’t about to capture anyone’s imagination. The Beatles wrote their own songs, played their own instruments, and looked and carried themselves in a way that was at the same time fresh and daring but also demanded respect. They brought with them a youthfulness and authenticity that created an immediate connection with their adoring fans.
John and George are gone. Paul and Ringo are thankfully still with us, and still considered rock royalty. Ringo’s most recent album was released in January of 2012. Paul’s latest came out just four months ago. The music is good, but the two surviving members of the Beatles are celebrated a lot more for what they did than anything they’re still doing. The true impact of Beatlemania is still being felt and may never fully be understood. I’m sorry I didn’t witness it firsthand. I feel cheated. How many next big things and one hit wonders have come and gone over the past five decades? How many different musical artists seemed huge in their day but no longer have any relevance whatsoever? How many have gone from the top of the charts to an answer in a trivia game. I’ll take has-beens for $200, Alex. This band, named after a recreational drug called Dexedrine, broke up, reunited, reorganized and changed their look multiple times before “Come on Eileen, their biggest single, hit number one on the U.S. pop charts in 1983. They then took two years off before recording another album and subsequently breaking up again. What is Dexy’s Midnight Runners? Long live the Beatles!