In this second excerpt from his new e-book Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now, Michael Tomasky writes about what American culture and popular music were like in the United States before the group arrived. This excerpt scratches the surface of a history told in much greater detail in the book. Read the first excerpt here.
You can buy Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by clicking here.
Things were changing fast in American culture in the early 1960s. In the realm of civil rights, the Freedom Rides, James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi, and the 1963 March on Washington were galvanizing the movement. On the sexual liberation front, the birth-control pill was approved by the FDA in the spring of 1960, meaning that for the first time in history, women could have sex without worrying about the consequences (an idea, as we’ve just seen, that still frightens a lot of people).
In Hollywood, the old Hays Code, which had policed the morality of motion pictures since 1930, was crumbling (a representative edict from the code, italics Mr. Hays’s: “Impure love, the love of man and woman forbidden by human and divine law, must be presented in such a way that: a) It is clearly known by the audience to be wrong…”). In book publishing, previously banned works like Lady Chatterley’s Lover were now sold openly. Academic freedom—for students!—started to become an issue: In 1962, a group called the National Council of Teachers of English published The Student’s Right to Read, a pamphlet designed chiefly to be distributed upon request to educators and sympathetic parents. It ended up selling 150,000 copies.
And the Supreme Court, of course, banned school prayer that year, making a celebrity of Madalyn Murray O’Hair, an avowed atheist and by all accounts a grandiosely abrasive person who plainly took pleasure in traducing middle Americans during her frequent talk-show appearances and subsequent legal rumbles, which included a lawsuit she filed after hearing the three astronauts on the Apollo VIII mission read from the Bible in space (the Supreme Court tossed the suit, citing lack of jurisdiction).
Eye-popping change across a range of fronts. But in music? Not much. Oh, there was some great music coming out. Early Motown and Stax-Volt, Chess, and Ahmet Ertegun and Jerry Wexler’s Atlantic label. Motown (one would probably say the softest of the four at that point) certainly had reach into the white teenage audience. But not too many white kids were digging Howlin’ Wolf and Big Joe Turner. The industry leeched the blackness out of most of the music white kids listened to. In pop music, songs were written by professionals, in New York’s Brill Building and elsewhere, and then doled out to the idols. Production values were clean, lapidary, no jagged edges. By and large, pop, both musically and lyrically, was polite. Guitar groups, to the minimal extent they had existed, were out.
Some of the songs that topped the singles charts in 1963 tell the story. A few do have their charms. Most are just unremittingly awful. But whether good or bad, all are light as a soufflé, radiating asexual whiteness in every note. There’s “It’s My Party” by Leslie Gore—a teenage girl’s lament about a rival winning over “my Johnny,” at her own party no less, to an arrangement drenched in jaunty horns and backing vocals. And “I Will Follow Him” by Little Peggy March, which makes “It’s My Party” (which is actually in the “has its charms” category) sound like “Welcome to the Jungle.”
There existed a sharp divide then: Teenagers bought 45-inch singles, and adults bought albums. The 12-inch, 33-rpm album was invented in 1948 by Columbia Records chiefly for the sake of classical music fans. Until then, if you wanted to listen to Beethoven’s Ninth (around 65 minutes) on the old 78’s, you need around ten discs, sometimes turning them over in the middle of movements! So the LP was a revelation in its day, as amazing as Pandora is to us. An entire symphony on one record, with virtually no hiss? And having to turn the record over only once? Incredible! But albums were expensive, too—in the late ’50s, around $2.98, sometimes more. That would be around $23 today, adjusted for inflation, and this in a society where most people had far less disposable income than they do now. This is a big part of why LPs were for adults, along with the fact that no pop idol could cobble together 12 songs of any quality.
What albums did adults buy? Classical records, to be sure, but those were ranked on a different chart. On the popular charts, it was film and Broadway soundtracks, mostly. The album that still holds the record for most weeks in the Top 10 is The Sound of Music soundtrack, which spent more than two years—109 weeks—in the Top 10 starting in 1965. Other biggies were Mary Poppins, from the year before. The year before that, West Side Story and Bye Bye Birdie were huge sellers.
Adult crooners were big: Andy Williams, Barbra Streisand (younger than John and Ringo, but “adult” because of the kind of music she sang). Certain comedy albums could move well over a million copies. Allan Sherman’s My Son, The Nut was the number one album in the country for eight weeks in the fall of 1963.
Sherman’s first record, the year before, had been called My Son, the Folk Singer. He was parodying what was called in those days the folk music boom. This “boom” could be dated to 1952 and the release of Harry Smith’s Anthology of American Folk Music, a three-LP set of great and important old folk songs, made widely available for the first time by Smith in this new LP era. It was this set that young Bobby Zimmerman first played probably as a student at the University of Minnesota, and then over and over and over in Greenwich Village. When he became Bob Dylan and started making records, he was popular, but his sales couldn’t touch Joan Baez and especially Peter, Paul, and Mary. The week The Beatles came to America, they had three albums in the Top 10.
The song and album that topped the charts that week were all too representative of the dreariness of the overall scene then. The #1 single was Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again,” a song that dated to the Big Band era, originally recorded by bandleader Vaughn Monroe. There exists on YouTube an amazing video of Monroe and his band performing the song on television after being introduced by none other than Ronald Reagan. The scene is evidently a tobacco warehouse somewhere in North Carolina, where, Reagan announces, “the college boys and girls from Wake Forest, North Carolina, and Duke University have gathered to dance and listen to the music of” Monroe and his female vocal backing quartet, the Moonmaids. If you were shown this clip, told nothing about it, and asked to guess the date, you could easily say 1951, maybe even ‘46. Incredibly, it’s 1960—college kids dancing to their parents’ music, exactly as their parents had!
The top album was the self-titled debut of The Singing Nun, fueled by the smash-hit single “Dominique,” which celebrated (in French) the life of St. Dominic. It had a hook, a hook that if you’re old enough to know it is probably already playing in your head—that repetition of “-nique,” which she pronounced “nee-ka,” “nee-ka, “nee-ka.” Jeannine Deckers, as she was born, actually led a tragic life. Raised in a strict Catholic household, she knew by a certain age that she was gay. She ran off, as so many young Catholic girls with similar urges did in those pre-liberation days, to the convent. She couldn’t produce another hit. She started writing secular songs (including “Le Pilule D’or,” an ode to the birth-control pill!). She left the order. She could never seem to wrest free any back royalties, but she always seemed to owe back taxes. Finally, in March 1985, she and her partner, Annie Pecher, took cognac and the 300 prescription pills the chemist had let Jeannine charge, and they laid down together on their bed for the last time.
Her story is somehow a fitting metaphor for the music of the era—an era that ended Friday, February 7, around 1:20 pm, when Pan Am flight 101 from London touched down at the airport recently renamed in honor of the assassinated president.
Tomorrow: The popular reaction; the embarrassing-in-retrospect highbrow reaction; the earthquake on the charts; England, Liverpool, and the Scouse accent. You can buy Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by clicking here.