Jean Shepherd loved to travel and he loved to be immersed in whatever environment he found himself. By the fall of 1964, with his first three stories published within six months by Playboy, its editors had provided the means for him not only to travel, but to observe what was then a new cultural phenomenon: swinging England and The Beatles. Shepherd must have been in his glory. Just as a good travel writer can put the feel of a place on paper, Shepherd could detect differences and significant aspects of each new place he visited, and he knew how to express to his listeners his pleasures in what he observed.
Made during his October 1964 trip to the British Isles, in the first of four shows recorded for syndication, taped in his hotel room in Edinburgh, Scotland, he sets the scene in his own, special way. He practices his Scottish accent and he plays a bit of Scottish music on the kazoo. Listen—ah, what a melodious sound!
He delights in describing the look of Scotland. He looks out from his Edinburgh hotel room: “The color is a kind of dark, tarnished, burnished bronze. That’s about the only way I can describe it. It’s a magnificent dark green, reddish brown color. Beautiful, beautiful color. The kind of color that painters are always trying to get but never quite making.” He says, “It’s a green city, a city of trees, a city of statues and high, thin, ancient, medieval black-looking spires reaching up into the sky, way up there, and all topped with tiny crosses.”
Before he ends the program, he teases us: “Now if you wonder what I’m doing here in Scotland, I’m only authorized to say I’m here on a ‘secret mission.’” Shepherd followers, however, know that in 1964 he was contracted by Playboy to travel with and interview The Beatles, who were already very popular in Britain and were about to make their great surge in the United States after an earlier foray. Neither does it surprise us to know that, at least before he gets to know them, he dislikes them as entertainers, and disparages rock and roll, “pop music,” as he calls it. In fact, in a postcard to his wife Lois Nettleton, probably from early in the trip, he writes, “The Beatles are a first class pain in the ass. I’m really sorry I have to do a story on them. They are the epitome of aggressive cocky slobs who lead other slobs—.”
Yes, he says that, but from what he would write about his association with The Beatles for Playboy a couple of months later (February 1965 issue), and from what he would say in this set of syndicated programs, we also know that he modified his view of those “cocky slobs.”
October 19, 1964,
The Beatles performing in Edinburgh
the night that Shepherd arrived in town
to begin traveling with them.
In the final programs, taped in London, he focuses on several attributes of then-current English culture. This is the period of striking fashions of all sorts emanating from Great Britain. England is just the place to see the outrageous trends clashing with tradition, and these trends are becoming the most visible of its exports to the United States—rock and roll is on the rise—the “British invasion” is about to begin! Shepherd is a strange combination of liberal and conservative, so, despite not being a prude, he is aghast at the pornographic magazines openly for sale at newsstands, and he finds the increased mixing of gender attire and hairstyles confusing and unpleasant—the “role reversal” phenomenon.
For a few years in the 1960s, London was the world capital of cool. When Time magazine dedicated its 15 April 1966 issue to London: the Swinging City, it cemented the association between London and all things hip and fashionable that had been growing in the popular imagination throughout the decade….
This heady combination of affluence and youth led to a flourishing of music, fashion, design and anything else that would banish the post-War gloom. Fashion boutiques sprang up willy-nilly. Men flocked to Carnaby St, near Soho, for the latest ‘Mod’ fashions. While women were lured to the King’s Rd, where Mary Quant’s radical mini skirts flew off the rails of her iconic store, Bazaar….
Music was also a huge part of London’s swing. While Liverpool had the Beatles, the London sound was a mix of bands who went on to worldwide success, including The Who, The Kinks, The Small Faces and The Rolling Stones. Their music was the mainstay of pirate radio stations like Radio Caroline and Radio Swinging England. Creative types of all kinds gravitated to the capital, from artists and writers to magazine publishers, photographers, advertisers, film-makers and product designers.
All this ferment gives Jean Shepherd the opportunity to describe and decry pop culture in general and rock and roll in particular. Pointing to the British entertainment business of one-night-stands up and down the countryside, he comments that the slobs “come out of the hills like locusts. You never would believe me! Eating their candy and meat pies and chewing away at popcorn as fast as they can, swilling beer and yelling and hollering….” He comments that Americans think that lands like Great Britain “are pure and pristine and are magic culture centers,” and he corrects our idea by describing how pop culture with all its slob-like characteristics had taken over that country. Then he reveals his secret: he’s traveling with and living with The Beatles—the ultimate example of rampant pop culture! It’s Beatles fans who come out of the hills like locusts!
Shepherd uses The Beatles as a prime example of the degeneration of taste in Great Britain and, in a major descriptive and interpretive riff, he goes to considerable lengths to speak of the rare and wonderful reportorial opportunity he’s been given. As he puts it, “I wasn’t really traveling as an observer—they began to accept me as part of the gang.” The way he describes scenes of scrambling away from adoring fans along with John, Paul, George, and Ringo—running through streets and climbing down fire escapes—you can picture him as a fifth Beatle in their film, A Hard Day’s Night.
He contrasts them with many American entertainers, whom he sees as having immature, naïve attitudes toward life: “The Beatles are four successful truck drivers. And they have seen the world and they know what it’s about and for that reason it’s much easier to get on terms of rapport with them as an adult.” This experience obviously changes him and you can observe it happening as he speaks to us in this program. With The Beatles he shares crowded car rides and hotel rooms full of cigarette smoke and booze, so maybe the close personal experience, their lack of pretense, their easy wit, and their frequent clowning around explains why he eventually seems to like them as people, despite disliking their music. During a live Limelight café broadcast right after his return from the trip, he admits that he was dazzled by the splendor of their immense celebrity. Now that is some reaction and some admission for Shepherd, considering his general attitude toward popular culture! By the time he’s written the Playboy interview, he’s describing them as four regular guys who manage to take their fame in stride, and he portrays them sympathetically. Not often does Jean Shepherd alter his far-flung antipathies.
As he does so often regarding subjects of interest, Jean Shepherd takes this experience of touring and living with The Beatles to comment on larger issues, to reflect on his own attitudes, and, within those issues and attitudes, to give a critique of our lives. In these four programs, we’re permitted to experience with him during this journey through the British Isles, not only his perceptions regarding our world in the mid-twentieth century, but his emotional and critical reactions to a far-reaching cultural phenomenon of our age.
Recently discovered is an April 1970 broadcast titled “Beatles Break Up.” Regarding his trip in 1964 to do the Beatles interview, Shepherd makes an important, claim—remember that truth is in the unverifiable mind of the storyteller:
The Beatles specifically requested that I be sent over to do it because the Beatles had heard my show when they were in New York [early in 1964]. They’d heard my show. They knew about my work, and they dug it, which was very interesting to me. I was kind of surprised. I’m just telling you the truth of the story here.
(Stay tuned for Fit 3)