The Beatles had been an enormous phenomenon in Great Britain since 1963, traveling mostly on one-night stands and selling records. They are already selling well in the United States and are the nation’s number-one group by the time they first arrive at New York City’s Kennedy Airport on February 7, 1964. The airport, the Plaza Hotel where they stay, and nearby streets, are mob scenes with hysterical fans. Sunday they perform on the Ed Sullivan Show for the first time live in the United States, with an estimated television audience of seventy-three million. The following Sunday they’re again on Sullivan’s show.
In July their film, A Hard Day’s Night opens in Great Britain, and in August in New York City. They have arrived, and they are not going away. It’s Beatlemania.
Jean Shepherd, a long-time enthusiast of classical music and opera:
does not like contemporary folk-singing, and has a particular aversion to rock and roll, sometimes making disparaging remarks regarding the motivations of such luminaries as Joan Baez and Bob Dylan. And also, regarding the music, Shepherd directs negative comments toward The Beatles because they are such a spectacularly unavoidable target.
With The Beatles’ triumphant appearance in the United States in early 1964, Playboy offers Shepherd the opportunity to go to the British Isles for two weeks and travel with them, in order to do the Playboy Interview. I asked Hugh Hefner why Playboy would choose a rock-and-roll-hater such as Jean Shepherd, replied that sometimes the magazine would send what seemed to be an antipathetic person on assignment because the editors felt it would produce an “interesting” result. Hefner said, “Using a very American guy like Jean, with his sensibilities,” to interview The Beatles, is just such an inspired decision.
And why does Jean agree to go? As an intrepid traveler, he probably can’t pass up a free trip to observe the primitive natives—aka, the British— with their attitudes and pop-fashions, their strange, trendy, tribal customs now enveloping his own world back home, especially on an excursion in which he will have the opportunity to trash the already mythic heroes of what he calls “pop music.”
On a postcard to his then-wife, actress Lois Nettleton, sent at the very beginning of his Beatles adventure, he writes from Edinburgh, “What a truly lovely city!! 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— Love! J.”
While in Edinburgh, Shepherd, the incorrigible traveler and observer, takes advantage of free time to record some comments about his experience, which he tapes in a series of programs to be used in syndication rather than for his regular broadcasts. Only about forty years later are these recovered, and then released little-by-little in boxed CD sets by http://www.RadioSpirits.com. The present author, based on his program guides for the series, appropriates a few of those comments here.
In his Edinburgh hotel room, Shepherd describes Scotland, especially the view from his window. He notes the many steam engines that pass by his hotel and Edinburgh Castle, and he describes: “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.” Shepherd describes the look of Scotland:”The color is a kind of dark, tarnished, burnished bronze. It’s a magnificent dark green, reddish brown color. The kind of color that painters are always trying to get but never quite making.” In another comment, Shepherd, who’s attached to the human voice as spoken and written above all other things, admires Scotland because: “If you love conversation, if you like to talk to people and love to read and love to be where people enjoy humor and ideas, this is the country for you.”
Disparaging The Beatles in various broadcasts; in recorded programs for syndication, and in his post card home; he sees them as a prime example of Britain’s degeneration of taste also exemplified by the then-popular English fashions and art. He’s also dismayed by recent British taste for a certain “role-reversal” that he has disliked in America. Yet, he will come to like the four mop-topped Liverpudlians as rough-and-ready fellows. Rubbing shoulders with them in smoke-filled hotel rooms and bumpy car rides through the night, escaping wide-eyed fanatics down fire escapes and dark alleys as though he were a fifth Beatle in their A Hard Day’s Night, brings him to a modified view of them as fellow human beings.
As he says, “I wasn’t really traveling as an observer—they began to accept me as part of the gang.”
When he returns to the States, reporting on all the outlandish activities he has observed and, indeed, participated in, he talks about his travels during his live broadcast from The Limelight Café in early November, 1964. We get a fascinating, inside look at daily life on the road of four guys who have become celebrities beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. And we see how a world traveler, used to encountering unexpected experiences and all different types of people, comes to accept these cocky, witty guys as companions. In an extraordinary admission he can hardly believe himself, he says, “I found myself becoming not only a Beatle fan but a Beatle!”
For the past two weeks I have been living with The Beatles. I have been in Dundee, Scotland, I’ve been in Edinburgh, I’ve been in London where they worked, Leeds, Liverpool, I’ve been in all these various cities on a whole series of one-night stands with The Beatles. Living with them, living in their room with them, in their dressing room, riding in the dark countryside trying to escape the fanatics, and observing England from the other side of the glass.
Now we’re all Americans here and the one thing that Americans are used to—they’re used to being constantly under the scrutiny of other people. For example, “Beyond the Fringe” comes to New York and it’s a satire by Britishers, mostly about Americans. We sit out there and applaud. But it never works the other way! You’re aware that if I were to appear in Britain they would not immediately nominate me to play Richard the Lionhearted. And yet, are you aware that they are casting a movie here in America and they’ve just recently cast a man to play Abraham Lincoln! Guess what nationality he is. We’re going to have a British Abraham Lincoln. Somehow that makes it more official. The idea that Laurence Olivier or somebody like that is playing Lincoln seems a lot more real than if say, an American were to play Lincoln.
Because, you know, I, being a good American have been completely awash in Britain ever since I was a kid. We take English literature in school, we study English poets, English history. In fact, most of us know more about English history than we do American history. So now I find myself in England in the real thing. Sitting in a tiny, super-heated, stinking, smelling, dressing room knee-deep in fish and chips and beer with the Beatles. England’s final answer to Richard the Lionhearted.
It’s a weird thing. Out in the darkness I can hear the sound of millions of girls screaming. It’s a children-girl thing in England. It sounds like a thousand sirens going off in the distance. It’s just a high-pitched wail—WEEEEEEE! Goes in waves—WEEEEEEE! And then one of the Beatles says to another Beatle—I think it was George saying to Paul, “Paul, you’re a Beatle!”
And Paul says, “Aye.”
George says, “Paul, you’re a Beatle. Pass a miracle—walk on water. Walk on water!”
Paul says, “Okay,” and he goes to the window, sticks his head out and—WAAAAAAA! the whole world explodes. He turns back to me and he says, “Are you Beatle-people?”
I say, “No.”
He says, “Well, sit down and have a beer.”
End of part 1 of The Beatles