Sunday, February 09, 2014

Fifty Years After

Recalling events that took place fifty years ago can be challenging for my sixty year old brain. Most of my recollection of events are without many specific details. Others are as vivid as yesterday's breakfast. The American appearance of The Beatles on Feb 9, 1964 was one of those bygone yet memorable events as well as the Kennedy assassination on Nov 22, 1963. Oddly, both of these events took place less than three months apart.

Back in the sixties my grandparents on my mom's side were always over at our house for dinner on Sunday nights. Most of the time my mom made something home cooked and traditional such as as beef or a pork roast and mashed potatoes, fried chicken or pork chops. Good wholesome midwestern fare. On occasion we had steak, usually t-bone or sirloin. Rarely did we order out or go out for dinner at all  back in those days. Dining out was reserved only for very special occasions.

After Sunday afternoon dinner we sat and watched television. In the early 60's we had a choice of only 5 VHF channels to watch out of Chicago. CBS, NBC, ABC, WGN and PBS which was not referred to as PBS back then when the programming had some educational and redeeming qualities but boring none the less. Some things never change.

Sunday night the routine television lineup at our house began with The Ed Sullivan Show on CBS channel 2 at 6pm central time. Originating from Manhattan the entertainment consisted of the east-coast style variety entertainment. Music acts, comedians, magicians, ventriloquists and an occasional circus act appeared. There was always a gratuitous performance from some awful Broadway Musical as well. What else would we expect coming out of new York City? The bro and I had little choice but to lay on the floor with blankets and pillows where we both watched along with the family. We had another B&W TV but it was small and sat on an unheated back porch. Still there were no other choices in programming for us to watch at that hour anyway.

The week before Sunday Feb 9, 1964 there was media hype about these British performers making their first American television appearance. Not as exposed to pop culture of the day as much as some of my contemporaries the news didn't get me too excited. Some of my schoolmates on the other hand were very aware of what was to come. Especially the seventh and eighth graders on the school bus.

When The Sullivan show came on that evening, there, live and onstage were four unusual looking men dressed in suits of a type I had never seen before and had hair styles that made them resemble Moe Howard. My dad claimed they all looked just like another musician named Ishkabibble, who before that night I had never heard of.

We watched as we always watched but this time it was different, very different. My dad was laughing out loud at what he thought were British clowns. My mom just shook her head in disgust while my grandparents sat slack jawed and silent. I didn't know what to make of this new music, what we could hear of it over the screaming teens in the audience whose shrieks were audibly louder than the musical sound. It seemed there were more images of these swooners broadcast than there were of the musicians. The rest of the evening at home gave way to discussion about how awful these Beatles were and how awful their music was. I could have cared less one way or the other. One thing for sure, this was an event for the ages and I knew it right then and there.

This was the first time The Beatles were exposed to America and life after that evening would never be the same. I am able to say this remembering what came next.

I believe I was in the third grade and the following Monday morning on the bus The Beatles were all anyone would talk about. Especially the older students. As time went on they soon began bringing Beatles merchandise into school. Girls wore buttons and others had metal lunch boxes with Beatles images on them. Pens, pencils, you name it. If an item could have some form of Beatles image stamped on it someone bought it to show off. This was at a Catholic school so the nuns soon banned all Beatle paraphernalia from class rooms. But on the bus and playground students traded Beatle trading cards and showed off their latest Beatle garbage. I wasn't impressed and wanted nothing to do with it. The Beatles didn't connect with me at the time but soon I began to become interested in this new and strange phenomena. Never before in my young life had I seen any one object of interest grab so much attention. This had to be a new beginning for mass media merchandising executed not only through traditional print and radio saturation but included the newest form of mass communication, television.

One friend of mine names Jimmy became enraptured with all things Beatles. He had all their records, mostly 45rpm's. He began to grow his hair like a Beatle until the nuns called his mom and told her to cut out the crap. That only made him more fanatical about his new 'hobby'. His favorite was Ringo so he began wearing big fake plastic rings. His parents bought him a drum set. He had a Beatle wig. Other friends soon began taking guitar lessons. The Beatlemania phenom grew even stronger. It wasn't long before what The Beatles looked like, how they acted and even what they wore became so rampant and copied it boggled my mind. Jimmy even had one of those light blue collarless shark skin suits worn by his heroes.

Oneweekend Jimmy's mom took us to an old movie theatre in Whiting where the new Beatle movie was playing one Saturday afternoon. Think we were both in 4th or 5th grade. Being there and watching A Hard Day's Night was similar to being at The Ed Sullivan Show where girls screamed constantly and we barely heard the movie soundtrack. Experiences such as this hardly endeared me to The Beatles.

I resisted allowing this cultural event influence my young life, maybe that is why I am the way I am today. If The Beatles were rebels then I was a bigger rebel. While I liked music it was not something I would allow to change my life. I have heard that individuals never change, we just become more of what we really are. It wasn't until  years later when I began to appreciate listening to Beatles music.

Looking back The Beatles were everything they are made out to be. Their influence in every fabric of music, pop culture and the entire American way of life so far has not been eclipsed to my knowledge and I say this because I lived through and experienced the whole damned thing.

Saturday I decided to make a compilation of my favorite dozen Beatle tunes. I received a iTunes gift card for Christmas and went to the iTunes store to pick out my favorites using  the card. Don't take this the wrong way. I am not calling these selections the greatest of so many greats, just my personal favorites. There are more favorites of mine but it was my intent to limit the list to twelve. Here are the tunes I chose.

You Can't Do That
Tell Me Why
If I Needed Someone
And Your Bird Can Sing
I Am The Walrus
Hey Bulldog
Blue Jay Way
Back In The USSR
Happiness Is A Warm Gun
Revolution #1
Old Brown Shoe

One element that is common in my chosen selections are John Lennon and George Harrison, who had the most influence in these recordings as far as I can tell. My preference in Beatle tunes tends to go towards harder rock or psychedelic than the others.

McCartney wrote stuff chicks like. The only McCartney music I remotely like are a select few from his first post-Beatles recording, Ram. Even that album contained mostly pop, bubble-gum and sappy sweet selections. His animal rights wacko and vegan activism didn't help earn my affection.

I always found Ringo to be more of a mascot instead of a talent, not that he was void of talent. For instance, Caveman was a hilarious movie when I first watched it.

Lennon and Harrison are far and away my favorite Beatles not only for what they did with The Beatles but what they created after. Especially Harrison. His affiliation with that far eastern cultural freakiness sort of turned me off. That didn't bother me too much because it was what it wasn't. Lennon tried too hard to be the social activist type and his time spent with that awful woman make me cringe. Still, John's body of work got much better after The Beatles breakup. Recently, a close associate of his during Lennon's final years shed some light on John's true ideological feelings. So who knew?

Others seem to find fault with John Lennon no matter what his outward political and social image projections may have been. As it goes with most extreme leftists, their world is rife with their own special brand of hatred and intolerance. But we already know that.

In claiming The Beatles were influential in the very fabric of American life one prime example would be Apple Computer. Steve Jobs had borrowed the interest from The Beatle's recording company, Apple Corps. Jobs used the name and image of an apple. There was a lot of friction between the two and it carried into court a few times over copyright infringement. Jobs eventually won each challenge.

Apple Computer capitalized on their Beatles Apple connection throughout it's course of business for decades. They borrowed visual interest every chance they could using high-key black & white imagery and the stark use of negative space. While there were departures such as Sgt. Pepper's or Rubber Soul and the film HELP!, examples of A Hard Day's Night as a film Let It Be as a film and an album cover along with The White Album cover would be prime exhibits of this style.
Apple's ad agency and graphic designers did an outstanding job of carefully crafting imagery that seemed cutting edge when produced at a much later time period but had it's inspiration and influence in what is referred to as the Swiss design style which began in the early 50's and very reminiscent of The Beatles image. 

With the exception of using a Garamond font style, which was a departure from the traditional Swiss style use of the sans serif Helvetica font, Apple's communication material always displayed the essence of the Swiss style in cleanliness, readability and objectivity. I know for a fact that this was all accomplished at the heavy-handed creative direction of Steve Jobs himself especially upon his second return to Apple. Therefore it is not surprising that Jobs commissioned Paul Rand, a very revered and famous graphic designer to create the visual identity for his NEXT computer venture. Rand was highly influenced by both the German advertising style Sachplakat as well as the Swiss design style of the early 50's. Rand was behind the IBM logo as well as that of Westinghouse and ABC, among other very notable creations.

The Swiss style was most evident in their Think Different campaign where black & white photographs of creative thinkers of the 50's and 60's were prominently used (wish I still had my original series of posters which I obtained when the campaign was unveiled at the Macworld convention back in the late 90's). Here is a reminder of the successful Think Different campaign.
One Think Different poster of note would bear the image of Paul Rand himself, at work designing international symbols. The poster even represents his work on his wikipage. Paul Rand's website is still live.
While the following tune didn't make my list of twelve the images from this film clip are definitive of the early Beatles use of visual imagery.

Credit for this must be given to manager Brian Epstein, a true media pioneer and genius. This is the same style of black and white iconography and symbolism that Apple Computer so successfully used to capitalize on creating it's more contemporary image with young consumers far removed from the 60's generation. Guess what? It just worked. Then and later.

Here's another.

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