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Stephens: The Beatles reshaped American culture, explaining their enduring appeal

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

Peter Jackson's new, nearly eight-hour edit of the 1969 film “The Beatles: Get Back” is getting plenty of attention, along with its fair share of rave reviews and withering criticism. The documentary, cleaned up with the latest technology, counters the usual story of the Beatles's acrimonious breakup by showing them doing more than squabbling. They collaborate, joke around and wax nostalgic in studios and in their legendary rooftop concert. The film reminds us that at the end of the 1960s, they were still writing innovative music that resonates today.

Just five short years before, in 1964, the group was the subject of another powerful film, which tracked a pop revolution in the making. Albert and David Maysles's “What's Happening! The Beatles in the U.S.A.” showed the band not only making music but reshaping the culture. Both documentaries reveal how the Beatles reoriented American music, helped the country shake off the drab conformity of midcentury consensus and, in the process, even provoked one of the first major battles of the modern culture wars.

The Beatles first landed in the United States in February 1964, a little over two months after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That year, the exuberant Fab Four did their part to draw America out of a dark, national depression by creating a new kind of cultural communion. The devotion of their acolytes bordered on the religious. Fans wanted relics and totems: a piece of a bedsheet, a guitar string, a lock of hair. Some concertgoers in the front rows, delirious with excitement, occasionally wet their seats or fainted. This was Beatlemania.

The screams of teenage girls — captured in tour footage in the Maysles film — were, as feminist scholars Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs would later observe, the shouts of a gender revolution in the making. “To abandon control — to scream, faint, dash about in mobs,” they wrote of these American girls, “was, in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture.”

The Beatles also revolutionized what it meant to be a young man. Their public image, thanks to manager Brian Epstein, lacked the feral machismo and snarl of earlier rock-and-rollers like Gene Vincent or Jerry Lee Lewis. The Beatles' producer, George Martin, said the group “sound like a male Shirelles.” Indeed, they covered songs by other “African American girl groups” like the Marvelettes, the Cookies and the Donays.

Their relative androgyny charted a new way of being. Feminist writer Betty Friedan even thought that young men with their long Beatles hair were “saying 'no' to the masculine mystique.” To Friedan, they seemed to be rejecting “that brutal, sadistic, tight-lipped, crew-cut, Prussian, big-muscle, Ernest Hemingway” manliness that was all too prevalent in postwar American society.

In their style and with their irreverence, the group helped alter American views of the British as stuffy and wedded to outdated, rigid institutions and ideas. The Beatles certainly did not fit that stereotype. They were fun and with-it, and their surprising, ebullient compositions sounded fresh and invigorating to young American ears.

Music critic Ian MacDonald once described the Beatles' American fans as “a generation raised on crew-cuts, teeth-braces, hot rods and Coca-Cola” who “knew nothing of blues or R&B and had forgotten the rock-n-roll which had excited their elder brothers and sisters only five years earlier.” Of course, there were plenty of extraordinary rock, pop and soul acts in the pre-Beatles period. But immediately before the Fab Four arrived in the States, the U.S. Top 40 charts were dominated by fresh-faced, bland teen crooners and one-hit wonders such as Bobby Vinton, the Kingsmen, the Murmaids and Bobby Rydell. One of the top-selling albums of 1963 was “Soeur Sourire,” the Singing Nun's self-titled release, a parent-friendly record that a youth pastor might recommend. Even Elvis Presley had lost some of his luster, becoming a kind of self-caricature, making one forgettable movie after another.

But the Beatles upended these popular trends. The Beach Boys, who had four hit albums and launched the surf music craze in 1962 and 1963, began to worry that they, too, were becoming outmoded. Brian Wilson was one of the 74 million Americans who tuned in to watch the Beatles's first performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show,” in 1964. He noticed how catchy their music was and said that “they looked sharp.” That seemed especially the case, he admitted, “compared to the silly, juvenile striped shirts and white pants the Beach Boys wore onstage. I suddenly felt unhip, as if we looked more like golf caddies than rock 'n' roll stars.”

By the summer of 1964, the Beach Boys had a host of other sharply dressed British bands to compete with. The British invasion was well underway, making room for the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Dave Clark Five and a raft of other with-it rockers.

Not everyone in the United States was impressed. William F. Buckley, the father of modern conservatism, wrote that the Beatles “are so unbelievably horrible, so appallingly unmusical, so dogmatically insensitive to the magic of the art, that they qualify as the crown heads of anti-music.” In Buckley's estimation, the Beatles were uncouth and artless.

Conservative Christians sensed something far more sinister. Evangelicals and Christian fundamentalists across the country targeted the Beatles with fury. Believers worried that their sons and daughters knew more about John, Paul, George and Ringo than they did about Matthew, Mark, Luke and John. In deeply racist language, ministers proclaimed from their pulpits that the Beatles' loud, rowdy music came straight out of the darkest jungles of Africa. Pastors and youth leaders decried the group's tight suits, long hair and effeminate look. One Pentecostal author declared in 1966, “No matter how popular the Beatles become, American girls still like boys to look like boys!” America's foremost evangelist, the Rev. Billy Graham, wondered whether long hair on men signaled the end of civilization.

When John Lennon told a journalist in 1966 that the group was “more popular than Jesus,” America's conservative Christians launched an anti-Beatles crusade. Religious conservatives climbed aboard what was being called the Beatles “ban wagon.” Responding to such pressures, at least 35 radio stations refused to play their records. Churches across the country sponsored Beatles record and paraphernalia burnings. David Noebel, a popular traveling minister, gave lectures and wrote books about how the Beatles were agents of communism, hypnotizing American youths in advance of a “red invasion.” Meanwhile, California's conservative Republican governor Ronald Reagan won national fame by targeting disrespectful youths, rock music and the counterculture that the Beatles represented.

Yet the Beatles' wild look, raw talent and disregard for tradition appealed to millions, despite all the apocalyptic warnings and denunciations. By the time the Beatles were filming their studio sessions in 1969, they had helped change American taste in music and fashion. At the beginning of the decade, when the band was developing its musical chops in Hamburg, the four resembled arty German existentialists, decked out in full black leather suits. By the decade's end, they looked like desert monks or hobo mystics. They led the way in production and album-oriented rock. They pioneered music videos. They also transformed attitudes about mind-altering drugs and ushered in a new interest in non-Western religions. Albert Maysles sensed that he was filming a historic moment when the band first arrived in 1964. He summed up the experience decades later: “These guys, the Beatles, they were almost, like, from another planet.”

Today we live in an era of an entirely different media and entertainment landscape. Long gone are the days of highly influential radio stations and three-network television that helped the Beatles reach, entertain and unite American devotees. But even today, in the era of new media and streaming music, the Beatles — in contrast with their counterculture contemporaries like the Who and the Yardbirds — continue to attract new generations of fans. In 2019, Paul and Ringo reissued “Abbey Road,” which reached No. 3 on the Billboard 200. Meanwhile, Forbes recently reported that 18-to-29-year-olds represent 47 percent of the listeners of the Beatles's billions of streamed songs. That staying power is why today, more than half a century after the Beatles stopped making music as a band, young and across the United States are setting aside 468 minutes for Jackson's film.

Randall J. Stephens is a professor of American and British studies at the University of Oslo. His most recent book is “The Devil's Music: How Christians Inspired, Condemned, and Embraced Rock 'n' Roll.” From the Washington Post.

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The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and don’t necessarily reflect The Press Democrat editorial board’s perspective. The opinion and news sections operate separately and independently of one another.

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