That Old Feeling: Meet the Beatles

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I remember seeing "A Hard Day's Night" at a movie house in suburban Philadelphia the summer of 64. I say seeing; hearing was out of the question, due to the shrieks of the band's bobbysoxer brigade. (The volume level was even higher at a Beatles concert I attended that September. The boys used to say they literally couldn't hear themselves playing. Well, we couldn't hear themselves either.) The movie theater, I swear, was informally divided into quadrants, each inhabited by the attendant sisters of one band member: John in the lower left, Paul in the lower right, etc. A closeup of one Beatle would cue the muezzin wail (I borrow here from S.J. Perelman) from his quadrant.

The girls, consciously nor not, were imitating the film's climactic sequence, which intercuts shots of the band performing "She Loves You" with reaction shots from the young audience, and returns occasionally to girls mouthing the names of their particular heroes. The unforgettable one is a pretty blond undergoing a kind of anguished ecstasy. She is seen four times: first clutching her hair, then crying into her hand, then sobbing hand to head and finally, at the song's last break ("You know you shou-ou-ou-ould...") silently keening a desperate "George." Over the decades, she's remained for me the indelible icon of feminine fandom: a girl who is close enough to her idol to realize she will never reach him, and so luxuriates in the sweet misery of a vivid dream, where the harder one runs toward one's beloved, the farther and faster he recedes.


What a consuming fever first love is. Americans thought they were in on the initial explosion of Beatlemania. But John and Paul first met on July 6, 1957, and were playing together soon after. By the time the Beatles hit the U.S., their career together was already half over.

On a BBC radio show in 1962 (the group made 52 appearance on the Beeb in three years, and were radio stars before they were record stars), the lads politely introduce themselves: "I'm George, and I play a guitar," that sort of thing. Then the Beatles' leader speaks. "I'm John, and I too play a guitar. Sometimes I play the fool." From the beginning, Lennon was the group's brain and wit, its Elvis and its Groucho. But unlike Elvis, the early Beatles had the quick, larky humor of kids assured enough to make fun of themselves and everyone else. And unlike the movie Marxes, these were no anarchists — they were many a mother's daydream of the pop star her daughter might bring home.

Except, possibly, for John. From the start he had a spooky, modernist poise. His taut mouth, his appraising eyes made him the group's soul and wit as surely as McCartney became its prime musical mover. (Shown running down a hotel corridor in the Maysles film, George mimics the mob outside — "Ban the bomb!" — and John ad-libs, "Ban the Pope.") Cynical, cool, Lennon was the eye of sanity in the Beatlemania hurricane. Asked, during the first U.S. tour, when the Beatles found time to rehearse their songs, he replied, "We wrote 'em; we recorded 'em; we play 'em every day [in their shows]]. What do you rehearse? Smilin' — that's all we rehearse." To the art-college student with radical ideas, good nature was not second nature.

His voice was plaintive but supple; he could sell a pensive ballad ("In My Life," "I'll Be Back") and go orgasmic on "Twist and Shout" (recorded at the end of a day-night in which the group recorded 10 songs; John blew his voice out with the Isley Brothers song, and was spitting blood into his milk). More important, he embodied the group's snap and sass. TIME magazine's own reigning Liverpudlian, Michael Elliottt, O.B.E., tells me that if the February 9, 1964, Sullivan show was the defining moment for the Beatles in the U.S., the Royal Variety Performance before the Queen Mother on November 4, 1963, did the same in the U.K.; and it was John who made the famous crack, "Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? All the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewelry." The leader's edginess suggested a roiling interior life; you could write a novel about what you imagined to be inside John Lennon. And then he had the rock star's karma to die violently. He was inducted into the Rock "n' Roll Hall of Fame as a solo artist in 1994, five long years before McCartney was.

Paul, 20 months younger than John, was treated like the cute kid brother for whom ambition would be unseemly. Certainly, he had ambitions, and certainly he acceded them. He composed the group's top-selling single ("Hey Jude"), its most widely covered tune ("Yesterday") and much of its most enduring music. He was the Beatles' most versatile singer, and not just as a balladeer; attend his scorched-throat renditions of "I'm Down" and "Helter Skelter." Yet Paul always shivered in John's shadow. Partly it was his looks. He was cute, coquettish — almost the girl of the group — so how could he be smart? He was the favorite of the girls at the early Beatles concerts, but he was not a guy's guy. No way could he satisfy the male coterie of rock critics. He just tried too hard. Paul wanted to be loved, and that is the essence of the pop star. John didn't care; that is the essence of the rock star.

The odd revelation of "The Beatles First U.S. Visit" is that Paul, not John, is the comedy star (just as, on the Sullivan appearances, Paul, not John, was the band's spokesman). In a crowded elevator ride, Paul lightens the mood by announcing, "Ladies and gentlemen, on your right you'll see the Washington Memorial." He shows the most interest in the process of filming, as when he tells Al Maysles, "Get the camera down on this mike [held by David], it'd be a big laugh. Go on! Defy convention." Al finally pans down to the mike, and Paul chirps, "Take 29!" Late that night, when he and Ringo have left the Peppermint Lounge, Paul notices Al behind him and in a posh accent says, "I get the impression your filming. Is this true? This man, carrying this lethal weapon on his shoulder... Pretend you can't see him. He'll go away." A moment before, he had bade goodnight to Murray (the K) Kaufman, the WINS DJ who latched or leeched onto the group and called himself the fifth Beatle. Paul does some ribbing banter in a tough New York accent, then adds, "No really, seriously, thanks very much."

Every comedy foursome needs a quiet one — Harpo Marx, Boomhauer on "King of the Hill, Kenny on "South Park." The Quiet Beatle was George (assuming you don't count Pete Best, who was also the Fired Beatle). But Statesiders treasured George, who had the thickest Liverpool accent, as a special font of Liverpatois. "A Hard Day's Night" has a scene in which George accidentally wanders into the office of a TV fashion consultant (the great Kenneth Haigh), a snooty type who dismisses George's Northern accent as "all that old adenoidal glottal-stop and carry-on" and imperiously instructs him that "the new thing is to care passionately and be right wing." In the course of the three-minute scene, George says: "Oh, by all means, I'd be quite prepared for that eventuality"; "It's dead grotty"; "And who's this Susan when she's at home?"; "She's a drag, a well-known drag"; and "Have I said something amiss?" Some of these phrases were the merest clichés to Brits of a certain latitude. But every Mersey cadence as enunciated by George was music, Beatle music, to American ears. The dialogue of that sketch instantly became as familiar to Beatle fans as 1 Corinthians 13 is to a Baptist preacher.

To the American press, 40 years ago this weekend, Ringo was the Beatle everyone recognized, with the four rings on each hand, the readiest grin and the prominent hooter. (In "A Hard Day's Night," the meddling old man played by Wilfred Brambell tries to stir mischief by saying the other Beatles mock his proboscis: "They'll pick on a nose." Ringo replies, "Oh, go pick on your own nose.") It was Ringo who most easily keyed the American reporters' notion of the Beatles as a blithe comedy act on the order of the Goons or the Beyond the Fringers — a deep-fried British tradition, though not in rock 'n roll. Beatle boys with cheek and taunts. If they couldn't persuade U.S. reporters to listen closely to their music, they make 'em laugh at their jokes.

But even the lads' quick wits could cue the itch of suspicion — perhaps we're all being guyed. In the Maysles documentary, Chris Porterfield, TIME's ever-genial keeper of Standards and Practices, then a cherub-faced 26, is seen chatting with Ringo: "I was going to ask you this yesterday but I thought you might think I was being hostile. I was going to say: Are you kidding us?" For once, a Beatle looks flummoxed by a reporter's question. Ringo stammers, "We're not kidding. We just answer how we feel, y' know, what we think." Chris explained that the lads gave every indication of "enjoying a game that has its aspects of silliness." And Ringo was saying: the act is not an act. They were four young men who had a good time playing music.

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