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By Ivor Davis
Fifty years ago this week the Beatles bounded onto center stage at the Hollywood Bowl (Aug 23) for their first-ever Los Angeles performance and Southern California instantly succumbed. Not even a week into their North American invasion, the infectious fainting, frenzy, and fanaticism of Beatlemania, that had incubated in Europe had already spread to L.A., the mecca of the recording industry. And rock and roll history was changed forever.
I was at the Hollywood Bowl that magical evening. I was mid-twenties and at the beginning of both my journalistic career and my life’s journey. And from where I sit now I can tell you – fifty years form the arc of a life. Framed by joys and unflagging disappointments, fifty years will tell a life’s narrative.
Who knew in 1964 what narratives the Fates would write? That an upstart band of Liverpool lads would hypnotize a generation and redefine not only rock ‘n’ roll but also popular culture? That America would splinter from itself and emerge from its own revolutions of civil rights, women’s liberation and the Vietnam War as a nation not entirely recognizable? That John Lennon and George Harrison and Brian Epstein would not be with us reflecting those early years of the mid twentieth century.
In 1964, as a foreign correspondent for the London Daily Express, I traveled with the Beatles on their first North American tour. I had unrestricted access to John, Paul, George and Ringo. I flew with them on their private jet, stayed in the block of hotel rooms booked for the entourage (usually an entire floor for security purposes), and crossed this great nation playing Monopoly and poker with the Beatles into the wee hours of the night.
The tour began in San Francisco on August 18, and by the time it wrapped up thirty-four crazy days later in New York, “Beatlemania” had become part of the American vernacular. But the establishment hadn’t entirely bought in. L.A.’s Ambassador Hotel turned the Beatles down as guests, worried that the band would be more trouble than they were worth. So the boys rented in Bel Air. They reluctantly rubbed elbows with the Hollywood glitterati, but partied with a handful of celebs whom they really wanted to meet, including Burt Lancaster who entertained them at his home (Ringo was wowed by Burt’s indoor-outdoor swimming pool).
The Beatles were unpretentious and great company, and looking back I sometimes can’t believe it all happened. John Schlesinger the late British film director once told me, “The trouble with living in California is that you go to bed when you are twenty-five-and when you wake up the next day you’re seventy-five.”
And he was right because it all flashed by so alarmingly fast.
From my perspective today, I would be disingenuous if I told you that in 1964 I fully grasped the profundity of the history I was witnessing – indeed was living a part of. Back then the Beatles were just another pop group from England and communication was so much simpler: It was, after all, an era when John Lennon called people twits, and twitter was something only birds did. Their song lyrics were lollipop stuff – “puerile” – as one critic declared. They performed for less than half an hour – and then were gone. Not that you could hear much anyway over the din of non-stop shrieking.
Even today – with half a century of context behind me – when I’m asked why the Beatles had such a massive impact I find no pat answers. From my front row seat during that summer of 1964, I watched a nation go absolutely bonkers to the same twelve-song set played at every concert. At the end of the tour, Ringo, who had matured markedly during those thirty-four days, shone a beam of insight on the phenomenon when he observed that the fans didn’t come to hear the Beatles sing; they came simply to see the Beatles. It was more pilgrimage than cultural experience.
Perhaps it is precisely because the early Beatles tunes had little substance beyond snappy melodies or catchy lyrics that there might be wisdom in the notion that the music was simply a joyous release. The first Beatles singles hit American airwaves in the dark weeks after President Kennedy’s assassination. They released their final album, “Let It Be,” in May 1970, four days after Kent State. In between was – to put it simply – the sixties. Apollo and Soyuz. Race riots. The Voting Rights Act. The Tet Offensive and My Lai. The promise and tragedy of Martin Luther King. Another Kennedy assassination.
Who could blame us for lapping up all their loving and wanting to hold their hands?
Looking back from this end of the arc, there are a few things I do know. The Beatles laid the anthemic soundtrack to the dreams and fears and changes that were afoot during that pivotal period. And we are still celebrating them half a century later.
Editor’s Note: Ivor Davis is a London-born, Southern California-based writer and the author of the new book “The Beatles and Me on Tour” (www.ivordavisbeatles.com)