It was 50 years ago this month when the Beatles first came to America; and their impact, much more than just musical, is still felt a half century later — around the world.
The Beatles arrived in New York on Feb. 7, 1964, in preparation for their first US performance on the Ed Sullivan show two days later. They played their first concert on US soil Feb. 11 at the Washington Coliseum in the nation’s capitol, and then performed again on the Ed Sullivan Show, on consecutive Sundays, from the Deauville Hotel in Miami, Fla., on Feb. 16. Songs the Beatles recorded when performing their first Ed Sullivan Show, were then broadcast on the CBS program Feb. 23, placing the Fab Four in front of American television viewers for the third straight week.
Neosho’s Steve Kenny was a pre-teen when the Beatles splashed onto his television screen.
“I was in my living room, and there was a lot of anticipation, because we weren’t regular Ed Sullivan watchers,” he said. “It was more than I expected.”
Kenny, a musician who has performed some Beatles songs, was at first attracted to the beat and the tight harmonies, “and a lot of their early stuff, I would call it ‘happy’ music,” he said, “Because it just had a really uplifting beat to it.”
Later, Kenny said the Beatles did a lot of songs others wouldn’t do, taking chances others wouldn’t take.
Chris Gray was just a toddler when the Beatles first arrived in America, and his early years with mostly Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra records in the house betrayed a home mostly inoculated from the impact of that momentous occasion. But as the 1960s wore on he said arguments with his mom on every trip to the barbershop were one way their influence had leaked in. It was during his teen years that he discovered the magic of Beatles music, and Gray has never been the same since.
Also originally drawn to their harmonies, which Gray said taught him how to perform and write that aspect of music, he feels what made the Beatles so intriguing is that it’s all different.
“One song does not sound like the next. There are pockets of their career where they have a different style, and the next thing you know, it’s changed; and it’s almost like another band.” He said, “Whether you’re into soft ballads, heavy metal, or psychedelia, whatever you want to get into, you can.”
Gray and Kenny spearheaded an effort to use Beatles music to provide “A Little Help For Our Friends,” corrupting the famous lyrics as the title of a local live production of entirely Fab Four music, the first few years to benefit the Newton County Food Basket Brigade. The pair, along with their bands, recruited dozens of other area musicians to donate their time and efforts to raise thousands of dollars for the cause, and provide a night each December that area Beatles music lovers have looked forward to for the past decade.
Learning to play Beatles songs, both men agree that what sounds so simple, isn’t easy to duplicate; and the changing sounds the Beatles created changed the shape of the music world; and their style changed first America, and then the world.
When “Revolution” first came out on 45 RPM, “That record coming out was a revolution, it’s sound,” said Gray. “‘Hey Jude’ was on the A side, and you flipped it over and listened to ‘Revolution’, and people were returning their records thinking they were defective because the sound of the guitar was so distorted. There was nothing wrong with their record, that was a sound like you’ve never heard before!”
Kenny marvels at the difficulty in replicating Beatles music.
“Those early songs that are ‘so easy to do,’ ” he said, “they’re not that easy to do, because if you listen to their songs, every instrument has a part. Nobody is just banging away on a guitar; there’s a part to the bass, there’s a part to the drums that makes that song what it is.”
Kenny said the vocals are the most difficult, “And that’s just the early stuff. When you get into the later works, it gets even more complicated because they did it in studio and didn’t necessarily have to pull it off.”
In trying to play the part, Kenny said the Beatles worked for the most interesting, most unique sound they could on every song, to bring out the most in the song. Gray said the degree of difficulty for duplicating a Beatles song has taught him to be a better musician.
Sporting a Beatles-style haircut he fought with Mom and Dad over years ago, Gray said many Fab Four songs strike a chord in the listener, and many people can relate to them in their own personal way. His band, “City Limits,” uses Hofner guitars and basses, and Rickenbacker guitars, “and we try to emulate the sound. When you’re going to play the music of the Beatles, or anything that came out in the 60s,” Gray said, “it seems like you have to have a certain flair, and with these instruments, we like to look and sound sometimes as much like them as we can.”
Kenny cites a recent program he watched in explaining the impact the Beatles had on America, whose arrival came shortly after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
“There was some discontent in the country,” he said, “and I think what the Beatles did was they gave voice to a new generation that was looking for a voice different than the generation of the 50’s. It was the right time and the right place.” That influence flowed throughout the world, “because of their music,” said Kenny. “You just could not ignore it!”
Both Beatlemaniacs said John, Paul, George, and Ringo opened the door to other bands, and “Sergeant Pepper” paved the way for the concept album, which allowed “Pink Floyd” and many other bands to thrive.
“Another bond they broke,” said Kenny, “when they first started, you could not have a song over three minutes and get it on the radio. The Beatles come out with things from ‘Sergeant Pepper’, they come out with ‘I Am the Walrus’, and ultimately ‘Hey Jude,’ which is an over seven minute song, and they just flat forced these guys to do it because the public demanded it. They just knocked down barrier after barrier after barrier.”
Gray said other popular bands who aren’t the Beatles will admit that they are into the Beatles.
“So it’s this constant influx of their influence,” he said. “They weren’t the inventors of rock and roll, but they created this explosion that happened in the youth movement. They gave everyone an excuse to say, ‘I’m not going to do what my parents want me to do. I don’t have to be like this, I can be my own person’, and these guys charged the way to individuals expressing themselves; in their dress, their music, their art, literature.”
Kenny said the greatest impact the Beatles have had on him is “this whole idea of looking outside the box. I try to look at anything from the standpoint of: it’s not necessarily what you see, but what else could it be that it is not yet.”
Kenny attributes that to the influence the Beatles had on him as a kid. Being interested in music all of his life, he said they opened up his line of thinking in many aspects of his life.
In looking for a counter viewpoint about the Beatles’ influence, one local gentleman who said, “I thought the world had gone to hell in a hand basket,” wished his name not be included in this retrospective. The referral of Peggy Payne did not illuminate that mindset.
Both Payne and her husband, Jim, taught English at Neosho High School when the Beatles first came to America, and she also served as the media center director. Payne said the couple pretty much stayed up with what the kids were interested in to keep up with what was going on.
“We watched Ed Sullivan, and so you’re not talking to somebody who thought they were a bad influence, I enjoyed them,” she said.
Payne said Jim even used a Beatles song for some lesson he put together.
Sandra McMahan was not thrilled with the Beatles’ arrival on the music scene. A high school freshman at the time, with no music education in the one room schoolhouse on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation at Oglala, S.D., who mostly listened to hymns and piano music from her grandmother, “The Beatles were loud and obnoxious music to my ears.”
McMahan was not impressed upon seeing the Beatles for the first time on television, nor on their second coming into her life in 1982, when she said a teenaged nephew who loved the band came to Lincoln, Neb., and “I tried.”
McMahan said she tried again, in the mid-2000s, when her children were growing up, but the fifth time around was much better.
“I was better schooled in the complexity of their writing and found their sound much more pleasing as my hearing became less acute; and I enjoyed their special (Sun. Feb. 9, 2014) immensely. So, I’ve come around,” she said.
McMahan said she still likes many of their songs better when sung by others. She explains her initial irritation to their sound is because she could literally hear everything, “and it was too much for me. Now, at age 65, I can’t hear everything and I have no problem with it now; some of it was the intensity.”
The intensity is what led to Dick Keezer’s initial displeasure with Beatle’s music.
“I liked the music out of the ‘40s and the ‘50s, but when the Beatles came on it was too, what they call ‘metal’ rock, and I don’t go for ‘metal’ rock at all. It’s just noise to me, it does not have melodic lines, and that’s what disturbed me more than anything in that kind of music.”
Keezer said they later developed melodic lines, “and some of the stuff is still good today. They were a very popular group, a person today cannot deny that at all.”
His biggest objection to the Beatles was the infamous statement by John Lennon that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus Christ, “and that really hit a bad chord with me.”
Keezer does not criticize the Beatles for the changing mores in the country, explaining that the gyrations of the American Elvis Presley had already turned everybody around.
“They were young, they were kids,” said Keezer. “They loved life and were trying to show it their way,” he concluded.
Kenny said a sign that Beatles music still lives strongly in the hearts of both the young and the old, and those in between, is that until just a few years ago, you would never find their albums discounted at a music store, decades after being published. Now, Kenny said you can find some “slightly” discounted, “but they’re not giving them away.”
Besides the musical and cultural changes since then, Neosho has a connection to that first visit to America by the Beatles. Gray has acquired a couple of autographs that were presented to the Pan Am pilot that ferried the Fab Four on their original American tour. Remembering only his first name of Edward, Gray said Ringo signed a Time magazine from January 1964 that previewed the Beatles’ upcoming appearance in the USA, and gave it to the pilot that flew the band to its destinations. Edward later lived in Neosho, and Gray said he received the inkings from Edward’s family.
What if the Beatles had never arrived on the scene?
“You’d still look like your father,” Gray said.