The Fab-Four Score
I heard the quirky, sublime harmony of Paul McCartney and John Lennon intertwine on "Hey Jude" last night, reminding me again to write about The Beatles.
Far lesser musical lights have labels on this blog, and it's been bugging me that the greatest pop-music band in history doesn't. Many folks consider The Rolling Stones to be the greatest rock band ever, and they might be right — I'm not a huge Stones fan, to be honest, although they definitely rock and are indubitably iconic. The Beatles, however, during a relatively brief career that spanned the era in which classic rock-&-roll ("She Loves You") gave way to flat-out hard rock, hold the roll ("Helter Skelter"), also proved masters of old-fashioned balladry, psychedelic experimentation, and so much more ("Strawberry Fields Forever"). They wrote anthems, they wrote grooves, they wrote ditties, for Pete Best's sake. Has any other group of musicians been so talented at turning out so many different styles of infectious, accomplished, influential music? And I include in that group not just Lennon, McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr, but producer George Martin as an indispensable enabler of most of the Beatles' joint career.
So here's my First Beatles Story.
A generally vilified movie called Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band came out in the summer of 1978, when I was seven years old, my sister was five, our parents had just separated, and we were living with Mom at our grandparents'. We loved that movie. It was told entirely through song and mimed action except for the narration of George Burns in the persona of Mr. Kite, mayor of Heartland — home of Billy Shears, played by Peter Frampton, and the Henderson brothers, played by The Bee Gees, who together made up the titular band. Like The Beatles' own animated Yellow Submarine and the more recent, more serious film Across the Universe, most of its characters' names were taken from Beatles songs; in addition to the above, there were love interest Strawberry Fields, the malevolently mean Mr. Mustard, and of course Lucy.
When I say we loved it, I mean we really couldn't get enough. The movie version of Grease had come out only a month before, and both films' box office benefitted substantially from my family's repeated trips to the theater. Sister and I also owned the soundtracks — neither of which followed the source movie's song sequences, but that hardly stopped us from performing tribute shows regularly.
Mom didn't find the kitsch of the film offensive, and besides enjoying it on its own merits along with us she took the opportunity to formally introduce us to the original versions of the movie's songs on the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper and Abbey Road albums. One rainy night, I believe on our way home from a screening, Mom bought the records and we listened to them during a thunderstorm in my grandparents' living room. Hearing these alternate versions of songs we'd quickly learned by heart was strange, but they grew on us.
The movie wasn't my first-ever exposure to The Beatles; Mom sang "Yesterday" regularly, and I remember learning "Octopus's Garden" in school, but I'd never associated them with anything bigger. After the summer of Sgt. Pepper, though — which actually lasted far beyond that season, thanks to our album, airings on television, and, believe it or not, a novelization of the movie that I still own — the Beatles quotient in our lives grew with each new record my mom shared with us or each song she'd sing for me from her Beatles piano/guitar songbook so that I'd have a melody on which to hang the fascinating lyrics.
Mom, Sis, and I took in a Beatlemania show in Philadelphia shortly after our move there from Wildwood, and in the coming years I'd appreciate the full spectrum of, as the old joke goes, the band Paul McCartney was in before Wings. It all started with what legions of fans consider a practically sacrilegious spool of celluloid, however, proof that there's no bad way to meet The Beatles.
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