John Lennon in the summer of 1957. The day he first met Paul. (© 1957 Geoff Rhind/1997 LFI)
John Lennon - with the Beatles - in the summer of 1967. Exactly 10 years later...
This summer is awash with anniversaries it seems. And there are two Beatles anniversaries attracting all the ink this month. At the beginning of June we had the well-deserved paeans for the 40th anniversary of the arrival of their landmark "Sgt. Pepper" long-player -- with suitably reverent articles chronicling every aspect of the making of the album.
And on Tuesday we will see a well-orchestrated salute to the first anniversary of the Las Vegas spectacular staged by Cirque du Soleil with the blessing of the Beatles. Paul, Ringo, Yoko and Olivia will attend events in Las Vegas that include the unveiling of plaques dedicated to the memory of John and George. And there will be a royal TV summit with CNN's Larry King.
But rather lost and unheralded in the sea of media salutations -- certainly judging by a search of "Google News" -- are two other Beatles anniversaries that I would argue have more import.
A 50th anniversary and a consequent 40th anniversary (this very day - June 25th) that affected "Our World" ...
It was 50 years ago today ... Tuesday 25th June 1957.
Two teenage boys in the suburbs of a bleak provincial port city in the industrial grey of Northern England are making preparations for an event that will -- no exaggeration -- change the course of our world. (Well it's easy to do that when you're 15 or 16...) And these two lads have no idea that the other even exists yet.
A few months shy of his 17th birthday, John Winston Lennon is rehearsing with five school chums in his "skiffle" group The Quarrymen. Unbeknownst to his strict Aunt Mimi (who is raising him) John and his rag-tag band will be performing their primitive brew of homemade folk-blues-hillbilly and early rock 'n' roll in ten days time at the local church fête -- a garden party set to take place on the afternoon of Saturday, July 6th. St. Peter's Church in the parish of Woolton, Liverpool. The rehearsals are short. A set of a dozen tunes of American origin are very sketchily routined. Since Lennon has problems memorizing many of the lyrics and only a rudimentary grasp of his ten-pound (approx. $3 in 1957) mail-order guitar -- lengthy rehearsals are deemed unnecessary.
Only one week after his 15th birthday, James Paul McCartney is in his bedroom a few miles away practicing (on a similarly cheap guitar) a few of the songs emerging from the new rock 'n' roll fad in America. His friend Ivan Vaughan (who shares the exact same birthdate) has invited him to attend a church fête to take place the weekend after next. He has a pal playing in a group that he'd like his mate Paul to see...
Ten days later those two teenage boys met at that village fête. Fate indeed. Lennon, slightly inebriated on cheap warm beer, was at first indifferent to the fresh-faced youth who eagerly introduced himself as the group was resting after its first performance in front of roughly 400 local villagers. After all, what self-possessed lad, age nearly 17, gives much time or respect to a cherub-cheeked "kid" nearly two years younger? But once this "kid" borrows a guitar and performs musically and lyrically-perfect renditions of Gene Vincent's "Be-Bop-A-Lula, Eddie Cochran's "Twenty Flight Rock" and a couple of Little Richard tunes -- Lennon is suitably impressed. He has found his musical blood brother. This casual encounter lasts no more than 10 or 15 minutes. But by the time it is over -- the die is cast. Within two weeks, Lennon has set aside any instinctive concerns about allowing a younger kid with superior technical prowess (and a cute face likely to charm the lasses!) into the group in which he rules the roost. His desire for musical kinship trumps any fears about sharing or losing control. And that is the start of the partnership that will literally transform our world.
A few months later, McCartney introduces an even younger "kid" into the mix, George Harrison (8 months younger than Paul and thus nearly 2½ years junior to John -- quite a sizable gap to a teenager.) The three of them form the nucleus of what in 1960 becomes the Beatles -- and by August 1962 with the arrival of Ringo Starr (3 months Lennon's senior) the Four Mersey-keteers who will conquer the world are all-for-one and one-for-all.
Of all the considerable achievements racked up in the all-too-short eight years that this quartet are together, there was no more supreme moment in my opinion than the event that happened on this very day exactly four decades ago.
It was 40 years ago today ... Sunday, June 25th 1967.
Just ten days shy of the tenth anniversary of the meeting that changed their -- and our -- world -- came a global meeting that would have been literally inconceivable in July 1957. One that is still a monumental achievement. That the majority of the media has overlooked it is a commentary on today's media -- not on the significance of the event.
On that summery day -- the entire world was united for the first time by the new technology of satellites and television. And the Beatles were of course at the very center of this marriage of science and art.
In the late summer of 1966 -- just as the Beatles were giving their last-ever public concert in San Francisco, a 39-year-old BBC producer named Aubrey Singer conceived an audacious idea to use the budding technology that had been launched in 1962 with Telstar (the communications satellite -- not the chart-topping, Joe Meek-produced instrumental by the Tornados that it inspired!) He organized a worldwide broadcast in which a score of nations would each contribute a segment reflecting some aspect of its national character. The live broadcast was set to take place on Sunday, June 25th 1967.
Singer wanted something fresh and vital to represent Great Britain -- and who finer than the Beatles? The group had publicly declared that it was retiring from live public performance and had ensconced themselves in the recording studios for an unprecedented five consecutive months between December 1966 and April 1967 -- recording what became the Sgt. Pepper album. (Their first album had taken all of 10 hours to produce in early 1963 -- and their second -- as the Rutles ruefully observed -- "took even longer".)
Singer approached the group's manager Brian Epstein and Epstein was swift to grasp the incredible potential of participating in such a momentous occasion. Particularly since the Beatles were now eschewing concert tours. What better way for a band to "tour" the world than by using the "tube". (An under-sung hero in the Beatles story, Epstein instinctively sensed the benefits of this technology and anticipated how it would further the Beatles' already stratospheric status.)
Epstein and the Beatles made another decision that was significant. Most artists and managers if approached today to participate in such an endeavor would immediately scheme to turn the occasion into a marketing device to hawk their most recent and lucrative product. In the Beatles' case that would have been the "Sgt. Pepper" album -- set for release just 3 weeks before the broadcast and therefore perfect fodder to be plugged on a worldwide broadcast.
But Epstein felt that this event was a platform from which the Beatles could send a message to the world. Literally. In one 4-minute segment -- the world would be at its feet. Listening.
Putting aside the shallow self-interest of simply promoting their latest album (however superlative it undoubtedly was), he encouraged them to write a new song especially for the telecast. John Lennon and Paul McCartney rose to the occasion. This was their Agincourt. This was their moment. As Winston Churchill wrote in his diaries about assuming the premiership of England in May 1940 in the heat of World War II - "I felt that my whole life had been but a preparation for this moment..." For the Beatles - THIS was their finest hour.
So the two lads who had met on a sweltering summer's day in the Eisenhower-grey of 1957 -- surrounded by just four hundred villagers at a parochial church fête - found themselves exactly ten years later in the fluorescently day-glo summer of 1967 composing a song that they would perform live with their two closest friends to a global village of FOUR HUNDRED MILLION.
For the song that Lennon and McCartney wrote -- in the midst of the Vietnam War and the Six-Day War and all the other strife in the world -- was an anthem for the ages. Two boys who had both lost their mothers young (Paul's mum when he was 14 -- to breast cancer... John's mum when he was 17 - run-over by a drunken policeman) looked at the world that stretched out before them. They looked back at their own long and winding road that had taken them from poverty to undreamed of wealth and fame. They recalled all their lovers and friends -- some of them dead and some living -- and distilled the lessons learned into a simple but transcendent philosophy. And so...
It was forty years ago today -- the Beatles taught the world to say:
All You Need Is Love
The song was primarily Lennon's composition, but as had become the modus operandi of their songwriting partnership, each contributed touches and polishes to the songs composed by the other. So the song undoubtedly bears at least some trace elements of McCartney's gifts in its writing. And of course songs evolved from being just Lennon-McCartney compositions to fully-fledged Beatles songs by virtue of the collaborative efforts contributed to the arrangements and performance by Harrison and Starr. In all senses of the term - this was a Beatles song. All-for-one and one-Fab-Four...
On a warm summery evening on Sunday June 25th 1967 -- the Beatles assembled in the EMI Recording Studios in St. John's Wood in north west London. Surrounded by their friends and peers -- Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Brian Jones, Marianne Faithfull, Donovan, Graham Nash -- under the loving aegis of George Martin and Brian Epstein -- they sang their hearts and soul out to the world. Literally to the world.
In keeping with their gift for self-deprecation and sly self-reference -- such as the inclusion of their 1964-vintage Madam Tussaud wax dummy selves on the cover of the "Sgt. Pepper" album -- Lennon incorporated brief shards of 1965's "Yesterday" and that long-ago, sepia-hued "She Loves You" with its quaint yeah-yeah-yeah refrain from the glory summer of 1963 (that now seemed 40 years rather than 4 years earlier) in the extended fade-out of the song as friends bearing placards with the song's message strolled amidst balloons and flowers...
The original television broadcast was in black and white -- but the message was in full color. A color that was painstakingly added to the presentation of that performance incorporated on their "Anthology" television series in November 1995. (The only known purposeful and tasteful application of colorization in history!)
Looked back 40 years later -- it is easy for the Blue Meanies who have spent the last four decades decrying the Apollonian highs of the 1960s to cynically dismiss the lyrics of the song. Surely we need more than just "love"? And where was the love within the Beatles when they disbanded amid acrimony three years later? And what about food, water and money? Don't we need those too?
All good questions -- but they intentionally ignore the basic message. Undiminished by time. Unfazed by fad and fashion. Understandable to all except the cowards, traitors and cynics who sneer. This is a message that the Beatles didn't invent. They were simply its latest -- and most effective -- messengers.
Our World continues to ignore that message -- and is much the poorer for doing so.
So take a moment today to think about that broadcast, that song, that message. It's easy... ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE!
"For magic it is, and magic it always was: alchemy in accessible, human form." - Derek Taylor writing about The Beatles -- 1995
UPCOMING CELEBRATIONS OF THE BEATLES
A 3-day celebration of the Beatles - including a 40th anniversary re-creation of the "All You Need Is Love" happening - takes place at The Mirage in Las Vegas. July 1, 2 & 3. Details: www.TheFest.com
A 3-day celebration of the "Birth Of The Beatles" in July 1957 - including performances by surviving members of John Lennon's first group The Quarrymen - takes place in Liverpool, England. July 6, 7 & 8. Details: www.BirthOfTheBeatles.com
Cover of Beatles single cover - 1967