Monday, January 20, 2014

1964: Way beyond compare


With the new year, POTP resolves to expand time and space just a bit, wandering beyond the old city limits and into other eras. Here's an example.

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What was it like? Depends on who you were. Let's say you were a 10-year-old boy living on the suburban outskirts of the Heart of America ...

... climbing stairs from the basement of a northeast Johnson County music store, lugging the black case that holds a rented horn. Your fifth-grade world includes third chair in the trombone section of the Highlands School band and an ability to play not only a b-flat scale but crude renditions of "Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star" and Brahms' "Lullaby."

Before this year,  music has been defined by what plays on the table-top hi-fi in the living room at home: A few 45 rpm versions of Disney songs and the eclectic LP collection your parents have built through a record-of-the-month club, including Ella Fitzgerald, Ray Charles, George Jones, the Mormon Tabernacle Choir, the New Christy Minstrels and soundtracks from "The Music Man" and "My Fair Lady." There's no Elvis, though he hovers nearby, wafting from the radios of passing cars. You're vaguely aware of certain popular songs if not their singers: Bobby Vinton, Pat Boone, Connie Francis, Nat King Cole, Ricky Nelson, Peter, Paul & Mary. The Top 40 isn't on your radar yet.

Also heard in the background: A buzzing about a musical commotion in England. You don't normally read a daily newspaper, but grown-ups might have caught the brief notice or two last fall mentioning "four mop-haired singers who hail from Liverpool" and "provoke hysteria wherever they go." Then in November the President had been shot dead and everything seemed to come to a standstill.

Now it's January and though you're more concerned with adjusting to your first eyeglasses and the arithmetic in Mrs. Gooch's classroom, the news reports from England have resumed. The four English band mates "look like eels after an explosion in a wig factory," says one syndicated columnist. "From their three electrically amplified guitars and set of drums comes music with little or no melody. ... They dance and grimace and make the gestures of fools."

On Monday, January 20, an album of their songs is released in America for the first time. In Kansas City the Jenkins Music Company and most other music shops are promoting new records by Andy Williams, Doris Day and Percy Faith. But on Wednesday the Katz Drug Stores break the ice:


On Friday evening you're climbing the stairs from your weekly trombone lesson in the Toon Shop basement in Prairie Village. You push open the door to the store and finally see what you've been missing: A crowd pressed against the record counter. Large photos of four laughing, long-haired guys wearing tight-fitting collarless suits and black pointy-toed boots. An album cover showing their four bushy, disembodied heads in blue-tinted black and white. The turntable that just a few weeks ago had been playing a quiet something titled "Dominque" by someone named The Singing Nun, now flinging out a new sound – leaping, churning, pulsing waves of irresistible noise – that seems to be having a physical effect on listeners, including you:

WELL SHE WAS JUST SEVENTEEN! YOU KNOW WHAT I MEAN!
AND THE WAY SHE LOOKED WAS WAY BEYOND COMPARE! ...

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Fifty years from now your 60-year-old self will look back and see you standing at the threshold of something like an awakening. He will try to write something about it and struggle to come up with a lame description like "leaping, churning, pulsing waves of irresistible noise." He'll also be trying to imagine how other such dawns might have felt to someone who awoke just as, say, Louis Armstrong was arriving musically. Or Charlie Parker. Frank Sinatra or Elvis Presley or Michael Jackson. Or perhaps, somewhat tragically, one of myriad lesser lights. He'll feel blessed.

And with the advantage of having seen how it all plays out in your future, he'll give the newspapers credit for finally getting it right a couple of weeks after you buy your first record album there in the Toon Shop. When on February 10, 1964, a front-page story in the Kansas City Times begins:

The Beatles – four British lads who sing when they are not busy running away from barbers – made their American television debut last night – and some things may never be the same.



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