Tuesday, April 19, 2005

The Beatles Invasion of 1985

I was born in early 1970, around the time that Beatles officially disbanded. My parents don’t remember the Beatles breaking up. My dad doesn’t even remember Apollo 13 (the real one, not the movie); I guess they were preoccupied, since they had a three-year-old in the house and were in the process of adopting a newborn daughter (me).

My teenage birthmom loved the Beatles, though. She even named me “Michelle” for the Lennon/McCartney song. Perhaps, she thought, I’d hear it when I was older and somehow know that she’d sung it to me before she gave me up for adoption.

Alas, it was not to be. I grew up with a mama who didn’t dance and a daddy who didn’t rock ‘n’ roll. OK, so my mom claimed to enjoy dancing, but it’s not like it was something they ever did. They played Rook and tennis. They liked to bowl. They were active in church. And they listened to WQXY, the “beautiful music” station that piped elevator music into doctors’ offices and old people’s cars all across south Louisiana. On vacations, when WQXY wasn’t available, we listened to 8-tracks of The Carpenters and John Denver.

If rock music existed at all in the 1970s, I wasn’t aware of it. I didn’t like WQXY’s “beautiful music.” My musical preferences tended toward the that of The Sound of Music, Oklahoma, South Pacific, and Fiddler on the Roof. I also loved Bing Crosby (my dad’s favorite) and the hymns I heard at the Baptist church. I was also a huge fan of the great Phillip Willis.

Who? Phillip Willis, of course. He was a skinny, bespectacled Baptist evangelist who directed the music for revivals at our church every year or so. Over time (at my urging), my poor dad bought all of his religious-music 8-tracks. (Yup … most kids clamored for Star Wars action figures and roller skates. I wanted Phillip Willis 8-tracks.)

So, while the rest of the family watched TV, or went outdoors, or did other normal family things, I would sit alone in our den, 70s-era headphones like small bowls on either side of my 7-year-old head, listening for hours and hours to 8-tracks and albums of Broadway, Bing, John Denver, The Carpenters, and Phillip Willis.

That, friends, is the sad story of my musical upbringing. To this day, I love all that Broadway stuff, and John Denver, and The Carpenters, and Bing, and I still know all the words to all the songs on all the Phillip Willis 8-tracks. And I congratulate myself for never liking the “beautiful music” of WQXY.

Somehow, I missed out on all of the other music that was going on in the 70s. The only contemporary songs I remember are “Rhinestone Cowboy” and “Raindrops Keep Fallin’ on My Head,” which were the two 45s that we owned. Another “rain” song I liked was “Slip Slidin’ in the Rain.” It would play when I rode in Other People’s Cars. I had an image of the singer, a man, out in Plaquemine’s flooded streets after a heavy south-Louisiana downpour, slipping and sliding. Just like we kids did. It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I realized it was actually “Slip Slidin’ Away.” And it wasn’t about playing in the flooded streets of Plaquemine, after all. But it was a nice image. It still comes back to me when I hear that song.

But that was all I knew about 70s music in the 70s. Disco? Never heard of it. Pink Floyd? I thought “Pink” was some graffiti artist-hoodlum in Baton Rouge. Kenny Rogers? His music played in Other People’s Cars, but it was country music, and we did not listen to country music. The Beatles? Nope. Never heard of them. Not once. Okay, maybe once. We got a little scholastic-type magazine at our elementary school, and one issue compared the Beatles to the Bee-Gees. The article’s Beatles picture was circa-1964, and they looked awfully formal (though smiling) and clean-cut.


 The Bee-Gees, on the other hand, had long hair, beards, and big necklaces. They were cool.


 Everyone in the third grade agreed that the Bee-Gees were much cooler than the Beatles.

It was in 1980, when John Lennon was shot, that I first became aware that the Beatles had really been a famous band. Lennon’s death wasn’t a big deal in my world, since I'd never heard of him. But his name became known to me then. As I understood, he'd been the lead singer of some old band. I didn't know who the other Beatles were, other than "John Lennon's back-up band."

In 1981, I got a clock radio for Christmas. My dad tuned my new clock radio to 100.7, WQXY, so I could listen to “beautiful music” before going to bed at night. After he left the room, I fiddled with the tuner a bit until I found WFMF, the Top-40 station. Thus was my real introduction to pop music, or rock & roll, or whatever it was that everyone else in my sixth-grade class was listening to.

Shortly after I got my clock radio, some guy named Paul McCartney, along with Stevie Wonder, came out with the song, “Ebony and Ivory.” I remember seeing the video and thinking of McCartney, “He’s cute but kind of old-looking.” I had no clue that he’d been a Beatle, a member of "John Lennon's back-up band," as I'd understood it. For all I knew, “Ebony and Ivory” was McCartney’s first and greatest hit. For all I knew, he was a one-hit wonder. I liked him, though, because he played the piano and had a nice voice. He had a nice smile, too, even if he was old.

Fast-forward to 1985. I’d gone through a number of pop-music phases by then, from Rick Springfield to Duran Duran. And at fifteen, I was burned out on pop music. Ah yes, the appeal of “Top-40 hits” had been short lived for me, and I felt that the newest songs left much to be desired. Besides, thanks to the movie Amadeus and a persistent piano teacher, I’d recently learned to appreciate the music of some really old guy named Mozart, so I wasn’t even listening to the pop stations much anymore.

But I hadn’t quit listening to WFMF altogether. One evening, I’d gone to the store for my mom. (Funny how, once I got my driver’s license, I became the unofficial courier for the family.) As I drove home, I turned on the radio to WFMF, and a slow song had just started. My eyes widened as I listened. I was hearing the best song I’d ever heard played on WFMF. Finally, I thought, some band has come out with something worth listening to. Maybe pop music wasn’t dead after all. What was this song? It tore at my heartstrings, it made me want to sing or cry, it made me sway in the driver's seat in time to the music. This was what I called “beautiful music.” I didn’t know who was singing this new song, but I knew it was going to be a hit.

I raced home. I screeched into the driveway, jumped out of the car and, forgetting the groceries, sprinted into the house to call WFMF (I had the number memorized because I liked trying to be win prizes). 

“WFMF,” answered the DJ after the third ring.



“That new song—the slow one you just played—what’s it called?”

“Um … I haven’t played any new slow songs in the last hour.”

“But you just played it!” I insisted.

“How did it go?”

“You know,” I said, frustrated. “At the end, it kind of went ‘naaa naa naa …’”

“Oh. Um … Kid, that’s not a new song. It’s called ‘Hey Jude.’”

“Yeah, but who sings it? It’s really good!”

The DJ was laughing at me. He finally said, “The Beatles.”


I hung up. I didn’t know much about the Beatles, but I knew enough to know I’d just embarrassed myself.

So the next day, I went to the library and checked out the big blue album and the big red album. I listened to both album sets a couple of times in a row, re-playing the songs I liked the best, thinking, "Oh, I've heard that song. I love that song. That's by the Beatles?" Most of the songs were new to me, though. But I was amazed at how much I loved them. I felt like I'd just unearthed some sort of buried treasure. The sheer pleasure of discovery wasn't marred by the fact that I was discovering something that everyone else already knew about.

A few days later, I bought some blank cassette tapes and remained very quiet as I listened and taped the big blue album and the big red album onto cassettes. I got one of those newfangled Walkmans that everyone was buying. And for the next couple of years, I listened to a lot of Beatles. Almost nothing but Beatles. It became a sort of addiction. An obsession. A Beatles invasion in my brain. When I listened to these tapes in public, with friends, I was shocked that they knew all the words. When did they learn this stuff? Why had I remained in the dark all these years? I knew all the words, too, but I'd only learned them within the past few months, after addictive non-stop listening, alone, into the late hours of the night.

I wondered how I’d managed to go all fifteen years of my life without an awareness of these amazing, happy, dark, engaging, wonderful songs. I fell in love with a circa-1969 George Harrison, more than I’d ever been in love with Rick Springfield or Duran Duran’s Simon LeBon. And I finally heard the song “Michelle,” though I wouldn’t know until my late 20s that I’d been named for it.

They were a happy discovery for me, these Beatle fellows. As an added bonus, they helped this shy, insecure, life-under-a-rock teenager "fit in,” too. I could now participate in “Who’s your favorite Beatle” discussions, and swore that you could tell a lot about a person once you knew which Beatle they preferred. I could argue over which was better, their early music or their mature music. I could ponder over which songs were really “Lennon” and which were really “McCartney” (though I liked the “Harrison” songs the best). I could sound like I’d known all about the Beatles all along. In addition, the 60’s nostalgia that overtook me at the time enabled me to wax eloquent about how totally awesome cool the ‘60s were, dude man.

My Beatlemania lasted for several years, and it still flares up every now and then. In my 20s, I dated a man who’d had a similar experience, only his Beatlemania had taken hold in the mid-70s. Mr. Right, a.k.a. The Hubster, turned out to be a guy who loves old country music and Lynyrd Skynyrd more than anything else.

But we do have the Beatles in common. Even though the Hubster “discovered” them nearly two decades before I did. Even though I still unearth the occasional “find” that the rest of the world has known about for longer than I’ve been alive. It’s still good. And it’s just as alive for me—albeit in a different way—as it was for my birthmom when she named me Michelle back in 1970.

The Hubster and I keep our 60-CD player on random mode when we’re working around the house. Every now and then, between Lynyrd Skynyrd, Hank Williams, Bach, Mozart, and Lyle Lovett, I’ll hear the beginning strains of “Here Comes the Sun,” “Paperback Writer,” or even “Hey Jude.” When I do, I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, just for a second, to take a brief, nostalgic journey back in time, back 20 long years to 1985—that magical and life-changing year that the Beatles finally--and however tardily--descended into my unsuspecting world.

And that, kiddies, is my story of the Beatles Invasion of 1985. Maybe next time I'll tell you about how I discovered the Grateful Dead in 1989. Or how I came upon this funny new show, "The Simpsons," last year. The world is never boring when there are so many new things to discover! ;-)

P.S. Yes, I live under a rock. But it's kind of nice here, don't you think? Thanks for visiting!


Alan said...

Hi, I clicked over from the Blowhards:

When you mentioned the big blue album and the big red album I got a shiver of recognition. That really brought back the memories. One Christmas (mid '70s), my brother got one and I got the other and it wasn't long before we played the vinyl off the albums. It never occured to me that there would be MORE; after all how many people can create eight sides of great songs, much less MORE. But messing around in the record store I found Abbey Road and Sgt.Pepper and The White Album and it wasn't long before I had their complete collection. I was born in 1960, but the only thing I remember about the Beatles while they were a group is the time my class had an election to determine whether they or the Monkees were the better group. I knew nothing about either at the time so I voted for the Monkees because I liked Curious George. What a silly child I was.

Alan said...

By the way, I noticed that you live in Waynesville! My parents used to live near by (Utah Mountain/ Jonathan Valley). Unfortunately, due to my father's death my mother sold the house and moved back to Florida so I miss going up there, especially at Christmas. I'm familiar with some of the bookstores up there: lets see, the one that sells new books on Main Street near the place that sells wind socks and the used store next to the old Strand and the one I really like (that most people miss), on Wall Street around back.
My favorite places to eat: Whitman's for chili dogs, Joey's for pancakes, Maggie's Galley for flounder and that pizza place that was formerly a Chinese Restaurant near the old deserted house that someone should fix up...my dietary tastes are very simple.
I never had the gumption to walk the Appalachian Trail but I always made sure I had time for my daily stroll around Lake Junaluska.
Anyway, nice website. I plan on visiting again.

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