Always Check the B Side
The first record I ever owned was a Beatles 45 with a song called, “She Loves You.” My older, more pop-oriented cousin (i.e., the one who knew what popular culture was about when I was ten and didn’t know it existed) gave me a copy of the 45. She said it would change my life. This little round record was completely different from the Broadway musical LPs my parents and grandparents. I played the song, and while it didn’t exactly change my life, it made me decide my cousin was nuts.
You see, the song begins “She loves you” and then launches into a screeching chorus of “Yeah, yeah, yeah.” First of all, I knew that wasn’t good English. My mother, the English teacher, wouldn’t let us say “yeah.” We had to say “yes.” Generally followed by Ma’am Sir, please or thank you.
Second, what was that noise? Harmony? Harmony was “The Surrey with the Fringe on the Top,” from the musical Oklahoma. Harmony was “If I Loved you,” as sung by the two main characters in the Broadway musical Carousel. Harmony wasn’t a bunch of guys singing, “Yeah, yeah, yeah” and then topping it off by shrieking “Whoooo” in a high-pitched falsetto. Who were these guys anyway?
I did not know this song was going to become the bestselling United Kingdom song of all time. I did not know that the music magazine, Rolling Stone, was going to select it as number 64 on the list of the top 500 songs of all time. I’ll admit, it was a catchy little number, but I just couldn’t understand the appeal.
But worse was yet to come. On February 9, 1964, I begged, bargained and pleaded with my parents to let me stay up late and watch the Beatles first appearance on the Ed Sullivan show. What a shock. These guys had long hair, like girls. They wore suits, but even the suits were weird, not like the formal suits my father sometimes wore on important occasions. And they were surrounded, drowned out, by screaming, shrieking crying girls – why, you could barely hear the music! My parents were horrified. I was horrified.
The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show, Feb. 9, 1964. In the foreground (left to right) are Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and John Lennon, and Ringo Starr is playing the drums.
I went back to my room, distraught that the four boys who made half the girls in America cry were so weird-looking. I wondered what was wrong with me. Why didn’t I get it? Was I so out of touch with the rest of my peers that I didn’t see the appeal of these long-headed moppets with their simpering songs (Really? “I Want to Hold Your Hand?”)
In disgust, I thought of getting rid of the 45 my mature, in-touch cousin had given me, thinking I’d appreciate her idols. But back then, we didn’t randomly throw away gifts – we were expected to treasure them and take care of them, whether we liked them or not. Back then, the popular song was the “A” side, the secondary song was the “B” side. So I turned over the 45 and listened to the B side, “I’ll Get You.” When I did, something amazing happened. I joined my generation in an instant. I gave up Broadway musicals and happy little Disney Tunes (“Drip, drip, drop, little April shower, beating a tune as you fall all around”) and moved into the 1960s.
“I’ll Get You” drew me in from the first line, “Imagine I’m in love with you.” I liked that. I was ten years old. I could easily imagine some boy saying that to me someday. I could imagine myself saying it to some boy, blushing all the while. Maybe the boy down the street I had a crush on. There was clapping. There was harmony. There was romance. And yes, I decided Paul was adorable, even with that weird hair. But that boy, John … He of the sparkling eyes. He of the secret smile.
The metamorphosis happened so fast I didn’t even know it was happening. Within a few hours, I was a rabid Beatles fan. I played that song over and over and over again, till my brothers and sisters threatened to break the record player if I played it again. I started listening to the radio and found other songs I liked as well. I started listening to the Dave Clark Five, Chad and Jeremy. I cried over Gerry and the Pacemakers song, “Ferry Cross the Mersey,” though I had no idea what the Mersey was. Obsessively I began to listen to music on the radio, the same radio where, a few weeks before, I had been listening to Bing Crosby and Frank Sinatra, my parents’ faves. Now all I could think of was the British invasion.
I made friends with other similarly addicted people, both boys and girls. We all played air guitar and pretended to be singers in rock-and-roll bands, though we didn’t know we were playing air guitar. We just imitated our heroes. I was always John.
There were two types of fans back then, those who loved the Beatles, and those who loved the Rolling Stones. The Beatles were considered more conservative. They weren’t wild and crazy members of the anti-establishment the way the Stones were. (That would come later.) When one of my fellow classmates said, “I like Mick,” I knew they were heading into the counter-culture more quickly than I was.
John Lennon’s eyes always glimmered with a bright humor. I got to see him on television many times. He became my hero, an ongoing introduction to the new world of the counter-culture. He seemed so edgy, but he wasn’t bad, the way the Rolling Stones were bad. Okay, yeah, he said that dumb thing about being more popular than Jesus, but his quote really was taken out of context. The real quote was based on extensive reading he was doing in religious writing. He clarified his misstep later, with a statement that almost perfectly reflected my own beliefs:
“ I believe Jesus was right, Buddha was right, and all of those people like that are right. They’re all saying the same thing, and I believe it. I believe what Jesus actually said — the basic things he laid down about love and goodness — and not what people say he said.”
Many people in my family were against the hypocrisy of organized religion, so I didn’t have a problem with the statement. I was appalled when people began burning Beatle records and banning them from appearances. But John was never as bad, as downright evil, as it seemed Mick Jagger could be. I never could figure out why Jagger sang “Sympathy for the Devil” at the 1969 Altamonte Concert where people were actually killed and violence was further provoked by his aggressive song.
A year before, the Beatles had issued a controversial song called “Revolution,” which many people objected to. Obviously, these people had never listened to the song, or they would have heard the signature line that stuck out for me – “When you talk about destruction, don’t you know that you can count me out.”
I knew that John Lennon wasn’t perfect. Neither was I. Neither was that song on the back of “She Loves You.” In fact, there’s one place where John and Paul literally sang different lyrics for the same line. I didn’t care. I found something the first time I heard that song, music that was mine, not my parents. In the wonderful documentary, “The Sixties: The British Invasion,” Tom Hanks says that hearing the Beatles was like hearing the future. That’s the way it felt for me.
I found a new style of living, one which involved trying alternatives to the most popular elements of popular culture. I never again assumed that the most popular songs were the best ones for me – I learned to listen to all kinds of songs no one else knew; I learned to adapt them to my life. I learned to appreciate the B side of life as a soundtrack. Thank you to the Beatles and especially to my hero, John Lennon, for enticing me out of my box.