wRog (wrog) wrote,

Beatles Retrospective 2013

My son's elementary school did a Beatles-themed musical presentation. Each class got up and sang a selection of songs from the Lennon/McCartney collected works. William (1st grade) was excited because he was one of the ones who got to do the dance as part of his class' rendition of When I'm 64.

I found this all incomparably weird, both generally weird and specific-to-me weird.

For one thing, it took me a while to catch on to something, and it wasn't until the parent sitting next to me remarked on how important it was to expose kids to this music. Although if she hadn't said anything, the Total Lack of Energy in the 5th grade class performance of All You Need is Love that ended the show would have nailed it:

For these kids, born in 2001-2007, it's just another random chapter out of the Big American Songbook. All You Need is Love may as well be In the Mood, Oklahoma, or I've Been Working on the Railroad, and the theme of the show may as well have been Glenn Miller or Rodgers & Hammerstein for all of the difference that it makes to them. For that matter the Beatles clearly predated a fair number of the teachers there as well.

In other words, this show was not, oddly enough, any kind of desperate, lame attempt on the part of the administration or teachers to be current, hip, or "groovy", to get the kids' attention by doing their music, or (in the more positive version) doing a daring presentation of edgy current music despite the possibility that it might upset a large fraction or even a majority of the parents.

Which is what I associate the Beatles, or more precisely, the Beatles songs with, and it's a measure of just how much I make that association that it took me so long to figure this out.

See, in the early 70s you simply could not get through a middle school band program without encountering at least one medley of Beatles tunes and often other currently-popular groups as well. Though there was always at least one Beatles medley.

In fact, I vividly remember doing an assembly in 4th grade (1970-71) where our class sang Raindrops Keep Falling on My Head and Three Dog Night's Joy to the World, both of which, if they weren't top-40 at the time had probably only recently dropped off.

To be sure, Raindrops is about as tame as it gets, but, now that I think about it, doing anything remotely hard-core rock like Three Dog Night must have been a pretty daring move on the part of my 4th grade teacher, given the community we lived in — the short version being that I grew up in the white Republican part of New Jersey; our town had THE best 4th of July Parade...

The previous year, we'd had the Earth Day assembly where a bunch of the cooler 8th graders (including my older brother) performed Peter Paul & Mary's Lemon Tree. Not quite Woodstock, but it probably still scared the shit out of some of the parents.

At which point you're probably saying, "Wait a minute… Raindrops…? Peter Paul & Mary? Three Dog Night? What does this have to do with the Beatles?"

At which point we get to the specific-to-me weirdness, which is that to me, at the time, there wasn't necessarily much of a distinction, except for one thing, but I'll get to that.

Time to rewind a bit:

My parents made a point of not having anything in their record collection that post-dated Stravinsky, Ravel, or Richard Strauss. (Well okay, they had Prokovief's Symphony #1, the "Classical" symphony, even if that's unlike everything else the guy ever did. And when my oldest brother came back from college with stuff by Poulenc and Messiaen, that got added; so it's not like they weren't open to new things.)

And the FM radio in our house basically only had two stations: WQXR 96.3 and WNCN 104.3 — yes, once upon a time, New York City was able to support two (2) commercial radio stations entirely devoted to classical music (true!).

My sole exposure to popular music in the media was
  1. whatever leaked in via the one AM station we listened to (WOR710 for its rush-hour news&traffic coverage) which was mainly confined to the safer 60s pop icons (e.g., 5th Dimension, Petula Clark, Simon & Garfunkle, Carpenters) and
  2. network TV, which in the early 70s was the variety shows that survived the 60s (Flip Wilson, Merv Griffin, Carol Burnett) and the wall-to-wall cop shows with fusion-jazz soundtracks that filled up the rest of the schedule.
When I started piano lessions in 2nd grade, my teacher was an Italian emigré, son of a baron who'd fled Mussolini in the 1930s, came to New York to try to continue his career as a concert pianist, had a performance at Carnegie Hall and then things kind of fizzled after that, as often happens; his career in Italy didn't mean squat here and sometimes you just don't get the break that you need. And so he settled down to teaching.

I got a marvelous education from him. Strictly old-school; you work your way up through the classics: Bach, Czerny, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, Chopin, Liszt.... By the time I got to 7th grade, aside from the piano technique, I knew a small crapload of music theory, had fairly intuitive understanding of sonata form, knew what all of the random mordants meant in Bach scores, and so on.

And to be fair to my parents, it's not like they forbid their kids from listening to other stuff. When my band director in 8th grade approached my mom about letting me play in the jazz band he was forming, worried that my parents wouldn't approve, they turned out to be fully supportive. (... At which point I had to learn a completely different music notation (chord changes instead of notes) and a whole new style of playing, a massive challenge given that there was so much I had to work out for myself — my teacher's knowledge of jazz didn't go much beyond Gershwin, and none of my directors were keyboard players, so there I was...). I suspect some of it was that my Mom was a closet Glenn Miller fan, but there were no complaints later on when things took a decidedly more modern direction.

Still my parents made no secret about wanting their kids to be classical music fans, and boy howdy did that work out for them. They didn't forbid; they were subtle; selective about their record collection; careful about finding a good piano teacher; if I wanted to listen to something there was no problem, but there was always a "Why would you want to?" attitude that seeped through.

Parents get to do that.

Thing is, I actually liked some of the stuff I heard on the AM radio, even if it wasn't necessarily Real Music™.

But I also knew that I hated the Beatles.
Even if I had no fucking clue who the Beatles actually were.

How does that work, you might ask?

Part of it is understanding how the Beatles were portrayed in the media, i.e., what you saw if your only experience of them is what you saw of them on network television in the late 60s and early 70s.

You'd see occasional documentaries or news items where there are clips of them performing. You know that they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in the early 60s. You'll see the standard shot of their first appearence in the US with millions of girls screaming at the top of their lungs and then swooning. Then an immediate cut to Helter Skelter and I am the Walrus, played through overloaded guitar pickups and badly distorted amplifiers (never mind the problems I already had with loud music in general, cf. autism spectrum sensory distortion issues for which I apparently share at least one or two genes with Philip)

That last part would go on for a while, interposed with cutaways to completely out-of-control crowds.

I didn't need my parents to tell me that this "music" was utter crap; that much was obvious.

It was also obvious that the Beatles were popular, for absolutely no reason that I could discern other than,
"Your parents hate this shit."

Which is not to say that I as a teenager didn't recognize the appeal of rebelling against my parents. But someone like me was far more inclined to rebel against my peers. You might say it was a natural consequence of the number of times I got beat up by my peers in elementary school. It's a small step from there to,

"Fuck that noise; sometimes parents actually do get stuff right the first time."

Of course, it didn't actually make a whole lot of sense to me that kids were going to these concerts solely and specifically to piss off their parents. That's an awful lot of trouble to go to.

Which left the other possibility, namely that the fans of the Beatles and the other hard rock groups were just insane, full stop.

This, of course, was borne out a few years later when Charles Manson's gang and the Symbionese Liberation Army went on their respective rampages.

Never mind that it was all part of a general trend. In the 1970s, crime rates spiraled out of control. Rampaging mobs shut down the city of Asbury Park -- an amusement park on the Jersey shore that we always used to go to every summer, that eventually became far too dangerous. Black Muslims were taking over the Newark public schools — my mom had a black college friend (see, we're not racist!) still living there, who had plenty of horror stories to relate. Orange and Montclair, where my mom had grown up and where she'd gone to college, were likewise getting overrun. There were so many places we couldn't go anymore.

Then there was that well-intentioned but stupid peace movement that shut down the Vietnam War, caused us to lose the entire country to the Soviets, put all of those millions of people in boats, and allowed Pol Pot to get in to kill half of Cambodia.

(...And, man, is it good that we were able to stop that shit dead in its tracks when they tried to do the same damn thing in Chile, where my father grew up and where my grandparents lived until they panicked and moved away after Allende's election...)

Or that well-intentioned but stupid "affirmative-action" reverse-discrimination bullshit that meant my dad, as the only white, Anglo, protestant guy in his department, stopped getting promotions. His career having stalled out meant that when the company got bought and the new board decided to close down the research division in New Jersey, he missed out on the department-head job that would have been an easy commute and instead had to take a department-head job that was 200 miles away, and so I only ever saw him on weekends after that.

And, finally, to top it all off, there was that Saturday morning TV show of theirs that was completely inane. I tried to watch a few episodes of it at one point but gave up in disgust. Could NOT see the appeal. Best I could come up with was Peter Tork possibly being handsome by some standard — something I, naturally, would know nothing about — but that, of course, could only explain the girl fans (no sexism here, either, nope!).

Suffice it to say, I had no shortage of completely objective reasons to hate the Beatles and all of that hippy 60s crap that they represented.

Suffice it to say, it's interesting how things can change when more facts become available or when one gets an additional 30 years to mull things over. This being long enough, I'll skip the details, except for one (if you care about the others, or otherwise want to draw too many conclusions about my current political views, you might want to look at this first (though I only ever really knew the Jerry Schwarz version)) …

…namely that Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da turns out to indeed be a Beatles song, which I only found out this morning. Yes I'd heard it before, but given its reggae style, I was sure it had to be by Herb Alpert or somesuch. (And I now feel less stupid finding out that Herb Alpert — along with a billion other people — indeed did a cover of it in 1969, mere months after the White Album came out.) It's still amazing how often this keeps happening to me, i.e., that some song I know from the 60s unexpectedly turns out to be by Lennon/McCartney, evidence of the considerable length and variation in their career prior to Helter Skelter.

The same, of course, happened with all of the aforementioned band medlies, i.e., I had no idea at the time that they were Beatles, only that they matched songs I heard on the AM radio, and that the school teachers were clearly attempting to "reach" the kids using "their" music. But I actually liked some of those tunes and so, in some cases at least, didn't mind so much.

I'd also be curious to know how many schools currently attempt what my school did in 1970, i.e., whether there are any Nirvana or REM or Spice-Girls-themed school productions happening now or whether we'll have to wait another decade for that.

Then again, I noticed that Helter Skelter was conspicuously absent from the program today.
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