From Chapter One • Setting the Stage • Meet The Beatles • Moments after stepping off the plane the Beatles were ushered into a room with over two hundred reporters present, many of whom had a bemused “what’s all the fuss about” attitude. They had heard about Beatlemania in the UK but they didn’t think it would happen in the US. They soon saw what all the fuss was about as the Beatles effortlessly kibitzed for fifteen minutes, their sassy scouse humor winning the hearts and minds of a predominantly Jewish and Irish New York press corps. The word “cheeky” entered the American vocabulary.
The group’s “performance” at the airport that Friday afternoon was probably more important to their success in America than their performance on Sunday night. But as America would soon discover, it was no performance. This is who they were. Beatle intelligence, humor, charisma, and confidence—their Beatleness—instantly set them apart, regardless of what one thought of the music. There would be no more comparisons with Elvis.
A three-way relationship quickly developed between the fans, the Beatles and the media. Writing about them was not only fun for journalists, but it sold newspapers. Had they been jet lagged, tired, or sarcastic to the point of seeming hostile, the vibe in the room might have been different and the instant rapport might not have happened. The press might have been less effusive, or even negative. As it happened, the press, for the most part, decided to love them.
The significance of this first US press conference cannot be overstated. Today, exceeding expectations to create delight is recognized by business gurus as a key factor in successful product launches and customer relations—but all that came naturally to the Beatles.
From Chapter Three • British Boys • Invasion • The summer and fall of 1964 were flled with musical amazement for young Beatle fans. Many were just discovering pop music and Top 40 radio. Five decades later they thank the Beatles for initiating their interest and opening their ears.
The recording industry on both sides of the Atlantic was eager to cash in on young America’s love for the Beatles and wasted no time signing guitar-driven, beat-heavy bands. It’s like they were saying, “Okay, you like them, how about this?” A male fan, age eight at the time, recalls the British Invasion as “a whole new world; there were so many great records to buy.”
For the next two years, the flood of new music from Britain, and the US, was nothing less than a pop music renaissance. It was an extraordinary moment to have one’s musical consciousness come alive. The transistor radio continued to be a crucial companion—a lifeline to the music and to all things cool:
My transistor radio was the best gift I ever got in my life. It made you feel powerful because you didn’t have to ask your parents anymore if you could change the station. Male, b. ’55
Before I heard the Beatles, music didn’t mean that much to me. Hearing the Beatles at age eight made me realize even at that young age that music meant something and could be important. Many’s the day I remember playing in the dirt with my Matchbox cars with a cheap transistor radio playing the local Top 40 station, jammed with Beatles, Stones, Beach Boys, etc. Male, b. ’56
Older fans who were already following pop music and buying records were equally delighted—but in a slightly different way. They were able to appreciate that the Beatles and the acts following on their heels were different from what came before. They were familiar with little stories put to music and could hear how the Beatles raised the bar. Over time, fans came to expect more substantive lyrics, more complicated harmonies, jangly guitars, and bouncing, driving beats.
Young fans were suddenly engaging with the sounds and stories of pop music, teen-oriented TV and radio programming, and the Beatles—that was a lot to process at once. Because the music brought kids of different ages together, there was a sort of trickledown effect, with everyone learning from the oldest kids in the group—the de facto opinion leaders—who would alert younger kids to what was “good” or “cool.”
From Chapter Four • The Embodiment of Cool • Here Come The Hippies • In the final months of 1966, LSD became illegal in the US, John Lennon met Yoko Ono at the Indica Gallery in London, and the Beach Boys released their brilliant, psychedelic symphony, “Good Vibrations.” Meanwhile, the city of Los Angeles cracked down on teenage music fans for taking up too much space on Sunset Boulevard. While the Los Angeles–based entertainment industry promulgated countercultural ideas to young people nationwide through music, television, and film, these so-called hippie riots reflected the conflict between “young people speaking their mind” and an establishment oblivious to the impact of the media’s empowering messages.
In December, the United States began bombing the capital of North Vietnam as antiwar protests continued to spread throughout the country. When protestors at Berkeley tried to evict Navy recruiters from campus, it led to police intervention, a mass demonstration, and a mass singing of “Yellow Submarine.” One of the organizers produced a leaflet with a submarine and psychedelic graphics, which said, in part, “we adopt for today this unexpected symbol of our trust in our future, and of our longing for a place fit for us all to live in. Please post, especially where prohibited. We love you.”
Two months earlier, a six-foot Yellow Submarine filled with “messages of love, desperation, peace, and hope to all people in the world” was launched into the Hudson River by the New York City–based Workshop in Non-Violence—another adoption of the evocative symbol of harmony and goodwill.The Workshop also designed a pin that included a yellow submarine and a peace symbol on a black background, worn the following year by George and Ringo at the press party for Sgt. Pepper.
I was in History class and one of the jocks said he heard Paul was dead. The teacher discussed it with us for a while. Some people knew about it and knew some of the clues. The jock probably just said it to be cool; he wasn’t that into the Beatles. Male, b. ‘55
With passion, velocity, and density of Beatletalk not witnessed since the band’s arrival five and a half years earlier, a rumor that Paul died in 1966 spread through neighborhoods and schools. A male fan, age eighteen at the time, recalls, “We just got swept away with it. There was a crazy frenzy about it, the way it spread.”
According to the rumor, Paul had been replaced by a look-alike after dying in a car crash, events which the band painstakingly and successfully hid from the public. However, it was revealed that clues about the accident and proof Paul was dead could be found in songs and on album covers, as far back as Yesterday and Today. Many of the clues were on Abbey Road, one of the most prominent being, ironically, the license plate on the VW Beetle that would not have been there if the band had their way.
Paul Is Dead fever went on for more than two months. Fans from ten to twenty-five, in elementary school and in graduate school, looked at albums with magnifying glasses, identified symbols, and listened to songs, sometimes backward, for clues. And like early Beatleing, hunting for Paul Is Dead clues was a group activity and gave fans much to “explore and discuss.”
I was at a friend’s house, and her friend’s older brothers and sisters were talking about the rumor that Paul was dead and playing the records backwards. They were having lunch; grilled cheese and chicken soup. Female, b. ‘61
There was a Halloween party where someone put Paul in a coffin. We looked for the clues and talked about it. Male, b. ‘54
I was in college at the time. We played some songs backwards. We followed the clues. We didn’t think he was dead, but it was fun. Female, b. ‘47
A Beatle spokesman called the rumor “a load of rubbish” but that didn’t quell the frenzy. Several thought the band did it as a “joke at fans’ expense because they knew people combed for deeper meaning.” A female fan, age fourteen at the time, recalls, “I always thought the Beatles were behind it, that it was a publicity stunt. That disappointed me. I lost some of my trust in them. But we looked for the clues.”
Very few thought the Beatles were behind the rumor, and not all who thought so felt disappointed. A male fan, also fourteen at the time, recalls, “I think it was a marketing ploy to sell records, and I still do. These things are there. I didn’t think he was dead but I think they did it on purpose. John’s a practical joker, they all were.” A female fan, age thirteen at the time, said, “The Beatles had a mysterious side and knew how to put in cool stuff that kids would appreciate.”
Looking for clues meant going back to earlier albums that many younger fans, including superyoung fans introduced to the Beatles with Yellow Submarine or the Beatles cartoons, didn’t know about or thought were “for big kids.” Now these ten and eleven year olds wanted their own copy of Sgt. Pepper. The Beatles weren’t behind the rumor but it certainly sold records. It also sold special-issue magazines dedicated to the rumor. A New York City radio station broadcast an hour-long discussion about it, and the early morning AM signal was heard in thirty-eight states.
Rolling Stone ran an article called “One and One and One is Three?” in late October, explaining how the rumor got started and discussing some of the clues. The New York Times ran its second article on the persistent rumor in early November, this one titled “No, No, No, Paul McCartney Is Not Dead.” For the most part, fans didn’t believe Paul was dead, but they still “looked for clues and played songs backwards.”
At the height of the frenzy, a Life magazine reporter showed up unannounced and unwelcome at Paul’s farm, and after a testy interaction—photos of which were destroyed by gentleman’s agreement—was able to get a rare, extemporaneous interview with McCartney, who conjectured that the rumor started because he hadn’t “been much in the press lately.” He said he’d done “enough press for a lifetime” and that he’d rather be “a little less famous these days.” Paul continued, dropping a bombshell that got less attention than Life’s black and white photo spread proving he was alive:
I would rather do what I began by doing, which is making music. We make good music and we want to go on making good music. But the Beatle thing is over. It has been exploded, partly by what we have
done, and partly by other people. We are individuals—all different. John married Yoko, I married Linda. We didn’t marry the same girl.
By late November, when a New York City television station broadcast a mock trial on the rumor, featuring famed attorney F. Lee Bailey, the rumor had run its course, but fans didn’t stop looking at the clues, and
still haven’t. The rumor was started by a college student and a DJ, but the hundreds of clues that eventually emerged were created and shared by fans, who collectively developed a game that allowed for purposeful Beatleing.
Since the beginning, countless hours had been spent listening and studying album covers—this was simply more of the same. Those with good imaginations created meaning out of ambiguous detail to fit an absurd, emotionally charged narrative. Also, it’s more appealing to believe the Beatles had the cleverness and forethought to create these clues, in benignly conspiratorial fashion, than to believe they were created collectively by fellow fans. That the rumor completely defies logic and common sense was irrelevant to the function it served.
When the rumor started, fans had been seeing a lot of John but not much of Paul, George, or Ringo. And they’d seen a lot of John side projects that were moving, irretrievably, in non-Beatle directions. They were reading about delayed projects, disagreements, and financial wrangling. And then there was the new album—a tidy showcase with a feel of grand finality that explored, especially on “Side Two,” themes of maturity, disappointment, and unknown futures while offering aphorisms for the ages. Like any compulsive behavior, looking for and talking about Paul Is Dead clues assuaged anxiety—not about whether Paul was dead, but about whether the Beatles were still alive.
Unbeknownst to fans, John told the band he “wanted a divorce” in September but agreed to keep it quiet until some pending business issues were resolved. Paul, who most loved being a Beatle and who most defined himself in that way, was angry and depressed, going through his own cold turkey. His casual remark to the Life reporter had been true for months, but most fans, listening to a new album, rediscovering old ones, and expecting another long-delayed release early in the new year, were too distracted to notice.
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