On this cloudy day in Solihull, England, I am remembering a Friday night of almost 52 years ago and 2,700 miles away from here. I recall standing in the darkness with friends as rock’n’roll reverberated through the walls of a school gymnasium in north end Halifax, Nova Scotia. At times, we ducked into the shadows seeking shelter from the rain and dodging the suspicious eyes of leather jacketed “north-ender” lads who slipped out from the dance to sneak a smoke. We were Halifax “south-enders” and they might think we were there to “steal their women.” And if they spotted us, we might get our sorry south-end asses kicked back across town to the far side of Citadel Hill.
What I remember most though, was the music – the sound of a new British rock group called The Beatles. They had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February and, since that time, it was all we teenagers at St. Patrick’s High School could think about. We loved the way they looked and especially their music that made us ponder life, love and relationships in our formative adolescent years. And while the Beatles would of course never perform at a 1964 Nova Scotia sock hop, the DJ was spinning 45 rpm vinyl Beatles music that made it seem like they were there. Now living in Great Britain, it’s fun to think about those times and about the Beatles’ influence on our lives. It’s a bit of a “mental diversion” that might spur memories for those of my “vintage.”
I remember when the Beatles made that first appearance on the Sullivan show. While passing through London Heathrow, Ed had bumped into a throng of teenage girls waiting for the Beatles to return from a tour of Sweden. He saw in their Beatles passion the sort of adulation Elvis Presley had stirred up in the 1950s. Ed was, as most people know, a master of knowing what might be “the next big thing” in the entertainment world that he showcased on his New York-based television show. And while it took a while for Ed to book the Beatles, when they did grace his stage it was one of the most memorable events in television history, breaking all records for viewership of any single show.
We were at that time living in a flat on Henry Street in Halifax. It was there in our “front room” we gathered with our parents around a black and white Admiral “floor model” television every Sunday night to watch the Ed Sullivan Show, once known as “The Toast of the Town.” It was perhaps the quintessential variety show, starting in 1948 and winding up in 1971. It featured the cream of the crop in all forms of entertainment, from puppet shows and opera singers to ballerinas and rock’n’rollers. It was where Bob Hope, Fred Astaire, Martin and Lewis and other stars got their first television exposure. And like “Coronation Street” in the U.K., it was a show pretty much everyone watched.
On that night, there was something really special offered: a British act that would attract more than 70 million U.S. television viewers and launch a North American brand of “Beatlemania.” Like everyone, we anxiously awaited for the Beatles to step out on stage amidst the screams of more than 700 teenage girls. I remember how my parents shook their heads amused at the girls in the audience and at our teenage fascination with the Beatles, and yet forgetting their following of music and entertainment of their time. And when they came out on stage, I think even my 50-something parents recognized that we and the rest of North America were watching something special.
Sandra and I jumped at an opportunity this past year to take in a Beatles tribute show in London. As we settled into our seats at the Prince of Wales Theater, I pretended it was Feb. 9, 1964 and Ed Sullivan was about to say “Ladies and gentlemen – the Beatles!” For a moment it seemed I was actually watching John Lennon leaning into the microphone and belting out “I want to hold your hand.” I thought of a boyish-faced Paul McCartney up on the stage, his head held high, with a beaming Liverpool grin. George was there too, looking somewhat detached as always, while Ringo’s head bobbled to the beat of his drums; all together creating an image everyone remembers.
And yet, I felt a little disappointed at how the tribute show began. I even started to regret that we had not taken in Jersey Boys – a show so enjoyed a couple of years earlier. But then as the tribute took off, I realized we were being taken on a rather realistic Beatles journey. It was a trip depicting them as a young rock and roll group just finding their right sound, and then morphing into something over the next eight years creating a rich legacy of music that will stand the test of time. There was no real storyline to the show; their musical progression, though, made their story unfold for me. I set aside any regrets as we eventually ended up dancing in the theater aisles. It renewed my love of the Beatles and spurred memories of growing up with them as the soundtrack of our teenage lives in the 1960s.
I had always wanted to visit Liverpool, the Lancashire city where my great grandfather was born and from where he emigrated to Nova Scotia in 1869. More so, I wanted to see the place where the Beatles got their start and eventually became the most iconic music group of the 20th century. We visited “The Cavern,” that subterranean club in Liverpool that has been described as “the cradle of British pop music.” To stand in front of the stage where the Beatles became the club’s signature act and performed 292 times, you must climb down a dark winding staircase leading to a neon lit cellar. While we were there, a Paul McCartney lookalike performed on stage, enough to stir up Beatles memories.
As I reflect on the Beatles, I have concluded that they burst onto the scene at just the right time, with the right mix of people, the right songs and the right people to promote their cutting-edge music. Some say the Beatles helped heal a wounded America still pining from the 1962 assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Young people were looking for something in which to believe, hoping there must be a future for a world that could create such music. Others have achieved a measure of similar success, but I believe the Beatles left the most lasting impression. They are indeed an enigma of the 20th century; and they are not “just famous” – they are “more than famous.”
Dan McSweeney, a Halifax native, first worked as a reporter at the old Halifax Herald, then got a taste of public relations work at Canadian National Railway in Moncton, before coming to Thompson in 1980 to work for Inco. He retired back home to Bridgewater on Nova Scotia’s south shore in June 2007 after 27½ years with Inco here. He blogs at mcsweeneysdiversion.wordpress.com.