On this day, on October 5, in 1962, the Beatles’ first single, Love Me Do, was released with PS I Love You on the flip side in Britain. The rest is history. Philip Larkin summed it up most memorably in his poem, Annus Mirabilis:
Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) –
Between the end of the Chatterley ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.
The Swinging Sixties were a permissive age and the Beatles were no angels. The boys not only smoked pot; John Lennon and Yoko Ono also posed nude on the cover of their Two Virgins album in the late 60s.
But that was later. The Beatles seemed a fresh-faced, clean-shaven, fun-loving foursome that girls, mums and grandmas could adore when they cut their first record. They did twist and shout on stage, and their mop-top hairdo, falling over their foreheads, almost reaching their eyebrows and nearly hiding their ears, was girlish, unlike the pompadour sported by Elvis and the teddy boys. But the Beatles were not wild, at least in public. They were naughty but nice.
What was unique about the Beatles, apart from their hairdo, was they rose to fame and stayed in the spotlight with a combination of hit songs and cheeky quotes. Other artistes from the Rolling Stones to the rap stars have also had their share of hits and quotes. But no one can match the cheek, irreverence and elan of the Beatles. Except maybe Monty Python and the Goon Show. But they made comedies, not rock and roll.
Take, for instance, the famous quote when the Beatles performed in front of the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret at the Royal Variety Performance at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre on November 4, 1963. After the people stopped clapping, Lennon smiled and told the audience: “For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. The people in the cheaper seats clap your hands. And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery…” The royals gamely responded with a wave, and then the Beatles burst into Twist and Shout.
Lennon was not only cheeky, he could be blunt and sharp. “When I cannot sing my heart, I can only speak my heart,’ he said – and he did.
But the Beatles were fun in their early days. They were irresistible when they sang a ballad and irresistible when they rocked. Who can forget their early hits? Love Me Do, PS I Love You, Please Please Me, Ask Me Why, From Me to You, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand, This Boy, Roll over Beethoven, Misery, Please Mister Postman, I Saw Her Standing There, All My Loving, Why, Twist and Shout, Can’t Buy Me Love, A Hard Day’s Night, And I Love Her, If I Fell, Matchbox, Slow Down, Eight Days a Week, Ticket to Ride, Help, I’m Down, Yesterday, I’ll Follow the Sun.
Philip Larkin in his poem mentioned sexual intercourse, the Beatles and Lady Chatterley in the same verse, but the early Beatles, in public at least, were more cute than raunchy. The lyrics could be suggestive, as in A Hard Day’s Night
It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’d been working like a dog
It’s been a hard day’s night, I should be sleeping like a log
But when I get home to you I find the things that you do
Will make me feel alright
But they didn’t go over the line.
The movies could be more explicit. Dr No, the first James Bond movie, starring Sean Connery and Ursula Andress, was released on the same day as Love Me Do. Anyone from those days will remember the movie poster and the scene showing Ursula Andress rising from the sea in a skimpy bikini. Now that was hot. The Beatles in their movies, A Hard Day’s Night and Help, as far as I remember, were all covered up. Even Elvis showed more skin.
The Beatles weren’t an overnight sensation. Love Me Do, their first single, didn’t top the UK chart; it peaked at No 17. It was No 1 on the US Billboard chart for only a week two years later in 1964 when the Beatles toured America.
The Beatles made it big in 1963 when Please Please Me, their follow-up single after Love Me Do, peaked at No 2 in Britain and was succeeded by a stream of No 1 hits – From Me to You, She Loves You, I Want to Hold Your Hand. And then they conquered America in 1964. You can still see some of the videos on YouTube. By then the Beatles were superstars.
But no band worked longer or harder than them, pointed out Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers.
“Lennon and McCartney started playing together in 1957, seven years prior to landing in America,” he wrote. After they started playing in Liverpool, they also began performing in Hamburg. The hard work and long hours there made them better musicians. “In Liverpool, we’d only done one-hour shows,” said Lennon. “In Hamburg, we had to play eight hours.” And they had to play seven days a week.
The Beatles travelled to Hamburg five times between 1960 and the end of 1962. “All told, they performed for 270 nights in just over a year and a half, “ wrote Gladwell. “By the time they had their first burst of success in 1964, they had performed live an estimated twelve hundred times. Most bands today don’t perform twelve hundred times in their entire careers.”
Beatlemania reached new heights when they released Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Critics and fans raved about the cover, the music and the lyrics, for breaking new ground in pop music.
I loved Lucy and the Sky with Diamonds for its Alice-in-Wonderland lyrics:
Picture yourself in a boat on a river
With tangerine trees and marmalade skies
Somebody calls you, you answer quite slowly
A girl with kaleidoscope eyes
Looking back, however, I like the early Beatles more because their music and lyrics were simpler then.
I was looking at the list of Billboard Hot 100 singles of 1963 when the Beatles had their first No 1. And what struck me was how popular both party music and sweet love songs were. The songs that topped the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart that year included Hey Paula by Paul and Paula, He’s So Fine by the Chiffons, I Will Follow Him by Little Peggy March, If You Wanna Be Happy by Jimmy Soul, It’s My Party by Lesley Gore, Sukiyaki by Kyo Sakamoto, Surf City by Jan and Dean, My Boyfriend’s Back by the Angels, and Blue Velvet by Bobby Vinton. Pop music was for lovers and partygoers. It did not include much social commentary.
If you wanted anything edgy, you turned to books and movies – and maybe listened to jazz.
Books published in 1962 and 1963 included classics like A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess, One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest by Ken Kesey, One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? by Edward Albee.
The 1962 movies included Lawrence of Arabia, The Longest Day, To Kill a Mockingbird, Hatari, Mutiny on the Bounty, The Manchurian Candidate and Lolita.
John F Kennedy was the US president, Nikita Khrushchev in power in Moscow, and Jawaharlal Nehru the Indian prime minister then. Two of them died and the other ousted from power soon after – after all three had to deal with a crisis.
The superpowers almost came to war and there was war between India and China. The Cuban missile crisis erupted on October 16, 11 days after the release of the Beatles’ Love Me Do. America confronted Russia over the deployment of Russian missiles in Cuba. The standoff continued till October 28. The crisis ended when the missiles were withdrawn.
Fighting began in the Himalayas between India and China within days of the Cuban missile crisis. China invaded India, precipitating war. The fighting ended a month later on November 21 when China declared a ceasefire.
Peace returned but the leaders involved could not continue for long.
Kennedy died a year later — assassinated in Dallas on November 22, 1963. He was 46 years old.
Nehru’s health began to decline after the war with China. He died on May 27, 1964, at the age of 74.
Khrushchev was ousted by his successor, Leonid Brezhnev, on October 14, 1964. He died on September 11, 1971, in his late 70s.
The Beatles have also lost two of their own: John Lennon, assassinated outside his apartment building in New York on December 8, 1980, at the age of 40; George Harrison died at a friend’s home in Los Angeles after a battle with cancer on May 29, 2001, at the age of 58.
Their fans are growing older, too. “All things must pass,” as George Harrison sang, “all things must pass away.”