I was recently sitting outside a local bagel shop in New Jersey when three 20-ish guys walked by, all sporting long hair to their shoulders. Two of them were wearing Zildjian cymbals T-shirts, so I could safely assume, on some level, they were telegraphing to the world that they were musicians. Little do they know their chosen hairstyle is 60 years old this week. Still so closely associated with rock, long hair has had its meaning change over the years, but its resilience is now chugging along in its seventh generation.
Like so many of today’s popular musical staples, the Beatles invented long hair for the masses. There was a time when the band was such a fresh and hip sensation (circa 1963-64), that they were better known broadly for their hairstyle than their music. This was rooted in a two-week spur-of-the-moment hitchhiking vacation taken by John Lennon and Paul McCartney. No one at the time would have thought this would create a 60-year phenomenon.
John had received an amazing amount of money from his Aunt Elizabeth for his 21st birthday. It was 100 British Pounds, more money than he or Paul had ever seen, much less held in their hands. By hitchhiking, this money could get them to Spain and back, via a couple of nights in Paris.
This whim came upon the two just as their playing itinerary was full. But it was also a period where boredom was setting in, as the excitement of being the top band in Liverpool was wearing thin. As they didn’t have a “ral” manager at this point (drummer Pete Best’s mother, Mona Best, was making the booking calls), they basically said “lump it” to Pete, their respective girlfriends, and one George Harrison. The guitarist was quite angered that he was not even asked to go along, (although George knew he couldn’t afford to join them) and was riled that their time away meant he would have no income for two weeks. The ironic bit of this story was that John and Paul would never actually see Spain.
Jürgen Vollmer was an aspiring photographer, and along with Klaus Voormann and Astrid Kirchherr, part of a group of German fans who embraced and befriended the Beatles during their multiple gigs in Hamburg. Since meeting him a year earlier, the Beatles admired Jürgen’s keen sense of dress and experimentation with the latest Paris fashions. Jürgen would eventually move to Paris, just months before John and Paul’s planned two-day stop-off to the city. It was a perfect opportunity to see an old friend while experiencing the social capital of the French.
Meeting at the flea-bitten place on the Left Bank (Hotel de Beaune) where he was staying, Jürgen soon found his reserved German personality challenged by two boisterous English tourists demanding to be shown everything that was going on in the city. “John and Paul liked all the girls!” Jürgen would recall. “They loved the style of what I called ‘the bohemian beauties,’ the pseudo existentialists, girls who looked the part but didn’t subscribe to the ideas.” Conversely, the Paris girls didn’t necessarily like John and Paul. “[They] had their Elvis (pompadour) hair and leather jackets, and they really stuck out.”
Perhaps due to the local’s rejection of their style, or maybe it was their envy of Jürgen’s clothing (that included shoes known as half-boots, soon to become the famous Beatle boots), John and Paul inquired about his hairstyle. Jürgen wore his hair down in front, clean with no greasy oil to slick things down, in a bowl-like comb-down and a little to the side with diagonal parting. Paul called it “a kind of long-haired Hitler thing.” Now with their Paris stay running overtime, (well into its second week), they asked Jürgen if he would consider cutting and restyling their own hair to look like his. So there in his upper floor room at the Hotel de Beaune, the Beatle haircut was born on October 12 or 13, 1961. Paul went first, with their collective locks swept under the bed to keep the housekeepers from knowing Jürgen had two non-paying visitors.
Having traded Spain for the sexy world of Paris, they quickly returned directly to Liverpool in time for their October 15 show via air flight (Paul- “We just flew home at the end; a real lazy hitch-hiking holiday!”) Neil Aspinall, their equipment manager who drove the band van, would be the first to see their soon to be famous hair. “I went to collect John and his hair was down. But when we went to collect Paul, we realized something was going on.” Neil would later reflect, “Paul’s hair was down as well, but he skipped out of his house, pointing at his hair and generally unable to be subtle about it.”
They had changed the visual consistency of the band. George and Pete didn’t know this was coming. John and Paul made no demands on the other two, and it’s been reported that nothing was said directly about the future of the band’s hair. Yet, in a matter of days, young George would change his hair to match his mates. Pete, being far more conservative, decided he didn’t like the change and stuck with his James Dean pompadour. In a mere 10 months, he would be out of the band. History would surmise that this choice was another chink in the destiny of Pete Best.
Beatle history picks up speed at this point; just three more weeks and Brian Epstein “discovers” the band. As their manager, Epstein would navigate them to world fame with the vision to build personality narratives behind each member to assure that they all had equal footing in the eyes (and ears) of the public. George was always considered an ongoing project: he was the quietest member, one of two guitarists, and not a prolific songwriter (yet). So when press inquiries came about their famous hair (John: “We only fear dandruff”) as to who invented the Beatle haircut, a story was built to give credit to George. He would say he was swimming and not having a towel handy, it dried in the form of the familiar Beatle style. Years later, George joked that he said it so often in public that he started to forget that it was Jürgen in Paris that gave them the blueprint.
By the time the Beatles played the Ed Sullivan show in February of 1964, their hair proceeded them. The older Hollywood show-biz crowd showed contempt for their “gimmick” (Dean Martin: “short on talent, apparently long on hair”). Eventually, pop culture would catch up and embrace the trend with the Broadway play Hair, and soon, one’s locks meant more than just a show-biz thing. With the country marred in debate over Vietnam and the Civil Rights movement taking off, hair got longer, its meaning more serious by the end of the ’60s.
Long hair continued to flow post-Watergate and into the mid-’70s. It then took a distinctive detour in 1977. In the UK, punk rock killed the long hair age, while in the USA, carefully-styled haircuts hit the mainstream thanks to John Travolta and Saturday Night Fever. Now the uniformity of long hair began to mix; styles became a mish-mosh of old/new. A good example is seen on the very cover of the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack album by the Bee Gees: Barry- short and styled, Robin- longer shoulder-length, Maurice- long… and balding!
The early ’80s was a period of long-hair in exile, with a variety of processed styles suitable for MTV, culminating in the distinctive hair of Mike Score from Flock of Seagulls. Long hair made a come-back in the late ’80s via Big Hair bands like Guns & Roses, Poison, Quiet Riot, and the King of All Hair, Jon Bon Jovi.
The ’90s kicked off with the unfortunate Mullet fad, then the acceptance of bald lead men like Midnight Oil’s Peter Garrett, Michel Stipe of R.E.M., and later-aged Peter Gabriel. With the unkempt look of the Grunge movement, long hair was back, even if Kurt Cobain looked like he hadn’t washed his since his father came back from Woodstock.
By the 20-teens, hair had no particular style dominance in the Rock world, other than some of the creative styles from Lady Gaga and Pink. But don’t look now, the 20 somethings may be staging a hair comeback….or maybe Rock & Roll hair has never left us.
Photo: The Beatles on Ed Sullivan (Getty)