1963 was a time of change for Britain. Alec Douglas-Home was changing government tactics, Sean Connery was growing more comfortable in the role of James Bond, and The Beatles – who could very easily have been a one-hit wonder with “Love Me Do” – were swiftly taking over the airwaves.
Yes, The Beatles were ready, and they brought with them their own catalog of songs, which set them apart from virtually every other band of the era. In an effort to catch up with The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, and The Who all abandoned their covers to unveil their own compositions to the public. Roger Daltrey may have sung about “My Generation”, but it was John Lennon who exemplified it.
The Beatles were swiftly taking over the country, and America – still mourning the loss of their President – was soon to follow. Songwriters John Lennon & Paul McCartney enjoyed most of the acclaim, although this was a disservice to Ringo Starr, whose drumming pushed the two men forward on ballads “Misery” and “There’s A Place” – not forgetting Starr’s performance on “Twist and Shout”, which was suffused with professional acumen. Guitarist George Harrison, who had only just turned twenty, was also developing as an artist, and performed some of the more challenging harmonies heard on their first album, Please Please Me.
Author Ken McNab explores this particular year in his well-researched book Shake it Up, Baby: The Rise of Beatlemania and the Mayhem of 1963, painting a Britain still recovering from the horrors of two World Wars. Rock was still in its primitive stages, and Cliff Richard was making his name from an altogether different form of music. Richard stemmed from the part of England that deserved success, boasting the type of accent that flitted from politician to pop star.
And then along came The Beatles, all moptops and Scouse voices, who issued a rawer form of music that appealed to the working classes across the nation. Such was their power, that their producer George Martin felt that time was of the essence and encouraged the band to record their debut album promptly. Listening to it now, the nerves are apparent, but what a thrill it must have been to hear four musicians sing with such honesty.
McNab notes that Irish writer Maureen Cleave saw something in the group, and wrote a favorable feature on the group under the title, “Why The Beatles Create The Frenzy.” The Beatles bridged the gap between the lower and upper echelons of British society, and by 1964, were enjoying the company of Princess Margaret, among other esteemed luminaries. (Cleave has been called the woman who inspired “Norweigan Wood,” although she firmly denied that she enjoyed a liaison with the rhythm guitarist, leading Lennon to state he couldn’t remember who the song was about.)
The band released two albums in 1963, the aforementioned Please Please Me and the exhilarating With The Beatles, leading Martin and manager Brian Epstein to recognize the value of the band’s chief songwriters. Dutifully, Dick James was tasked with setting up Northern Songs as a publishing house for the band. Lennon & McCartney were delighted, although Epstein’s naivete was noted by more established members of the recording industry, who noted the vast amounts of money he cost the band. (In Epstein’s defense, it was early days, and he died too young to rectify the situation.)
Behind the scenes, Lennon was juggling his newfound success with a pregnant wife, and McNab suggests that the stress may have contributed to the rowdy drunkenness he exhibited in Liverpool (“Off the leash and on the lash before the baby was due,” McNab writes). Firmly placed as the leader, Lennon was professional enough to shake off his hangover and join his bandmates on Saturday Club; the quartet used their newly acquired celebrity to play at Stowe School, a very different establishment to the Grammar Schools they frequented in Liverpool. McCartney, it seems, was blown away by the grandeur of the establishment, and spent much of his time asking questions about the facilities.
Ultimately, some of Lennon’s lewder comments embarrassed his bandmates (particularly McCartney), which might explain why he opted to travel to Barcelona with Epstein in the hope of maintaining his influence and command. If that was the rationale, it was one Lennon came to regret, because he was met with innuendo when he returned to England. “I was on holiday with Brian Epstein in Spain, where the rumors went around that he and I were having a love affair,” Lennon recalled. “Well, it was almost a love affair, but not quite. It was never consummated. But it was a pretty intense relationship.”
Lennon later admitted that abandoning his pregnant wife for sunshine was ungentlemanly (“..that’s what a bastard I was,”), but McNab reminds readers how young he was in 1963.
Although McNab devotes a lot of time to Lennon, he doesn’t make the mistake Philip Norman made with Shout!, championing his brilliance at the expense of McCartney and Harrison. Instead, what we get is something deeply reverential of the band’s output, and understanding of the year they set their country alight.
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