Beatlemania: Technology, Business, and Teen Culture in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins Introductory Studies in the History of Technology)

By Andre Millard

John Hopkins Press | 2012 | 346 pages

Reviewed by Steve Kates

On a cold, blustery night in February of 1964, a seismic blow struck the music industry in the solar plexus: The Beatles debuted on the Ed Sullivan TV variety show. One can hardly imagine a more disparate confrontation of show biz talents – Sullivan, the dour, almost somnolent gossip columnist turned omnipotent TV host, and the youthful, exuberant, irreverent, and pixyish British quartet.

The studio nearly burst its seams as the Fab Four (not yet so named) went bouncing through their act.

Appearing on Sullivan was the precursor equivalent of a star turn on the Johnny Carson show – it could make or break a career, and on that momentous evening, the Beatles began, in earnest, their conquest of American and, ultimately, worldwide popular music.

Why it has taken forty-eight years for Beatlemania to be published is a moot question, but the more relevant query is:  Was this book truly needed?

The Beatles were young men in skinny three-button collarless suits, shirts, and ties, with soup bowl haircuts, castigated as the devil’s spawn and the downfall of American youth. Times change. In the glaring spotlight of hindsight 48 years later, they could have been choirboys from some rural British vicarage.

As author Andre Milard concedes, every conceivable avenue of inquiry regarding the Beatles’ music and personal lives has already been written. He contends that technology and the emerging globalization of world business, and entertainment, made possible the success of the Beatles, and he moves along in soporific detail tracing musical entertainment from the mid-nineteenth century to the present. There is, of course, truth in his contention, but it does not explain why the Beatles were exponentially more successful in that same environment than their contemporary competitors.

Milard states that record sales were the goal of the Fab Four in their career arc, and there is some justification for that claim. the Beatles have sold over one billion records worldwide, and sales continue to fill the coffers of the Apple Corporation (the group’s business arm) well after the band’s dissolution and the deaths of John Lennon and George Harrison. Adding to the glory of their legacy are the constant technological changes (CDs, itunes, and the like) which generate reissues of the Beatles’ music for new generations of fans.

But were the Beatles a technologically generated phenomenon? The entertainment media (radio, records, movies and television) were established technologies while the Beatles were still in diapers. And the Fab Four certainly did not confine their professional activities to those media – fantastically successful world tours larded their collective coffers and swelled their army of adoring fans.

Significantly, unlike many other more modestly successful rock and roll performers, the Beatles were genuinely and enormously talented, although John Lennon and Paul McCartney (the songwriters of the group) could neither read nor notate music. Their music was derived from many sources, both cultural and historical, and their lyrics spoke of universal longings, as well as universal humor.

I understand the notion that modern developments accelerated and magnified the quartet’s success. The transistor radio and tape recorders gave fans easier and faster access to popular music.  However, it should be noted that all of the competitive rock and roll groups had access to the same developments but simply did not achieve commensurate success: Poor marketing? Less talent? Me-tooism? Fickle teenagers? There are dozens of plausible explanations.

Milard, in my view, takes an inordinately long detour detailing the Beatles’ successes and those of their contemporaries. That particular chapter reads like one of those “and then I wrote” episodes at a testimonial dinner for an aging songwriter. Moreover, I can’t see the relevance of those innumerable references to making the point of technology impelling the Beatles’ success.

Milard’s more valid claim is that the Beatles happened to ride the wave of radio being the dominant music entertainment medium of their day, and when television took center stage, they left the scene. Incredibly, the arc of the Beatles’ performing career spanned only one decade (the 1960s – they broke up in early 1970). Drugs, internal bickering, outside interests and the influence of Yoko Ono on Lennon all contributed to the group’s dissolution.

Andre Milard is a professor of history at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, and he does offer a compelling analysis of the demographic scene in America in the 1960s, which included female baby boomers who were now teenagers, flush with spending money and, perhaps subconsciously, anticipating the feminist movement through their quasi-sexually motivated adulation of the Beatles. Young males, too, were caught up in Beatlemania frenzy, slavishly copying Beatles clothing and hairstyles.

To me, the most interesting aspect of Beatlemania was the analysis of Beatles manager Brian Epstein’s brilliant development and cosseting of the Fab Four. Epstein, the homosexual son of successful English merchants, was a Beau Brummell with a keen eye for trends in music and fashion, and it is fascinating to track his methodical, calculated creation of the Beatles, as we knew them. The haircuts, the clothing, the joyful parrying of the members with the press and audiences; all of this was choreographed by Epstein (who also managed several other rock groups but none with the unprecedented achievements of his supreme meal ticket).

It was Epstein who systematically maintained the group’s image as wholesome Liverpudlian lads having a good time on stage and off.

He assiduously massaged (greased?) the press into ignoring the backstage orgies and drug usage enjoyed by his protégés, and it was only after their staggering success that he allowed their programmed uniformity to morph into individual hippie, drug-culture personas. 

There is much to be admired in Professor Milard’s Beatlemania. His narrative is literate and (for the most part) well paced. Yet I came away from the book feeling that it was an unnecessary venture which might have been more suitable, and palatable, as a feature article in the New Yorker.

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