Monday, September 7, 2015

Mythical History Tour

Yesterday while going through a box of old papers, I came across a research paper I wrote for a college journalism class: The Beatles and the Electronic Media. The paper was dull as dishwater, and don't worry, I won't ask you to read it. However, attached to it was the following brief essay, which I apparently wrote for extra credit. The professor enjoyed it and raised my grade from a B to an A, which made me realize that, if I was going to have a successful career as a writer (and as it turned out, I wasn't), it would have to be as a writer of complete nonsense.

The Beatles: 1920

In 1920 two young men from Liverpool, John Lennon and Paul McCartney, scraped up enough money to make a trip to London to see a special concert at the Paladium: Paul Whiteman and his Orchestra. It was a journey which would change their lives and the shape of the musical world.

Lennon and McCartney returned to Liverpool with the idea of forming their own big band. Unfortunately, they only had two takers: George Harrison and Richard Starkey, better known as Ringo Starr. Even so, they billed themselves as "The Lennon-McCartney Orchestra" and proceeded to try to take Liverpool by storm.

None of the four had had much experience with jazz; most of their musical experience was in the form of community band concerts: military marches, Gilbert and Sullivan and the like. They had managed to get hold of Scott Joplin's Red Back Book, and so were familiar with ragtime. Their early sound was a sort of bizarre Joplin-Sullivan-Whiteman hybrid. Amazingly, it caught on. Liverpool didn't know much about jazz, either.

In 1921, while playing their brand of jazz at a Liverpool nightspot, the group was discovered by Brian Epstein, who talked them into letting him become their manager by promising big bucks in the recording industry. It was Epstein who suggested that "The Lennon-McCartney Orchestra" was a ludicrous name for a four-man ensemble. He suggested "The Rolling Stones." They finally decided on "The Beatles."

Epstein took the group to a friend in the recording industry, George Martin. Martin liked the group's sound, and immediately signed them to a contract. Within a year their records were selling like hotcakes and being played on BBC Radio. The Jazz Age had hit Britain.

Perhaps the strangest phenomenon in the Beatles' career was their conquering of the United States. After all, we invented jazz, and surely we could tell the difference between the real thing and ersatz Liverpudlian. But perhaps by the time the Beatles hit our shore, we were jaded by the Charleston, flappers, and hooch. We were ready for something new. Early in 1923 U.S. radio stations got hold of copies of the Beatles' latest hit, "I'd Like to Hold Your Hand." Paul Whiteman heard it and invited the group to join him in giving a formal concert in New York City. George Gershwin was there, performing his own Rhapsody in Blue. In his autobiography, Gershwin states, "The Rhapsody in Blue was well received, but it was the group from England, the Beatles, that the people really came to see." Music critics have stated that they detect the Beatles' influence in much of Gershwin's later work.

From New York, the group traveled to Chicago, where they had the honor of sitting in with Jelly Roll Morton and his Red Hot Peppers. Morton had a profound influence on them, and is said to be the inspiration for what is considered their greatest work, Sgt. Pepper's Red Hot Band.

Throughout their tour, the group made many live appearances on radio, playing their Liverpool jazz and charming audiences with their wit and modesty. They returned to Britain and continued making hit records. Then, in 1927, they were asked by Warner Brothers to do a semi-documentary film, the first talky, The Jazz Singers. The Jazz Singers was a tremendous success (witness the number of remakes), but the jazz era was nearly over. By 1930, the Beatles had disbanded.

In the words of Duke Ellington, "They really had something. I don't know what it was. But you know, the first time I heard those boys, I thought they were black. That's how good they were."

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