The Laughing Beatles
Innocence, “If I Fell,” and a night in Vancouver in summer 1964
If one is familiar with the history of the Beatles as young men—and even as pre-Beatles boys—it’s hard to think of the “lads” as ever having possessed much in the ways of innocence. They were seemingly seasoned in life from the first, on account of where they grew up, the circumstances in which they did this growing, and what they had lost and endured.
In the throes of Beatlemania, in 1963 and 1964, before a shift to mature, “confessional” songs in 1965 such as “Help!” and “Norwegian Wood (This Bird Has Flown),” the band’s image—and one they worked to cultivate—was that of cheeky innocents. They cracked wise, but not too wise. A Rolling Stone would be itching to make of your daughter a sexual conquest, whereas a Beatle was hip enough to be cool, but not so hip that they wouldn’t be respectful in the front parlor with the parents before heading out to the pictures. John Lennon’s 1962 marriage was hushed up, as best as manager Brian Epstein could manage, the thinking being that if the fans knew Lennon was off the romantic market, the boys would face a dip in appeal.
These are quaint concerns now, but we’re also talking about a band that became as big as a band possibly can, and then collectively worried that they might be finished after deciding to give up touring, because that’s what a group did. They went out on the road—even if the road meant to the small club the next town over—and played, be it to five people or 50,000. Still, loving the Beatles is a cultivation of one’s own form of innocence, at least at some point or other, and most likely early on.
You start listening to their music, and that’s done so with a freedom—an apartness—that I’d suggest comes with no other band. To fall in love with “She Loves You,” A Hard Day’s Night, and “Hey Jude” is to embrace a series of sounds that register as autonomous, cut apart, sans overlap with anything else. Maybe with the Stones one thinks about sex, or destruction with the Who, the forbidden with the Doors, but with the Beatles the music is total, which speaks to how that music envelopes us. We are sealed within the Beatles’ cocoon, to mix insect-based metaphors.
This is a reason why people are so loyal to the Beatles, and why they can treat any criticism of their work—no matter how thoughtful and/or warranted—as a personal attack or slight. They’re apt to see it as some knock against their childhood, early days, teen years, whenever it was when the Beatles bug did its biting for them, and then who they are in all of their subsequent decades, particularly when they’re older and lamenting what they have or haven’t done and wishing they could go back. The innocence is partially an illusion, and I’d suggest that when we recognize as much, and think critically about Beatles music, we allow ourselves the opportunity to enjoy it even more. You can love a flaw or a flub, which is something that few people realize and welcome, but in that truth may well be an additional, necessary, core truth of human existence.
Early Beatles music in particular resonates as wholesome, partially because of its reliance on pronouns. Think about what a huge statement the very title of “She Loves You” is: she loves you. We don’t often use a phrase like that, and in this case, a person—a friend—is letting someone else know this big thing that they might not know on their own, or that they need to be reminded of. The early Beatles were thus convivial, but not avuncular; they dispensed advice—or, rather, their songs featured snatches of overheard advice—but in the way of a chum, not as some lesson. The early Bob Dylan could give you a lesson. “Blowin’ in the Wind” has the quality of a poem that you’d be made to memorize in school. The Beatles’ early songs felt like they were taking you aside for a chat you needed to have, which would still be pretty painless, and you wouldn’t have to recite anything in front of the class.
So while I knew that the Beatles got up to all sorts of no-good on their first North American tour in 1964—and if you had a daughter, you’d probably want to make sure none of these guys were taking her out—I’ve always heard the music from that initial cross-country jaunt as wide-eyed, with a certain “aww shucks” quality. It’s similar to that displayed by Tom Sawyer. He’s up to what he’s up to, but the outward image is of charming and pure neophyte in all matters of life, and certainly the opening strains of adult life. A good kid. It was on that first tour that the Beatles were trying to the best of their abilities most nights. They would go on to play stellar shows in 1965—the Shea Stadium gig is a doozy, and they tore it up in Paris—before largely transitioning to discontented butchers in 1966, with a night’s exception or two, but with any bootleg from 1964 I’ve had the sensation when listening that they honestly didn’t know if they’d ever have the chance to do what they were doing again. So they went for it. In good faith, as much for themselves, as their audiences.
That’s why I love the tape of their show from Vancouver’s Empire Stadium on August 22. The fidelity is excellent, and though the performance doesn’t have the professional polish of the Hollywood Bowl show, to me it’s more representative of the Beatles out in the field. The Hollywood Bowl was posh, the market elite, whereas, at Vancouver, we get the Beatles as road band. This was one of the earliest bootlegs I owned, and the setlist alone was enough to make me swoon. Setlists can be that way. For instance, when I saw what the Yardbirds played at LA’s Shrine Exposition Hall in late spring 1968—nuggets from their catalogue like “New York City Blues” and “I Ain’t Done Wrong,” with Jimmy Page on lead guitar, and a cover of the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man”—my mind was blown before I heard a note, and then it was blown all over again when I did.
The Beatles’ Star Club tapes are similar, but that 1964 setlist was perfect. You got “She Loves You” and “All My Loving” from the relative early days of the year before—a trick of the space/time continuum that’s a reality of Beatles-based temporality, which had its own private time zone, because “last year” might as well have been fifty years ago; a song that already felt like a rarity in “Things We Said Today,” key hits from A Hard Day’s Night, a Shirelles cover in “Boys” so that Ringo Starr could get in on the vocal proceedings, and a storming “Long Tall Sally” to cap it all, which at the Hollywood Bowl may have featured the most exciting guitar solo George Harrison ever played.