Beyond the Fab Four: The Beatles were a culture, not just a rock band

McClatchy-TribuneFebruary 9, 2014 

On Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles officially kicked off Beatlemania in America when they performed on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in New York.

AP FILE

Did you know a student can receive a master’s of arts degree in the Beatles?

Well, Liverpool Hope University in England, offers a curriculum titled “The Beatles, Popular Music and Society.”

All you have to do is head for England for a year, and you also will major in uniqueness.

The school’s master’s description states: “This MA will examine the significance of the music of the Beatles in the construction of identities, audiences, ethnicities and industries, and localities; by doing so it will suggest ways to understand popular music as a social practice, focusing attention on issues such as the role of music in the construction of regional identities, concepts of authenticity, aesthetics, meaning, value, performance, and the use of popular music as a discursive evocation of place. Furthermore, in a consideration of popular music as a text, popular music semiotics will also be employed.”

You receive a master’s, but you might need a doctorate to decipher the curriculum’s description.

And you thought the Beatles were just four dudes in single-breasted suits who spearheaded the “British Invasion” in the United States 50 years ago today with their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”

So, what kind of occupation does one pursue with a master’s in the Beatles?

“I don’t think people necessarily get a master’s in the Beatles to get a job,” said New Orleans attorney Bruce Spizer, a Beatles expert who has taught college classes on the Fab Four and is the author of eight books on the quartet. “There are several universities in America that teach courses on the Beatles. But, as far as I know, you can’t get a degree in it in America.”

In 1964, the Beatles were on their way to becoming a cultural phenomenon, not just another rock group. “At the end of their performances, they would bow,” said Spizer. “And they wanted to look professional with the suits. Their manager, Brian Epstein, insisted on that. And they ultimately gained respectability with that.”

They brought the hair, the suits, the sound and the fury to the American shore. Then they sang their hits, such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” as eager crowds roared with approval.

But the Beatles didn’t approve of segregation customs in some parts of the United States in ’64. That means they, at least tacitly, voiced their approval of the 1960s civil rights movement in the United States.

Yes, the Beatles inserted politics into the ’64 equation.

On July 2 of that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which essentially outlawed segregation in public accommodations. However, Gator Bowl officials in Jacksonville, Fla., wanted to maintain old customs — a stance the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., during his momentous “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963, famously referred to as “interposition and nullification.” That’s the practice of local and state officials defying federal law, such as this case.

The Beatles admonished Gator Bowl officials, saying they wanted assurances the stadium wouldn’t be segregated. The Beatles also declined to stay at a segregated hotel in Florida. They ultimately issued a press release stating, “We will not appear unless Negroes are allowed to sit anywhere.”

Gator Bowl and local officials and area media initially balked at the Beatles’ mandate, but they eventually acquiesced to the Fab Four’s demands.

In explaining the Beatles’ stance, band member John Lennon, during that time, stated, “We never play to segregated audiences, and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”

This episode showed that the Fab Four not only carried guitars and drum apparatus to the land of the free and the home of the brave — they also carried some major clout.

Said Spizer, “Segregation seemed wrong to them.”

As King, after winning the Nobel Peace Prize, later said during a speech at Oberlin College in October 1964, “The time is always right to do what’s right.”

With this, the Beatles learned their lesson. To avoid similar segregation hassles in their follow-up tour to the United States in 1965, the Beatles insisted on anti-segregation language written into their contract. Paul McCartney even wrote a song as a symbolic tribute to the U.S. civil rights movement: “Blackbird.”

Said McCartney at the time, “We never wanted to play South Africa or any places where blacks would be separated. It wasn’t out of any goody-goody thing. We just thought, ‘Why should you separate black people from white?’ That’s stupid, isn’t it?”

The Beatles were pioneers in other arenas, too:

 • Let’s start with the hairstyles. Most American males in 1964 sported short haircuts — above the ears and often combed back (just watch any black-and-white television show or movie from that era). Said Spizer, “I had a crew cut myself.” But the Beatles combed their hair forward, essentially “bangs” covering their foreheads. Hence, the “mop-tops.” And their hair covered their ears.

Said Spizer: “I think one of the reasons people liked the Beatles was more than just about the music. They had the hair, the accent; I think Americans viewed the British as exotic. A lot of that came from James Bond; his movies had just come out. So people were curious about the differences between Americans and the British.”

 • The Beatles also wrote most of their songs — another rarity during that time. Before them, most popular artists performed content gleaned from designated songwriters.

 • The Beatles initiated music videos. As a way of reducing travel for television appearances, they produced what they called at the time “promotional films.” Thus, the video world didn’t begin with Miley Cyrus and Lady Gaga or Chris Brown.

 • They also printed song lyrics on their album covers, which later became commonplace when albums were en vogue.

“The music of the Beatles still appeals to the younger generation,” Spizer said. “I think 50 years from now people will talk about the Beatles in the same conversation with Bach, Beethoven or Schubert or Mozart. The Beatles are timeless. Today much of the music is disposable; I don’t think people will be talking about Britney Spears 50 years from now.”

Or even attempt to graduate with a master’s degree in Britney, either.

Gregory Clay is assistant sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service. Email him at gclay@mctinfo.com.

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