By Allison Johnelle Boron
With the sheer number of Beatles-related books available, it seems a fool’s errand to try to write one that offers a fresh perspective. Candy Leonard’s “Beatleness: How The Beatles and Their Fans Remade The World,” however, does just that, because she goes straight to a vital (and largely-ignored) Fab Four source: the fans.
In what she calls “the fan story of last century,” scores of first-generation Beatle-lovers share their accounts of what it was like to be an original fan. You won’t find interviews with band members, lovers, former roadies or anyone even remotely associated with The Beatles. The pages of “Beatleness” are filled with the words a 9-year-old watching Ed Sullivan on Feb. 9, 1964, a 7-year-old who dreamed of marrying George Harrison, and the pre-teen who refused to cut his hair.
A sociologist, Leonard looks at Beatlemania in a scientific way. Through the eyes of her subjects, she builds a three-dimensional, completely human tale, the likes of which has never before been tackled by a Beatles author, then backs it up with scientific data to discover why The Beatles became the phenomenon they were — and still are today.
GOLDMINE: Did the fans you interviewed say anything unexpected that you weren’t anticipating?
CANDY LEONARD: The thing that struck me was that the depth of feeling, especially around The Beatles’ breakup — very, very intense. Beatle memories are interwoven into everything that was going on in peoples’ lives, so when they broke up, people have very vivid memories of discussing it and commiserating with their friends. I realized, too, that commercialization of childhood really started with baby boomers, particularly first-generation Beatles fans. We were sold The Beatles, just like we were sold Etch-a-Sketch and Mr. Potato Head. I had this sense of the “Beatle machine” that I had never fully realized before.
Which is not to say that the Beatles were all hype. They were offering something amazing, and, as I show throughout the book, something that was very enriching and stimulating and really became a vital part of everyday life. It’s not like they were selling us something that was not of value. I have to give the Beatle machine credit, because that was all uncharted territory for them. No one had ever been that big and figured out how to do it with great aplomb.
GM: Brian Epstein often gets criticized because he made some merchandising mistakes, but nobody had done it before.
CL: So many things about the whole phenomenon really can be understood if you think about it in terms of the scale of the postwar generation. The Beatles had a bigger megaphone than any communicator in the history of the world, really, and they were communicating brilliant music.
GM: One of the really interesting things that made me think a lot about my own Beatles experience was when you asked fans if they thought of The Beatles as adults or kids. I still can’t figure it out.
CL: People really had to stop and think. Part of why they attained such cultural authority with young people is because they looked like kind of like adults with the ties, white shirts, and overcoats that they wore. They seemed, in many ways, adult-like, but, yet, they were silly, cute, funny, cheeky, and they were obviously so much on our side. The younger you were, the more adult-like you saw them, and the more authority they had. Fans came to trust, and, in many cases, emulate them — not always with good outcomes.
GM: Their camaraderie especially influenced young males, who formed bands because they wanted to have that brotherly love, and the Beatles made it okay to show your affection for your friends that way.
CL: Exactly. They presented what I call a “proposition for masculinity,” which included a softer look — the hair, no pointy lapels on the jackets, etc. They were very stylish, and teenage boys loved the vibe and electricity among them. That’s actually why they didn’t pick a favorite, because they didn’t want to separate them. They wanted to imagine that they had, like one fan says, the three best friends in the whole world. Girls picked a favorite because they were fantasizing about going out with them. When you had endless discussions with your friends about the Beatles, picking a favorite gave you a point of view, and if you chipped in for a magazine, you could share the pictures because all your friends had different favorite Beatles. Stepping aside from the Beatles for a moment, there was all this great music in the ‘60s, but so much it was so profoundly sexist. The girls in these songs had zero power in relationships for the most part. Growing up in that time as a female, I do believe that our perception of ourselves as women in the world was certainly affected by that pop music environment.
GM: Right, but the Beatles sort of changed that, too.
CL: They did! I think that was part of the appeal, because they were more respectful. They talked about women as friends. Obviously, all rock ‘n’ roll and pop is ultimately about sex, but some were more overt than others. [laughs] In the Beatles, there was so much more going on there; it was a richer stimulus and you could engage with it in other ways.
GM: A lot of fans talked about how “Revolver” was a big turning point, because they felt they couldn’t relate to the Beatles anymore.
CL: Revolver was a lot, particularly for young fans. But, as luck would have it, a month later, The Monkees premiered on television. Many fans went on what I call a “Beatle break” and instead became very tuned in to The Monkees. The same countercultural themes that the Beatles were embracing started to come through the Monkees, but they were packaged in that cuddly, mop-top form. I look at following the Beatles for six years as kind of an alternative curriculum, and so the Monkees continued the curriculum for youth, but without all the weirdness.
GM: One of the keys phrases and sentiments that sticks out is, “I grew up with them.”
CL: The Beatles were there while you were growing up; you grew up with them as if they were big siblings who grew facial hair or had a new girlfriend or whatever. But there was also the sense that they grew us up by exposing us to things and this nonstop deluge of sounds and images and ideas for six years. It was a different kind of nurturing. It was emotional, intellectual, spiritual — certainly towards the end it became a spiritual kind of a source of information. I don’t know how to describe it, but this was a stimulation that was so useful to us and that we used to help make sense out of the world around us and, also, our own lives.
They became really important in a way that no other artist ever had. The relationship that fans had with the Beatles during those years is still without historical precedence; there’s nothing like it. And can’t be anything like it ever again. GM