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Ever since I first saw them on The Ed Sullivan Show, I’ve been a huge fan of the Beatles. Yet, when I was 12, a boy I liked asked me to name my favorite band, and I couldn’t admit it because I didn’t want him to think they were the only group I knew. After all, everyone loved the Beatles.
It’s funny how vivid that memory is four decades later.
Apparently, I’m not the only boomer who can still recall many moments of her life through Beatle anecdotes. According to Candy Leonard in her fascinating new book, Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World, “First-generation Beatle fans believe they experienced something truly extraordinary.”
Her must-read book shows why we’re right. Written from “the fans’-eye view,” it’s the memoir of a generation.
I had an opportunity to interview Candy who, in addition to being a first-generation Beatle fan herself, is a sociologist with a background in qualitative research, child development, pop culture and media studies. Here’s what she had to say:
I loved reading your book and it immediately took me back to the Beatle years. Why did you write Beatleness and what’s the significance of the title?
There are so many books about the Beatles, but the boomer experience of growing up with the Beatles, of watching them evolve, anticipating the next record, and discussing them endlessly with friends, had not been documented. This dazzling spectacle went on for six years, and because there were so many millions of us paying close attention and being inspired by them in so many ways, it’s an important part of history. The story needed to be told.
The Beatles’ impact on the boomer generation, and on the culture as a whole, was profound, expansive and unprecedented. The word “Beatleness” refers to the feelings they elicit, their essential qualities, and the many references to them we continue to see every day. Everything about the phenomenon was and continues to be historically unique and difficult to describe. “Beatleness” is an effort to describe the indescribable.
As an early childhood fan born in 1959, I feel privileged to have seen the Beatles when they made their debut on the Ed Sullivan show – even though I was only five years old! Why do we all feel we experienced something special, and is it really any different than the generations before us? Do they not feel the same way about someone like, let’s say, Frank Sinatra?
Certainly bobby soxers in the 40s and 50s loved Sinatra, and they even screamed and swooned. But neither Sinatra nor Elvis captured and held the focused attention of a generation in the way the Beatles did. Fans felt that the Beatles and their music – the whole experience – gave them important information about life that was more useful than what they were learning in school. As I describe in Beatleness, it was like an alternative curriculum.
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Would you say the Beatles define the baby boomers in some important way?
Absolutely. Demographers define boomers as anyone born between 1946 and 1964, but a more culturally relevant definition would be anyone with a living memory of Beatlemania. As I show in Beatleness, the Beatles were the generational unifier. By 1969, for example, boomers in grade school and grad school were searching for Paul is Dead clues. These young people were at very different life stages, but the Beatles were a common focal point.
I think you’re absolutely right when you say a series of events converged to allow the Beatles to become such a phenomenon. What are some of those occurrences and do you think something like that can happen again? Will today’s kids feel as nostalgic for One Direction one day as we feel for the Beatles? Why or why not?
The Beatles had the largest communication platform any communicator ever had, and they were communicating to the largest demographic group that had ever existed up to that time. The media environment was vastly different, much less fragmented than today. Advertising to a mass audience was becoming much more sophisticated (think Mad Men), and young people were a key part of that mass audience, targeted as never before. Transistor radios were suddenly cheap and ubiquitous, and music became a constant companion and vital necessity. Today’s kids might feel nostalgic for One Direction, but it’s unlikely they will be listening to them in fifty years. Boomers’ relationship with the Beatles is much more than nostalgia, and the Beatles were much more than a favorite group. They were an integral part of boomers’ daily lives for six years and remained a constant presence over the decades. It was a historically unique relationship that can’t happen again.
You interviewed a lot of fans. What was the most surprising thing you discovered?
Hearing fans talk about how much the Beatles affected them as children was stunning. The depth of feeling boomers still feel for the Beatles, and the profound, almost spiritual sense of gratitude, is quite amazing. I was also surprised to see the many ways in which the Beatles affected family dynamics in the sixties, and how fans engaged with the Beatles in very gendered ways. Many fans also talked about the Beatles’ influence on career decisions.
What role did the Beatles play in your own life? Who was your favorite Beatle and was there one song that really spoke to you?
The Beatles were like a bolt of electricity that activated my cultural consciousness. Like the boomers I interviewed for Beatleness, hearing and watching them evolve over those six years had a profound impact on the person I became. The “favorite Beatle” question is difficult, because they really exist only as an integrated whole. I suppose I identify most with John, although there are a disproportionate number of George songs on my short list.
I kind of gasped when you mentioned how many fans still have their Beatles scrapbooks because I still have mine! What does that mean?!
These scrapbooks, carefully assembled over time and preserved for half a century, are a tangible symbol of fans’ love for the Beatles. They are still of great personal value because they preserve memories. But more than that, these scrapbooks are important cultural artifacts that tell us about the lives of the people, mostly girls, who owned them. I think they should be in a museum.
I know you recently attended Beatlefest in Los Angeles. Can you tell us about the influence the Beatles still have and what goes on at events like that? Are they still gaining new fans?
Thousands of people of all ages attend the Fest for Beatle fans, and many have been going since the Fest started, forty years ago. It’s like a large extended family of multiple generations, celebrating the Beatles and their music. The Beatles are gaining new fans every day. Many young people see the Beatles as an intriguing field of study and want to learn everything they can about them and their music. The Beatles and their story fill fans, old and young, with a sense of wonder.
I may sound like a dinosaur but I experienced such nostalgia and almost a sadness reading your book and realizing the world is a very different, way less innocent place now. How do you feel when you look back?
I have mixed feelings. The Beatles ushered in a pop music renaissance that was about more than just art – they empowered us to ask questions and to envision a better world. There is great value in that, even though the vision wasn’t fully realized. The so-called Age of Aquarius didn’t dawn after all. That said, I think millions of boomers, each in our own way, still try to be true to that vision.
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Lois Alter Mark blogs at Midlife at the Oasis and is a regular contributor to Huffington Post. She is the reigning champion of Blogger Idol and was recently named Humor Writer of the Month by Erma Bombeck Writers Workshop. Lois won BlogHer Voices of the Year Awards in 2012 and 2013, and writes regularly on pop culture and travel. Because of her blog, Oprah Winfrey selected her as an Ultimate Viewer and took her to Australia on the trip of a lifetime. A member of the San Diego Film Critics Society, she was the Flicks for Kids editor at NickJr.com and a contributing writer for Entertainment Weekly for more than a decade. Transplanted New Yorkers, Lois and her husband of 32 years now live in San Diego, where they have turned into weather wimps and complain about the pizza. Their grown kids are, of course, both on the East Coast. You can follow Lois on Facebook or Twitter.