(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, July 2.)
For people of a certain age, last week was a week of nostalgia.June 21 marked 50 years since a Lockheed Electra carrying the Beatles touched down at Wellington Airport. It was a significant moment, and not just musically. Sociologically, it signalled the emergence of a youth culture that was determined to assert itself in the face of stodgy, adult-imposed conformity and conservatism.
Small wonder that ageing baby boomers spent last week wallowing in fond reminiscence as radio stations dusted off their Beatles records and newspapers reprinted photos of press conferences at which awestruck reporters asked banal questions of the famous visitors, such as whether they liked New Zealand mutton and butter – all of which were answered with patience and good humour.To anyone who grew up post-1970, it must be hard to imagine the impact the group made here. New Zealand was naïve and insular. The rest of the world seemed impossibly distant and exotic. Jet travel hadn’t yet made it this far; Britain was still six weeks away by ship. The Beatles might have been visitors from another planet.
Beatlemania, with its hordes of fans prepared to do almost anything to get close to their heroes, mystified and unsettled local authorities accustomed to young people behaving with compliant decorum. The official response to the phenomenon ranged from overkill – such as at the Wellington Town Hall, where the Beatles were unnerved by the sight of unsmiling police constables occupying the front rows at their concerts – to woeful ill-preparedness.In Dunedin, only four policemen were on hand to ensure the Beatles got into their hotel safely through the hundreds of eager fans. When it was suggested that security was inadequate, the response was that the police had coped with a visit by Vera Lynn a few weeks earlier, so what could possibly go wrong?
Technologically too, New Zealand was found wanting. After the first of their Wellington concerts, John Lennon threatened not to go on again because the sound system was so hopeless. The sound technician was terrified the speakers would blow up.It’s no exaggeration to say that in cultural as well as musical terms, the Beatles were a seismic event. Rock and roll wasn’t new, of course; in the previous decade we’d had Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, Ricky Nelson, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis. But in those days New Zealand took its cultural cues from Britain rather than America.
The American-led rock and roll revolution of the 1950s, as significant as it was, was limited in its impact in New Zealand compared with the British beat boom led by the Beatles. I would argue that it was only post-Beatles that a true mass youth culture began to emerge in buttoned-down, monochrome New Zealand.Though not a consciously subversive band, the Beatles unleashed a heady sense of liberation and a willingness to defy adult conventions. They did this through the sheer joy and exuberance of their music, which gave expression to youthful passions that had been previously been kept tightly controlled.
Musically speaking, they tilted the world’s axis. The American music industry was completely blindsided by the so-called British invasion, of which the Beatles formed the advance guard.By that time the first raw, exhilarating wave of American rock and roll – as embodied by Presley – had subsided, to be replaced by the sanitised pop of Bobby Vinton, Neil Sedaka and Bobby Vee, much of it emanating from New York City’s famous pop factory, the Brill Building. America was ready for something new and the Beatles provided it: in April 1964 they had 14 singles simultaneously in the Billboard Hot 100.
It took years for America to recover from the shock and reclaim its mantle as the wellhead of pop music. And of course the great irony is that the music that inspired the Beatles and the other British bands that followed in their wake – the Rolling Stones, the Animals, Manfred Mann, the Yardbirds, the Kinks, the Who – was all American. What the British bands did was repackage and re-energise American rock and roll and send it back to its home country, where it was in danger of being forgotten.After the Beatles, nothing was the same again. At its heavier end, pop music soon morphed into something the pompous music critics called “rock”, which was supposedly to be taken more seriously. “Rock” music was freighted with sociological and political meaning.
The Stones, who deliberately cultivated a scowling, anti-establishment image, were a “rock” band, whereas the Beatles – despite their astonishing musicality – found themselves being dismissed as simply a very clever pop band.Bob Dylan came along too – the first pop (sorry, rock) star whose records were bought for their lyrics rather than the tunes. Pop music split into ideological camps, and so it has remained ever since.
But all that was yet to happen when the Beatles touched down in Wellington in 1964. Looking back, what’s most striking about that era is its glorious innocence.