Mastering the Beatles

They didn’t just play music, they changed America, explains sportswriter Gregory Clay


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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.”

The 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 need a doctorate just to decipher a blurb about the curriculum. 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.

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 written eight books on the band. “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.”

By late 1964, after their breakout performance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” Feb. 9, 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 Mr. 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. They sang their hits, such as “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” as frenzied crowds roared with approval.

But the Beatles didn’t like everything about America, such as racial segregation, which was legally sanctioned in some parts of the United States in 1964. They at least tacitly supported the U.S. civil rights movement, even though they were considered a feel-good group, not political activists, in the early days.

On July 2 of that year, President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act, which essentially outlawed segregation in public accommodations. A few months later, in September, the Beatles were scheduled to play at the Gator Bowl in Jacksonville, Fla. But the local wanted to ignore the Civil Rights Act — a stance that Martin Luther King Jr. in 1963 had famously referred to as “interposition and nullification.” That’s the practice of local and state authorities defying federal law.

The Beatles admonished Gator Bowl organizers and said they wanted assurances the stadium wouldn’t be segregated. They also declined to stay at a segregated hotel. John Lennon told them, “We never play to segregated audiences and we aren’t going to start now. I’d sooner lose our appearance money.”

The Beatles ultimately issued a press release stating, “We will not appear unless Negroes are allowed to sit anywhere.” Local officials and regional media initially balked at this demand but eventually acquiesced.

The episode showed that the Beatles carried not only guitars and drums to the land of the free and the home of the brave, they also carried clout. To avoid similar confrontations in their follow-up tour to the United States in 1965, the Beatles put anti-segregation language into their contract. Paul McCartney even wrote a symbolic tribute to the civil rights movement, his song “Blackbird”:

Blackbird singing in the dead of night,

Take these broken wings and learn to fly;

All your life

You were only waiting for this moment to arise.

Said Mr. 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:

• Hairstyles: Most American males in 1964 sported short haircuts, above the ears and usually combed back. “I had a crew cut myself,” Mr. Spitzer said. But the Beatles combed their hair forward, with their ears covered and bangs dangling over their foreheads. Hence the term “mop-tops.”

Mr. Spizer again: “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.”

• Songwriting: The Beatles wrote most of their own songs — a rarity at that time. Before them, most popular artists performed music composed by songwriters hired by producers or record companies.

• Music videos: As a way of reducing travel for television appearances, they produced what they called “promotional films.” The music video didn’t begin with MTV or Lady Gaga.

• Lyrics: The Beatles printed lyrics on their album covers, which later became commonplace.

“The music of the Beatles still appeals to the younger generation,” Mr. Spizer observes. “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 attempt to graduate with a master’s degree in Britney, either.


Gregory Clay is assistant sports editor for McClatchy-Tribune News Service (gclay@mctinfo.com).

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