Forty-five years ago, I picked up a little paperback filled with fun quizzes about The Beatles. It even had an introduction, which said, “The Beatles need no introduction.”
Anyone who knows me know my love for The Beatles. I am currently reading “Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago and the 1960s,” by John Lyons, a history professor at Joliet Junior College. I’ll be reviewing this book in Tuesday’s LocalLit newsletter. Subscribe to the free newsletter at shawlocal.com/the-herald-news/newsletter/#//.
Lyons recently shared some insight into why he wrote the book, the work that went into it and why you might enjoy the book even if you’re not a Beatles fan.
“Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago and the 1960s” is available on Amazon.
Baran-Unland: What inspired you to write this book about The Beatles with a focus in Chicago?
Lyons: The idea for “Joy and Fear: The Beatles, Chicago and the 1960s” came to me when I was finishing up my last book, “America in the British Imagination,” in which I looked at how the British viewed America and Americans in the post-World War II period. I wanted to follow that up by writing a book on how Americans viewed the British.
This was in 2013, when coverage about the impending 50th anniversary of the Beatles first coming to America was ramping up. So I came to the idea of writing about how Americans reacted to the Beatles when they arrived in the US and how this changed over the length of the decade.
I quickly realized it would have to be a community study. In the 1960s, America was a country of diverse cities and regions: different histories, ethnic and racial make ups, politics, newspapers, radio, TV and music scenes. Examining Beatlemania at the regional level offers a more nuanced, detailed and revealing story than a discussion of events in a national context.
Chicago is the ideal locality to use as a laboratory to study the Beatles’ phenomenon in depth. It was a large city, the second biggest in the nation. It had a substantial African American, student and suburban population, all demographics I wanted to study. And finally, it was a city with a fascinating history that I thoughtwould interest people.
With Chess Records recording ChuckBerry and Bo Didley, it was the birthplace of rock and roll. Many of the iconic events of the 1960s happened in Chicago: the urban riots of 1966 and 1968, civil rights marches led by Martin Luther King, the 1968 Democratic Convention, it is the home of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) and the center of Black nationalism (the Nation of Islam, Fred Hampton and the Black Panthers) and, of course, the towering figure of Mayor Richard J. Daley ruled the city.
The Beatles had some unique connections with Chicago:
· Chicago-based Vee-JayRecords released the first Beatles’ single “Please Please Me” in Feb 1963 andalbum, “Introducing the Beatles,” in the US in Jan 1964.
· Chicago’s Top 40 powerhouse WLS and deejay Dick Biondi became the first American radio station to play one of their records.
· With its 50,000-wattreceiver, WLS broadcast all over the country, as well as into Canada, and played a significant role in breaking the Beatles in North America.
· The group performed in Chicago five times, on three different tours. Only New York City staged more of their concerts in the U.S.
· When the Beatles appeared at White Sox Park on August 20, 1965, they played to 62,000 people, more people than they did on any other single day on any of their North American tours.
Baran-Unland: Somany books have been written about The Beatles. Other than the local connection, what makes your book different from the rest?
Lyons: Firstly, most books on the Beatles either tell the story of the four individuals or analyze their music and pay far too little attention to how ordinary people viewed thegroup. This book seeks to understand the views of those who liked the Beatles,those who disliked them and those who remained indifferent to their charms. Whilenever neglecting to turn the spotlight on to the four individuals who made themusic, the purpose of Joy and Fear is to move the focus from the band tothe reception they received from the American public.
This focus on the Beatles’ reception in the U.S. leads to a much-needed correction to a commonly held misconception about the group. As the most successful and beloved group in music history, most see the Beatles as four lovable lads from Liverpool whose sensational music was eagerly embraced by a fawning American public.
In fact, when the group first arrived in the U.S. in February 1964, the Beatles severely divided opinion. For many, they offered a joyous rebellion against the mundanerestrictions of teenage life but for others, the mop-top haircuts, the unsettling music, and the wild screaming girls were a symptom of unwelcome social and cultural change.
This opposition to the group was more widespread, deep rooted and longer lasting in Chicago than in any other major American city. Mayor Richard J. Daley was worried about the Beatles coming to his city in the summer of 1964. He refused to let them stay overnight in the city and wanted to keep the time and location of the Beatles’ arrival a secret.
The Chicago Tribune, the most influential Republican and isolationist newspaper in the nation, constantly editorialized against the Beatles. The Chicago Tribune first warned the nation about the Beatle menace in January 1964 and called the Beatles “Human Sheep Dogs” after they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964 ... WLS, the major radio station in the Midwest, banned Beatles records, “A Day in the Life” “The Ballad of John and Yoko” and the Plastic Ono Band’s “Cold Turkey.”
Secondly, “Joy and Fear” spends time looking at the African American response to the Beatles, another unique angle to the Beatles’ story. African Americans are invisible in the existing Beatles’ literature, but the black community played an important role in helping the British imports succeed in the U.S.
The first Beatles’ single and album released in the U.S were released on Vee-Jay, an African American-owned Chicago-based record label. Local African-American radio stations were among the first to play the Beatles’ records. Blacks, as well as whites, became ardent fans of the music, as evident in the pages of the Chicago Defender.
Yet, the reception to the Beatles in the Black community was more mixed than in the white side of town and, as the decade progressed, and Black nationalism took root among many young African Americans, the Beatles’ popularity waned.
Baran-Unland: What was the biggest challenge, research-wise, you encountered?
Lyons: I wanted to use stories, and quotes from the four Beatles, that people had not seen before. This meant looking at an extensive and wide variety of sources, many of them never utilized by historians before.
Trying to track down people to interview was very challenging. I conducted oral histories with Louise Harrison, the sister of George Harrison, fans that saw the Beatles perform in Chicago, security staff who worked at their shows, members of local bands inspired by their sound, musicians who supported the Beatles on tour, journalists who traveled with them and radio deejays who worked at the shows. Understandably, memories are foggy after the passage of more than 50 years and many of the living witnesses misremember events.
There were so many contemporary accounts to peruse. In the 1960s, Chicago published four daily newspapers, political, religious and student periodicals, and several neighborhood newspapers. Many more publications from the city’s suburbs, rural Illinois and the broader Midwest supplied news of the Chicago region.
I examined American teen magazines and the four weekly music newspapers published in the UK in the 1960s to find information on the Beatles’ concerts in Chicago. I also utilized wonderful depositories of fan letters hidden away in dusty archives in Missouri, Cleveland and here in Chicago that allow a glimpse into the mind of the ardent Beatles fan.
Baran-Unland: Did you learn anything new about The Beatles?
Lyons: There were some startling revelations about the Beatles that I unearthed.
Firstly, the countercultural views of the Beatles in the late 1960s were far more radical than previously thought. The Beatles not only grew their hair long and scruffy, and now wore clothes with less attention to sartorial style, they also voiced support for ideas way outside the mainstream. They not only came out against the Vietnam War, the first pop stars to do so, but became pacifists and condemned all wars.
In early press conferences, they described themselves as agnostic about Christianity but by the mid-1960s they adopted Hindu beliefs and promoted new exotic practices such as transcendental meditation. For the time, they were promiscuous. They vacationed with girlfriends, John Lennon left his wife and set up home with Yoko Ono and all of their first wives were pregnant before marriage (except for Pattie Boyd).
Paul admitted taking LSD, John and George were arrested on drug charges and there are numerous drug references in their lyrics. They voiced not only a dislike for a particular political party or politician but for the whole concept of governmental authority.
Secondly, when the Beatles broke up in April 1970, they did so with much less fanfare than their joyous arrival in the U.S. had caused only six years earlier. The story was tucked away inside the newspapers, not grabbing front-page headlines. They were no longer featured in teen magazines replaced by the Monkees and the Cowsills. Their countercultural views alienated many of their fans.
The Beatles had not toured since 1966, and many rock bands had grabbed the spotlight because of live performances in places like Monterey and Woodstock, groups like Cream, Jimi Hendrix, the Who, Led Zeppelin and the Rolling Stones now rivaled the Beatles for popularity.
Baran-Unland: Other than Beatles fans, who might enjoy this book?
Lytons: Obviously, the book sheds new light on the Beatles, the most popular musical group in history. Those who like local history and that most turbulent of decades, the sixties, will enjoy reading the book. The book is not only focused on the Chicago area but on developments in the rest of the U.S. and in Britain.
More than anything, I wanted to write in an engaging style, with plenty of humorous anecdotes to entertain the reader. Some of the stories and characters in the book will live long in the memory: the unyielding mayor of Chicago, Richard J. Daley, who deemed the Beatles a threat to the morals of the young; Chicago Tribune editor W. D. Maxwell, who first warned the nation about the Beatle menace; Frank Fried, the socialist revolutionary who staged the Beatles’ concerts in Chicago and used much of the profits from the shows to fund left-wing causes; the African American girl who braved a hostile environment to see the Beatles in concert; a fan club founder who disbelievingly found herself occupying a room opposite the Beatles when they stayed at her father’s hotel, Ted Nugent, the Detroit migrant who saw his budding career as a musician in Chicago stall when he sheared his Beatles-style haircut; and Earle Pickens, the University of Chicago medical student who spent his summer vacation playing in a support group on the Beatles’ last tour.
There are also Joliet stories that will appeal to a local audience: The 12-year-old girl who saw “A Hard Day’s Night” when it premiered in suburban Joliet, but did not hear a word of the dialogue because of the screaming in the theater. A teenage girl who won a contest to talk to the Beatles and spent an afternoon conversing with all four Beatles on the phone from London. Another teenager from Joliet attended the 1966 Beatles concert in Chicago and baked snickerdoodle cookies to give to her heroes (although she was unable to meet them).
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