By Robert Maier
One very hot night, August 19, 1964, to be exact, when I was just 13, the world changed. The Beatles’ “A Hard Day’s Night” opened at Baltimore’s 1,275-car Timonium Drive-in Theater. And I was there.
It’s hard to understand now, before 10,000 TV channels on your phone, facebook, Twitter,and Instagram, etc. how fast Beatlemania conquered (and divided) the USA. Since 1962, the Beatles had several #1 hits in the UK, and the US music biz knew something was brewing over there. But in one of the dumbest entertainment executive decisions in history, the large US record companies refused to release the Beatles’ hit songs. They dictated that American teens had no interest in “foreign music.”
However, in 1962 the times were changing. The Billboard top 100 started including protest folk songs from the likes of Peter, Paul, and Mary, Joan Baez, and the Kingston Trio, alongside the bubble gum rock ‘n roll of Annette Funicello and Tab Hunter, etc. that were the staple of the 1950s. And this new music was shockingly popular.
In the early 1960s, police beat young people in the streets for protesting legal racial segregation. In big city coffee houses, folkies played old-fashioned acoustic guitars and experimented with beards, instead of the politely polished night club sound. They bravely missed haircuts.
This new scene was discouraged by America’s abiding cultural gate-keepers—churches, schools, Republican politicians, sure that protest music was a Communist plot, inspired by beatniks, who wanted young people to resist the American dream of a corporate job, 3 kids, a dog, a house in the suburbs, and church on Sunday.
On December 26, 1964, giant US Capitol Records finally faced the fact that the Beatles had sold millions of records in the UK and released “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Demand for the record skyrocketed like no other record before, and on February 1, it hit #1. They quickly followed up with “She Loves You.” Both remained #1 and #2 for months—along with the album “Meet the Beatles.”
The Beatles made a brief US concert tour to New York, Washington, D.C., and Miami. It included live performances on the innovative “Ed Sullivan Show,” watched by 73 million viewers—a record, still, today. The Baby Boomer youth culture came alive.
A movie had to be next. The esteemed Hollywood movie studio, United Artists, signed the Beatles to a 3-picture deal. They thought that a quicky rock’n roll movie like “Beach Blanket Bingo” would generate a bump in record sales, before fickle teens moved to the next music fad. To limit the financial risk, “A Hard Day’s Night’s” budget was just $500,000– not even enough to shoot in color, like the Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello movies.
Happily, the low budget let the Beatles fly under UA’s Hollywood-minded radar. They chose a little-known Brit/American, Richard Lester, as the director. Lester appeared to be a competent meat and potatoes American TV director. At heart, though, he was an experimental filmmaker, who had moved to England which he thought was a more happening place. Lester worked with Peter Sellers and others in Britain’s tiny avant-garde TV world. They didn’t want to be part of the Hollywood machine. They were artists, just waiting to do something completely original.
“A Hard Days’ Night” broke the mold for “teen” movie musicals. Stuffy New York Times critic, Bosley Crowther tried to dismiss it (he claimed he couldn’t tell one Beatle from another), but admitted he was astonished at its originality and “audio-visual poetry.” The dynamic camerawork, naturalistic lighting, and lightning-fast editing grabbed attention with unexpected zooms and pans, jump cuts, and strange angles, in a newsreel-like frenzy. In fact, in the 1980s, MTV cited Lester as the “Father of Music Video”.
“A Hard Days Night” broke all the rules. It was funny, snide, joyous, ironic, irreverent, and even a little dark and insightful at times. It was not a cornball romance like every other US musical for the past 20 years. It conjured a new world of fast music, ecstatic dancing, and fun fans, and rebellious filmmaking that messed with the establishment, who were clueless about where youth culture was heading.
“A Hard Days’ Night” was the birth certificate of the 1960s plastered on a gigantic drive-in movie screen. It said you can be different now. Personal freedom, experimentation, and breaking taboos were allowed. People could be different, without risking being locked in a mental hospital.
The film also birthed a new, gritty glamour of the middle class. It was shot on fire escapes, in back alleys, cluttered baggage cars, and messy dressing rooms. Out-of-control teenagers mobbed the streets— passionate but harmless. Old folks sneered and old-fashioned radio station bosses lost control of the music. Bewildered establishment journalists sparred with the young Beatles, and lost. And no one paid attention to cops foolish enough to demand order when the world was changing in front of them.
Of course many thought, and still do, that personal freedom and experimentation was a terrible idea and would usher in the end of Western civilization. Beatles records were burned lustily, by American fundamentalist Christians. These hypocritical scolds are still with us, fifty years later, trying to restore the fearful, submissive America of the 1950s.
So, if you need a break from 2020, tell Alexa to flip on your Amazon Prime time machine and get back to where you once belonged.