On Aug. 14, 1965, when I was 16, I saw the Beatles live in Ed Sullivan’s studio. When I tell women this, they usually respond with a big smile, a bit of a shiver and sometimes a little gush of “Oh, lucky you.”
When I tell men that I saw the Beatles, overwhelmingly they respond by asking, “Did you scream?”
I’ve been asked this question so many times that perhaps I should silk-screen NO I NEVER SCREAMED on a T-shirt and wear it proudly on June 2, the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.” That was the first album the Beatles recorded after they quit touring. And why did they quit touring? To get away from screaming fans.
The image of the screaming, weeping teenage female Beatles fan has never been adequately explained. But dismissing this image is impossible because thousands of girls did scream. Even the late Ellen Willis, who wrote astutely about ’60s music, admits she screamed during rock concerts, but, she demurely explains, it was only so she wouldn’t be “conspicuous.”
Not surprisingly, many male writers have no difficulty pronouncing what this female screaming meant. In Philip Norman’s well-respected book, “Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation,” an unnamed psychologist suggests that the screaming girls “are subconsciously preparing for motherhood. Their frenzied screams are a rehearsal for that moment.” One can only sigh after reading such sentences.. Barbara Ehrenreich’s theory is more palatable. For her, the screaming “was, in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture. It was the first and most dramatic uprising of women’s sexual revolution.” This argument at least gives the screaming girls agency and force.
Girls may have created Beatlemania, but male writers have always dominated journalism and scholarship about the Beatles. I know of no full-length book written by a woman that offers a serious treatment of Beatles songs. No female authors appear on any of the top-10 listings of essential books about the Beatles, except one perverse listing that includes “Daddy Come Home,” by Pauline Lennon, the (very young) second wife of John’s father, Freddy. This makes about as much sense as listing Jewelle St. James’s “John Lennon and the Bronte Connection,” a book that argues Lennon is the reincarnation of Branwell Bronte, the troubled brother of Emily and Charlotte. If any book by a wife belongs on these lists, it’s Cynthia Lennon’s “John,” a heartfelt but bittersweet account about loving a musical icon.
Once journalists lost interest in weeping female fans and turned their attention to the sophistication of the band’s evolving compositions, the conversation became far more intellectual, if at times combative. (Is there really much difference between male critics strenuously debating which is better, “Revolver” or “Sgt. Pepper,” and two teenage girls debating why one loves Paul and the other John? Both require deep knowledge, judgment — and a bit of frenzy.)
Given the sexual politics of the ’60s, though, it’s no surprise that criticism was written by men. Most famously, Richard Goldstein in the New York Times critiqued “Sgt. Pepper” as if it had the power to end civilization as we know it, calling the album “fraudulent,” a claim that prompted Tom Phillips four days later in the Village Voice to defend it as “the most ambitious and most successful record album ever issued, and the most significant artistic event of 1967.” A month later, also in the Voice, Goldstein wrote a less feverish and more detailed defense of his original review. By September, Christopher Porterfield, in a long article for Time, illustrated how “Sgt. Pepper” had moved the Beatles “to a higher artistic plateau.” Finally, in December, in Esquire, Robert Christgau praised the album for being thought-provoking and for the Beatles’ overall attention to language.
Not to be outdone by young male music reviewers, older men — ministers, psychologists and intellectual elites — weighed in on the album’s meaning and the band’s influence. Literary critic Richard Poirier’s 1967 essay “Learning from the Beatles” appeared in the Partisan Review. Leonard Bernstein went out of his way to link Beatles songs to classical precedents.
It wasn’t until the ’80s that crucial information about the creation of “Sgt. Pepper” became available to a general audience. In 1988, Mark Lewisohn’s “The Complete Beatles Recording Sessions” catalogued the songs’ technical intricacies and the order in which they were recorded, information that today is just a click away. Though often considered a reference book, his unfolding account of the sessions is like watching a championship boxing match in slow motion. Fortunately, Ian MacDonald’s “Revolution in the Head” (1994) transforms Lewisohn’s documentation into a forceful, exciting narrative by placing the songs in a cultural context. He’s good, too, at poking holes in the American hippie ethos.
Henry W. Sullivan’s 1995 “The Beatles with Lacan: Rock ‘n’ Roll as Requiem for the Modern Age” has been described as the “first real attempt to theorize the Beatles’ life work.” We certainly don’t wish for a second! For readers interested in academic essays on the band, a better place to begin is the 2006 collection “Reading the Beatles: Cultural Studies, Literary Criticism, and the Fab Four,” edited by Kenneth Womack and Todd F. Davis. Since the 1980s, such compilations have often included essays written by women. For a radically personal but often enlightening take on the band, try Devin McKinney’s 2003 “Magic Circles: The Beatles in Dream and History.” But, if you were around in the ’60s, be prepared to howl at the moon when McKinney, born one year before “Sgt. Pepper,” waxes wildly about a decade he spent either in utero or in short pants.
To commemorate the 50th anniversary of “Sgt. Pepper,” Liverpool, the band’s home town, will host a three-week celebration bringing together artists one doesn’t automatically associate with the Beatles, such as choreographer Mark Morris and painter Judy Chicago. (Neither Paul nor Ringo has yet agreed to attend.)
If going to Liverpool is out of the question, reading about “Sgt. Pepper” offers its own excitement, because despite its fame, the album still causes critical dissension and interpretative battles rage on.
Is “Sgt. Pepper” my favorite album? I don’t think I have a favorite album so much as favorite songs from each, and from “Sgt. Pepper,” those songs are “A Day in the Life” and “Fixing a Hole.” And though I never screamed, even in private, I certainly oozed and am still unabashedly capable of playing one song 25 or more times in succession. When music changes your life, why stop it?
Sibbie O’Sullivan , a former teacher in the Honors College at the University of Maryland, has recently completed a memoir on how the Beatles have influenced her life.