Bea­tles fans’ screams, de­coded

Girls may have cre­ated Beatle­ma­nia, but male writ­ers have al­ways dom­i­nated jour­nal­ism and schol­ar­ship about the band

The Washington Post Sunday - - BOOK WORLD - BY SIBBIE O’SUL­LI­VAN book­world@wash­ 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.

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 well­re­spected 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 in­ter­pre­tive 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?


Just the sight of the Bea­tles from a dis­tance caused this re­ac­tion among a group of girls at the Los An­ge­les In­ter­na­tional Air­port in this photo from Aug. 18, 1964. Air­port se­cu­rity kept the Bri­tish singers away from sev­eral thou­sand young­sters dur­ing a brief stopover in Los An­ge­les en route to San Fran­cisco.

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