- John Whelan, November 10, 1999. firstname.lastname@example.org
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BUILDING THE BEATLE IMAGE - by Vance Packard (1964)
What causes an international craze like the current Beatlemania?
Press agentry can only swell a craze. To get one started you need to bring into fusion five vital ingredients. This is true whether the craze involves Davy Crokett, Liberace or Elvis Presley.
Only three years ago it is doubtful that any observer of pop culture would have picked the Beatles to inspire madness on both sides of the Atlantic. In 1961 the Beatles affected a beatnik look. They wore black T-shirts, black leather jackets, blue jeans and disheveled hair. In one picture taken of them that year they scowled at the camera as good beatniks should.
Then along came Brian Epstein, an aristocratic-looking young Englishman who ran a record shop and soon became their manager. First he made them scrub, comb their hair and get into civilized clothing. Then little by little, by a combination of hunch, luck and design, he began exploiting the five ingredients that will create a craze.
First, the Beatles needed a symbol that would make them stand out in the people's minds, a symbol such as the coonskin cap that Walt Disney gave to his Davy Crockett creation. For a symbol it was decided to exploit their already overlong hair. The Beatles let it grow longer and bushier, combed it forward - and then had it immaculately trimmed. The result was not only eye-catching but evocative. Such hairdos were common place in the Middle Ages and the new coiffure suggested the ancient roots of England.
A second ingredient necessary for a craze is to fill some important subconscious need of teenagers. Youngster see themselves as a subjugated people constantly exposed to arbitrary edicts from adult authorities. The entertainment world has developed many strategies to offer youngsters a sense of escape from adult domination. Television producers of children's shows sometimes make adult figures either stupid or villainous. The press agents for some teen stars publicize the stars' defiance of their parents. Teen-age crooners relate with amiable condescension their support of their parents.
Rock'n'roll music, of course, annoys most parents, which is one of the main reasons why millions of youngsters love it. But the Beatles couldn't possibly hope to outdo Elvis Presley in appalling parents. Instead of open opposition, the Beatles practice an amiable impudence and a generalized disrespect for just about everybody. They succeeded, happily, in getting themselves denounced in some pretty high adult places. The Lord Privy Seal indicated his annoyance. And Field Marshal Lord Montgomery growled that the Army would take care of those mop-top haircuts if the Beatles were ever conscripted.
But the Beatles - under Mr. Epstein's tutelage - also have put stress on filling other subconscious needs of teen-agers. As restyled, they are no longer roughnecks but rather lovable, almost cuddly, imps. With their collarless jackets and boyish grins, they have succeeded in bringing out the mothering instinct in many adolescent girls.
The subconscious need that they fill most expertly is in taking adolescent girls clear out of this world. The youngsters in the darkened audiences can let go all inhibitions in a quite primitive sense when the Beatles cut loose. They can retreat from rationality and individuality. Mob pathology takes over, and they are momentarily freed of all of civilization's restraints.
The Beatles have become peculiarly adept at giving girls this release. Their relaxed, confident manner, their wild appearance, their whooping and jumping, their electrified rock'n'roll pulsing out into the darkness makes the girls want to jump - and then scream. The more susceptible soon faint or develop twitching hysteria. (One reason why Russia's totalitarian leaders frown on rock'n'roll and jazz is that these forms offer people release from controlled behavior.)
A third ingredient needed to get a craze started - as Brian Epstein obviously knew - is an exciting sense of freshness. In an informal poll conducted through my offspring, who are at high school and college, I find that the fact that the Beatles are somehow "different" - something new in the musical world - made the deepest impression. Teen-agers feel they are helping create something new that is peculiarly their own. And as my 15 year-old expert (feminine) explained, "We were kind of at a lag with popular singers."
The delivery, if not the music, is refreshingly different with the Beatles. Surliness is out, exuberance is in. Sloppiness is out, cleanliness is in. Self-pity is out, whooping with joy is in. Pomposity is out, humor is in.
A fourth ingredient needed to keep a craze rolling once it shows signs of starting is a carrying device, such as a theme song. The carrying device of the Beatles is found in their name. It playfully suggests beatnik, but it also suggests "beat" -- and the beat is the most conspicuous feature of the Beatles' music. It is laid on heavily with both drums and bass guitar. When the screaming starts, the beat still gets through.
Finally, a craze can succeed only if it meets the mood of the times. England, after centuries of cherishing the subdued, proper form of life, is bursting out of its inhibitions. There has been a growth of open sexuality, plain speaking and living it up. The Beatles came along at just the right time to help the bursting-out process.
What is the future of the Beatle craze in America? At this point it is hard to say. But the Beatles are so dependent upon their visual appeal that there is a question whether they can sustain the craze in their American territory from across the Atlantic. Another problem is that they are not really offensive enough to grown-ups to inspire youngsters to cling to them.
Frankly, if I were in the business of manufacturing mophead Beatle wigs, I would worry. Crazes tend to die a horribly abrupt death. It was not long ago, after all, that a good many unwary businessmen got caught with warehouses full of coonskin caps when the Crockett craze stopped almost without warning.
First published in the Saturday Evening Post
E-published here with their permission.
Footnote: We owe a lot to Brian Epstein, bringing the Beatles over to America...all the excitement and fun of their music is based on this man's belief that one day the Beatles would be "bigger than Elvis". He wanted to take that fun and present it to the world (thank you Brian!). Quite simply, a lot of us would not be here at all reading or discussing the Beatles if hadn't been for Epstein. If you would like to learn more about Brian and help him obtain his rightful status into the Rock-'n'-Roll Hall of Fame, click here to vote: www.martinlewis.com/mbe/ - JW