Candy Leonard’s ambitious 2014 book Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World, combines a wealth of interview material with fans who were there in the 1960s and offers a portrait of the group and its fans in their era. The result is a rare, insider glimpse into of one of the most historically significant fan phenomena. Since publishing Beatleness, Candy has written about why we still mourn John Lennon in the PBS magazine Next Avenue, and described the Beatles impact on baby boomers for The Huffington Post. Since I consider Beatleness an insightful model of accessible writing on music fandom, I was really pleased when she agreed to an interview.
THIS IS THE SECOND PART OF A TWO PART INTERVIEW. READ THE FIRST PART HERE.
THE YOUNG ONES
A recent BBC4 documentary on the British invasion portrayed the Beatles and their UK contemporaries as people who taught younger Americans how to be ‘cool’: sartorially stylish, generationally rebellious, sexually adventurous. I’m not sure how much that translated for the children in their audience. What I found interesting about your book was the frequent focus on younger fans. What was it about the Beatles that made them especially appealing to younger audiences?
When we think of first-generation Beatle fans, black and white footage of screaming teenage fans pops into mind. But it’s important to remember—and an important source of the Beatles cultural power—that most first-gen fans were children, between the ages of 6 and 10. And yes, boys as young as 7 started thinking about their appearance and wanting to look cool. Many girls adopted the style of the Beatles’ wives and girlfriends.
Being a Beatle fan allowed these children to enter an important cultural conversation, and the music gave them early glimpses into the teenage world of love and romance. All of this was very empowering. But, above all else, the Beatles were fun. Everything about them was fun. I asked fans if, at the time, they perceived the Beatles as kids or adults. What I found was that because of the greater age gap with the younger fans, the Beatles seemed to them more like adults (especially in their suits and ties), but there was nothing threatening about them and they were always on your side. They were perceived as adults, but a very different kind of adult.
I was interested to read that some younger fans combined Mary Poppins (with its mock-Englishness and subtext of female independence) with the coming of the Beatles. Can you say any more about that?
A Hard Day’s Night and Mary Poppins were in theatres at the same time, summer of 1964. American fans were in the throes of Beatlemania, with a touch of Beatle-inspired Anglophila, which somehow made Mary Poppinsevocative of the Beatles. Anything British was somehow about the Beatles.
I was interested in the idea that the eventfulness of “Beatleness” may have drawn children and perhaps adults?) into wishing they were teenagers. To what extent do you think the strength of teen interest in the Beatles began to idealize teendom in wider society?
Half the population was under age twenty-five, which is important to remember when thinking about Beatles fandom and the sixties in general. From 1965 on, the media became obsessed with teenagers and the generation gap, thus reinforcing the emerging themes of “us” (young people) vs. “them” (the establishment) in the music. In their 1967 hit “The Beat Goes On,” Sonny and Cher announce, “Teeny bopper is our newborn king,” and they were right.
One thing I loved about your book was the way that the fan interview quotes explained first-hand how fans felt about each new release and whether it spoke personally to them. I was fascinated to hear that younger fans were spooked by ‘Strawberry Fields Forever.’ How was news of the band’s drug use treated by different fans, and why did some stay despite their unnerved reactions?
The “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” promotional films (what we today would call videos) were off-putting to many fans because of the Beatles’ facial hair, and many found “Strawberry Fields Forever” frightening when they heard it on the radio. It was pretty straight up psychedelic, and the lyrics were very challenging, though compelling. But fans didn’t know with certainty that the Beatles were using drugs until McCartney evangelized for LSD in an interview with Lifemagazine, shortly after the release of Sgt. Pepper, in June ‘67–the Summer of Love. Parents were upset because they saw their kids looking up to the Beatles and wanting to emulate them however they could. There’s no question millions of baby boomers experienced LSD, just as they experienced meditation, because of the Beatles’ example. But to your point, as the music became more psychedelic, many fans didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many longed for the old moptops.
I really enjoyed your short section on The Monkees and how they captured younger audiences with a sort of pop-era Beatles tribute that contained some more contemporary psychedelic in-jokes. How do you see the relationship between the two bands and fan bases?
Some fans, especially younger fans, but many older ones as well, found Revolver a little bit too challenging or “weird.” Many put the Beatles on a back burner for a while, and the Monkees filled that void. Their TV show, which went on the air a month after Revolver came out, had the pop sensibilities and physical comedy of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the Monkees themselves captured the freshness of the early Beatles, something many fans missed. But the most important thing about the Monkees was that their output contained the same countercultural messages that older fans were now gleaning from the Beatles. I refer to the experience of growing up with the Beatles as an “alternative curriculum”—the Monkees were absolutely aligned with that curriculum and the emerging hippie ethos.
FANDOM AND FAMILY
Can you explain the ways in which family life was negotiated in relation to the participants’ Beatles passions?
At some point in the early days of Beatlemania parents realized that their kids’ engagement with and passion for the Beatles was not going away, and so it had to be managed. Beatles records and other merchandise was used as a reward for good behaviour, and confiscating or withholding it was used as punishment. To this day, first-generation fans can still feel their anger over records and magazines being destroyed by parents, and they still feel special gratitude toward the long-gone parent who allowed them to go to a concert, or added some spare change to their allowance so an album could be purchased.
We have been led to believe that the Beatles reflected a generation gap, but you show a more varied picture. How did an interest in the group help to bond families?
Some parents liked the Beatles, and were the ones buying the records for the whole family to enjoy. Fans recall joyful memories of discovering Sgt. Pepper with their parents, or family dances in the rec room, with the Beatles blaring from the turntable. That said, as the Beatles started getting more complicated, and the cultural turmoil called “the sixties” unfolded, many parents, along with “the Establishment,” saw the Beatles (correctly) as fomenting young peoples’ displeasure with the status quo.
One thing you don’t discuss much inBeatleness is the many Beatles fan clubs. Did interviewees offer anything interesting about fan club experiences?
Many were members of the Beatles Fan Club, in England, and received the colourful flexidisk Christmas greeting record every year, along with monthly newsletters. There were also many local chapters. There’s an interesting documentary film, Good Ol’ Freda, about Freda Kelly, who started out as a fan at the lunchtime Cavern shows, then began working for Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who asked her to run their fan club.
Sometimes you use metaphors of the family to describe the Beatles fan base, particularly talking about a “global siblinghood” online. Why do you think metaphors about family relations are so prominent in popular discussions about the experience of fandom? Is it a case of them emphasizing some things (community, security) and neglecting others (commerce), or is something else entirely actually at play?
A sense of community, being accepted into a community, is a large part of the appeal of fandom, especially a large enduring fandom like that of the Beatles. The family is a space where one is unconditionally accepted and where one can be their authentic self. Fan communities provide a space for that as well.
The sibling metaphor is especially appropriate because it suggests a common set of early experiences and influences, and a shared reverence, and that was certainly the case with baby boomers, worldwide, regarding the Beatles. And of course part of being in a fan community is that fans want to identify themselves as members, which often involves consumption and commerce. In ‘64 and ‘65, hair length on boys was another way of expressing membership.
In my book Understanding Fandom (2013) I likened each individual’s personal fandom to a kind of “knowing field”: a territory discovered inside each of us that we know we share. The idea allows us to see personal fandom not simply as a “phase” but rather something we can remain with or leave and then come back. What did you find out about fans’ reasons for leaving and returning to the Beatles’ fan base?
For the fans, mostly male, who started playing musical instruments in the sixties and continued playing throughout their lives, the Beatles, and music in general, has always been with them. But for many women, active fandom was seen as incompatible with work and family responsibilities, and so it fell by the wayside. When women did stay in touch with their love for the Beatles, it often manifested as fan art or fan fiction. Today, of course, the internet makes it very easy to be an active member of a fan community. Many first-generation fans participate in the many Facebook groups with a Beatles focus.
You mention fans who have returned to the Beatles during their life journeys. Some female fans seem to be developing or returning to a ‘clandestine’ interest that has been rejected or disapproved of by the men in their lives – whether fathers, boyfriends or husbands. This is interesting because ‘clandestine’ makes it sounds like a form of ‘closet fandom’ but I guess it is more like ‘open secret fandom’ at times? How, as educators, do you think we can ease the awkwardness of such situations?
As I discuss in Beatleness, there is a history of fans being harshly judged by cultural critics, and many of these arguments are class based. But if you look closely, everybody is a fan of something. Why is it okay to be a Shakespeare fan or a Freud fan, or a Lincoln fan, and not a Beatles fan? Or a Dr. Who fan? Yes, there are unstable fans, as Beatle fans know all too well. That said, fandom is, for the most part, a benign activity that fosters community and a sense of play. It offers social, emotional, and intellectual engagement.
FANDOM AND GENDER
I was interested how much you saw Beatles fandom as a gendered activity – can you summarize some of the general differences you found between male and female fans?
At the most manifest level, from the age of puberty on, female fans could not relate to or identify with the Beatles in the ways male fans could. It’s been said that boys wanted to be them and girls wanted to be with them, and that’s mainly true, but it doesn’t tell the whole story. Certainly there were many young men who were drawn to them in an erotic way, just as there were many young women who didn’t want to be their girlfriends but would have loved to be bandmates, or just hang out with them. The culture didn’t allow these feelings to be expressed at the time.
For the youngest fans, the children, there was not that gendered divide. The Beatles were just four cool guys who brought joy and fun to their lives, and opened their ears to music.
Your discussion of male fandom reminded me of Judith Butler’s idea that gender is performed through imitation. Can you explain how the Fab Four inspired some of their male fans to shape their own masculinities?
Through their appearance, behaviour, and music, the Beatles presented a new proposition for masculinity—softer, more emotionally vulnerable, less macho. The Beatles were rebellious role models in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, but unlike early film rebels (think West Side Story, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause), they were not at all macho and there was no hint of violence. They rebelled through their wit, charisma, and social competence, making all the adults around them look like fools. Their way of being, described by one male fan as “the embodiment of cool,” was widely emulated.
Beatle lyrics often referred to women as “friends,” and the relationship dynamics presented in their songs were more egalitarian than other music of the day. They offered a new template for relationships. This was a huge part of their appeal for female fans. However, this was more of an aspirational vision than reality, if you look at their personal lives. Pop music was so much a male province, with male voices calling all the shots, but the Beatles seemed a little kinder and gentler. Unfortunately, the dominant relationship template prevailed. That said, it’s clear that the Beatles’ presentation of masculinity helped to make pop music, and then rock, a space for more fluid gender roles. Even all the fuss about their hair was historically significant because it started a conversation about gender, personal self-expression and authenticity.
Did everyone you met primarily identify as a ‘Beatles fan’ or did different fans identify much more with particular members of the band (for example ‘a George fan’)?
They identified as a Beatle fan, but there’s always a favourite. Picking a favourite was an important part of the Beatle fan experience, kind of sub-identity within the Beatle fan identity. That said, teenage boys were less apt to pick a favourite, because it was the band’s camaraderie and esprit de corps that appealed to them. The Beatles presented a different, less fraught kind of male friendship, and teen boys imagined being part of their band of brothers.
In a sense, due to the pre-existing conventions of the teen pop genre (notably shaped by the teen angels), the Beatles’ US visits were, to fans, almost like a giant date, as these highly adored, exotic and jovial, powerful and popular, new potential boyfriends arrived from the UK. Do you think that female fans behaved as if on a date when they went to see the band?
Many had very vivid fantasies about meeting them, and many tried, in various ways, to circumvent security to try to get closer to them. These efforts were a safe place to misbehave in public, as was the screaming. But I don’t think girls saw going to the show as a date, per se. They just felt thrilled and lucky, and saw themselves as part of this huge thing that everyone was talking about it. They were witnesses to history, and they knew it even then.
You report that some female fans discussed beforehand whether they would scream. Why did that happen?
Female fans knew screaming was the expected behaviour, but they didn’t know if they’d have the nerve to do it. Screaming in public was pretty deviant behaviour at the time for these girls, many of whom were wearing special dress-up outfits, complete with white gloves. Girls just didn’t behave that way in public. They were anticipating what the experience would be like, and wondering if they’d dare to scream was part of it. For many, the time period between getting the tickets in the mail and the actual show was one of enormous excitement and joy. In general, joyful anticipation was a very large part of the Beatle fan experience—the next record, the next TV appearance, etc. Anticipating a live show was a feeling of sustained ecstasy. In 2016, these same fans, in their sixties, feel the same way when counting down to a McCartney or Ringo show.
What was the most unexpected thing you found when interviewing fellow American Beatles fans?
I went into the project knowing how important the experience of growing up with the Beatles was, and still is, to first-generation fans. But to hear them talk about how special (“blessed,” privileged”) it made them feel, then and now, and hearing the depth of emotion and gratitude they conveyed, was really quite stunning. I don’t think we’ll see a phenomenon like this again. It was a perfect storm.