Growing up with the Beatles

Tapestry is an icon of the Album Era, that relatively brief but eventful period between the mid-1960s and the mid-1970s when long-playing records dominated the industry, deeply informing our relationship to popular music. Insofar as it indexes Carole King’s graduation from pop singles to rock albums, Tapestry chronicles the inception of the album as a mature work of musical art in which songs are sequenced and covers are designed to tell a story, frequently about growing up. And rock music itself grew up during this era, exhibiting a new cultural maturity and seriousness.

Over the next six days I will share some thoughts and theories I’ve been developing over the last few years about this period concept, which I believe informs everyone’s relationship to popular music, whether or not they were alive during the time to which the concept refers. – Loren Glass, author of Carole King’s Tapestry

Like many if not most of us my musical memories begin with The Beatles. The four floating faces, half in bluish shadow, on the cover of Meet the Beatles! is the first album cover I remember. It’s a memory that comes back to me in a fragmentary spectrum of sounds, images, and words. Not surprisingly the first songs on side one echo most clearly and completely. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “I Saw Her Standing There” are more than memories; they are memorized. They persist as strips of sound in my neural networks corresponding note by note and word by word to the ridges and grooves along which the needle moved. The images are also indelible, and odd. Why is George standing like that, with his arm extended and his hand on Ringo’s shoulder? And the scale looks off, as if each Beatle was photographed separately and then cut and pasted into that vacant gray space. And the liner notes loom like letters in a distant dream. When I read them now I recognize them but I could never recite them from memory as I can the songs, though I imagine they must constitute the cloudy groundwork on which I’ve built the edifice of my education and experience with the band. For some reason the only lines I remember without rereading are “and all four of the boys sing,” buried in the middle of the smaller font notes squished between the song list and the photo in the right-hand column of the back cover. I was born in the year the album came out and I imagine my earliest memory of it dates to the early seventies. I must have wondered if these grown-up looking guys were really “boys.”  

To the world they were boys when they burst onto the shores of America that year, and their images and imaginations across the ensuing albums track their passage to adulthood, and the maturation of the generation that grew up alongside them. Here their hair is short and they are beardless. These are the fresh young faces that flash across the covers of those first albums, grinning and gazing at or away from me in a youthfulness I hadn’t yet attained, but that would become a model for the kid I came to be, when my highest aspiration was to be a guitar player in a rock band. The Beatles were the best kind of boy gang: boisterous but not violent, sexy but not dangerous.  

And then they grew up. They grew beards. They wrote spacy songs about serious subjects. The faces that stare somberly out from inside the gatefold of the White Album are men. You can see it in their eyes and their hair. And you can hear it in their songs, which range across a fuller and far more complex emotional and musical spectrum than the early pop hits. These were songs to think about, songs to study, songs to listen to, stoned, with the covers in your hands and the posters on your walls.

But between being boys and becoming men the Beatles entered into a kind of make-believe world beyond the normal bounds of time and space. I like to think of this stage as starting off with “Tomorrow Never Knows,” the droning final track on the aptly named Revolver, all one chord, saturated with overlapping tape-loops and found sounds from the Abbey Road closets, with John’s vocals thinned out through a Leslie Amp designed for a Hammond Organ. The song seems to spiral out of time into a kind of circular ecstasy. This is where the album era starts to spinfaster and deeper, starts to enter its vortex.

Then comes Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, issued around the world on July 1, 1967, as good a date as any to mark the entry into the swirling center of the album era. But what “time” does this album really represent? What were these costumes, and what period did they come from? A psychedelic military band, I suppose, with the weird epaulets and stitching, the woodwinds and brass. The songs as well feel out of time, mixing and matching any number of musical pasts and imaginary presents. It seemed to both herald the future and long for the past. When is, or was, “twenty years ago today”?

From Sgt Pepper through Magical Mystery Tour and Yellow Submarine the Beatles morphed phantasmagorically, sometimes creepily, but usually childishly, offering sympathetic sensibilities with auniquely transgenerational appeal. Surely this at least partly explains how and why, unlike almost any other band, they are handed down through generations, with each set of parents sharing a Beatles period with their children. At least this was the way it happened in my family. Bereft of an auratic object by the incursions of the internet, I went back to listening to albums, and started collecting, beginning with the Beatles and building out from the albums of my youth, in which mine and my parents listening began to converge into a tight spiral around 1971. 

As I began (re)listening to these albums my daughters, 5 and 7 at the time, quickly attached themselves to the Beatles (Dylan didn’t interest them), starting with Sgt. Pepper and spiraling out in both directions to Please PleaseMe at one pole and Let It Be at the other. We would avidly discuss our favorite albums and recite the order of songs on each. We would follow each voice as they harmonized. We watched Hard Day’s Night repeatedly for weeks. And then we moved on to Yellow Submarine, which seemed to collapse my parents and my children and myself into a Pepperland timeslip where all ages playfully converge, like that wonderful scene where the Beatles enter the Sea of Time, shrinking down to babies at one pole and growing grey beards out in every direction at the other.

The Beatles became both characters in our lives and objects of our creative impulses. It helped that I had picked up a set of knock-off McFarlane figures at an apartment sale in New York City who became protagonists in endless narrative contretemps between my daughter and me, with and without musical accompaniment.  

​The arc of growing up with the Beatles was collectively carved and canonized for us with the rerelease of the Beatles #1’s on iTunes in 2015 as both greatest hits album and extended video sequence. Now we could see and hear the full story across the whole series of albums, from “Love Me Do” to “Let It Be.” But this happened at the expense of the other albums, which gradually dropped out of our repertoire. Soon we were only listening to, and watching, the #1’s.

​And then there was the reality of the present. Paul and Ringo were old men, and John and George were dead. Upon repeated watching of Hard Day’s Night we had unavoidably dwelt on the current circumstances of the various Beatles. It was more difficult than I thought it would be to break this news, and I still haven’t told my daughters how John died. And they never enjoyed seeing Paul or Ringo as the grandfatherly figures they are today. They prefer the boys, and the cartoons.

And then, more quickly than I’d hoped, they moved on. Now they listen to K-Pop, but, like me, they’ll always have a Beatles “stage” to remember.  

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