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Fab 4 @ 50: Skidmore professor to give talks about the Beatles

Sunday, February 2, 2014
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Skidmore College professor Gordon Thompson is a Beatles expert and has studied, written and lectured about the band for more than 20 years. Here he poses with a few vinyl records and a 45 rpm vinyl disk holder from the era.
Photographer: Marc Schultz
Skidmore College professor Gordon Thompson is a Beatles expert and has studied, written and lectured about the band for more than 20 years. Here he poses with a few vinyl records and a 45 rpm vinyl disk holder from the era.

John, Paul, George and Ringo had talent.

Gordon R. Thompson said the lads — pop music’s Beatles — also had good fortune.

“They’re the right guys in the right place at the right time,” said Thompson, professor and chairman of the music department at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. “Here’s a band that’s basically taking American music, turning it around and returning it to us.”

The Beatles — John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr — arrived in America 50 years ago, Friday, Feb. 7, 1964. Thompson, an authority on British pop whose “Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop” was published in 2008, will go on tour himself this week. His lecture, “She Loves You: The Beatles in New York,” will be first heard at the Guilderland Public Library on Thursday. Stops in Schenectady, Clifton Park, Troy, Saratoga Springs, Glens Falls and Bethlehem will follow.

No screaming teen-agers are expected. But Thompson, who’s in his mid-60s, can discuss why the Beatles excited so many people during the 1960s.

For one thing, he said, the music was different — but a little familiar, too.

U.S. music, U.K. Style

“They’re doing copies of the Shirelles, Chuck Berry, Arthur Alexander,” Thompson said, seated in his office beneath four framed pop art posters of the Beatles. “ ‘With the Beatles,’ [the band’s second studio album] has, I think, four or five Motown tunes on it — ‘You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me,’ tunes like that. But one of their loves has been American rockabilly, they’re basically a rockabilly band in the spirit of Buddy Holly; Carl Perkins was a huge favorite of theirs. It’s a rockabilly band doing Motown.”

'The Beatles in New York'

WHAT: Lecture by Skidmore professor Gordon R. Thompson

WHEN: Thursday through Feb. 13

-- Thursday, Guilderland Public Library, 7 p.m.

-- Friday, Albany Institute of History & Art, 7 p.m.

-- Saturday, Schenectady County Public Library, 2 p.m.

-- Sunday, Feb. 9, Clifton Park-Halfmoon Public Library, 2 p.m.

-- Monday, Feb. 10, The Arts Center of the Capital Region, Troy, 7 p.m.

-- Tuesday, Feb. 11, Saratoga Springs Public Library, 7:30 p.m.

-- Wednesday, Feb. 12, Crandall Public Library, Glens Falls, 7 p.m.

-- Thursday, Feb. 13, Bethlehem Public Library, 7 p.m.

When the Beatles arrived in America, people had been listening to songs like “Sugar Shack” by Jimmy Gilmer and the Fireballs, “There! I’ve Said it Again” by Bobby Vinton and “Louie Louie” by the Kingsmen. The latter was No. 1 in the U.S. in mid-January of ’64, according to Cash Box magazine charts.

The Beatles and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” took over Jan. 25, and remained on top through March 14. That’s when the band began another streak, with “She Loves You,” “Twist and Shout” and “Can’t Buy Me Love” holding the No. 1 positions through May 9. Louis Armstrong’s “Hello Dolly” took over the lead spot on May 16.

Thompson said the Beatles became known for their mop-top style haircuts — considered long for men in 1964 — and for their quips with news reporters who covered early appearances.

“They’re just taunting the reporters, who don’t know what to do with this stuff,” Thompson said. “They’re saying, ‘When are you going to get a haircut,’ and George Harrison says, ‘I got one yesterday.’

“The Beatles have had this before, where the press is expecting them to make fools of themselves, and the Beatles just give it back to them,” Thompson added. “Somebody in the press corps yells, ‘Sing something for us!’ And John Lennon’s saying, ‘We need money first.’ ”

One of the chief reasons for the trip to the states was “The Ed Sullivan Show.” Sullivan’s variety program on CBS television had been a Sunday night fixture since 1948. The Beatles appeared three straight weeks, Feb. 9, Feb. 16 and Feb. 23.

Photo by The Associated Press

This 1964 file photo shows the British rock and roll group the Beatles; from left, George Harrison, John Lennon, Ringo Starr and Paul McCartney, during their first U.S. tour.

Even the Sullivan set-up was a piece of luck. The Beatles were returning to London from Stockholm, Sweden, in October, and fans jammed London Airport (now known as Heathrow).

“Planes can’t come or go, and that includes Sir Alec Douglas-Home, now prime minister, he’s stuck on the tarmac,” Thompson said. “Miss Universe is stuck on the tarmac, and Ed Sullivan is stuck on the tarmac, waiting for the Beatles to disembark. A week later, Brian Epstein, their manager, is in New York negotiating for an appearance by the Beatles on his show.”

Salve for SIXTIEs woes

Thompson believes one reason for the band’s immediate success can be tied to headlines of the era. There had been grim news in the United States during the early 1960s, such as the Cuban missile crisis of 1962 and growing Cold War concerns. Many were still thinking about the assassination of President John F. Kennedy just three months before.

“The assassination, I would argue, keys the American public for something different, some relief,” Thompson said. “It’s like a Shakespearean play — in MacBeth, when the king gets assassinated, they turn to the watchmen who are joking around on the ramparts about what’s going on in their lives. It’s comic relief.”

Thompson added: “The world is feeling very, very dangerous. The Beatles come along and say, ‘Hey, we can have a good time.’ There’s still good in the world and there’s still hope in the world for kids. That’s their future.”

The Beatles influenced fashion and other musicians. Thompson said the Four Seasons had just been vocalists before 1964. Within a year of the Beatles’ arrival and the new guitar-band sound in place, he said, the Seasons had added guitars and drums. Thompson said bands like The Association formed, combining guitar and vocal harmonies.

“As much as some folks will say they were not influenced by the Beatles, everybody was influenced by the Beatles,” Thompson said. “And the Beatles are great reflections of what’s going on around them. Lennon and McCartney were always trying to figure out what the next big thing was. Very often, it was them.”

Thompson said during the mid-1960s, the Beatles were into American soul music.

“They’re thinking Aretha Franklin, Wilson Pickett, Sam and Dave,” he said. “In ’66, ’67, in their rehearsal outtakes you can hear them working through songs like Sam and Dave’s ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’ and then you hear songs like ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band’ and they’re using the same chord progressions. They taken them and kind of converted them, transformed them into something else.”

The band paved the way for many others, including “British Invasion” bands such as the Rolling Stones and The Who.

“We would have never heard of them if not for the Beatles,” Thompson said. “If it hadn’t been for the Beatles, those British singing groups probably would have remained as obscure as they had been before ... British bands were unusual, just novelty kinds of things for American audiences.

Successful, historic

Thompson believes the Beatles remain relevant in 2014 because their music is still successful. And because the band made history.

“The Beatles basically established the mold,” Thompson said. “They’re recording and performing at a point in time when the mold of what a pop record should be is being made. They’re right at that critical moment in time when they’re making a recording, they’re setting a precedent in many ways.”

Thompson offers quick assessments of favorite Beatles songs:

u “I think ‘Strawberry Fields Forever’ is a landmark recording. It really, in many ways, demolishes the idea and notion of the 2 minute and 30 second pop single.”

u “ ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ it’s kind of innovative, it’s an interesting mix of different kinds of things. You’ve got some Shirelles in there, there’s some Carl Perkins, some Everly Brothers too. You’ve got a bunch of different musical ideas rolling around in there but they combine them in some interesting ways. That’s the record that breaks them in the U.S.”

u “ ‘A Hard Day’s Night,’— summer of ’64, that’s a tune that seems simple on the surface but the creation is incredibly complex and done in an incredibly short period of time.”

Thompson taught a Beatles course last semester at Skidmore. This semester, he’s teaching a 1960s British rock course. He said some of his students want to understand why their parents considered the music and musicians so important.

‘Original indie band’

During the Beatles’ boom, Thompson said, part of their appeal was that young people wanted their own music — they weren’t going to listen to their parents’ favorites. “In some ways, being a Beatles fan today is kind of like establishing yourself as different,” Thompson said. “You can think of the Beatles as the original indie rock band.”

The Beatles, formed in 1960, broke up in 1970.

McCartney is now 71, Starr is 73. Harrison died in 2001 at age 58; Lennon was shot to death in New York City in 1980. He was 40.

A full-fledged band reunion never took. Thompson wonders if it ever would have happened had Harrison and Lennon survived.

“Potentially, a lot of it would have depended on Lennon,” he said. “The interviews he does in 1980, where he says he’s proud of the Beatles stuff, but he’s not interested in the least in getting back together to kind of revisit that. He would not, I think, want to be an oldies band.”

Reach Gazette reporter Jeff Wilkin at 395-3124 or at wilkin@dailygazette.com.

 
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