Can’t Buy Me Love: Beatles and The invisible HandPosted: February 11, 2014
This is either a misguided exercise, with the well-intended aim of illustrating complex economic theory, or a refreshingly inventive way to combine pop culture and economics. I can’t tell, I’m inclined to think it’s the latter. It’s definitely worth a look. Personally, I think Adam Smith would have approved.
Longwood University music teacher Chris Kjorness writes:
It has been 50 years since the Beatles arrived in the United States, forever altering the landscape of popular music. But contrary to the general notion that the mop-tops hopped off a plane in 1964 and were just so talented and lovable that they took the states by storm, the Beatles’ conquering of America was actually the result of a long and complex struggle. It was the end result of the actions of numerous people acting in their own interests, with little knowledge of or concern about what the other was up to.
While the Brits are credited with giving the world the idea of popular music through the comic operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, after World War II British popular music was in a creative slump. Weak transnational relationships between record labels and the dominance of state-controlled media tended to keep out foreign records (particularly American ones), leaving British audiences to make do with British artists’ covers of American hits. As a result, recordings of American folk and rhythm and blues artists became almost contraband, complete with all of the cool rebelliousness the black market can provide.
There were some American records available and American artists occasionally performed in the U.K., but the best place for a young British teenager to hear American music was at the movie theater. From Blackboard Jungle, which had British teenagers rioting in the aisles to the sounds of Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” to The Girl Can’t Help It, which featured energetic performances by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran, film introduced U.K. teens to rock’n’roll. To British teenagers rock ’n’ roll was choreographed cool, and staging and imaging were part of the package. Removed from the racial and political context of the music in the United States, it is no wonder that the Beatles were able to project such a well-crafted insouciance into American living rooms on that momentous night in February 1964.
But the Beatles struggled long and hard to get to the United States. Starting out as a loose band of friends, the Beatles climbed their way up the ranks of the Liverpool club scene and eventually landed a steady gig in Hamburg’s red light district, the Reeperbahn. Night after night, the Beatles entertained rowdy crowds of sailors, gangsters, and prostitutes, all the while honing their craft and expanding their repertoire. It wasn’t particularly glamorous; house bands are simply another part of a club’s entertainment package, along with the drinks and the décor.
The repertoire was based first on other people’s songs. The Beatles played everything from rock ’n’ roll covers to pop showtunes, eventually developing their own songs and recording them in Germany.
Returning to Liverpool in the fall of 1961, the boys set up shop at the Cavern Club. They were still a red-light district club act; being “the Beatles” was just another daily grind, like any job. But then they met Brian Epstein.
Epstein was in charge of the record division of North End Music Store (NEMS), his family’s Liverpool shop. In a short time under his management, the store had seen tremendous success. He took great pride in always stocking what customers wanted. But Epstein’s ambitions were far greater. Repeated customer requests for a record by some group called the Beatles caught his attention.
Deciding that the easiest way to get the Beatles’ record was to see them in person, he stopped by the Cavern Club one afternoon. He saw a band that, to his mind, had great potential but little direction. In the Beatles, Epstein recognized his own frustrations in struggling to overcome the ordinary. As he would later write in his autobiography A Cellarful of Noise, “They, like me, were becoming bored because they could see no great progress in their lives.” Epstein attended several of the band’s performances and eventually offered the group his services as a manager.
The band refined their witty stage banter and donned their trademark suits under Epstein’s tutelage. He used his connections as a retailer to get the band out of their enervating club routine, convincing Decca Records to send an artists and repertoire (A&R) manager to see the Beatles at the Cavern Club. In January 1962, the band appeared to be on the brink of success when the Beatles recorded 15 demo songs for Decca Records in the company’s London Studios. But the prestigious label decided to pass on the band because, in the words of the label’s head A&R man, Dick Rowe, “Groups of guitarists are on the way out.” Undaunted, Epstein took the band to audition for Parlophone records; he found the person who would transform the Beatles from a band of good club musicians into musical revolutionaries…
Chris Kjorness teaches music at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia.