George Harrison's death, one year ago, triggered memories of a rollercoaster ride of childhood infatuation and adolescent denial. I have finally made peace with the Beatles fan withinby Frances Welch / December 20, 2002 / Leave a comment
The Beatles entered my life when I was five. I remember standing on the grass verge of a country road in Somerset with my forceful friend Fiona Smith. Fiona was, once again, persecuting me with unanswerable questions.
“Who’s your favourite Beatle?” she asked.
I was out of my depth. But I remember a picture of the Beatles being produced and finding myself faced with the ordeal of a choice.
“Paul’s my favourite,” she said, pointing to one with worryingly large eyes and definite eyebrows.
“You can’t have the same one as me,” she said, as my finger hovered over Paul. While I hadn’t taken to Paul’s vivid face, I did not relish the prospect of defending an alternative choice. After some hesitation I pointed to the one with the smallest, least remarkable features. “That’s John,” she pronounced, before losing interest in the whole thing. I felt a warm glow. I had an answer: “John.”
The Beatles’ music suffused the air through the early and mid-1960s. The music became familiar and, gradually captivating. I began to sing along. I understood few of the lyrics but managed a complicated weave of words and sounds: “PS I Love You” became “Be As I Love You.” The lyrics “Love has a nasty habit of disappearing overnight” became: “Love hasn’t asked if we have enough disappearing of the night.” Among the odd individual words I did manage to catch was “baby”; all the pop stars seemed to want babies. At five I felt too old and too big.
It seemed that I liked the Beatles. To acknowledge, with surprise, that I had an opinion was one thing: to do something about it, such as asking for a record, was too great a leap. For some time I satisfied myself with a cracked copy of Ticket To Ride which my brother had found lying near our house. In order to hear the small section that was still playable, the needle had to be placed with great care two thirds of the way across the record.
I saw A Hard Day’s Night while staying with Fiona’s family. The Smiths had been our neighbours in London, but now lived in Somerset. They knew what children wanted. Every night the Smith children and their guests were given a plastic tooth mug of fizzy crimson “Corona” on their bedside table. I used to like saving my Corona until the morning; its flatness rendered it all the sweeter. I can’t remember a thing about A Hard Day’s Night. But I was struck by the novel notion that Mrs Smith could be prevailed upon to sit through a film solely because her children wanted to see it.
It was not long before Fiona had the LP Help. Once, we clambered on to a raised platform in her playroom and strummed tennis rackets. She was on lead vocals. I was several paces behind, on backing. It was the closest I’d ever been to heaven. Alas, Fiona never wanted to play that game again.
I must have managed, at last, to impart my infatuation, for I was given Rubber Soul for Christmas 1966. Unfortunately, it was a new album. Conservatism and nostalgia had already taken hold; new things had to be slipped in before they were recognised as new. When I tore off the wrapping and saw the weirdly elongated faces on the unfamiliar cover, my face fell. “They said it was the latest one,” my mother urged. “Oh,” I can hear myself responding ungraciously.
It was probably around this time that the Beatles began watching me. I would become aware, every so often, that there were four heads lined up alongside my bedroom door or peering round the wall. The tops of torsos would just be visible, reassuringly constrained in jackets, white collars and black ties. They would make their presence felt at an awkward moment-when I was getting dressed, for instance. I would hastily rearrange my clothes, pulling pyjamas off and on through underwear, so that at no point was any flesh exposed. I thought the Beatles might be rather impressed: both by my modesty and dexterity.
Generally though, like the black mammies in old films, they were there for the big moments. If I achieved a middle finish on sports day, nowhere near last, they were there at the touchline, clapping their hands. If I sustained an injury in the playground, they would be there, peering round nurse’s door, shaking their heads and clicking their tongues, doubtless noting how brave I was being.
I wanted to contain the Beatles within my thoughts; there they would stay the same, protected from the vicissitudes of reality. Unfortunately the Beatles endlessly changed. The Beatles of my thoughts were usually about two changes behind. No sooner had I grown accustomed to them in casual clothes (Revolver) than I had to learn to visualise them in weird silk soldiers’ uniforms (Sgt Pepper).
I first heard Sgt Pepper with Fiona. My dislike of change meant I was always the last to hear new albums. And my conviction that the Beatles should have been frozen in time in 1964 was borne out by what seemed to me a downward spiral of sex and drugs. I was told of allusions to drugs in several songs; I myself came across endless shocking allusions to sex such as “girl, you let your knickers down,” in “I Am The Walrus.” I was in Fiona’s playroom when I examined with horror a poster with a photo of John in the nude. So that was what John really looked like; what he had really looked like all along. For a moment I felt duped.
As with the previous changes, I eventually man-aged to become inured to them. I smuggled a large photograph of George Harrison with a moustache into school and propped it up on a chair next to my bed. A daily paper on the hall table brought us real news, like Paul McCartney getting married. But reality was of no consequence. Nevertheless, I continued to pray for the Beatles and I wondered how to refer to them in my prayers. They couldn’t be included, with my parents, brother and pets, amongst those I really loved; I decided to describe them as “those I fancy I love.”
I began a Letts schoolgirl diary in 1969. After months of “nothing much happened today,” I introduced a mysterious new character, an older brother, “Alicky.” I savoured imaginary conversations in which I revealed to my friends, under appropriate duress, the real identity of Alicky-Paul McCartney.
I pictured their expressions of amazement and admiration. Alas, despite months of intriguing entries: “Went to Abbey Road,” “Saw John today,” nobody other than myself ever saw the diary.
Despite the bed-ins and drug arrests, the Beatles seemed unable to shake off their soft image of nice looks and harmonies. Even I was uncomfortably aware that they lacked some edge. This was partly remedied by the rumour, put about in 1969, that Paul was dead. My brother was the one who broke the news to me that Paul had been killed in a car crash. The other Beatles had covered up the story but had then, mysteriously, decided to drop hints of the death on their records and record covers. There was “OPD”-Officially Pronounced Dead-on Paul’s sleeve on the cover of Sgt Pepper. If you played the end of “Strawberry Fields Forever” you heard (with difficulty) John Lennon say “I buried Paul.”
I began playing the Beatles’ songs on my piano at home. I worked them out by ear, playing along with the records. The piano must have been out of tune, as every song-“Let It Be,” “Because,” “Hey Jude,” “Martha My Dear,” the end of “I Want You (She’s So Heavy)”-was on black notes, mostly in C sharp. The piano backed on to the bathroom. As I was playing, my opera-loving father would burst into my room, sawing away at his teeth with a splayed toothbrush. “What’s that?” he would spit through the foam. “Oh, it’s just a track from Abbey Road. It’s by the Beatles…” I’d begin. “It’s Bach,” he would mutter before resuming his sawing and rushing out.
He later wrote savagely about the Beatles in the Spectator. He would pull ghastly faces while quoting The Times critic William Mann, comparing Lennon and McCartney to Schubert. “One down…” he muttered when John died years later “…three to go.” His mollifying addendum: “I withdraw that remark,” lacked conviction.
Before the Beatles’ arrival in our house, my parents had tried to captivate me with classical music. At one stage they became convinced they had found a piece that I liked. It was “The Hunting Chorus” from Der Freisch?tz. “I quite like that one,” I must have mumbled, in an effort to please. A family legend was born: “Frances loves ‘The Hunting Chorus.'”
Unfortunately, they didn’t manage to play any particular classical piece enough times for me to acquire the recognition needed for a true connection. Instead I heard the Beatles over and over again; it was through them that I first recognised those chord variations which are the essence of popular western music: the suspended chord in “We Can Work It Out”; the related minor chords in “And I Love Her”; the break from major to minor in “I’ll Be Back.” These seem small beer, but they loom large on an empty page.
When the Beatles broke up in 1970 I had a small sense of heartbreak. Noting that my friends had moved on and were indifferent, I snatched up the mantle of grief with righteous relish. I can’t recall to what extent I was pretending. I know I would get a drawing ache in the chest and then remember, with a slight pang of anguish, what had gone wrong. I know I felt amazed that this change had happened without my having had the least intimation of it.
But I didn’t cry. This was awkward as I felt that in order to serve honour I ought to shed tears every night. Instead, I had to lie in bed imagining certain songs in my head-“And I Love Her” or “Let It Be” in order to squeeze a tear from each eye. As the long-awaited drops finally trickled over the bridge of my nose I felt sure the Beatles would be moved by my devotion.
My attitude after this seemed mostly “dogged as does it.” I bought and played all Paul, George and John’s solo albums. If I liked them, so much the better. Aged 16, I persuaded my boyfriend that it would be fun to visit Cavendish Avenue, where Paul lived. We took the tube to St John’s Wood and found his road. We decided that Paul’s house must be the one with high walls and barbed wire; we both had a go at climbing the walls. The boyfriend finally succeeded in reaching a dustbin, from which he removed an empty box of dog biscuits. This, I assured our friends later, had once contained the biscuits of Paul’s dog, Martha.
I regarded our quest with great excitement; the boyfriend’s attitude was probably bemusement. I would not have ventured up to Cavendish Avenue alone, nor had I ever considered going with a girlfriend. I can only assume I was trying to reconcile a split loyalty. I wanted to introduce the past to the present; I suppose I hoped they’d get along.
A period of indifference followed. The death of John Lennon in 1980 had curiously little impact. I was sitting at my desk on the West London Observer when I was told the news by another reporter. I reminded myself of my past infatuation and searched for a reaction but found none.
A little later, I attended the opening of Give My Regards To Broad Street and felt obliged, for professional reasons, to try talking to Paul. He was standing in a group with Linda, Ringo and George Harrison’s wife, Olivia. They stood apart from the public, protected only by an intimidating expanse of parquet floor. As I walked over it, I had to remind myself that this would have been a big thing for me aged nine. As it was, my main feeling was one of apprehension. My instincts proved correct. Although I ended up having pleasant enough exchanges with Linda and Olivia, the only specific words I can remember were Ringo’s: “Don’t talk to ‘er. She’s a journalist.”
Aged 30, I wanted to embrace classical music but found the Beatles endlessly impinging. Jumbles of lyrics continued to flow through my head like so many unruly, uninvited guests: like “rain into a paper cup” (“Across The Universe”). And whenever I heard the date 18th June, I would try to prevent the association springing up-but I was never quick enough to quell the tiny, jubilant voice: “It’s Paul’s birthday!”
My childhood friends were often my worst enemies. How do you stop them giving you Beatles CDs or tipping you off about Beatles’ news? How do you suffer the indignity of your Beatles past without outbursts of rage and exasperation: “Look, I’m not into that crap any more, right?”
Then, two years ago, there was a Beatles documentary on the television. I groaned, but I sat through it because everybody else wanted to watch it. As I was watching-seeing most of the footage for the first time since I was nine-I felt my anguish lift and spirits rise. I felt an echo of that powerful rush of excitement. In simple terms, I suppose the Beatles fan in me, so ruthlessly suppressed for so long, rose up in an adult, reasonable form. I did not feel so badly conned; I need no longer be in denial.
Subsequently I managed to go on the Beatles tour round Liverpool with my husband without feeling embarrassed. I was able to laugh at the tour guide’s excitement as she spotted the man who’d shared Ringo’s sandwich in the playground 50 years ago.
I have now introduced my own children to the Beatles. They listened to a lot of classical music before they were old enough to object. Now I feel it’s a victory if I can persuade them to listen to Revolver rather than the Corrs. Songs like “I Feel Fine” they have learnt round the piano, like folk songs. Introducing the Beatles to my children was like introducing them to a slightly vulgar but once much-loved aunt. She can be a bit embarrassing but she is not without qualities. Besides, it’s all part of acknowledging that she was once very important to me. Trying to deny her existence would be a delusion, not so remote from imagining four heads round a door.