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America: the 1960's
Week 1: 1963 - John Lennon



John Lennon

John Lennon's status as one of the first rock mega-stars gave him a platform to spotlight, and challenge, the status quo. In doing so, he set the standard of the socially-engaged celebrity that much of the world either honors or hates.   In the process, he changed the landscape of Rock n' Roll, and America.






Rock Music Legends

John Lennon has many labels today. Depending on your perspective, he might be a Rock legend, hippy, workingman hero, social activist, anti-war demonstrator, or simply a pop genius.

If you don't like him, you might say the same thing. The difference would be your connotation of those labels. 

Welcome to the conundrum of the Boomer generation. While we seemed to be a single united (and often frightening) group to watchers in the 1960's, in the Reagan years and beyond we appear to have decided there were "irreparable differences."

Why has the "with it" generation degenerated to "us" and "them?" Were the 1960's really as liberal as our memories  say they were? Does the reason for today's red-blue fault line in American society hide in plain sight in those same years where we all seemed to have "come together?"

We'll look for those answers as we examine the 1960's and the people and events that made them as exciting and certainly more original than anything we've seen since.

Rock Legends: John Lennon

I chose John Lennon to start this series because for most of us, what we consider the Sixties started sometime after JFK took office in 1961. The exact start date is not critical, but we all agree that the ride didn't pick up speed until we got a soundtrack of our own.

As we saw in the Dylan course this spring, music was a growing force in America. Much of that force derived from technology changes that multiplied the impact. As television moved from nearly no watchers in 1950 to 90% of the households having and using at least one TV once a day in 1960, it might seem that music would have less, not more, influence.

But those same changes meant radio turned to broadcasting popular music as television lured away first the listeners, and then the shows that radio had popularized.  At the same time, the cheaply produced 45 rpm record came on the market, making it easier for a record company to ply the station something to play. Since the TV took the adults, when the national programming left with them, it was easier for the local radio station to turn to music. The people playing these records became known as disc jockeys, and then, finally, DJs.

The music agreed with the younger listeners, and as the next technology change, the transistor radio, came along the radio stations started a connection that would make them more profitable than their previous incarnation had ever been. A portable battery powered radio, the transistor radio kept teenagers connected to their music constantly.

But music didn't become a the boomer's soundtrack that 'everyone' heard until a cold day in February, 1964. After a harsh winter and the heightened emotional time following the death of President Kennedy, we were all starting to recognize there was a new sound in the land. (And it wasn't that gnarled southern corn-pone president that spoke like Foghorn Leghorn's cousin.)

No, this new sound was coming from our transistor radios non-stop in January of 1964. The DJ's had been bringing us Beatle songs for weeks, and we liked it. The music was frenetic and fun, with a fast beat, janglely guitars, and a blend of voices that set them apart from everyone else on American radio.  Only the Beach Boys were close, but these guys didn't sing about surfing, and in fact, their lyrics were outta sight, weren't they? Oh Yeah! In fact, "yeah yeah Yeah!"

On the calendar, the Beatles landed in America on February 7, 1964. If during the first British Invasion the signal was "one if by land and two if by sea," this time was "four if by air." Everyone seemed to get the message. When they arrived at a New York airport, they were surrounded by what could later be seen as the first mass-gathering of "the youth tribes" -  the airport was mobbed by kids from the New York / New Jersey area, while those of us in the outlands were left to experience it through the relatively new media of television. (No, it wasn't shown live. Back then, only a Presidential death had prompted a live, unscripted break in the daily broadcasts of soaps and shows. But the media was becoming adept at using "portable" movie cameras. Called portable because they could be moved outside a studio, not because they were handy or easy to use.  They weighed only 80 pounds or so!)

No, the news was not delivered from the location. It was given to us as though it was, via an anchorman (no one was self-conscious about that title. They were always men, just like the postman, councilman, newsman or the congressman.) In this case, the news  came to us from CBS studios, and it came at a scheduled time - 5:30 p.m. Central Time.

Everything was scheduled back then, and for most people, those schedules seemed sensible. People worked from morning to early evening, and gathered at 6 p.m. for the nightly meal. At least, it seemed that way. Beav and Wally, Fred and Barney, Ricky, Rusty, and Timmy - and all our friends outside the TV - certainly gathered together at the dinner table somewhere near 'dinner time' every night, and it didn't seem unusual to us.  (It was easy to tell dinner time - they rang the siren every day at noon and 6 p.m. That way if they had to ring it for an emergency - like a nuclear attack - they knew it would work. Of course, some of us wondered what if the 'Reds' attacked around 6 p.m. - then we'd all be caught sitting down to dinner, wouldn't we?)  

Anyway, sitting down to dinner at 6 p.m. only made sense - there was nothing on the TV then except local news, and besides, there was no where to go anyway. With the exception of a school event, most stores were closed by 6 p.m. More likely, they were closed by 5, actually.

Those new 'shopping malls' were an exception, but they were few in those days.

But the story of the Beatles landing in New York took not just the east coast but the country by storm. TV devoted a large portion of the half hour newscast to the event, since the anchorman was trying to give his audience, our  Depression/WWII era parents, an understanding of the reason for the mass hysteria. But the answers were not clear to anyone older than 16, which became apparent at that first press conference.

Serious journalists, who had questioned presidents and statesmen, important business leaders and people from all walks of life, could not understand the reason for the excitement. They asked questions so straight that the boys couldn't help but deliver the punch lines. If the answers didn't explain anything in words, it spoke volumes to the watchers under 20. These boys were cute, and they were funny. That told American teens everything they needed to know.

And did I mention the haircuts? In America, if you were a boy under 20, you had a buzzcut, or a flat top. If you one of the rare ones with anything longer, you had a DA, and it was Brelcremed or Vitalised into subservience. As the commercials would soon announce, "the wet head is dead." And boy were they right!

Over the course of this series of Rock Legends, we'll explore the people, the events, and most importantly, the results of these years of excitement and wonder as the first of the 'baby boomers' came of age.

Join us! 

   PowerPoint from Lennon discussion