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When the Beatles invaded America in February 1964,
Steve Earle became a forever fan.

I was nine years old and living with my family in Schertz, Texas, in February of 1964, when the Beatles landed in New York and everything changed. I knew about the Beatles the way I knew about anything that had to do with music—through my uncle, my mother’s half-brother, who was five years older than me. All the records I had –including the first Beatles album—and my first pair of Beatle boots  and my first guitar were hand-me-downs from him. He had gotten into the Beatles as early as anyone in the United States, because, even though he lived in Jacksonville, Texas, he was kind of a hipster.

There was an incredible buildup to their coming here. First there was all the coverage of their arrival at JFK, which I followed on KTSA, one of the AM pop stations in San Antonio. If I’m not mistaken, the station had some sort of feed or telephone hookup with Murray the K, the New York disc jockey who had constant access to the Beatles on that visit – at the airport, in their hotel and just about everywhere, it seemed. He was even calling himself the Fifth Beatle.

Then, of course, there was The Ed Sullivan Show, which they appeared on three weeks in a row. In the beginning, the whole Beatles thing, even for me, was as much about fashion—the suits, the haircuts—as music. I even remember looking for the guys in the audience because I was a guy and there weren’t as many of them. But there were some, and because it was New York, it was the first time I saw guys besides the Beatles who combed their hair and wore clothes like that. To this day, whenever I play the Letterman Show, which is shot in the Ed Sullivan Theater, I’m preoccupied by the thought that that’s where I first saw the Beatles. No matter what else is going on—how cold Letterman keeps the studio, for example—I can’t get that memory out of my head. I’m always struck by how small the theater actually is, and how big it felt when I was watching TV back in Texas. It was the biggest place in the whole world in February of 1964.

But the appearance broadcast from Miami was the coolest. The did an unbelievable version of “This Boy” that was the best singing I ever heard John Lennon do, on record or anywhere—period. That said, at first I was most drawn to Paul McCartney. I ended up playing bass for a while—I played bass for Guy Clark’s band when I first moved to Nashville—and that probably was part of the reason I was interested in McCartney. But I also liked his melodies. In the Beatles’ early period, Lennon’s stuff was based a lot on Chuck Berry and Little Richard—rock&roll that I had heard before. What McCartney was doing had been done before too, but I didn’t recognize it, so to me it was new. He was more rooted in English hall music and musicals, and I found that aspect interesting. But as time wore on , it was Lennon for me, and I’m a Lennon guy to this day.

Years later I watched all those Ed Sullivan performances again, and it was amazing to see that they were just as good as I thought they were when I was a kid.  But that experience had been about so much more than music. I’d been a pretty avid Elvis fan until the Beatles came along, and I got that thing about wanting to make the girls scream—that ,at nine, I wasn’t sure exactly why. Still, I gathered that it was a good thing! The tendency of guys back the, especially in the South, was no to like the Beatles. That was mainly because they were jealous. The DJs made fun of the Beatles’ hair and called them girls—it was Texas, remember. I was disturbed by that, because I loved the Beatles. It started a battle with my dad about my hair that went on for years and didn’t end until I moved out. I had to start smoking pot to give him something serious to argue with me about before he stopped bitching about my hair.

IN that sense, The Beatles were also part of my discovery that the way to get through high school is to get yourself declared an honorary girl. I promise you, I got laid before any of my friends did, and the Beatles were part of it. The people I talked to about Beatles records and who knew every song, just as I did, were all girls.

After that first onrush, the Beatles just consumed me. I listened to plenty of other music, of course. But from that point on, everything else I listened to I listened to because I listened to the Beatles. It was all about them, right up until I started playing coffeehouses and gravitating toward singer-songwriter-oriented stuff. The Beatles got into doing things I couldn’t duplicate on my guitar, and when I started performing myself, I naturally chose material I could play. At this point in my life, you can hear the Beatles mostly in the way I record, and I’m absolutely unapologetic about that. I truly believe that no one has done anything to make records sound better than the ones that were made in the early to mid 60’s in England. They are the yardstick. They still sound incredible.

Back in 1964, I was caught up in it the way every kid was. But when I look at it now, I’m reminded that, God damn, they were good. They were making do-it yourself music at an incredibly high artistic level. Sure , the were able to have the enormous impact they had because they happened to be in the right place at the right time—that’s all true. But they were also really fucking good.

I cant’ imagine what would have happened in music without the Beatles. Keep in mind that in the early 60’s, the biggest selling long-playing records were things like My Fair Lady. Albums weren’t considered a medium for rock & roll; it was all about singles. The labels still weren’t taking the music seriously. The Beatles proved everybody wrong by staying around, by lasting. I think they were subconsciously elevating pop music to the level of art even back then. They were so good and so big that they were allowed to do it. Inadvertently, the were allowed to become the Beatles.

Tracks Music

© 2003-2005   Clint Harris  (clint@steveearle.net) – All Rights Reserved
© 1995-2003Lisa Kemper  – All Rights Reserved

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