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
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.