This year brings an unavoidable refocus on the Beatles, with TV specials celebrating the 50th anniversary of their arrival in America. But amidst yet another look back at the start of American Beatlemania, I'd like to consider an aspect of the group's appeal that doesn't get enough attention: their humor.
The Beatles' sense of humor was already on display upon their arrival in America in their witty responses to questions lofted during press conferences.
"Would you please sing something?"
John: "No, we need money first."
"What do you think of Beethoven?"
Ringo: "Great, especially his poems."
"A psychiatrist recently said you're nothing but a bunch of British Elvis Presleys."
John: "He must be blind."
Ringo (shaking like Elvis): "It's not true. It's not true."
George Harrison's dry manner was revealed when he offered that he had a haircut the previous day, eliciting laughs.
By contrast, popular rock artists who were heard in interviews prior to the Beatles having hits in America came across as dull. The Beach Boys, the Four Seasons, and the very polite Elvis lacked humor, insight and anecdotes. Even the Rolling Stones were uninteresting in interviews -- and cagey, too.
Although the Beatles' records demonstrated a high degree of musical proficiency and exuberance, they weren't explicitly comedic. So where did the humor come from? It was a natural coping mechanism of Liverpudlians who relied on it to relieve the hardships they experienced in the post World War II blue-collar seaport. Residents even made jokes about the city: Why does the River Mersey run through Liverpool? Because it doesn't want to get mugged.
American devotees might have assumed they were all fans of the Three Stooges because their hairstyles appeared similar to Moe Howard's. Rather, much of their humor was shaped by listening to The Goon Show on BBC radio. The Goons -- Spike Milligan, Peter Sellers, Harry Secombe -- and their absurdist humor could be thought of as a 1950s precursor to Monty Python on 1970s British TV. George Martin was also a fan and had produced albums by the Goons and Peter Sellers, and that helped to establish a bond between him and the Beatles. One of the reasons why John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison fired their drummer Pete Best -- whose personality was described by fans as "moody" and "withdrawn" -- was because he didn't share their sense of humor. His replacement, Ringo Starr, was an easy fit.
The screenwriter of A Hard Day's Night (which also came out 50 years ago), Alun Owen, followed them around Dublin one weekend in early November 1963. Owen had grown up in Liverpool and was familiar with the local vernacular. He drew upon their sense of humor, their manner of talking and natural chemistry -- and used phrases of theirs -- in crafting his script for the Beatles first movie. (The film's recurring "You're a swine" jab was similar to an expression of the Goons.) There was an additional reason for doing so. As they weren't actors it would be easier for them to deliver their lines. The Beatles on-screen were attractive and likable characters, though they weren't always in real life.
By contrast, the personalities of other British rockers in their bandwagon-jumping movies released the following year, Gerry and the Pacemakers in Ferry Cross the Mersey and the Dave Clark Five in Having a Wild Weekend, were disappointingly unappealing and unmemorable.
Beatles manager Brian Epstein polished their rough dress and stage manner and encouraged them to be more professional. But prior to their commercial breakthrough, humorous quips, especially cutting ones from John Lennon, had been part of their live show. They even performed comedic songs like the Coasters' "Three Cool Cats" and the 1910 music hall number "I'm Henry the Eighth, I Am" (a number one hit for Herman's Hermits in 1965). While not initially on view in their regular releases (although it was apparent to their mostly English fan club members who received the group's yearly Christmas messages on flexi discs), humor of a kind was introduced sparingly: subtle lines like "crawled off to sleep in the bath" in "Norwegian Wood," smutty ones like "four of fish and finger pies" in "Penny Lane," and the bizarre, seemingly drug-inspired "You Know My Name (Look Up the Number)," which was originally recorded in 1967 and issued as the B-side of "Let It Be" in 1970.
When the Beatles debuted on The Ed Sullivan Show 50 years ago, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had been number one in America for three weeks and had sold over a million copies. As a result there was an avalanche of reporters to greet them upon their arrival at JFK two days before, on February 7, 1964. That many were there to skewer these longhaired interlopers was not a delusion. In a CBS News Report in November, London Bureau Chief Alexander Kendrick said, "They symbolize the 20th century non-hero as they make non-music, wear non-haircuts, give non-mercy." Luckily for the Beatles, their wit won over the American media -- and helped ensure that we'd be celebrating them half a century later.
Harold Bronson is the co-founder of Rhino Records. His memoir THE RHINO RECORDS STORY: REVENGE OF THE MUSIC NERDS was recently published.