John Roughan 's Opinion

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan: It was 50 years ago today ...

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Tributes to the Beatles strangely absent at the anniversary of their breakthrough

Paul, George, Ringo and John still have no need for surnames.
Paul, George, Ringo and John still have no need for surnames.

This is a big year for anniversaries. It is 50 years since 1963, a formative year in contemporary life. The world has just recalled the march on Washington and Martin Luther King's speech. In November the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination will have the added pathos of half a century's passing.

But there is another 50th we should be observing right now - this month. I would have thought everyone alive at the time vividly remembers what happened in September, 1963.

But I'm beginning to wonder. There have been no nostalgic recollections in the paper, musical tributes on radio and replays of grainy old film on television. Doesn't anyone remember?

It was the moment we first heard the Beatles.

Maybe you had to be 11 years old, or a year or two younger if you were a girl, to know why that was important. When I heard them, my ears opened.

It is the only time I can remember being conscious of an instant transition in life.

One moment I was a rugby-mad boy who felt nothing but contempt for older kids who liked pop music and took an interest in other unmanly things. The next, a door opened.

It was that quick. The two drum beats that start She Loves You were like a call to attention. Then those youthful, exuberant, uncultivated voices - so familiar now but so fresh then - went into me and tingled my blood.

Trainspotters will point out that it was not their first song. They had put out two records in Britain by then and word of them had reached New Zealand ahead of their first hit here. I remember my father a few months earlier reading out an item in the paper one night about an English pop group that didn't cut their hair.

In the photo their mops were down nearly to their eyes and shirt collars. It looked daft to me too.

There was a teacher at school who was anxious about it all and he had been delighted at those of us who showed no interest. I can still see the disappointment on his face the day he realised I had succumbed.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I hear you say. The Beatles were so big that even now, after 50 years, their cultural force needs no describing. Popular music and fashion were instantly recalibrated to their sound, suits and hairstyle. Their faces were soon on millions of teenage bedroom walls, not to mention tea towels and mugs.

Their four personalities, different but complementary like the four elements of a perfect group, remain so well known that even today their first names are all we need.

Yet, for the first time in 50 years, I wonder whether they meant as much to anyone more than about five years older or younger than me. Several times this year I have mentioned this anniversary to people only to be met by blank indifference.

One occasion was a 50th birthday party where the band was playing 60s songs and I seized the microphone to convey the news. Nobody cared. Another time, it merely reminded someone a little older than me of Jerry Lee Lewis.

It is said that a generation in popular music lasts five years. And the music you hear in your five years never leaves you. I can recognise the first bars of every song on the radio from 1963 to 1968.

It is also true, I think, that when the music changes you hate it. The Beatles gave away their early sound in 1967 and lost me. American music became much better.

As big as the Beatles were, their early music for some reason has not endured. Listen to the plethora of FM stations catering to the ageing baby boomers and you never hear the Beatles.

Their only songs that have had much play since they disbanded in 1970 are the later ones such as Hey Jude, Something, Let It Be ... . pleasant tunes that a composer of any era could have written.

Their records didn't really survive the change from vinyl to tape in the 70s and compact disc in the 80s. I dug out all my CDs the other night and there is just one of theirs.

Maybe it's the sheer freshness of their early songs that gave them a short shelf life. They are almost too shrill to hear too often. Radio keeps them for occasional "Beatles Revival" weekends when we haven't heard them for a while.

Could we have one this month, please? The 60s as they came to be remembered, did not really start until 1963. September to be precise.

Every generation thinks the first music it heard is eternal but mine knows it. When we hear again those raw harmonies and jangling guitars, 50 years disappear.

- NZ Herald

John Roughan

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald.

John Roughan is an editorial writer and columnist for the New Zealand Herald. A graduate of Canterbury University with a degree in history and a diploma in journalism, he started his career on the Auckland Star, travelled and worked on newspapers in Japan and Britain before returning to New Zealand where he joined the Herald in 1981. He was posted to the Parliamentary Press Gallery in 1983, took a keen interest in the economic reform programme and has been a full time commentator for the Herald since 1986. He became the paper's senior editorial writer in 1988 and has been writing a weekly column under his own name since 1996. His interests range from the economy, public policy and politics to the more serious issues of life.

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