Breaking down Presley and Beatlemania
In a very stimulating commentary, Harley Payette presents his case for Presleymania and Beatlemania.
EIN recommends this very thoughtful and cogent commentary to all readers.
With themes including sexual tension, civil rights, backlash by society's cultural arbiters, r&b integration and realising the American dream.......this is a powerful exposition!
In the late 20th century there were two great popular culture upheavals in the rises of Elvis Presley and the Beatles. Occurring within ten years of one another, both marked the beginnings of new eras not only in the world of music but in the overall fabric of world culture. There were many similarities between the two pop explosions including the daring new music produced by the artists that led the revolution and their followers.
Both certainly could not have happened in any other eras in US history. Unlike Frank Sinatra who created a sensation at the New York Paramount in 1942, Elvis and the Beatles had access to wealthier and healthier listeners with greater access to more forms of media. Also, unlike the Chairman of the Board, Elvis and the Beatles had a least temporary moment of undivided media attention. When Sinatra made his breakthrough the world was at war. Now there was a lot going on when Elvis and the Beatles’ hit, like the unraveling of the US Civil Rights movement and in the Beatles’ case the first escalation of US involvement in Viet Nam, but many of their listeners/viewers had their minds free at least for a moment to focus exclusively on them.
Unlike Michael Jackson in the 1980s, the Beatles and especially Elvis had an audience that wasn’t used to full scale media pop phenomena. And in Michael Jackson’s 1980s there were so many choices in the existing media that no one artist could ever fully grab the public’s attention as those two artists did in their eras. It was also impossible for Jackson to happen the way he did without Elvis and the Beatles coming first. The Beatles and Elvis both changed the rules on how big you could be and who could be that big.
In retrospect, looking at the historic record, it may be kind of tough to differentiate between the two movements other than the fact they marked a shift in generation. It’s tempting if you’re baby boomer to look at Elvis as a dry run for Beatlemania or if you’re an Elvis fan to see Beatlemania as merely an extension of what Elvis started.
Finding the differences though tells us a lot and hopefully gives us an appreciation for the achievement of both artists. I’m going to put down some that I’ve come to through the historic record with the hope that some readers will put their two cents in so we can dig into an appreciation of these two historic events.
I think an obvious difference between the two epochs was the fact that Beatlemania was more concentrated in the United States. Elvis’ initial impact kind of snuck up on the culture in 1956. When he first appeared on the Dorsey Show in January the game was not on yet. It was only after multiple appearances, weeks of touring and airplay for “Heartbreak Hotel”, that Elvis was suddenly everywhere.
The Beatles by contrast, buoyed by media coverage of the hysteria in England and airplay on radio stations anticipating the first US visit and television, dropped on America all at once. Arrival at the airport, press conference, Sullivan and then everything else. While Elvis had his talk of the town moments- specifically Milton Berle, and Ed Sullivan, they occurred after he achieved stardom. For the Beatles, there was a sense, again in the US, of being there at the beginning. This lent a little more steam to the hysteria part of Beatlemania.
Another difference that jumps out at me are the niches demanded and filled by Elvis and the Beatles in the United States. When Elvis came along, US culture was reeling from the McCarthy era where conformity was a national obsession. Breaking from the norm could get you labeled an agent of communism. To question any aspect of the American Dream was tantamount to endorsing the other side. To that end, many producers of American art and culture worked to sanitize the blood out of everything. In this country everything was PERFECT. Only thing was… everyone knew this idea was a fraud but no one could actually say it. An individualist was needed, someone Earthy, someone sexual, someone who bled. Elvis stepped in here and acknowledged all the people who had been left out of that dream and also exposed the sanitized dream of perfection. His success showed perfection to be a bore.
Some have commented that maybe the Beatles were bigger than Elvis because they were a group and could bridge more different temperaments. That may or not be true but Elvis could not have hit as he hit at that time as a part of a greater whole. He had to be different. He had to stand alone.
When the Beatles came along eight years later, the United States needed a laugh. Only months after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, America’s sense of itself was lost. While in historical retrospect the first two and half years of the Kennedy administration may not have been Camelot but there was general perspective that the country could be better, could improve itself and the world could be improved as well. That all that could be wiped out, in a civilized modern western country, by a gunshot was disconcerting. People must have thought “Why bother when everything can unravel so easily?”
The Beatles came along and answered that question by saying in effect that “Don’t worry about it. Life can also be fun.” If you think back on the Mop Tops that’s their message. From their press conferences to their harmonies to their mostly buoyant songs, the Beatles radiated good cheer.
And for many Americans, it was necessary to get this message from abroad. It had to come from somewhere else from someone with a different perspective on the world just like it was important in 1956 that the message come from someone who was not living that dream of perfection.
Perhaps the most crucial difference between Elvis mania and Beatlemania was the timing and extent of the backlash. While there were adults who scratched their heads over the Beatles and your tough guy Four Seasons/old time rock fans who thought the Beatles were fey, there wasn’t really a significant backlash against the Beatles until 1965-1967 when the Beatles started to say and do controversial things, when they moved away from the lovable Mop Tops.
With Elvis the backlash was immediate and intense. The guardians of the old order didn’t scratch their heads over Elvis, they hated him. They insulted him. His association with a product, person or a place was a reason for a boycott. There were a variety of reasons for this from prejudice of Elvis’ southerness, racism over his adoption of black mannerisms, and fear of sexuality.
Whatever the reasons, the backlash and lack thereof, altered the revolutions that Elvis and the Beatles led. The lack of a backlash against the Beatles let more people in. People who had scoffed at the Presley revolution but maybe envied the participants part in it, were now able to join in or at least try to join in. After all, rock and roll was here to stay now. The fight was over. This was what led to stuff like the Beatles meeting with Kings and Queens and enjoying invitations from the likes of Leonard Bernstein and the Rat Pack (something Elvis had to wait for until 1960). In a way this made the gross impact of Beatlemania at least superficially bigger. It also made everyone realize the potential impact of popular culture. You really could reach everyone. You can see this idea in stuff as odd as the “Batman” TV series which attempted to conquer the pop market by being both hip and square at the same time.
Even more the large scale acceptance of the Beatles by the middlebrows made pop culture acceptable. If everyone liked it, it must have something.
By contrast, the backlash against Elvis, while it kept him from obtaining cultural credibility for a very long time, was an absolute necessity for the revolution that Elvis started particularly the youth culture. The dissent on Elvis and rock and roll gave youth culture an identity. What made Elvis and rock and roll belong to youth culture was the fact that adults didn’t like them. It was imperative that he belong to youth and only youth at that moment. This was a feat that was not accomplished even by movie stars like James Dean and Marlon Brando who were admired by youth were co-opted by cultural arbiters mitigating their power somewhat. That this culture was born made the inroads made by Dylan and the Beatles and the youth protest movement possible.
Musically it was the same thing. It was important that concepts that placed rhythm over melody and separated great singing from great voices came into play. When future generation would define their difference from their elders, they would largely do so by listening to even more unconventional singers like Dylan and less melodic bands like Led Zeppelin. Elvis and the early rocker’s music HAD to sound like noise to some members of the audience to prepare them for even greater breaks and greater freedom in the future.
Of course much of the backlash against Elvis was based upon his sexuality and the sexuality overtly demonstrated by his largely female audience towards him. America’s attitude towards sex was to basically deny its existence. Elvis’ success made it clear that sex does exist and EVERYONE thinks about these things. What’s more, sex did not have to be placed in the closet. It was normal, healthy and fun. “Playboy” and Marilyn Monroe also played their parts here with Elvis and the early rockers but, arguably the rockers had the greater effect by demonstrating the commonality of sex and the fact that letting your sexuality surface did not lead to the end of Western civilization.
In contrast to Elvis, the early Beatles were almost sexless in their public persona. This was an important factor in the lack of an early backlash but it was also an important factor in the changes they wrought in the industry. While I’m sure there were younger Elvis fans, the Beatles were the first rock act to tap into the lucrative pre-pubescent market. Little kids liked the Beatles. You can tell this from the fact that producers thought a Saturday morning Beatles cartoon would be a money making venture.
John Lennon at Elvis' home in Bel Air, 27 August 1965
I’ve seen it personally in my interaction with many first generation Beatles fans. Many times I’ve talked with them and been amazed they didn’t remember the original versions of songs like “Twist and Shout”, “Baby it’s You”, “You’ve Really Got a Hold on Me” or later British Invasion favorites like “Do You Love Me” (pre “Dirty Dancing”) or “I Like it Like That” despite the fact that these songs were major POP hits just a few years before they were remade by the Beatles and other Brit invasion bands. The reason these folks didn’t remember these songs because they hooked into the Beatles and rock and roll at a very young age. Their first musical memories are the Beatles.
While the Beatles succeeded in crossing generational lines in a way that Elvis never did, Elvis crossed racial and regional barriers in a way the Beatles never did. There is no Beatle record that topped all three major Billboard charts as many of Elvis original records did.
In a sad contrast, while Elvis integrated the pop audience, the Beatles inadvertently re-segregated it. Perhaps because the Beatles’ music was too far removed from the original blues/gospel/American culture and because the British Music Hall traditions the Beatles brought to their interpretations of American Music did not appeal to African American audiences, the Beatles never really gained a black following. While many African American performers/writers and producers recognized and were invigorated by the quality of the Beatles’ work, the Beatles were never a mass black taste. No Beatles song topped the R/B charts until Earth, Wind and Fire with “Got To Get You Into My Life” in 1978 and no Beatle made the R/B Top 40 until Paul McCartney did a duet with Stevie Wonder in 1982. This was despite the fact that the Beatles were steeped in American R/B. (The same thing happened in the portion of rural America represented by the country charts.)
This was a very important development in that it meant that black rock oriented music and white oriented music developed on separate paths for the first time since rock was born in the mid-1950s. In 1961, for instance, there was very little difference in the rock approach of white and black performers. Look at the white rock titans of the Pre-Beatles era the Four Seasons and you can see the similarities. The two paths crossed so frequently that Billboard actually eliminated its R/B chart in late 1963, deeming it redundant.
After the Beatles, white rock and roll followed the Beatles, while the black artists followed the example set by Sam Cooke, Ray Charles and vocal groups like the Temptations. This does not mean though that white record buyers stopped buying black music. In fact, with the pop audience the revolution that started with Elvis was more open to black sounds than it ever had been before.
However, this was a different audience than what became the hipper self-identified “rock” audience. This audience with few exceptions was not particularly interested in the pop black music of the day. These were the folks that wound up writing the history that wound up placing black performers outside the music they helped to create. It also limited black performer’s success in the now lucrative album market. The folks who bought and wrote about albums just didn’t place the same premium on Smokey Robinson as the Beatles.
Elvis’ success on the other hand came in a market that was only just beginning to accept black and rural sounds. His records increased acceptance and visibility for this style of music and performer. Eventually, the barriers would break down the point that did in Pre-Beatles America.
Of course there was a lot more going on than just Elvis and the Beatles. Both parties may have been playing their part in the ongoing struggle that was occurring in the culture as they came to prominence. Elvis came in at a point when the Civil Rights movement was just beginning. People were just starting to realize the inequities in the system. They were open to new ideas. Beatlemania was roughly analogous to the culmination of the Civil Rights Movement in 1964. White America may have felt fatigued, that it had given enough. Black America may have begun to question how much of its identity it wanted to subsume into the greater whole and may have been frustrated at not making further progress.
That Elvis and the Beatles both pulled so heavily from the R/B country and rockabilly etc of their eras emphasizes one last similarity between their movements. For all their revolutionary impact, one of the very best things that both Elvis and the Beatles did was to make people realize all the good stuff that was there under the surface while we were looking the other way. Elvis did it by bringing blues and country to the masses and emphasizing their similarities and the fact that their mixture was so thrilling. The Beatles reminded everyone that rock and roll’s well was deeper and more resilient than anyone realized. They did this not only with rockabilly b-sides from Carl Perkins, Buck Owens’ modern rockabilly but also all the terrific rock and roll from the early ‘60s Shirelles, Isley Brothers, Motown etc. I’ve always said the best argument for early pre-Beatles ‘60s rock and roll is the Beatles themselves. They would have been a lot different without it.
I do agree that the Beatles helped rock and roll be considered an art form by the mainstream press but they had been preceded in addressing the music as a self-conscious "art" form by Phil Spector among others.
One change that Beatle fans definitely made was in consuming Beatle albums as widely as Beatle singles. In the 1950s rock artists were consumed by the 45. Elvis was an exception in that he did sell a lot of albums. However, his LP numbers were only a fraction of what his singles and EPs moved. The buying habits of Beatle fans made album purchases at least as significant commercially as 45s. This is not to say that the overally LP market, especially the market for rock, wasn't growing in the early 1960s. You can see that in sales numbers and chart positions for artists of that era compared to even just a few years before.
The Beatles were also the primary movers in the LP as a self-contained art form movement in rock. While the group was not even close to being the first artists to approach LPs in this way being preceded by pop performers like Sinatra and also many rock performers like Bo Diddley, when the Beatles started doing it, it became an industry trend. So while they did not invent the approach, when other rockers took it the majority of them were imitating the Beatles.
The Beatles also changed the axis of rock and roll from the individual artist and the vocal group, to the self contained group. That was a big change.
Influenced by Dylan, the Beatles' John Lennon also made incorporating your personal confessions into music trendy and culturally accepted.
Perhaps the most profound musical influence came from the Beatles' audience. This was the idea that in order to be artistically credible an artist had to be self-contained- IE write produce, play and sing your music. This though in my opinion was a bad change. Some people have no business writing songs, singing and some people need someone to tell them when they are being truly experimental and when they are indulging themselves.
Looking at Elvis' popularity, he was certainly a worldwide phenomenon especially in Europe. The demand for his services was extremely great in much of the Far East particularly Japan. The original "Aloha" airing in 1973 was directed at that part of the world.
My earlier comparison was meant to simply comment on the original hysteria periods experienced by Elvis and the Beatles. It is a mistake though to compare the Beatles' career one to one with Elvis. If Elvis' career had stopped after eight years in 1962, it would have looked close to flawless as well.
You can't go crazy on artistic intent by the way. I'm sure a hack like Jon Bon Jovi thinks he's changing the world with every release he puts out there. Similarly a performer like Ricky Nelson seldom suffered in intent. Yet even at his best, Nelson was not on an artistic plain with Elvis because Elvis' ability was superior.
Of course my comment about Jon Bon Jovi is figurative. My real point is that, like many rock idols, he probably his approaches everything he does as a work of great importance and virtually none of it is. I think intent should be respected but in the end of the day the final product is what matters. So many great rock, pop and soul tracks have been recorded under duress- think "Walk on By", "Where Did Our Love Go" etc. Great artists like Chuck Berry are famous for check first music later. And some of the most ambitious music is also some of the most spectacularly bad music.
The Beatles probably never returned to live performing for the same reason Elvis never returned to movies or never toured the world, when they quit they probably expected to be around a lot longer than they were.
From the available audio and visual evidence, the Beatles were a more respectable live group although I think it would be overstatement to rank them with Elvis, the Who, James Brown, Springsteen etc, in that regard. This is not as insult but I think it's a mistake to dismiss the Beatles as performers.
The pop music uses performance to drive sales. The hysteria they created was as performers and producers. They weren't always the most technically adroit singers but neither were James Brown or Carl Perkins. They didn't have the greatest vocal stylistic (although they weren't one trick stylistic vocal ponies) range in the world but neither did a great act like the Four Tops. The thing was that they were able to sing their music and some of the music of other performers (some stuff like their Motown remakes are lame) with their brand of unique enthusiasm. That's all that matters.
These are my musings from looking at the historic and sonic records. I’d love to hear the memories of folks that were there or other impressions.
(Let’s leave "the Beatles are overrated" stuff at home.)
Read more articles about "Elvis vs. the Beatles"
Comment on this article