We were just 17, if you know what I mean, Rosemary McLeod

Eight Days a Week: The Beatles’ Tour of New Zealand 1964 
Graham Hutchins
Exisle Publishing, $34.95,
ISBN 0908988559

Big Smoke: New Zealand City People in the ’60s and ’70s 
John Daley
Random House, $39.95,
ISBN 1869621085

Says Graham Hutchins, “Beatlemania as such became closely associated with female hysteria from the outset of the ’64 tour, with typical symptoms including screaming, sobbing, stumbling and involuntary behavior.” Gosh. Really? We shall try in vain to recapture the magic, the sexiness, the style statement, the noise, passion, and lunacy that The Beatles once represented to delighted youth if Hutchins is to be our guide. And maybe, to be fair, it is impossible to travel back in time to recapture such elusive things. But it won’t help if we sound like a nerd who actually thinks it was about the music.

I’ll try to explain. It was once my great claim to fame that I was the first girl in my class to cut a picture of The Beatles out of a magazine, and stick it to the wall. My prescience, considering what would soon follow, was greatly admired by those who came after, but I had the superior claim. It was 1963. I had never heard their music, but I liked how they looked, and that was enough. Soon I had the satisfaction of being told that I resembled one of the schoolgirl extras in their movie A Hard Day’s Night. There could be no smugger moment for a girl who slept with her hair Sellotaped in place, trying to achieve the perfect, straight, long-fringed bob.

It was that first image of the Fab Four that won my allegiance, and nothing else. They were posed around a Victorian Gothic-style chair, from memory, and dressed in the signature suits that marked them out as rebel professionals. It says a lot about the 60s that a group of young men wearing tailored suits could become an image of rebellion, and that I cut the picture out of my grandmother’s copy of  the staid English Woman’s Own. But we were desperate young teenagers, needing to be saved from Neil Sedaka and Helen Shapiro, and endless Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass on the National programme. We were clutching at straws: anything to avoid having to wear our mothers’ hand knitting. The Beatles, cute and quaint and adorable, were just safe enough not to terrify our parents, and just different enough to seem enticingly dangerous.

Before them, there had been Elvis, and, before him, Sinatra had elicited the same mob hysteria. The main difference, I guess, is that The Beatles actually came to New Zealand, and connected us with the youth culture of the wider world. They were real. We saw them. Hutchins witnessed the passion of that visit, but in middle age his pulse rate seems to have slowed down to the point where he’s forgotten that pop music is about sex and style, and therefore should be slightly interesting. Or maybe he was never sure about either.

“Change in fact became the operative dynamic in youth culture, for both young men and young women” is the kind of observation I have a problem staying awake for. “The rate of change started out slowly, before accelerating. The Beatles, either as benefactors of social change or as the very bludgeons (sociologists were divided on this one), made change fashionable ….” It’s easy to nod off over his well-meaning text, and to awaken, startled, at insights such as “The added ingredient in the mix for female fans was that The Beatles were male. It wasn’t always just the music that fuelled the attraction.” You could have knocked me down with a feather, as my grandma used to say. So we weren’t all dykes, after all.

It was sex, of course, that made schoolgirls huddle around little mono record players in their bedrooms, sobbing ecstatically over each new Beatles hit. It was this, not the thrill of the music itself, that had us rushing to book stores to buy John Lennon’s books, and  that had me and my girlfriend entering the radio competition to make as many words as we could out of the two words, The Beatles, to which Hutchins refers. The prize was, we thought, to actually meet them. Things turned ugly between us when she claimed to have found one more word than me in the Complete Oxford English Dictionary at the city library. The girl who won the contest produced fewer words than either of us. It was our first shattering experience of injustice.

Undaunted, we crept into the St George Hotel in Wellington, and got very close to The Beatles’ rooms before a security guard bundled us out. Just what might have happened to us, had we got inside, we could not imagine. We were only 14 and, although sex certainly ruled our every waking moment, we didn’t yet know it. Just to lock eyes with one of The Beatles would have been orgasm enough, if we’d known what an orgasm was. We didn’t. We had to look that up in the dictionary, too, somewhat later.

My friend and I gate-crashed a Beatles concert at the Wellington Town Hall. A policeman, sent to keep the desperate crowds out, let us through the door when The Beatles appeared on stage. How to describe that moment?  Hutchins tries in his apparently bewildered description of the transformation that came over the young girl sitting next to him:

Limbs flailed, while hysterical screaming, tears and strange, guttural sounds suddenly emerged. The transformation was total. While my male companion and I settled down to attempt to listen to the music, the young female fan continued to perform like a whirling dervish. To an outsider, it may have taken on aspects of an emotional breakdown …

 

This reads like a man who’s spent the night with an appreciative woman whom he took for an epileptic. And maybe that’s the problem with the book: Hutchins gives the impression that he didn’t really feel the magic. It’s significant that the long list of his previous books leans heavily toward rugby.

But I suspect he has a point: The Beatles’ tour of New Zealand may be a benchmark memory for people who are now middle-aged, a collective coming-of-age ritual we look back on with embarrassment, since most of us moved quickly on to more challenging music and different hairstyles. Does The Beatles’ visit have a wider significance than mere nostalgia, though? The book is unpersuasive about that possibility.

By contrast, John Daley’s collection of photographs Big Smoke proves the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words. It conveys the convincing sense of time and place that is lacking in Hutchins’ book, for all its detail, and is a reminder of how strong and successful direct black and white documentary photography – as made by Ans Westra or Les Cleveland – can be.

These images of Auckland and Wellington taken by a young Daley, new to city life, evoke the feeling of the decade that followed The Beatles’ visit. We look raw and provincial, a frontier culture. Older people, our parents’ and grandparents’ age, still wear hats and overcoats in the street. Outward respectability and conformity still matter greatly, but we’re neither pretty nor well-groomed for the most part, and the urban environment is cold and unwelcoming, like a transit station en route, we hope, to something better.

Here there’s a young man’s eye for a visual joke, and for pathos, as in the image of a bare-breasted woman sex worker, possibly the same age as the photographer himself, who smiles sunnily out at him from the entrance to a strip club. Her apparent innocence, we know, cannot possibly last in the city world she has chosen for herself.

Through the lens, a young photographer forms a considered statement about much that is unfamiliar and unlovely to him; lonely figures on city streets seem to echo his own sense of displacement. Daley may have felt like a geeky kid from up country as he began snapping the world he would soon become an assured part of, but his visual intelligence shines through from the start.

Pop music recalls time and place for people who were young when they first heard it, and who retain affection for it because it evokes forgotten experience. Looking at these photographs gives a similar sense of lost and rediscovered time. Well, we were just 17. You know what I mean.

 

Rosemary McLeod is a Wellington-based columnist and social commentator.

 

 

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Posted in History, Music, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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