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When It Changed Forever

1963 was the year when everything changed. On November 22nd, John F. Kennedy was assassinated and the new Beatles album With The Beatles was released. The lights went out in Camelot, but they were turned up very brightly in Liverpool. And the hindsight of history suggests that the release of the album was perhaps the more significant of the two big events of that day.

The album had a monochrome cover with the half-shadowed and very grainy faces of John, Paul, George and Ringo glaring at the world. It was their second LP that year – they were always a prolific band – and I'd practically played the grooves off Please, Please Me, their first album. Now I had some new songs to listen to. I approached it with a sense of enormous anticipation.

Initially I wasn't impressed – the quality control on the new album was terrible, it was obviously a rush job aimed at the Christmas market. The sound balance and the mix was appallingly bad; and on my cheap Dansette record player there were tracks where Ringo's cymbals all but drowned out the voices and guitars of the other three. And the only way I could get Roll Over Beethoven to play at all was to put a sixpence on top of the stylus to weigh it down and force it to follow the grooves. Without the sixpence it jumped and skipped and made nonsense of the song.

Nevertheless, this was a Beatles Album, the new Beatles album. In 1963 that overshadowed everything else.

There had been music before the Beatles, of course. I had an LP by the Shadows and singles by Marty Wilde and Tommy Steele and Cliff Richard. I even had some singles by American singers; Eddie Cochrane, Gene Vincent, Buddy Holly. And who could forget the gloriously named B. Bumble and the Stingers with their rock and jazz inspired parodies of classical themes? But that music was just there, not quite in the background, but definitely not part of the foreground either. If it came on the radio I listened to it with enjoyment, but I made no great effort to seek it out and often I didn't turn my record player on for weeks at a time.

But in 1963 the Beatles were number one in both the singles charts and the album charts and absolutely nothing else had any significance to me at all. I was living in a whole new world, a whole new time, a whole new sensory experience. Black and white turned into colour overnight. Away with drabness and post-war austerity! Begone dull care! We'd never had it so good. Suddenly music mattered in a way that it had never mattered before. It was a revolution into style, to paraphrase George Melly who wrote a whole book about it. Popular culture had turned into art, and the Beatles were in the vanguard of the revolution.

In that same magical year of 1963, Dora Bryan sang All I Want For Christmas Is A Beatle. My friend Chris' cat had four kittens. They were called John, Paul, George and Ringo, and who cared that they were all girl cats? Everybody wanted a Beatle for their very own. Newspapers conducted surveys to find out which Beatle was the most popular Beatle. It turned out that they all were.

The carefully coiffured duck's arse haircut with its outrageously elaborate quiff that my generation had borrowed from the teddy boys of the 1950s, and which we cemented securely into place on our head with brylcreem, was now a thing of the past. Brylcreem vanished from the shop shelves. We washed our hair (some of us for the first time in years) and we combed it forwards and we grew it long, inducing apoplexy in retired colonels from Tunbridge Wells. I remember having hair inspections at school. Grim faced masters with rulers measured the length of our locks and issued firm instructions to visit the barber. (Today, now that shaved heads are a fashion statement, I imagine that the teachers issue firm instructions to stop visiting the barber. So it goes.)

It couldn't last, and it didn't last. By 1970 the Beatles had split up and gone their separate ways. We only had them for seven years and thirteen albums. Such a short time to change the world; but that's what they did.

And now those classic albums have been remastered and re-released in an attractive CD box set and as I played them all this weekend I realised that, quite literally, I knew every word and every note of every song on every album. The Beatles had worn deep, familiar grooves in my mind. But familiarity has not bred contempt. Far from it. True magic can never grow stale.

The Beatles defined and sometimes redefined the meaning of music. Even in the early songs, when they were just another rock and roll group, they still managed to demonstrate musical and lyrical subtleties that were head and shoulders above anything their contemporaries were producing. ("Twanging guitars!" yelled my father in annoyance. "I'm fed up of hearing twanging guitars!").

Everybody who was anybody (and quite a lot who weren't anybody at all; do you remember Marmalade?) wanted to record a Beatles song, and most of them did, to their great, albeit temporary, fortune.

William Mann, a music critic with The Times analysed their music and praised the aeolian cadences of John Lennon's voice as he sang Not A Second Time. When Lennon read the article he was heard to mutter, "What the hell is an aeolian cadence? Sounds like an exotic bird!"

Perhaps the Beatles really didn't know what they were doing in a strictly technical sense. Certainly there's absolutely no doubt at all that behind the scenes the svengali-like presence of George Martin, their record producer, contributed enormously to their success. But talent is its own reward. When you pay no attention to the rules (because you don't know what the rules are) the results are almost always dire unless you are genius enough to invent a whole new set of rules to put in their place. Out of ignorance, the Beatles told George Martin what they wanted to do. He showed them how to do it. It worked. Oh! How it worked.

I suppose everybody has a favourite Beatles song. Mine is Penny Lane. What's yours?

Penny Lane was released in 1967 as a single (backed with Strawberry Fields Forever which is also my favourite Beatles song). I'd pretty much given up buying singles by then because they were too expensive. But I bought that one and played both sides of it to death. My father hated it.

"Living is easy with eyes closed," sang John Lennon on Strawberry Fields Forever.

"That's stupid," said my dad. "You can't live with your eyes closed. You'd keep bumping into things and hurting yourself. It isn't easy at all, it's very hard."

My father, a very literal man, simply couldn't cope with metaphors.

As Robin and I listened to the Beatles over the course of a music filled weekend, Robin said something very profound:

"The only drawback of being a Beatle is that you never got to listen to the music the same way that other people did. Isn't that a shame?"

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