1964. In his song, “The Late Great Johnny Ace,” Paul Simon sings of it as “The year of the Beatles … The year of the Stones … The year after JFK.” That year, America still mourned the loss of its martyred president, John F. Kennedy. With his youthful good looks and “New Frontier” ambitions, JFK inspired young Americans. His proclamation that a torch had been “passed to a new generation of Americans … born of this century” provided the country’s youth with hopes for the future.
By the end of 1963, such hopes were dashed. Yet new sounds of elation — beyond what was generally heard in popular music — made their way across the Atlantic and resounded across America in the new year. Americans made way for the Beatles. The several years leading to the grand emergence of ’64, and the lives of the people behind the vibrant new sounds are chronicled in Larry Kane’s fine new book, When They Were Boys. It’s an insightful and revealing study of the act we’ve known for all these years.
Kane takes the reader back to post-war Liverpool, England, where no Ike or JFK was around to inspire the nation’s youth. What a poor — or middle class — boy could do, though, was play in a rock and roll band. And four young boys from Liverpool, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr, could do that exceedingly well. Playing well enough to make the big time took more than sheer talent, however. Perseverance, intuition and a lot of help from friends along the way were also beneficial.
When They Were Boys covers some incidents and summations reported in other Beatles biographies, yet Kane presents an abundance of fresh material. Unique perspectives are gleaned from his friendship with the Beatles that began on their first visit to America. Yet most satisfying are comments and memories from those behind-the-scenes and largely overlooked in Beatles lore. A highlight of Kane’s reporting is from a conversation with an early Beatles promoter, Sam Leach. Looking for a band to play at a new club, Leach saw the Beatles for the first time at a low-rent club called the Hamilton. Their performance excited the fans in the club and left Leach ecstatic. He had never seen a performance like theirs:
“I wasn’t going to miss this … First time I ever saw that happen. I literally followed them into the converted-toilet dressing room and started up a conversation with them, directed at Paul and John, as I recall. I offered them eight pounds, about twelve dollars to play at the Casanova. I told them they were going to be as big as Elvis. John looked at me. His eyes rolled … He turned his head around, grimaced, and looked at me like I was mental.”
But Sam Leach wasn’t the only one who sensed how far the Beatles could go. Brian Epstein, the band’s manager from December ’61 until his death in August ’67, experienced a eureka moment early in his tenure with the Beatles. He was enthralled with their raw talent, their stage presence and collective personality. What they needed was for someone to pave the way for them. He was that someone. Kane writes:
There is no question that Brian Epstein believed that not even the sky was the limit for his boys. Gazing at them at the Empire Theatre, watching them in the Cavern, drinking with them late at night, harnessing their behavior and carefully dreaming of and plotting their future, the man … had finally met his calling. It was a spiritual and personal commitment. That was the difference between flesh-eating managers looking for a quick buck and the carefully plotting and visionary young Brian Epstein.
Of course, by ’65, Epstein realized the Beatles had zoomed past his expectations. That year, after the Beatles’ Hollywood Bowl appearance, he told Kane, “I tell you, Larry … there is no other band, there will never be any band like them, ever, for eternity. They are … the best … I say to you, Larry, here in 1965, that the children of 2000 will be listening to the Beatles. And I sincerely mean that.”
Larry Kane, then news director for radio station in WFUN in Miami, had a front row seat for “the greatest show on earth.” He was the only American reporter to travel with the Beatles on their American tours in ’64 and ’65. Kane developed lasting friendships with the Beatles, but most helpful to a reporter, he absorbed much about what made them tick, their backgrounds and the people who inspired and encouraged them. Besides the street-savvy Sam Leach and the polished businessman Brian Epstein, those helping to pave the way were the Beatles’ families, friends and even Mona Best, whose son preceded Ringo Starr as the band’s drummer.
Mona Best had a large gothic house in a suburb of Liverpool. The rambling structure had nine bedrooms, but more famously, a basement that served as a coffee house and club known as the Casbah. There, in 1959, Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and guitarist Ken Brown, played as the Quarrymen. The Casbah proved a crucial training ground for the young musicians. It was venue, rehearsal hall and the place they’d unwind and entertain friends. A year later, Pete Best joined the band known from then on as the Beatles. His mom proved a great promoter for the Beatles, nurturing them, yet also insinuating herself into affairs the band felt were none of her business. That angered Lennon, McCartney and Harrison — and it wasn’t helpful to her son.
The sacking of Pete Best as the Beatles’ drummer makes for one of the more illuminating stories in When They Were Boys. Kane doesn’t follow a Beatles company line on the matter nor is he critical of the preference, musically speaking, of Starr over Best. It’s difficult, after all, to imagine the Beatles’ recordings without the sensibilities Starr displayed behind his drum kit. However, one does feel for Best. No doubt he was embittered. In the early days of Liverpool and Hamburg, Best was the most popular and best looking Beatle. Perhaps it was jealousy or, as some claimed, the Beatles simply wanted a better drummer. In an interview nearly four decades later, McCartney, spoke of there being “a fine line between what is exactly in and what is nearly in.” McCartney acknowledged Best “was a really good drummer” though he “wasn’t quite like the rest of us … so he left the band, so we were looking for someone who would fit.”
It was left to Epstein to inform Best of his dismissal from the band on the verge of hitting the big time. Epstein would write in his memoir, A Cellarful of Noise, “that John, Paul and George thought Pete was too conventional to be a Beatle, and though he was friendly with John, he was not liked by George and Paul.”
Kane not only focuses on the band’s evolution but also that of the young men — boys — that made it up. Naturally, the most intriguing “boy” is John Lennon. The friendship that Kane struck up with Lennon on the Beatles’ visits to America in ’64 is a compelling aspect of When They Were Boys. Kane has written about it in his previous books, Ticket to Ride and Lennon Revealed. The two often disagreed on matters, especially the duty of serving one’s country in uniform, but Lennon’s respect for Kane was always evident. Lennon’s vitriol would spew, yet there would be times, throughout the rest of his life, that he would show his high regard for Kane. Despite this enviable friendship, Kane is candid in regards to Lennon’s temper and his tendency to settle things with his fists, especially in those early days. Allegedly, Stu Sutcliffe, a Beatle from May ’60 through July ’61, got the worst of it one night when he told Lennon he was leaving the band. Guilt over losing his temper and causing physical pain on numerous occasions haunted Lennon the rest of his days. As he told David Sheff for the Playboy interview in 1980:
“I couldn’t express myself and I hit. I fought men and I hit women … That is why I am always on about peace, you see. It is the most violent people who go for love and peace. Everything’s the opposite. But I sincerely believe in love and peace. I am a violent man who has learned not to be violent and regrets his violence.”
No doubt, John Lennon was the genuine article. He was the walking contradiction who could be a difficult friend, yet the most engaging person one could know. Throughout the years, he was always known for his kindness. Kane goes back to the early days, revealing how supportive Lennon was of fellow Liverpool artist, Billy J. Kramer. It’s 1963 and the Beatles are already topping the charts in England. Lennon took an interest in Kramer and gave him two Lennon-McCartney songs, “Do You Want to Know a Secret” (also recorded by the Beatles) and “Bad to Me,” a song Lennon wrote himself. Kramer’s “Bad to Me” was a number one single in England that year and a top ten hit in America the next year. Kane says it was the “working class hero” in Lennon that “surfaced whenever he met people he felt were challenged, economically.” Kramer was even more effusive when it came to Lennon’s generosity, telling Kane, “This was a complete man, a person who really cared about people, but real people. I guess we hit it off. I know everybody says how he and the guys changed life and entertainment, but in this case, he really changed one life: mine.”
Kramer was right about the Beatles changing things in the larger culture. Once the Pan-Am jet landed at JFK on that overcast day in February ’64, the cultural shift was on. The build-up began quickly but in small steps just a couple of months earlier. A radio station in Silver Springs, Maryland, and another in Worcester, Massachusetts, began playing singles by the Beatles. It was the disc jockey Carroll James with WWDC in Silver Springs who first played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on December 17, 1963, only a week after a clip of the Beatles was broadcast on the CBS Evening News with Walter Cronkite. According to Cronkite biographer Douglas Brinkley, the Beatles segment was used to boost the network’s nightly newscast. At the time, Cronkite’s ratings were suffering. CBS was anxious to bring in more viewers, especially younger ones. Hence, the Beatles clip, brought to America’s youth by the man most identified with announcing the tragic news about President Kennedy eighteen days earlier.
Larry Kane is a newsman, not a part of the rock and roll writers establishment. For more than 50 years, he’s covered major national and international stories, mostly while serving as a news anchor in Philadelphia. He goes beyond the who, what, when, where, why and how found in the best reporting. Kane establishes a deliberate, you-are-there pace, bringing clarity to the Beatles’ successes as well as the early setbacks. For example, the Decca Records audition on New Years Day ’62. It was a bump in the road for the Beatles and the error of a lifetime for the Decca executives. Those men didn’t hear the Beatles the way Brian Epstein and Sam Leach did. Or the way their influential producer George Martin would.
When They Were Boys is a highly readable book about the act that is still listened to by this — and last — century’s children, even 13 years past the year 2000. Brian Epstein could say, “I told you so” while tens of millions of us here in the 21st Century keep listening. Larry Kane relates on the creativity, charms and determination of those four boys that keep such a hold on us. His measured reporting truly results in what the book’s subtitle proclaims he’s written: The True Story Of The Beatles’ Rise To The Top.