What Started it All

May 25, 2014 at 2:21 pm

By Terry Watada.

The lads are much more interesting to look at than listen to.  Their r’n’r sound is ordinary and hardly approaches the excitement generated by Presley or Bill Haley’s ‘Rock Around the Clock’ Comets … Their hairdos, their ultrahip clothes and their unselfconscious poise are all part of what seems like a gigantic promotional put-on.

Frank Moritsugu
Toronto Daily Star
Monday, Feb. 10, 1964

Frank Moritsugu, senior journalist and beloved Japanese Canadian, made rather dismissive observations of the Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show, February 9, 1964, but that was fair.  He was part of the “establishment” at that time.  He wasn’t supposed to “get it”.  The Beatles were of the next generation; they were young, vibrant and authors of a “new” sound.  It’s roughly like me trying to understand Lady Gaga’s fame or Miley Cyrus’ allure.  Not gonna happen.

It was fifty years ago this year.  It was the time of TV sets (mostly black and white) in most homes.  Prior to this, if a family in a neighbourhood managed to buy a set, everyone would come over for a community viewing, like a movie theatre only much more casual.  It was the time of rotary telephones in the kitchen hanging on the wall.  A few had extensions but not many.  It was the time of white-bred singers like Pat Boone, Fabian, and Bobby Curtola.  Crooners Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and even watered-down rocker Elvis were passé and fading with their vast middle aged audiences.  The Beatles had arrived and everything was about to change.

My first experience of the Fab Four came on that Sunday in front of our b&w TV set.  It is fascinating to read how common the reaction was.  Jeanette Smith of Toronto recalled: “The adults were sitting on the couch while the children sat on the floor in front of them.  All was quiet during the show ‘til the Beatles hit the stage.  Our parents did not know what happened.  We were just screaming at [the TV screen], jumping up and down.  Our parents just shook their heads.”  (Toronto Star, Feb. 8, 2014).

I didn’t scream and my mother laughed her head off.  My father remained indifferent.  Just some crazy hakujin acting like baka, I’m sure went through his mind.  I simply stared and thought about the possibilities.  Growing my hair long, playing guitar and joining a group was the way into Canadian society.  I could be accepted and maybe even revered.

In the summer of 1964, A Hard Day’s Night opened in Toronto.  My friends and I had to see it and, by hook or by crook, we found the money and went.  It was a glorious, fun film that extended and enhanced the excitement of the Beatles’ appearance on the Sullivan Show.

The next day, we formed a band.  There’s a wonderful democracy to musical groups.  It didn’t make a difference that I was Asian, the drummer and “lead” guitarist were White and the bass player Black.  We were all fake players anyway – none of us could play a note.  Instead, one friend had just bought the Hard Day’s Night soundtrack.  We decided to lip-synch to the tracks.  We became the Fake Beatles.

Somebody’s mother decided shortly after to hold a backyard concert inviting and charging all the neighbourhood kids.  So there we were, the four of us, with second-hand and borrowed acoustic guitars and several cardboard boxes for drums performing for a huge crowd of preteens and young teenagers.  The mom made sandwiches and a fruit drink.  The place was packed.

One of our close friends sat by the portable record player to skip the instrumental tracks on the album and then to turn the album over.  We actually elicited screams.  One audience member from the neighbourhood over told me we had a “good sound”.  She obviously didn’t know we were faking it.  The night was a big success and each of us made about $5.00.  Pretty good for a ten cent admission charge.

In retrospect, it was entirely silly, maybe even a ripoff, but the pure excitement generated by the Beatles started me on a road that I never regretted taking.  The first album I ever bought was Beatles 65 and that was probably in 1966.  We could afford a record player (a stereo portable in fact) by then.  I could play rudimentary guitar (my mom bought me a cheap electric guitar and amp) and I had joined a succession of groups that could actually perform without lip synching.

Frank Moritsugu was obviously wrong about the Beatles.  The band perennially sells more albums than most and they broke up in 1970.  But maybe they were a promotional put-on in part.  After their appearance came an avalanche of product: Beatle wigs, boots, lunchboxes, dolls and bubblegum cards amongst many other products.  The “Beatle Breath” aerosol cans were my personal favourite.  No, I didn’t buy one, my family couldn’t afford any of it.  In the first month, Brian Epstein received a check for reproduction rights – $90,000.  He had asked for 10%.  For their part, the manufacturers were willing to part with 90%, but no one knew the potential.  This is however beside the point.  What is important is the fact the Beatles existed at all.  Fifty years later, they and their music still allow the younger generations to express themselves in very creative ways allowing them a pathway to acceptance.