Whatever one feels about the current 50th birthday of the Beatles’ first single being celebrated somewhat more widely — and wildly — than the 90th anniversary of T S Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses (not to mention Aaron’s Rod by D H Lawrence and Jacob’s Room by Virginia Woolf), there is no denying the 1960s’ evocative power.
My most arresting memory of The Beatles dates not from 1962 but from the following year, when my school-friend Charles and I went to see them at a dance in a West End club. When we arrived, several other friends and acquaintances happened to be there, too. For this was a Jewish charity event — a “Jew do”.
In those days, young Jewish charity committees appeared to follow a rather shrewd strategy. In attempting to draw decent crowds, they would either book established acts past their peak, or up-and-coming outfits who might, or might not make it big.
The latter option particularly was a gamble but it could pay off handsomely, never more so than on April 21, 1963, at the Pigalle club in Piccadilly, central London. Between the well-in-advance booking of Brian Epstein’s boys, and their very-well-attended performance that night, The Beatles had progressed from a promising but middling rock group to a phenomenon.
That first, so-so single — Love Me Do — had been eclipsed. Their subsequent efforts had gone straight from recording studio to chart summit without pausing for breath. However, the group were still new enough to introduce themselves to the audience — “I’m Paul. That’s John, George, and Ringo.” Ringo?
It was quite a night at the Pigalle. If you Google it now, you will see, on the “Beatles Bible” website, the following, whimsical summary: “Although the Pigalle later became a fashionable destination for London clubbers, on this occasion the audience almost entirely consisted of Jewish people, as the concert had only been advertised — for reasons unknown — in the weekly Jewish Chronicle newspaper.”
While Eliot’s Waste Land famously opens by proclaiming that “April is the cruellest month”, that certainly wasn’t the case for young, club-going Jews in 1963. One of the other rising bands to be snapped up by a charity around that time was the Rolling Stones. I saw them at another shprauncy, West-End Jew do, where I recall the aforementioned friend Charles asking the lead singer: “Is it true that you went to the LSE?” (“Yeah” was the nonchalant answer from the young Mick Jagger as he made his way to the tiny hotel stage.)
It was a small window in time in which to be able to gyrate on a club floor to the live sounds of rock legends. And it was soon closed forever. The 1960s British bandwagon quickly rolled on. Brian Epstein showered New York with flyers announcing that “The Beatles are coming”, ensuring a 55,000 capacity crowd at the city’s Shea Stadium and, most astonishingly, the usurping of Elvis Presley’s crown.
Such was the soundtrack and thus were the Jew do’s in the hedonistic, rock’n’roll 1960s. How times have changed. Today’s youthful equivalents of Charles (nowadays a professional man of distinction) and myself are far more serious and responsible. They devote their time to one of any number of thriving youth movements. They go on Israel tour. They participate actively in charity work rather than merely pay their parents’ cash into charities’ coffers in order to have a good time.
Of course, this is not the whole ’60s picture. Some preferred table-tennis at Maccabi, or the idealism of Habonim or the Jewish Lads’ Brigade. But there was an edge, an excitement that is possibly lacking today.
Who are today’s Beatles and Stones? Well, the answer has to be… the Beatles and Stones, their pre-eminence strengthened by the new nostalgia-fest. Current 50th birthday celebrations are not confined to Beatlemania — stalwart spies and fading-but-feisty femmes fatales are being paraded in salute of the first James Bond film in 1962. Footage of 1960s psychiatric guru R D Laing has made it onto the 2012 Turner Prize shortlist.
It’s fun to look back and play games of “What’s your favourite Beatles track?” or “What do the words of Hey Jude mean?” I just wish there was at least a little attention being paid to the 1922 vintage. Because, when all’s said and done, Eliot, Joyce, Lawrence and Woolf are an even more fab four than the loveable lads from Liverpool. Yeah, yeah, yeah!