The Other McCain

"One should either write ruthlessly what one believes to be the truth, or else shut up." — Arthur Koestler

The Savage Young

Posted on | April 16, 2011 | 7 Comments

My hometown friend George Hall occasionally used to say he’d like to start a band called “The Savage Young.”

George and I had both been caught up in the second wave of Beatlemania that swept over teenagedom in the middle and late 1970s, years after the Beatles had broken up, and a lot of us “inherited” record collections from older brothers and sisters. (I got the Beatles Greatest Hits 1962-66, a double-album, when my brother went off to college in 1975.) Second-wave Beatlemania got a boost in 1976 from the release of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Music album (with great old classics like “Long Tall Sally” and “Slow Down,” as well as Beatle-written tunes like “You Can’t Do That”), and another boost in 1977 from their live album recorded at the Hollywood Bowl in 1964-65.

At some point in 1976, I read Hunter Davies’ The Beatles: An Authorized Biography (published in 1969), and was fascinated to learn the early history of the group: Playing “skiffle” as The Quarrymen, a series of name changes, early personnel like Pete Best and Stu Sutcliffe, the tiny clubs in Liverpool, then the pivotal period when they traveled to Hamburg and had to play multiple sets every night in rowdy bars in the Reeperbahn district. It was during their Hamburg period that the Beatles wore leather jackets and, under the influence of art students Astrid Kirscherr and Klaus Voorman, adopted their soon-to-be famous hairstyles. But they were still a bunch of tough-looking greasers when Astrid first took their photos in the Hamburg rail yards (above).

It also was while in Hamburg that the Beatles, performing as back-up group, recorded several tunes with Tony Sheridan, including the single “My Bonnie.” Tracks from the Hamburg sessions were eventually released in 1965 as an album called The Savage Young Beatles, and it was from that title that my friend George got the half-joking idea that there should be a rock band called “The Savage Young.”

The more immediate impact of their Hamburg recording sessions, however, was that it brought the group to the attention of Brian Epstein, manager of the NEMS music store in Liverpool. The legend is that a teenager named Raymond Jones went into NEMS and asked for a copie of “My Bonnie,” inspiring the fastidious Epstein to become curious about the group. But while that legend has been disputed, there is no doubt that Epstein subsequently went to see the Beatles play at the Cavern Club in Liverpool. Within a month, he signed them to a management contract and, a month after that, got them their first audition with a British record company.

All of this I am inspired to recount because of something Ed Driscoll wrote yesterday:

In 1963, as they were preparing for high-profile tours of first England, and then the States, Brian Epstein, the Beatles’ manager, demanded that his act ditch the Marlon Brando-style leather jackets, T-shirts and jeans they wore during their salad days in small clubs in post-war Hamburg for matching  Pierre Cardin suits and ties.

Well, there was a bit more to it than that. From Wikipedia:

When Epstein discovered the band, they wore blue jeans and leather jackets, performing at rowdy rock ‘n’ roll shows where they would stop and start songs when they felt like it, or when an audience member requested a certain song. Epstein encouraged them to wear suits and ties; insisted that they stop swearing, smoking, drinking or eating onstage; and also suggested the famous synchronised bow at the end of their performances.

What Epstein (who had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) brought to the band was, in a world, professionalism. While Epstein’s influence was perceived by the Beatles, especially Lennon, as just a lot of rules – e.g., no chewing gum during performances — Esptein understood that there must be a distance between performer and audience. Before Epstein took over their management, in addition to such habits as eating, drinking and smoking onstage, the Beatles were always lounging around among the nightclub audience before, during and after sets. Epstein put a stop to that. The first time the audience would see the band was when they took the stage, and after the show, the band were to go to their dressing rooms.

This is a theatrical convention: The audience never sees the actor before the show, because this spoils the dramatic illusion.

Also: A show has a beginning, a middle and an end. A show has pacing. The Beatles had been prone to meandering performances, including long instrumental improvisations (a habit they’d picked up in Hamburg to fill time in late-night sets when they were too hoarse to sing), and would often talk, joke and clown around between songs. Epstein made the group develop a proper show: A definite list of songs, to be played in order, with only as much time between songs as was necessary to say “thank you” and introduce the next song.

During their touring heyday, 1964-66, a Beatles concert was never more than an hour long. They would play 12-15 songs and then it was over — never an encore.

“Always leave them wanting more,” you see.

For all the bohemian mythos about performers as artists pouring out the innermost secrets of their souls, it’s really just show business. And professionalism is about respect for one’s audience, providing them with the maximum enjoyment by maintaining the illusion that the performer is somehow set apart from the common run of mankind, so that what is seen on stage is really something special.

And if there is somewhere out there a struggling pop group trying to get a break, take my suggestion: Change your name to “The Savage Young.”

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