Friday, 15 September 2017

When I Did Go Down To The Delta: Summer 2017 in Nashville, Clarksdale and Memphis

In 2014, I contributed a chapter to the edited volume Sites of Popular Music Heritage called 'Why I Didn't Go Down To The Delta.' This summer I did the opposite and headed off to the South, primarily to put on a conference called New Perspectives on Elvis at the University of Memphis on 21 August. The event was designed to academically commemorate the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley's passing. Since I had to fly out on 16 August itself, I missed the opportunity to pass comment. Two staff from the BBC emailed the day before, asking me to speak on The World This Week (on the World Service) and Talking Business (on BBC World TV). I am always disappointed by how little notice the media give academics, but I had other things on my mind...

My first stop was with my colleague Robbie Fry from Vanderbilt University, who is hosting the IASPM-US conference in Nashville next spring. 

Robbie Fry at the New Perspectives on Elvis Conference.

Robbie does interesting work on music heritage tourism and the notion of ‘going backstage’ at sites of music performance and tourism. His recent book on the subject is called Performing Nashville: Music Tourism and Country Music's Main Street.

The Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

The first day was spent in the Country Music Hall of Fame and at RCA Studio B in Nashville, the power house studio that gave birth to many of Elvis’s hits. In the next part of our trip, Robbie and I headed down to the Delta, and stayed at Morgan Freeman’s live music venue, Ground Zero, a touristic ‘home of the blues.’ 

Ground Zero in Clarksdale.

We saw Robbie’s friend Heather Crosse play with her very accomplished blues trio. 

Looking at the designer graffiti on the walls, I was struck by the ‘punk’ quality of Ground Zero, the way in which it had deliberately been made as squat-like as possible, as if taking abandonment and turning it into an artistic statement. Then I realized that musicians are marketed to us as the ultimate gentifiers, people who colonize particular territories and imbue them with value, alchemically converting spaces of past misery to places of pleasure.

Clarksdale has the feel of a bombed out city, but pockets of hipster activity are coming back. They sit oddly in the searing heat with the poverty of the area. The place is a ghost town that occasionally poses as a theme park for blues tourists.

Abe's Bar-B-Q at the famous crossroads in Clarksdale.

One of the things we did was eat BBQ at the famous crossroads, the location where Robert Johnson supposedly made his deal with the devil. The food is a regional delicacy in the South.

After Clarksdale we hit Memphis and found tickets for the Tri-State Blues Festival, a modern-day equivalent to the WDIA Review. The headliner was Bobby Rush – a unique entertainer.

Where the audience at Ground Zero had been white and the support staff African American, here the equation was reversed. The next day, however, we attended an event with a more mixed audience: we went to see the Reverend Al Green give his Sunday service.

The Reverend Al Green gospel preaching.

What fascinated me was the way that Green made the sacred and secular work together, framing the international tourist constituent of his audience as a reflection of the miracle of God’s love: here were people sent from all over the world to bring money to his church, so it could continue its mission. Al Green’s performance was so intense that at one point he had to sit down. It was amazing.

Finally, the day of the conference came round. We were treated a range of presentations marking the 40th anniversary of Elvis’s passing, presented by 14 scholars from places as far afield as Denmark and Canada, including two full professors and a postdoctoral fellow from the University of Cambridge. A list of papers presented on for the day can be found here.

As one colleague said, the idea of finding an ‘new perspectives’ on such a famous icon seemed a bit odd. After all, hadn’t everything already been said? Actually, it hadn’t. Despite Presley’s continued global presence, research has emerged at a mere trickle in recent years. In Memphis, we discussed everything from what was in Elvis’s own record collection to his posthumous music heritage. On balance, the papers from America seemed more 'fannish,' while those from Europe were more keen to frame Elvis as a not-so-secret agent in the Cold War. One delegate emailed me afterwards and said, "I came home telling friends and family how interesting and distinct the papers were." 

The conference was held at the University of Memphis, which has a history of previous connections with Elvis Presley including the hosting of occasional related events. Dr Amanda Nell Edgar and her team did an excellent job of arranging the day on site. 

Mark Duffett and Amanda Nell Edgar (photo taken by Landon Palmer).

Amanda said my work in putting together the conference "was valuable for the University of Memphis community as well as for scholarship on Elvis and popular culture in general." She added, "I particularly appreciated the opportunity for one of our graduate students to participate in the conference, as it gave him a chance to meet a variety of scholars from outside the Communication discipline who are working in areas similar to his own research. Additionally, the conference was exceptionally diverse in terms of the international perspectives represented by the speakers. Particularly for conferences in the American mid-South, it is rare to have scholars representing so many different regions. The opportunity to explore a popular culture icon like Elvis from such a variety of disciplinary and international perspectives was valuable, and I appreciated the opportunity to contribute to this project." Her faculty also participated, with both Amanda and one of her postgraduates presenting. By the end of the day, we were also joined by the Dean of the College of Communication and Fine Arts, as well as more local students.

After the conference, some of us decamped to Memphis’ famous Peabody hotel, where, in the name of scholarly exploration, I tried the ‘Velvet Elvis’ cocktail.

What was interesting was the conversations that were held back during the academic event – those based on music taste and fan passion rather than rational argument – soon came to the fore. It was a fitting end to a great day of discussion.

Unfortunately, things went slightly amiss for me from there. First, our tour guide missed me off the list on a visit to Tupelo the next day, so I went to Graceland instead. Since my last visit in 2011, the complex across the road from the mansion has more than doubled in size and currently houses exhibits on Sam Phillips, Elvis in the army, and the Graceland archives, as well as the older displays of his cars and clothes. They have also added an exhibit on the clothes of other inspired by or associated with Elvis, including the jumpsuits worn by KISS. Though Elvis was never a successful songwriter, Graceland is, of course, framed as the text that he wrote. In the basement, the amount of people walking through the mansion was so high that staff acted as human traffic wardens, controlling the foot fall between different rooms. Elvis’s racquetball court, at the end of the tour route, has been restored to its original function after being used for years to house his gold records and jumpsuits. Since I visited just after a significant Elvis week, the meditation garden was festooned with tributes from fan clubs in Brazil and other places. It was a consolation for missing Tupelo, but I was still disappointed as I hadn’t visited Elvis’s home town since 1997. My second piece of bad luck was a delay of over six hours coming back to Manchester. It was a slightly awkward end to a inspiring visit. 

Friday, 3 March 2017

New Perspectives On Elvis: A One-Day International Conference

21 August 2017, start time: 10.15am
University of Memphis

16 August 2017 will be the fortieth anniversary of the death of Elvis Presley, one of the most popular and controversial music makers of the twentieth century. ‘New Perspectives on Elvis’ is a day-long international event held at the University of Memphis. The aim is to offer fresh perspectives on the Memphis icon, not only grounding him in the context of his place and time, but also interpreting him in relation to developments both inside and outside the academy. Paper proposals are invited on a range of topics. As well as class, race and gender, these could include but are not limited to:

Elvis Presley and…

·      Recent understandings of nation and region.
·      Work on modernity (Cold War, leisure, military service, the night).
·      Contemporary work on childhood, age and generational memory.
·      Music and media technology (studio, radio formats, social media).
·      Developments in celebrity studies.
·      Advances in studying the music industry: live music, merchandising.
·      Popular music studies work on genre or canonicity (including jazz).
·      New research on vocality and the voice.
·      Insights from fashion studies.
·      Discussions of participatory culture or fan phenomena.
·      Research on heritage tourism.
·      Cultural theory: understanding Elvis in relation to Derrida, etc.
·      New questions in research methodology.
·      Studies of musical taste (easy listening, the middlebrow, opera).

Places are highly limited. Papers will be a standard 20 minutes plus 10 minutes for questions. Please submit abstracts of less than 300 words for proposed presentations with equally short bios to before 8 April 2017. Successful applicants will be notified shortly thereafter. 

The registration fee for this event is $100. Tickets are available here. Submissions will only be fully accepted if this fee is paid within a month of approval. The registration fee is non-refundable, except in the case that the event is cancelled by the organizer.

Dr Mark Duffett is Reader in Media and Cultural Studies at the University of Chester. He has published on Elvis fandom since 1999 and is keynote speaker at the University of Kent interdisciplinary conference, Always On Their Mind: Elvis Presley and Consumer Culture in June 2017.


Michael Bertrand, Tennessee State University
Claude Chastagner, University Paul Valery, France
Sara Cohen, University of Liverpool
Neil Nehring, University of Texas at Austin

Saturday, 17 September 2016

Beatleness: Interview with Candy Leonard - Part 2

Candy Leonard's ambitious 2014 book Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the Worldcombines a wealth of interview material with fans who were there in the 1960s and offers a portrait of the group and its fans in their era. The result is a rare, insider glimpse into of one of the most historically significant fan phenomena. Since publishing Beatleness, Candy has written about why we still mourn John Lennon in the PBS magazine Next Avenue, and described the Beatles impact on baby boomers for The Huffington Post. Since I consider Beatleness an insightful model of accessible writing on music fandom, I was really pleased when she agreed to an interview. 



A recent BBC4 documentary on the British invasion portrayed the Beatles and their UK contemporaries as people who taught younger Americans how to be 'cool': sartorially stylish, generationally rebellious, sexually adventurous. I’m not sure how much that translated for the children in their audience. What I found interesting about your book was the frequent focus on younger fans. What was it about the Beatles that made them especially appealing to younger audiences?

When we think of first-generation Beatle fans, black and white footage of screaming teenage fans pops into mind. But it’s important to remember­—and an important source of the Beatles cultural power—that most first-gen fans were children, between the ages of 6 and 10. And yes, boys as young as 7 started thinking about their appearance and wanting to look cool. Many girls adopted the style of the Beatles’ wives and girlfriends.

Being a Beatle fan allowed these children to enter an important cultural conversation, and the music gave them early glimpses into the teenage world of love and romance. All of this was very empowering. But, above all else, the Beatles were fun. Everything about them was fun. I asked fans if, at the time, they perceived the Beatles as kids or adults. What I found was that because of the greater age gap with the younger fans, the Beatles seemed to them more like adults (especially in their suits and ties), but there was nothing threatening about them and they were always on your side. They were perceived as adults, but a very different kind of adult.

I was interested to read that some younger fans combined Mary Poppins (with its mock-Englishness and subtext of female independence) with the coming of the Beatles. Can you say any more about that?

A Hard Day’s Night and Mary Poppins were in theatres at the same time, summer of 1964.  American fans were in the throes of Beatlemania, with a touch of Beatle-inspired Anglophila, which somehow made Mary Poppins evocative of the Beatles.  Anything British was somehow about the Beatles.

I was interested in the idea that the eventfulness of "Beatleness" may have drawn children and perhaps adults?) into wishing they were teenagers. To what extent do you think the strength of teen interest in the Beatles began to idealize teendom in wider society?

Half the population was under age twenty-five, which is important to remember when thinking about Beatles fandom and the sixties in general. From 1965 on, the media became obsessed with teenagers and the generation gap, thus reinforcing the emerging themes of “us” (young people) vs. “them” (the establishment) in the music. In their 1967 hit “The Beat Goes On,” Sonny and Cher announce, “Teeny bopper is our newborn king,” and they were right.

One thing I loved about your book was the way that the fan interview quotes explained first-hand how fans felt about each new release and whether it spoke personally to them. I was fascinated to hear that younger fans were spooked by 'Strawberry Fields Forever.' How was news of the band's drug use treated by different fans, and why did some stay despite their unnerved reactions?

The “Strawberry Fields Forever” and “Penny Lane” promotional films (what we today would call videos) were off-putting to many fans because of the Beatles’ facial hair, and many found “Strawberry Fields Forever” frightening when they heard it on the radio. It was pretty straight up psychedelic, and the lyrics were very challenging, though compelling. But fans didn’t know with certainty that the Beatles were using drugs until McCartney evangelized for LSD in an interview with Life magazine, shortly after the release of Sgt. Pepper, in June ‘67–the Summer of Love. Parents were upset because they saw their kids looking up to the Beatles and wanting to emulate them however they could. There’s no question millions of baby boomers experienced LSD, just as they experienced meditation, because of the Beatles’ example.  But to your point, as the music became more psychedelic, many fans didn’t quite know what to make of it. Many longed for the old moptops.

I really enjoyed your short section on The Monkees and how they captured younger audiences with a sort of pop-era Beatles tribute that contained some more contemporary psychedelic in-jokes. How do you see the relationship between the two bands and fan bases?

Some fans, especially younger fans, but many older ones as well, found Revolver a little bit too challenging or “weird.”  Many put the Beatles on a back burner for a while, and the Monkees filled that void. Their TV show, which went on the air a month after Revolver came out, had the pop sensibilities and physical comedy of A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, and the Monkees themselves captured the freshness of the early Beatles, something many fans missed. But the most important thing about the Monkees was that their output contained the same countercultural messages that older fans were now gleaning from the Beatles.  I refer to the experience of growing up with the Beatles as an “alternative curriculum”—the Monkees were absolutely aligned with that curriculum and the emerging hippie ethos.


Can you explain the ways in which family life was negotiated in relation to the participants' Beatles passions?

At some point in the early days of Beatlemania parents realized that their kids’ engagement with and passion for the Beatles was not going away, and so it had to be managed. Beatles records and other merchandise was used as a reward for good behaviour, and confiscating or withholding it was used as punishment. To this day, first-generation fans can still feel their anger over records and magazines being destroyed by parents, and they still feel special gratitude toward the long-gone parent who allowed them to go to a concert, or added some spare change to their allowance so an album could be purchased.

We have been led to believe that the Beatles reflected a generation gap, but you show a more varied picture. How did an interest in the group help to bond families?

Some parents liked the Beatles, and were the ones buying the records for the whole family to enjoy. Fans recall joyful memories of discovering Sgt. Pepper with their parents, or family dances in the rec room, with the Beatles blaring from the turntable. That said, as the Beatles started getting more complicated, and the cultural turmoil called “the sixties” unfolded, many parents, along with “the Establishment,” saw the Beatles (correctly) as fomenting young peoples’ displeasure with the status quo.

One thing you don't discuss much in Beatleness is the many Beatles fan clubs. Did interviewees offer anything interesting about fan club experiences?

Many were members of the Beatles Fan Club, in England, and received the colourful flexidisk Christmas greeting record every year, along with monthly newsletters. There were also many local chapters. There’s an interesting documentary film, Good Ol’ Freda, about Freda Kelly, who started out as a fan at the lunchtime Cavern shows, then began working for Beatles manager Brian Epstein, who asked her to run their fan club.

Sometimes you use metaphors of the family to describe the Beatles fan base, particularly talking about a "global siblinghood" online. Why do you think metaphors about family relations are so prominent in popular discussions about the experience of fandom? Is it a case of them emphasizing some things (community, security) and neglecting others (commerce), or is something else entirely actually at play?

A sense of community, being accepted into a community, is a large part of the appeal of fandom, especially a large enduring fandom like that of the Beatles. The family is a space where one is unconditionally accepted and where one can be their authentic self. Fan communities provide a space for that as well.

The sibling metaphor is especially appropriate because it suggests a common set of early experiences and influences, and a shared reverence, and that was certainly the case with baby boomers, worldwide, regarding the Beatles.  And of course part of being in a fan community is that fans want to identify themselves as members, which often involves consumption and commerce.  In ‘64 and ‘65, hair length on boys was another way of expressing membership.

In my book Understanding Fandom (2013) I likened each individual's personal fandom to a kind of "knowing field": a territory discovered inside each of us that we know we share. The idea allows us to see personal fandom not simply as a "phase" but rather something we can remain with or leave and then come back. What did you find out about fans' reasons for leaving and returning to the Beatles' fan base?

For the fans, mostly male, who started playing musical instruments in the sixties and continued playing throughout their lives, the Beatles, and music in general, has always been with them. But for many women, active fandom was seen as incompatible with work and family responsibilities, and so it fell by the wayside. When women did stay in touch with their love for the Beatles, it often manifested as fan art or fan fiction. Today, of course, the internet makes it very easy to be an active member of a fan community. Many first-generation fans participate in the many Facebook groups with a Beatles focus. 

You mention fans who have returned to the Beatles during their life journeys. Some female fans seem to be developing or returning to a 'clandestine' interest that has been rejected or disapproved of by the men in their lives - whether fathers, boyfriends or husbands. This is interesting because 'clandestine' makes it sounds like a form of 'closet fandom' but I guess it is more like 'open secret fandom' at times? How, as educators, do you think we can ease the awkwardness of such situations?

As I discuss in Beatleness, there is a history of fans being harshly judged by cultural critics, and many of these arguments are class based. But if you look closely, everybody is a fan of something. Why is it okay to be a Shakespeare fan or a Freud fan, or a Lincoln fan, and not a Beatles fan? Or a Dr. Who fan?  Yes, there are unstable fans, as Beatle fans know all too well. That said, fandom is, for the most part, a benign activity that fosters community and a sense of play. It offers social, emotional, and intellectual engagement.


I was interested how much you saw Beatles fandom as a gendered activity - can you summarize some of the general differences you found between male and female fans?

At the most manifest level, from the age of puberty on, female fans could not relate to or identify with the Beatles in the ways male fans could. It’s been said that boys wanted to be them and girls wanted to be with them, and that’s mainly true, but it doesn't tell the whole story. Certainly there were many young men who were drawn to them in an erotic way, just as there were many young women who didn’t want to be their girlfriends but would have loved to be bandmates, or just hang out with them.  The culture didn’t allow these feelings to be expressed at the time. 

For the youngest fans, the children, there was not that gendered divide. The Beatles were just four cool guys who brought joy and fun to their lives, and opened their ears to music. 

Your discussion of male fandom reminded me of Judith Butler's idea that gender is performed through imitation. Can you explain how the Fab Four inspired some of their male fans to shape their own masculinities?

Through their appearance, behaviour, and music, the Beatles presented a new proposition for masculinity—softer, more emotionally vulnerable, less macho. The Beatles were rebellious role models in A Hard Day’s Night and Help!, but unlike early film rebels (think West Side Story, The Wild Ones, Rebel Without a Cause), they were not at all macho and there was no hint of violence. They rebelled through their wit, charisma, and social competence, making all the adults around them look like fools. Their way of being, described by one male fan as “the embodiment of cool,” was widely emulated.

Beatle lyrics often referred to women as “friends,” and the relationship dynamics presented in their songs were more egalitarian than other music of the day. They offered a new template for relationships. This was a huge part of their appeal for female fans. However, this was more of an aspirational vision than reality, if you look at their personal lives. Pop music was so much a male province, with male voices calling all the shots, but the Beatles seemed a little kinder and gentler. Unfortunately, the dominant relationship template prevailed. That said, it’s clear that the Beatles’ presentation of masculinity helped to make pop music, and then rock, a space for more fluid gender roles. Even all the fuss about their hair was historically significant because it started a conversation about gender, personal self-expression and authenticity.

Did everyone you met primarily identify as a 'Beatles fan' or did different fans identify much more with particular members of the band (for example 'a George fan')?

They identified as a Beatle fan, but there’s always a favourite.  Picking a favourite was an important part of the Beatle fan experience, kind of sub-identity within the Beatle fan identity. That said, teenage boys were less apt to pick a favourite, because it was the band’s camaraderie and esprit de corps that appealed to them. The Beatles presented a different, less fraught kind of male friendship, and teen boys imagined being part of their band of brothers.

In a sense, due to the pre-existing conventions of the teen pop genre (notably shaped by the teen angels), the Beatles' US visits were, to fans, almost like a giant date, as these highly adored, exotic and jovial, powerful and popular, new potential boyfriends arrived from the UK. Do you think that female fans behaved as if on a date when they went to see the band?

Many had very vivid fantasies about meeting them, and many tried, in various ways, to circumvent security to try to get closer to them.  These efforts were a safe place to misbehave in public, as was the screaming. But I don’t think girls saw going to the show as a date, per se. They just felt thrilled and lucky, and saw themselves as part of this huge thing that everyone was talking about it. They were witnesses to history, and they knew it even then. 

You report that some female fans discussed beforehand whether they would scream. Why did that happen?

Female fans knew screaming was the expected behaviour, but they didn’t know if they’d have the nerve to do it.  Screaming in public was pretty deviant behaviour at the time for these girls, many of whom were wearing special dress-up outfits, complete with white gloves. Girls just didn’t behave that way in public. They were anticipating what the experience would be like, and wondering if they’d dare to scream was part of it. For many, the time period between getting the tickets in the mail and the actual show was one of enormous excitement and joy.  In general, joyful anticipation was a very large part of the Beatle fan experience—the next record, the next TV appearance, etc.  Anticipating a live show was a feeling of sustained ecstasy.  In 2016, these same fans, in their sixties, feel the same way when counting down to a McCartney or Ringo show.

What was the most unexpected thing you found when interviewing fellow American Beatles fans?

I went into the project knowing how important the experience of growing up with the Beatles was, and still is, to first-generation fans. But to hear them talk about how special (“blessed,” privileged”) it made them feel, then and now, and hearing the depth of emotion and gratitude they conveyed, was really quite stunning.  I don’t think we’ll see a phenomenon like this again. It was a perfect storm.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Beatleness: Interview with Candy Leonard - Part 1

Candy Leonard was born in the mid-1950s and, like many of her contemporaries, grew up fascinated with the Beatles. Her other interests, sociology, psychology, popular culture, and child development, prompted a career in which she has been a child and family advocate, talk show host, and university professor. Her ambitious 2014 book Beatleness: How the Beatles and Their Fans Remade the World, combines a wealth of interview material with fans who were there in the 1960s and offers a portrait of the group and its fans in their era. The result is a rare, insider glimpse into of one of the most historically significant fan phenomena. Since publishing Beatleness, Candy has written about why we still mourn John Lennon in the PBS magazine Next Avenue, and described the Beatles impact on baby boomers for The Huffington Post. Since I consider Beatleness an insightful model of accessible writing on music fandom, I was really pleased when she agreed to an interview.


Your book is a lively popular history of 1960s Beatles fandom - a kind of contextualization of generational memory - rather than a dry academic study. Can you tell us a bit more about your methodology?

I did some interviews at fan gatherings, but I found most of the interviewees through social media. Almost everyone I interviewed recommended someone else, so it snowballed. I was sure to get people across the age range (born 1946 – 1961) and I also wanted geographic diversity. The themes and patterns that emerged, and my analysis of them, are based on data from about one hundred fifty interviews.

You decide to define music fandom as a "fun pastime" yet your discussion of identity suggests that it means more than that to participants?

Yes, fandom informs identity at all ages, but especially in the formative years, which is what we’re talking about with first-generation Beatle fans. A half-century later, the Beatles are still so profoundly important to them. I wanted to understand and explain that, and I also wanted to be clear that I wasn’t passing any judgement on these fans, or any fans for that matter.  The Beatle fans I interviewed and have met when out and about talking about the book are some of the smartest, nicest, most grounded people you’d ever want to meet. Engaging with something that brings joy, community, and allows playfulness, as fandom does, is a very healthy thing to do, at any age.

Why did you frame collective interest in the Beatles on page 267 as a "joyful trauma"?

There are some events, uniquely experienced by a cohort, which changes them, that leave a mark on them. Most of the events traditionally discussed by social historians, in this context, are terrible, horrific events, often described as “traumatic”—natural disasters, wars, the Depression, etc. Those who share the experience have a special bond; they know and understand something very important about each other, even though they might be strangers. That transformative experience comes to inform who they are. Growing up in the sixties, engaged with the Beatles, and hearing and watching them evolve for six years, was a defining experience for baby boomers, but it was a positive, uplifting, experience. “Joy” was the word that fans used over and over again. Our language has no word for positive or joyful trauma. But that’s what it was.

One of the things I really like about your writing is that it goes beyond the undifferentiated notion of "Beatlemania" as a mass phenomenon and historicizes the context and journey of the Beatles' emergent fan base.

It wasn’t a monolithic experience, and it was very much a product of and driver of much of the cultural change that was happening at the time. First-generation Beatle fans span a very wide age range, and so the experience varied depending on what one brought to it. I think my background in sociology and child development allowed me to see this, and it informed my analysis.

Did you find any Americans who first became fans of the Beatles before the Capitol marketed the band?

Yes, some fans knew about the Beatles by mid or late ’63. Some had pen pals in Europe or the UK who told them about this great new band. A few had a family member that travelled and brought back a record. But for the most part, America “met the Beatles” when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. It was the “big bang” for this generation.  Many still look back on it as one of the great determinative events of their lives. 

You do a great job of explaining how the social context changed in the 1960s for youth. One of the things you discuss is the Kennedy assassination. How do you see the relationship between its historic unfolding and the changing phenomenon of 1960s Beatles fan culture?

Kennedy displayed a wit, intelligence, and charisma unlike any other president. He was perfectly suited to the media age. After the elderly looking Eisenhower, Kennedy seemed to represent the ascendency of youth; he was about the future. But then suddenly he’s gone and the nation is mourning. Young people were especially devastated because this smart young president was going to lead the nation into the go-go, space age future.  Seventy-nine days later the Beatles come along­—also witty, intelligent, charismatic, and representing youth ascendancy.

Kennedy talked about a “New Frontier,” but the Beatles suggested a new New Frontier. And the media much preferred writing fluff pieces about the Beatles (which sold newspapers to fans hungry for those early factoids) to writing about Oswald, Ruby, and the Warren Commission. So in addition to raising the national mood, they also seemed to replace something that was lost. They empowered young people to think about the future in a new way, just as Kennedy’s Peace Corps did. Like Kennedy, the Beatles were youthful, cool, competent citizens of the world.

The seventy-nine day period between the assassination and Sullivan is an historical corridor, with the “Kennedy sixties” at one end and the “Beatles sixties” at the other.

Elvis gets quite a lot of mentions in your book. What did you find out about the numerous comparisons with him at the time?

There are four Beatles, so all else being equal, they were already four times more interesting than Elvis. Their presentation was a richer stimulus, more to look at. Beyond that, they wrote their own songs and played their own instruments. Much more DIY—again, youth empowerment and ascendancy.  The Beatles had a completely different style, communicating rebellion in a softer way. Elvis could be androgynous at times, and was certainly an innovator in many ways, but the Beatles’ androgyny presented a new paradigm for masculinity.

Though they arrived on the scene only eight years after Elvis, the media environment was significantly different. America—indeed, the world—was much more media saturated. Plus, the Beatles had a much larger potential fan base—the entire baby boom demographic.  I mention Elvis a few times to show how the Beatles’ goal of being “bigger than Elvis,” was met, but proved to be more complicated, and less appealing, because of the larger scale, their talent, the times, and who they were as people. Fans came to rely on the Beatles and they played a role in fans’ lives, because of the turbulent times, that Elvis never played. Fans looked to them for answers; or, more accurately, fans seemed to find answers, or meaning, in the Beatles work, especially from Rubber Soul on.

I was interested to see you mention the 1962 court ruling against sanctioned prayer in America as part of its changing context. Was Lennon's 'bigger than Jesus' a particular sore point in light of such secularization? Did Beatles fans say much about that?

Fans clearly recall what I refer to in Beatleness as “the Jesus kerfuffle,” and most agree with both what Lennon was trying to say in the Evening Standard interview, and with how the US media spun it.  The backlash against the Beatles, the record burnings, etc., really shows how much of a threat the Beatles were to the Establishment in 1966. There was a Time magazine cover story only a month or so before, which asked, in a bold red and black cover “Is God Dead,” and talked about the decline of religion. And of course the Supreme Court ruling on school prayer, which caused great controversy only a few years before. So certainly Lennon’s comments fed into that. What the Establishment didn’t realize was that their extreme reaction to Lennon’s comments elevated the Beatles’ cultural authority even more.

There is a lot of debate about the role of popular music in political mobilization. I was interested to read how one fan describe the Beatles, in effect, as alternative leaders, presenting a "morality and code of conduct" at a time when distrust in politicians was growing. Based on the evidence you found, how much did the group simply reflect their fans' values and how much did they shape them?

It was both. They were a half-generation or so older than most of their fans, and they were like cool older brothers or uncles who were at the cutting edge of everything, and had the means and the lifestyle to be aware of and engage in the world in ways their fans could only imagine. And so boomers looked up to them. They were authority figures. The Beatles were dismissed by the press as a fun but ultimately unimportant teen phenomenon, until Rubber Soul. That album elevated their authority in the eyes of both critics and fans. That album also marked the beginning of “close listening,” and boomers’ sense that the Beatles were not merely entertaining them, but that they were communicating to them. And what they were communicating was important and useful; there seemed to be truth in it. By the summer of ’67 they were the voice of the counterculture.

To what extent do you think Beatlemania was a rehearsal for the more radical youth movements that developed into the late 1960s?

Beatlemania was not so much a rehearsal for radical youth movements, but more of a trigger, or catalyst.  It offered a way for every young person to identify with millions of other young people, which is one of the reasons Beatle fandom was so empowering. You were part of something much bigger than yourself; a tribe of young people. You were part of this thing (Beatlemania) that everyone was talking about, and, as the media became obsessed with the generation gap, you knew you were part of that story as well. Beatle fandom empowered young people to question reality and to think about life in new ways.  But don’t forget, this was the generation that grew up with Dr. Seuss and Mad magazine. Conspiracy theories around the Kennedy assassination also fuelled distrust of authority. 

On several occasions you mention fans going to great lengths to decipher the meanings of Beatles lyrics. Why do think they did that?

As I said above, beginning with Rubber Soul, fans started hearing more sophisticated, complex, “grown up” lyrics, many of which required “work.” But fans happily did the work because the Beatles had never disappointed them. Fans trusted the Beatles and found their words useful for navigating the journey through adolescence, or from childhood to adolescence. It’s often overlooked that the majority of first-generation Beatle fans were between ages six and ten in 1964.  As the lyrics continued to evolve, often veering quite far from the usual subject matter of pop and rock, fans continued to seek meaning in them. Lennon claims to have written “I Am The Walrus” as a way of teasing fans, and alluded to the practice again in “Glass Onion.” Discussing the songs with friends was a very important part of the fan experience. It was yet another way the Beatles brought young fans together, often in mixed age groups, for challenging and engaging conversation. Serious discussion of the texts was and is central to Beatle fandom.

There is too little sympathetic research on fandom and myth or conspiracy theory. You have some interesting things to say about how fans made use of the "Paul is dead" rumour. It struck me that rather than simply being fooled by fiction, the fans that deciphered relevant clues sounded highly playful, and participated in a collective activity that was a bit like 'spoiling' plots. Can you tell us more?

The Paul is Dead hoax was a very interesting thing, to both experience at the time and to reflect on later. McCartney had been out of the public eye somewhat at that time, and there was a sense that there were rifts in the band­—which the global spectacle of John and Yoko seemed to somehow confirm. So I think there was anxiety among fans, and the speed at which the rumour travelled, going viral before going viral was a thing, was a manifestation of that. Remember, there’s nothing fans enjoyed more than talking about the Beatles, and the Paul is Dead thing provided endless hours of fresh discussion and offered even more reasons for intense album cover scrutiny, which fans were doing anyway. My explanation for the clues is that the Beatles’ provided so much rich, dense stimuli, so much text, that fans were able to find elements that fit the utterly preposterous storyline of Paul being replaced by a double in 1966.  And so those bits were repurposed into “clues.” I suppose you might call this the first fan fiction. 

Each subsequent cohort of Beatle fans stumbles upon the Paul Is Dead hoax and is fascinated by it and looks for the clues. From Rubber Soul on, there came to be something enigmatic, in a fun way, about the Beatles, and the weirdness of the story and the clues plays into that. To this day, there is still disagreement among fans about whether the Beatles were behind the hoax.

The frenzy persisted after several months of denials from Apple, so Life magazine went up to Scotland, unannounced, to track McCartney down. Paul wasn’t happy about this, but agreed to some photos and a brief interview. He clearly states in the interview that he’s done with the Beatles, but neither fans nor other press seemed to notice this—which is another interesting aspect of this case.

With Yoko, Lennon seemed to take artistic delight in exposing versions of his private life as a way, I think, to both comment on his celebrity and support political causes. How did his fans take that?

Reactions varied. In general, fans didn’t like Yoko and thought she was a bad influence on John. Fans felt supportive of Cynthia, the mother of John’s child. So in addition to encouraging him to explore different kinds of artistic expression and be an artist outside the of the Beatle box, Yoko, unlike Cynthia, didn’t conform to Western beauty standards. She didn’t look like what a Beatle woman “should” look like. 

Fans remember being sceptical about how John and Yoko’s activities like bed-ins and bags of acorns would bring about peace, but they enjoyed watching this charismatic duo as a spinoff side show to the Beatle spectacle. John and Yoko’s activities confronted fans with conceptual art for the first time. In addition, and more importantly, fans became aware that Beatle John Lennon was against the Vietnam War; that he was explicitly taking a side in a debate that was dividing families and neighbourhoods.