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Riding The (British) Wave of Revolution

Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-4: Eyes of The Storm

Words and Images courtesy of Carter Cook.

Eye of the storm: the calm region at the center of a storm or hurricane

        If anything could describe what swept America in 1964, it would be a hurricane, but a decidedly British one. Though the Beatles had garnered much attention in Britain in 1963, their seminal moment came in 1964. This was due to their breakthrough in what many young Brits thought of as the land of wonder: America. Their first release in America, “Introducing… The Beatles,” on small record label Vee-Jay surprisingly well. In fact, it sold so well that major industry player Capitol Records raised an eyebrow and commandeered the Beatles' American release rights. Capital would then release, “Meet The Beatles,” which would sell 4,045,174 copies in 1964 alone. America surely met The Beatles, and the younger set warmed up to them particularly quickly. This was due in part to the fact that by 1964 rock and roll in America had died and gone to hell in many preachers' eyes. Most of the original rockers had dropped off for one reason or another. Jerry Lee Lewis was shunned for his marriage to his thirteen-year-old cousin, Chuck Berry was just being released from prison due to nefarious acts with a fourteen-year-old, Elvis was in the army, and Little Richard was resting from a long tour in Europe (with The Beatles at one point). 

        As far as older middle America was concerned, Frank Sinatra was right, rock and roll was a fad that had died as quickly as it had risen from its post-war box of conformity. For many teens, the arrival of these four bumbling British lads was a delivery from the heavens, and just in the nick of time. The deprived kids lapped up anything and everything that The Beatles could release, so much so that it seemed that they could do no wrong; their success had made them idols to a starving generation. Inside the band, though, reality was a very different story, as evidenced in Paul McCartney’s new photographic exhibit, Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of The Storm.

        The exhibit’s most recent stop is at the local Chrysler Museum of Art. It is quite paradoxical that these photographs of what some at one time considered counterculture figures and moments are on display in a building such as the Chrysler. It is a marble building of epic proportions that seems to keep watch on the surrounding area of Norfolk. Upon entrance to this bohema, Macca’s wonderland is clearly visible to the left of the foyer. After a pit stop at the front desk for an explanation and map of the premises, your attention is drawn to the exhibition of British photographs. After floating to its door, you enter to find a rather sparse and short hallway that contains a few black and white photographs of Paul. In bold on the wall is a short written quote that sums up the exhibit as a whole. Then, you are whisked through the doors to the main exhibit.

        You are whisked into the world of The Beatles circa ‘64. Square prints of black and white photographs are hung all over a room which is divided into sections based on time, location, period, and story. In the middle of one of the sections, a few facsimiles of Paul’s handwritten lyric sheets are displayed in a glass-topped cabinet. The photographs provide an intimate view into the world of a group that has been and continues to be extremely influential in the lives of millions upon millions of people. Whether it’s John sitting contemplatively behind his acoustic guitar, George relaxing with a burned-down cigarette, or Ringo with innumerous blingy rings on his fingers, the pictures show the public what they haven’t had the chance to see. And why would they? At the time, the public release of these photographs would have presumably been seen as a major invasion of what little privacy the group had left. 

        The pictures themselves prove that the boys were being hounded constantly by the press and their legions of suicidally dedicated photographers and reporters. They were dangerously eager to sink their teeth into even the smallest Beatles moment to relay back to their eagerly awaiting fans so that they had a boost in their own career. The press is a hungry machine nowadays, and it certainly was in the 60s. And so, in their downtime away from the press, The Beatles were able to sit down, relax a bit, and breathe. This part about breathing may be a bit disputable as in what seems like all of the pictures, each member of the group and its entourage is constantly sucking down cancer sticks like it’s a race. It’s little snippets that the everyday viewer doesn’t think enough about that should be paid the most attention to with the utmost interest. 

        These photographs tell something about society; they make something that isn’t often talked about blatantly aware and obvious. Times have changed since the early 1960s, and in more ways than one might think. Our lives have changed and the way we live has changed. For example, the haircuts in the photographs are completely different. The Beatles can be seen sporting their thick mops of hair with carefully combed fringes that pile perfectly on their heads. Do not forget that this type of haircut was quite rebellious and new in 1964. Many of the other people photographed in the pictures are still sporting short, cleanly combed hairstyles slicked with Brylcreem. It becomes evident that what was once completely radical is now commonplace, with some men going so far as to grow their locks out to their backs. The photographs portray a world that to younger Beatles fans is becoming farther and farther removed. They may ask themselves, “Where are all of the iPhones? Why are all of the cars so big? Why do the policemen wear hats? Why is everyone constantly smoking?” These types of questions prove that McCartney’s photographs show more than the biggest band of all time in their private, personal, and introspective moments. 

        They show a world that was still recovering from the shellshock and fast growth of a previous war and its aftermath, a world that was diving into another war that it wasn’t ready for, a world that was uncomfortable with the arrival of the new age, a world that felt threatened by The Beatles “long” hair, a world that hated the sound of the loud crap that the kids referred to as rock and roll, a world where as a child you weren’t listened to. You didn't have an opinion and you didn't have a voice. You were a child who was supposed to do as you were told, and when you grew old enough, you were supposed to grow up and accept the bitterness and harshness of life. Then one day you turned on the radio and heard something new. It sounded like what your older brother described Elvis as having sounded like nine years prior; it sounded strange and rebellious and loud and holy. It sounded like the key to all your problems. It was your newfound voice. McCartney’s photographs are a statement and direct account of these times.

        The exhibit continues on throughout The Beatles' 1964 U.S. experience, with photographs of New York and the freeway and the police procession that followed them wherever they went. “Strange America,” they must’ve thought, the land where policemen wear guns, badges, and hats and ride tall brown horses. It must’ve seemed like the wild west. 

        One of the most shocking things about these pictures is the people; the fans. “My god,” one thinks to themselves, “the simple crowd progression must’ve been insanity.” You can almost hear the screams coming from the girls frozen in celluloid for sixty years. Mobs upon mobs of young people charging and battering like a ram of old Rome to get a glimpse of the elusive Fab Four. When comparing this situation to our modern era, the only close comparison could be to the screaming of Taylor Swift fans as she sings her pop songs in stadiums packed with thousands of people, and that’s loud enough. Now put that experience on steroids and you have reality sixty years ago. All of this chaos and confusion depicted in the photographs of the screaming girls poses a whole new question: What the hell was wrong with these people? 

        As with most things historically correlated, one must view these scenarios and situations through the eyes of those present and partaking in the action at hand. These screaming girls had probably been forced to listen to Guy Lombardo in the evenings while their father drank and smoked his pipe and their mother watched Walter Cronkite while preparing dinner. “I Want To Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” must’ve been revolutionary! The moment that a young person acquired their first Beatles LP or 45 must be compared to the minute Patrick Henry finally received his long-awaited Declaration of Independence in his hands! It was freedom, and boy did it taste good. So, yes, these kids were going to scream. They had found their way out. 

        And here were The Beatles in all of this. One mustn’t forget that these were boys, barely young men, who two years prior were sweating through sets at The Star-Club in Hamburg and The Cavern Club in Liverpool. Their rise to fame wasn’t all that rapid, but the difference between garnering a following because you are a genuinely great band and garnering a massively huge insanely large following because you are a great band must’ve felt more than a little overwhelming. One can certainly sense that in these photographs.

        Towards the end of the exhibit, everything changes. You are shocked by yellows, reds, greens, and blues. It finally hits you; all of the photographs are in color! Boy, what Kodachrome can do, because these photos smack grab you in the face and pull you in. Four breezy Beatles clad in white terry cloth shirts reclined by the pool smoking and drinking rum and cokes. What could be better? Life was good. For a minute while viewing these pictures, all is well for you too, and you’re standing next to Paul on a shoreside dock. He’s donning jeans, a white t-shirt, and a black vest, which would become his uniform again sixty years later. Girls in bikinis, boats sailing through crisp clear blue water; this was the life. This was arrival.

        The next room brings you back to black and white. By this time in the exhibit, you are ready for contemplation. You have, in some remote and voyeuristic way, experienced what it was like being a Beatle in those early days. Now, you’re ready to let the brevity, emotion, and power of it really hit you. 

        In the middle of this next room in a glass-topped showcase is a weathered, battered, and beaten Pentax camera. This particular one wasn’t McCartney’s, but you get the vibe. You see the small black box from where all of these photos originated. Then, you look up and see John. Glasses on his face, thinking. You think of how only sixteen years later he would be dead. But here, he is peaceful. He has his guitar against his chest, like a gunslinger would hold his rifle, his lifeline; for support. You know that John is just a boy, a young man, who has been thrust into the spotlight far too quickly for his own good, even if the ride is excitable and wonderful. You see a newer picture of Paul and Linda. Linda would become Paul’s wife in 1969, and they would spend many happy years together. You see where this whole wonderful journey took Paul, and you think to yourself, “My, what a long and joyous ride.” You’re hit with the realization that anything is possible, as these four young musicians from Liverpool found out exactly sixty years ago. Or maybe those were just my thoughts on a cloudy Saturday morning in The Chrysler Museum of Art. 

        McCartney’s photographs are a societal and historical treasure that examines the facade of fame, the societal and personal changes we have experienced as a culture and world, and the perseverance of the human psyche that attempts to comprehend it all. 

        The exhibit Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-4: Eyes of The Storm will be viewable in the Special Exhibitions Gallery of The Chrysler Museum of Art until April 7, 2024.

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