50 years ago, on Feb. 25, 1967, American fans got their first look at the “psychedelic” Beatles when the promo films for “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever” aired on ABC’s “Hollywood Palace” variety hour. This memoir of that time by Bill King originally was published in Beatlefan #105, March, 1997.
“It’s the end of an era.”
I was sitting on the living room floor the night of Jan. 23, 1967, when veteran broadcaster Lowell Thomas, on his CBS Radio evening newscast, used that melodramatic opening for a story about The Beatles. The group was giving up touring, he said. Breaking up.
Thomas’ report (like a brief item in that afternoon’s paper) came from a widely quoted interview with Paul McCartney in the previous day’s Sunday Times magazine in London.
“Now we’re ready to go our own ways,” Paul had said. “We’ll work together only if we miss each other. Then it’ll be hobby work.”
The news reports paid a lot of attention to the droopy mustache he now was sporting. Paul said it was “part of breaking up The Beatles. I no longer believe in the image. I’m no longer one of the four mop-tops.”
I refused to believe it. Sure, things had been quiet on the Beatles front since back in the fall when “Yellow Submarine” ended its chart run. And, yes, they’d gone off in solo directions: John had cut his hair and acted in “How I Won the War”; Paul had been working on the score for the Hayley Mills film “The Family Way”; George had gone to India; and Ringo, one press report had said, was “just being Ringo.”
There’d been a brief flurry of breakup rumors in November when it became clear there would be no year-end shows in Britain. But John had said at the time, “We’ve no intention of splitting up. We will go on recording songs.” I took him at his word, even though there’d been no new album for Christmas ’66.
I was in 9th grade — an era of paisley shirts, turtlenecks and plaid or checked pants, when girls with long, straight hair were beginning to intrude on my devotion to the Georgia Bulldogs. The Monkees were at the height of their popularity, with “I’m a Believer” all over the airwaves; I liked the show and bought some of their singles, but The Beatles remained far and away my favorites.
I kept an eye on Names in the News in The Atlanta Journal — which I delivered by bike each afternoon to almost 100 customers in two neighborhoods of my hometown of Athens, GA — and the Fab Four continued to pop up there fairly often. Already that month, there’d been items on Ringo being sued by a gardener over a billing dispute and Jane Asher saying she and Paul were deeply in love and wanted to get married and “have lots and lots of babies.”
The really big Beatles news that month, however, had been the telecast (at last!) of “The Beatles at Shea Stadium” on ABC, which showed it on the evening of Jan. 10 as lead-in to the premiere of the network’s new evil-space-creatures-among-us series, “The Invaders,” starring Roy Thinnes. (The local ABC affiliate in nearby Atlanta showed an old movie instead, delaying “Shea” until early the following Sunday evening, but we had cable so I watched it along with the rest of the country that Tuesday night on a North Carolina station.)
Of course, this was Beatles circa ’65. But, at that point, we didn’t yet realize that McCartney, though overstating the case, was indeed right: They weren’t going to be mop-tops any more.
My attention was diverted from the question of The Beatles’ future just four days after the Lowell Thomas report by a tragedy in one of my other youthful obsessions: the space program. Three astronauts — including Gus Grissom, my favorite — died in a launchpad fire aboard the Apollo 1 spacecraft. It didn’t seem like the year of 1967 was off to a very good start.
Much to my consternation, an old-line segregationist named Lester Maddox had just been elected governor by the Georgia legislature after failing to win a majority in a three-way race with two moderates.
The front page was filled each day with casualty counts from Vietnam, where the U.S. troop level now had reached 400,000 (and where, the week of January 19, we had suffered our heaviest losses to date). The rift between LBJ and Robert Kennedy widened as RFK called for a halt in the U.S. bombing of North Vietnam. With Mao’s Red Guard purges at their height, China appeared on the verge of civil war. A Richard Nixon presidential campaign was even in the “talking” stage!
But what is most striking about looking back at the winter of ’67 is the nation’s continuing obsession with the JFK assassination. Look magazine was serializing William Manchester’s “Death of a President.” Mark Lane’s “Rush to Judgement”, the first of the conspiracy books, sat atop the best seller list and was being excerpted in the daily paper. And, in New Orleans, D.A. Jim Garrison had begun his wild and woolly JFK conspiracy investigation (many years later the subject of an Oliver Stone movie).
Not everything was serious, of course. Green Bay crushed Kansas City that January in the very first Super Bowl; the first U.S. major professional soccer league was gearing up for spring play; the upstart ABA was seeking to lure NBA stars with big bucks; and there was this headline: “Braves payroll nears all-time high” — a total of $675,000 for the whole team!
Probably spurred on by the breakup reports, Brian Epstein wasted no time in letting the world know The Beatles still were The Beatles. As February dawned, it was announced that the group had signed a new nine-year recording contract with EMI (on the same day as the Apollo 1 fire, in fact) and that a new single, “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields,” would be issued in the U.S. on Feb. 13!
I remember sitting on the front porch looking at the article announcing the single. The song titles seemed particularly unusual and exotic to me. I wondered what they would sound like. I anxiously awaited their release.
As I searched for Beatles news each day, I saw frequent mention of the amusing quasi-courtship of actor George Hamilton and First Daughter Lynda Bird Johnson, along with the married travels and travails of Frank Sinatra and Mia Farrow. (Mia’s replacement on “Peyton Place,” Leigh Taylor-Young, had just wed costar Ryan O’Neal.) A 17-year-old, 91-pound British model called Twiggy was making her first visit to the U.S. And Liz and Dick were filming “The Comedians” in Dahomey.
Speaking of films, that winter of ’67 was the time when I first started attending more “adult” movies. Oh, I still went with my younger brothers to see such family fare as Fred MacMurray in “Follow Me Boys” and Dean Jones in “Monkeys Go Home” from Disney (which was preparing to begin construction in a swamp in central Florida) plus “Andy Griffith Show” favorite Don Knotts in “The Reluctant Astronaut.” But I also went on my own to see George Peppard and Ursula Andress seducing each other between World War I battles in “The Blue Max” (the first cinematic sex scene I’d viewed!), and Dick Lester’s bawdy “A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum.”
Also in cinemas that winter were a mix of the old-line Hollywood spectaculars and the New Wave youth-oriented films: “Georgy Girl” starring Lynn Redgrave; “Grand Prix” with James Garner; “Man From U.N.C.L.E.” costars Robert Vaughn and David McCallum in a pair of underwhelming solo film outings — “The Venetian Affair” and “Three Bites of the Apple”, respectively — Woody Allen’s “What’s Up Tiger Lily?”; Rock Hudson in “Tobruk”; Julie Christie in “Fahrenheit 451”; Peter O’Toole and Omar Sharif in “The Night of the Generals”; Steve McQueen in “The Sand Pebbles”; Vanessa Redgrave in the British arthouse hit “Blow-Up”; James Coburn in “In Like Flint”; former “Rawhide” regular Clint Eastwood in a new style of bloody Italian-made western, “A Fistful of Dollars”; and Elvis in one of his more forgettable efforts, the appropriately titled “Easy Come, Easy Go.”
On TV, it was time for the “second season” replacements, which included two almost identical superhero spoofs, “Mr. Terrific” on CBS and “Captain Nice” on NBC. There was a new version of “Dragnet” on NBC, “Rango” with Tim Conway on ABC, the return of “The Avengers” on ABC and, on Feb. 5, the new “Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” opposite “Bonanza” Sunday nights on CBS — which quickly began cutting into the venerable western’s audience. Another venerable western, “Gunsmoke,” received a cancellation notice from CBS, but the network relented after viewers protested, and dumped “Gilligan’s Island” instead.
Shortly after the announcement of the forthcoming Beatles single, I got a phone call one night from my friend Sam, who liked to listen to WLS out of Chicago. Excitedly, he told me he’d just heard the new song “Strawberry Fields Forever.” I asked him what it sounded like and, struggling for a comparison, he said “Yesterday.” (“Yesterday”?! The strings, I guess.)
When I heard it myself, it was like nothing The Beatles had done before — in fact, a bit hard to take in on first listen. I liked it, but I liked “Penny Lane” more. Especially the trumpet.
It was about this time, in search of the new Beatles songs, that I really began listening to Top 40 radio on a daily basis, making WDOL-AM part of my afternoon routine as I struggled with Algebra II homework. The songs from that time play in my head like a soundtrack: “Kind of a Drag” by the Buckinghams; “Ruby Tuesday” by the Rolling Stones; “Love Is Here and Now You’re Gone” by the Supremes; “Niki Hoeky” by P.J. Proby; “Happy Together” by the Turtles; “Dedicated to the One I Love” by Mamas and the Papas; “My Cup Runneth Over” by Ed Ames; “There’s a Kind of Hush” by Herman’s Hermits; “For What It’s Worth (Stop, Hey What’s That Sound)” by Buffalo Springfield; “Sit Down, I Think I Love You” by the Mojomen; “I Think We’re Alone Now” by Tommy James and the Shondells; “California Nights” by Lesley Gore; “Western Union” by the Five Americans; “Jimmy Mack” by Martha and the Vandellas; “The 59th Street Bridge Song (Feelin’ Groovy)” by Harpers Bizarre.
I saw most of these acts miming their hits weekday afternoons on “Where the Action Is” (paired in ABC’s teen hour with “Dark Shadows,” which my brothers and I wouldn’t get into for some months yet).
Naturally, I went out first chance I got after the Beatles single’s release (the following Saturday) and bought it. First thing I noticed when I got home was that the trumpet ending had been deleted — first time I ever questioned one of their artistic decisions. Another disappointment came when I discovered that while the early copies were in plain sleeves, the second batch to hit town came in the color picture sleeve with Beatle baby pictures on one side and a spotlight-backed shot of their new mod look on the other. It would be several years, actually, before I’d get one of those sleeves.
The week of the record’s release, the paper ran an AP interview with McCartney, Epstein and Starr stressing that giving up touring didn’t mean breaking up. Said Paul: “We never said we were splitting up. Other people said it about us — but it’s not true.” Epstein said they were currently recording tracks for a new album and expected to start their third film in the spring or early summer. They also were planning a television show.
A week after I bought the single, the promo films for both songs were shown on the Feb. 25 edition of “The Hollywood Palace,” with actor Van Johnson hosting. Again, they were like nothing we’d seen before.
I really liked them!
Aside from the picture sleeve and a magazine photo or two, this was our first chance to get an extended view of the “new look” Beatles — and it was the topic of much conversation at school the next week. Homeroom reaction ran much like it did on the March 11 “American Bandstand,” when Dick Clark showed the clips and polled members of the audience.
The boys mostly liked the mustaches and thought The Beatles looked really cool; the girls didn’t.
No more cuddly mop-tops.
— Bill King
(Thanks to Mark Gunter, Allan Kozinn and Brad Hundt for research assistance.)