THE year was 1964, and there weren't many reasons to be cheerful. US president John F Kennedy had recently been assassinated, and his killer, Lee Harvey Oswald, had been shot dead two days later in the Dallas police headquarters basement by a shady nightclub owner, Jack Ruby. All this was captured on live television.
Meanwhile, the war in Vietnam had ratcheted up a gear or two, while members of Martin Luther King’s civil rights movement had been attacked and in some cases lynched in the Deep South, where America’s form of apartheid still held sway.
Britain was still pockmarked by bomb sites and smarting from the costly World War 2. Harold Macmillan, with his drooping moustache, had recently resigned, a stiff relic of the Victorian past who eventually lost touch with reality. The colonies were revolting, there had been a series of scandals (including Profumo), and beatniks and immigrants were forever changing the ways and looks of this damp little island in the North Sea. The Daily Mirror wrote: “What the hell is going on in this country?"
You could smell the arrival of spring. There was hope, and it came in the form of pop music. In August 1963, The Beatles had released their fourth single, She Loves You — you know, the tune that hits you straight in the gut with the exuberant line, “She loves you, yeah yeah yeah". It was unusual for a song to start with a hook, and even more unusual for it to have “yeah, yeah, yeah" as a chorus and outro. It was the song that broke the band in the US and the rest of the world, and marked the beginning of Beatlemania. On April 4 1964, Beatles songs occupied the top five positions on the Billboard Top 100.
For us, thousands of kilometres away and 60 years later, it’s hard to understand what Beatlemania felt and looked like, let alone how to contextualise it. But Paul McCartney's recent rediscovery of the photos he took before and during his band's first US tour between December 1963 and February 1964 have made it easier. He and the other three Beatles had been given a Pentax camera to play around with, and Paul put it to good use. The only problem was that he had no clue where the pictures were. But they were found in 2020 and can be seen as the Eyes of the Storm exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London until October 1.
In a recent essay in The Guardian, McCartney looks back with great fondness: “President Kennedy had been murdered only a little over two months before our arrival in the United States, and his assassination had ricocheted throughout the world, so we figured the atmosphere might still be subdued. But the minute we landed in New York, we knew instantly that we were not in store for any kind of funereal time."
Some experts argue that the Sixties started in 1964, with the “yeah, yeah yeahs", the teenage cries that heralded the sexual revolution. As McCartney writes: “Although we had no perspective at the time, we were, like the world, experiencing a sexual awakening. Our parents had fears of sexual diseases and all sorts of things like that, but by the middle of the 60s we’d realised that we had a freedom that had never been available to their generation ... [it] spoke of promise and ambition and everything new to four young men from the north."
His photographs reflect that wonder and amazement, often verging on amusement. Here was a gang of working-class lads from Liverpool, chased by screaming American teenagers, put on the spot by sceptical journalists, seeing America, the promised land, for the first time.
Most striking are the pictures of the bedlam at JFK airport; the motorcycle cop with his gun and bullets (“It was still kind of shocking for us to see a gun in real life," says McCartney); and the colour shots of George Harrison wearing sunglasses and being handed a cocktail by a woman in a yellow swimsuit (we don’t see her face) at a swimming pool in Miami. It represented a world that was rapidly changing from black and white to colour.
As McCartney writes: “By the end of February 1964, after our visit to America and three appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show, we finally had to admit that we would not, as we had originally feared, just fizzle out as many groups do. We were in the vanguard of something more momentous, a revolution in the culture." Or, as a reporter for The New York Times wrote at the time, “The Beatles could claim to be ‘spokesmen for the new, noisy, anti-Establishment generation".
What strikes me most is that despite the tumultuous times (there were more assassinations ahead — Malcolm X in 1965, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy in 1968 — as well as race riots, student uprisings and Vietnam), you can so easily detect an overall sense of optimism. Times were definitely changing. Or, as Bob Dylan wrote in 1963: “Your old road is rapidly agein’/ Please get out of the new one/ If you can't lend your hand/ For the times they are a-changin." And The Beatles, witty, sexy, irreverent, cool, vibrant, sweet, eager, reflected that change.
All this begs a question. How does South Africa fit in?
Although they never played in South Africa and there was no television here when the band made its mark, the music of The Beatles was widely available. She Loves You was released here in 1963 with three other singles. But the political climate was different, and definitely not one of optimism. We were recovering from the shock of the Sharpeville massacre (which led to the first wave of “white flight") and the Rivonia trial had just commenced. In 1964, we saw Nelson Mandela and his comrades sentenced to lifelong imprisonment, the start of a long and bloody road to a problematic version of democracy.
Did South Africa have its own version of The Beatles? There were two contenders. Four Jacks and a Jill were formed in 1965. They had relatively long hair and a huge hit with Master Jack. But they lacked most things The Beatles had: the gang mentality, the wit, the knack for sublime pop tunes (Master Jack was written by Dave Marks). And most importantly, they looked so dull. Who would scream and throw underwear at a Four Jacks and a Jill gig?
Then there were The Bats, much maligned, but at least they tried. Even their name was a kind of pun on The Beatles. They formed in 1964 and had huge hits on Springbok Radio and LM Radio. They were on British television and did a three-week stint in Berlin. But they rejected the services of one of England’s most notorious managers, who could have made them famous. And so we must make do with three albums of fine Mersey Beat inspired pop: A Shabby Little Hut, All I Got and That’s How I Feel, all recorded between 1964 and 1966.
Two of their members were British. Guitarist Jimmy Dunning hailed from Liverpool and keyboard player Paul Ditchfield was from Manchester. Ditchfield started out in a band called The Vikings (who, for music nerds among you, had a bass player called Harry Miller, who later joined prog giants King Crimson). Then, in 1963, he heard The Beatles on the radio. “I remember driving to the bank where I worked and thought, this is fantastic. This is what I want to do now," he told me when I interviewed him some years ago.
The Bats copied everything from The Beatles. They sounded like The Beatles (okay, and The Hollies), they used Beatles harmonies, and they dressed like The Beatles, including the sharp, collarless jackets that were the hipster thing in 1964. And like The Beatles, they composed their own tunes, which was quite unusual in those days when most bands were happy to stick to crowd-pleasing covers.
In 1966 they went to the UK to record the single Listen To My Heart for Decca, the label of the Rolling Stones. It got them a spot on the British TV show Juke Box Jury but it wasn’t a hit. Nor was the follow-up, Hard To Get Up In The Morning. But they received an offer from a manager. The man in question was Don Arden, father-in-law of Ozzy Osbourne. He was a business thug with the nicknames Mr Big, The English Godfather and Al Capone of Pop, and he had managed major acts such as Small Faces and The Move.
Arden became notorious after dangling a competing manager by his ankles from an open window. In return for managing The Bats, he demanded a 90% cut. The band thought this was a ripoff and declined. After their Berlin stint, they returned to South Africa in 1968 wearing kaftans and other hippie regalia. They acquired a new lead guitarist and the sound changed, verging towards light psychedelia and soul.
Then they did something totally unexpected. They joined up with some members of The Square Set, changed their name to Impi and recorded an eponymous album of progressive afro-rock with tracks such as Son of a Zulu Man, Rifle and Herd Boy. The album came out in 1971 and didn’t chart. The white radio stations thought it “too black". Black buyers weren’t interested.
From there, it all went downhill. They scored a hit with what was arguably South Africa’s first rugby song, the cringe-making Groen & Goud (Vat hom Dawie). Then they recorded the album Weltevrede under the name Die Bats, trying to tap into the Afrikaans market. Gone were the hippie outfits and the progressive experiments. Instead we saw the four musicians in white dinner jackets and black pants in front of a Cape Dutch building, framed by the colours of the old flag. Finally, they released a “funny" album, The Return of Fatman and Bobin (1977), which probably grew out of the creative brain of drummer Eddie Eckstein, who doubled as an actor and comedian.
So where The Beatles developed at astonishing pace, from an optimistic beat quartet to an experimental psychedelic outfit to a serious rock band, The Bats were a case of trial and error, ambition and restrictions. They were handcuffed by their circumstances: unwilling or unable to sing about social and political issues; not allowed to have black members; treated like country bumpkins in the UK.
But Impi was their equivalent of The Beatles' White Album, an incredibly brave effort at trying something else, an attempt at building a cultural bridge in a country where such things were systematically blown up by the apartheid government. Remember, we’re talking 1971 here, eight years before Johnny Clegg & Juluka ran away with that same formula. When Impi sank, they felt defeated and deflated, and resorted to the blatant opportunism of rugby songs and comedy tunes.
Their narrative reflects the country's: brave ambition hampered by arrested development.
♦ VWB ♦
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