It’s Friday, February 7th, 1964, only two months since the tragic assassination of President John Kennedy in Dallas, and Pan-Am flight 101 from London is still circling New York City, preparing to land at newly-christened Kennedy Airport. Meanwhile, at the terminal, more than 5,000 teenagers, 200 members of the press and 110 of New York’s Finest are gathered, awaiting the plane’s eminent arrival. The scene is one of “convivial chaos” as both teens and their elders chatter excitedly amongst themselves and to reporters: “We’ve never seen anything like this,” says an airport official, eyeing the crowd. “Not even for Presidents or kings.” Part of the reason for such a huge turnout is due to the fact that local New York radio stations have promised a free Beatles T-shirt and a crisp, new, one dollar bill to every teenager willing to skip school that day and hang out at the airport.
At 1:20pm, the plane from London lands and four funny-looking young Englishmen, members of a rock ‘n’ roll outfit calling themselves “The Beatles”, climb down the steps of the Boeing 707 and wave to the
throng. The winter wind tussles their controversial hair, immediately causing several thousand screaming, pre-pubescent girls to prematurely wet-down the tarmac. The dawn of The Beatles has arrived. John, Paul, George and Ringo are quickly whisked through customs and to a press conference, where hundreds of tough, jaded, New York journalists await. After a few initial snide questions/comments about their hair and their questionable musical ability, an amazing thing begins to happen: these street-toughened New York pressmen begin to laugh. They are soon completely enthralled with the natural charm and sharp wit of these “lads from Liverpool” who seem more than willing to “take the piss” both out of both themselves and their situation. Ten minutes after it has begun, nearly every journalist in the hot, cramped airport hospitality suite has succumbed to a new strain of virus that they themselves quickly dub “Beatlemania.”
By Sunday, February 9th, thanks to the work of these “hard-bitten” journalists, the Beatlemania bug has spread all across the nation. That evening, seventy million people – the largest audience ever drawn to a single program (even more than had tuned in Kennedy’s funeral) – watch as The Beatles perform two short numbers on The Ed Sullivan Show. The record charts were similarly afflicted with “the bug” as America was being deluged with every single record the Beatles ever made. Legitimate releases from labels like Capitol, Swan, VJ, Tollie, Atco and MGM were muscling each other aside and up the charts. In fact, so great was the Beatles’ monopoly on American record sales throughout the first half of 1964 that on April 4th the top five entries in the Billboard Hot Hundred read thusly:
1: “Can’t Buy Me Love” (Capitol)
2: “Twist and Shout” (Tollie)
3: “She Loves You” (Swan)
4: “I Want To Hold Your Hand” (Capitol)
5: “Please Please Me” (VJ)
That same week, the Beatles were Numbers One and Two on the LP best-sellers. One week later, fourteen (14!) of the Hot Hundred singles were Beatles tunes. It was an unprecedented, unpredictable (and incredibly confusing) time, where the stakes were high and huge jackpots were guaranteed for all. Yes, the British Invasion was definitely on, and those poor record companies (like Decca) who had missed the Beatle bandwagon the first time around went scrambling. They immediately dispatched their A&R men to sign any four fellows with long hair and accents in the hope that Beatlemania was more than a 24-hour bug. Also watching this phenomenon unfold (from a slightly darker area of the stage) were dozens of unknown, nameless and faceless A&R men from little-known, fly-by-night catalog record labels (Coronet, Diplomat, Wyncote, Design and Somerset); companies that were more comfortable releasing LP’s like Harmonica: The Great Danny Welton or Peter Pan Pops than they were rock ‘n’ roll. These men had a slightly different agenda. For the most part they were less interested in finding, nurturing and developing new acts than they were in just cashing-in on the current action. And even though they were probably personally offended by The Beatles, what with their long hair and loud music, they knew a good thing when they saw one. Jealous and hungry for Capitol’s (and Swan’s, VJ’s, Tollie’s, Atco’s and MGM’s) success, these “wolves in cheap clothing” were determined to pull the wool over everyone’s eyes.
Almost before the Fabs had even set foot back in Blighty, these labels began releasing dozens of cut-price records (usually costing about 69¢, today fetching anywhere between $5-25). They usually featured long(ish)-haired youths, cloaked in moody half-shadows, with names and song titles just close enough to the real thing to confuse. (Ahhh, those notorious “B-e-e-t-l-e” albums!). And just as expected, thousands of new and unsuspecting Fab fans deep in the throes of Beatlemania rushed out and bought these “cash-in” records, perhaps only slightly baffled that it was called something like Beat-A-Mania! instead of Meet The Beatles, as they’d read in Teen Beat. It was usually only later, after a closer inspection of the album jacket (or else after a really good listen) it was discovered that, instead of having the latest by the “lads from Liverpool”, they were well on their way to completing a Merseyboys collection. Sadder but wiser, the LP would then be filed away under “lesson learnt” never to be listened-to again. And that’s a shame because, y’know, some of ‘em ain’t half-bad.
Maybe it’s only now, thirty years after the break-up of the Beatles, after we’ve been through Woodstock’s 1, 2 & 3, Altamont, singer-songwriters, Glam-Rock, Disco, Punk, Reggae, New Wave, Heavy Metal, The New Romantics, Power Pop, Mod Revival, Urban Cowboy, Techno, Rap, Grunge, Goth-Rock, Lollapalooza, Hip-Hop, Alternative, the “Cool Britannia” Movement, Lilith Fair – even the reunion of The Threetles - that we can finally, seriously, listen to these “cash-in” records without prejudice. Well, that’s what I did, anyway, and what I discovered was that not only are some of them actually pretty decent, they sound better than a lot of the fluff that has passed for popular music since 1964. And let’s give credit where credit’s due. These albums are not only a lot of fun but they are as much a part of Beatlemania lore as are Rickenbacker guitars, Cuban-heeled boots and Vox amplifiers – even more so when you consider that probably just as many mania-crazed fans bought A Hard Days Night by The Manchesters by mistake as bought Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on purpose. (Granted, more people probably returned A Hard Days Night by The Manchesters than Sgt. Pepper’s, but that’s not the point…)
Although there were many popular bands in the 1960s only The Beatles seemed to ever inspired these sort of cash-in albums. There were never any records called The Mossgatherers Sing The Rolling Stones, or The What Do The Who. No, these LP’s are unique to the 1960s, unique to the Beatles and, well, just plain unique. In fact, they’re really pretty damn weird. Once you sit down and actually, seriously, take the time to examine one of these things all sorts of questions begin to flood your mind: Who were these musicians? Were they struggling bands trying to make it? Session musicians? Are there any now-famous rock stars hiding in there among the half-shadows? Actually this is not too far-flung a thought, considering that some of today’s Old Guard stalwarts once did stints as a faceless studio cats. In 1969 a still-struggling Sir Elton John even recorded (under his given name, Reg Dwight), an entire LP of cover songs. The Rocket Man can be heard doing fairly decent takes on 20 then-contemporary songs like “Young, Gifted and Black”, “Up Around The Bend” and “Spirit in the Sky.” (This LP was released in 1994 as Reg Dwight’s Piano Goes Pop a.k.a. Chartbusters Goes Pop, (RPM 142). It is now available in the US via Caroline Distribution.) And in 1964, ex-grave digger, Rod Stewart, took a break from shoveling dirt in order to lend his harmonica talents to Millie Small’s ska hit, “My Boy Lollipop.”
Okay, but what exactly constitutes a Beatle “cash-in” record? The Chipmunks Sing The Beatles is certainly in bad taste, but it’s not a cash-in. “Hey Jude” by Bing Crosby is terribly, terribly sad, but it’s not cash-in either. The Beatle Barkers is also a dog, but it is not cash-in. Nor are LP’s by “sound-alike” bands like Tribes or Street Preachers (“sound-alike” is a different genre altogether). For that matter, neither is “Beatlemania” (neither the soundtrack to the 1970s stage musical, nor the instrumental mishmash LP released by Jack Nitzsche that includes “Please Please Me”, “From Me to You”, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and ”Needles and Pins.”) “Ringo I Love You” (1964 Annette # 1000) by Cher (recorded under the name Bonnie Jo Mason) doesn’t constitute cash-in status. Not even the brilliantly batty “Go Go Go For Ringo” by the Whippets (a one-off NYC girl group consisting of Charlotte Rosenthal, Janet Kerouac (daughter of Jack) and Bibbe Hansen (daughter of Fluxus artist Al Hansen, a Warhol film star and artist in her own right, and mother of rock innovator Beck – how’s that for a history?!) counts. (BTW, what’s with all the tunes dedicated to Ringo? I though Paul was supposed to be the cute one)… No, a true Beatle cash-in record is different from the simple Beatle novelty record (as immortalized by Rhino Records in their hilarious Golden Throats series). Cash-in goes beyond mere parody (intended and unintended) or idol hagiography. For it to be true cash-in it must contain some tainted whiff of skullduggery and deceit. A true cash-in is really a cloaked attempt to lure you, the Beatle buying public (a.k.a. “The Sucker”) into thinking that you’ve got one thing (a Beatle record) and then leaving you with buying something else entirely (not a Beatle record). In other words, a “cash-in” record is a rip-off.
……Or is it?