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From cheeky mop tops to long-haired holy men: The Beatles come of age in America

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

17 October 2020

9:00 AM

Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There: How a Few Skinny Brits with Bad Teeth Rocked America David Hepworth

Transworld, pp.336, 20

In his latest book, the veteran pop commentator David Hepworth is concerned with satisfaction, its acquisition and maintenance. On record, satisfaction was something the Rolling Stones found notoriously hard to get — ‘an itch you could never quite scratch’. In reality, it was a commodity the groups spearheading the British invasion of the 1960s — the Stones, the Beatles, the Dave Clark Five and others — discovered to be plentiful in the USA. And as Hepworth notes, it was ‘Satisfaction’ itself, a huge hit in America, which delivered the very thing Mick Jagger bemoaned the lack of in the song. In the recollection of Herman’s Hermits singer Peter Noone:

We had just done ‘I’m Henry VIII, I Am’ [the music hall standard and another huge US hit, horrifyingly] on The Ed Sullivan Show and there were 3,000 kids outside the hotel waiting for us. It must have made an impact on the Stones because they started writing pop tunes. No more of the blues stuff.

‘All these young men,’ writes Hepworth, ‘came from a country that at the time believed a taste for luxury or convenience was a harbinger of inevitable moral decline.’ Reciprocally, the long-haired beat groups who rampaged through America, hailing from hitherto obscure British cities with olde-worlde names such as Liverpool and Birmingham, represented an assault on public decency:

The time off was like an unsupervised school trip for horny young adults, financed from a bottomless Exchequer. The work part, the bit that might be a chore back in the UK, was suddenly hugely exciting once you did it in the place you were soon referring to, to the considerable annoyance of your friends back in England, as ‘Stateside’. Even meals were a source of wonder. Legend has it that on being introduced to pizza, Black Sabbath singer Ozzy Osbourne excitedly let friends back home know: ‘There’s a new food!’

Understandably, there is a lot in this book about the Beatles. It was they who not only led the charge into America but defined the terms of the engagement. Most readers will already be familiar with the story of the Beatles’ success. As befits a lifelong fan, Hepworth’s analysis of the group’s phenomenal impact is both measured and enthusiastic: from the moment their plane touched down at JFK

music was only part of what the Beatles were all about. What they were bringing from Britain was not just a different haircut, not just a different way of playing music, not just some fresh slang, but also a new way to walk, a new way to talk, a new way to be.

Hepworth is captivated by the speed at which the beat boom spread and also — in the parlance of a few short years later — the ‘heavy changes’ it put the participants through; the Beatles’ metamorphosis from cheeky mop tops to lysergic, long-haired holy men took a little less than five years. But what of the working-class recruits who followed in their wake, transported from terraced streets and provincial ballrooms to ‘a place that was a world away from their rain-lashed, cold-water childhoods in northern England’?

It’s in the stories of such figures as Rod Stewart, Eric Burdon of the Animals and particularly Graham Nash of the Hollies that Hepworth really draws out the telling details. The latter was bewitched by psychedelia, Laurel Canyon and making the sort of music ‘that would force the world to look at the Hollies in a new light’; the other lads were content to keep singing about bus stops and Jennifer Eccles. When he presented his bandmates with a song called ‘Marrakesh Express’, they took the view that ‘nobody would buy a group from Salford singing about striped djellabas we can wear at home’ and passed on it. After fulfilling his contractual obligations, Nash left the group, moved to LA and recorded ‘Marrakesh Express’ with David Crosby and Stephen Stills before going on to perform the song in front of an estimated half a million people at Woodstock. Back home, meanwhile, the Hollies were enjoying a residency at Batley Variety Club.

Overpaid, Oversexed and Over There is Hepworth’s fifth book in as many years. I suspect such a schedule might have daunted a writer without his publishing background; over four decades, he repeatedly proved his mettle in the production of much loved magazines such as Smash Hits, Q, Mojo and The Word. In many respects the books continue that work in Hepworth’s characteristic style: chatty, anecdotal, drawing on a deep knowledge of, and perennial love for, his subject. In their shared design, they resemble the issues of a monthly magazine — or perhaps, given the time of year at which his books appear, annuals.

Hepworth and his readers are fascinated by the mechanics of the music industry; but they also still believe in its magic every bit as much as when they first heard a hit single by the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. He knows his audience and they know him. The result is another tremendously enjoyable read, full of good stories expertly told: in other words, satisfaction guaranteed.

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