March 22nd, 2015

Land-Ho: By George, It’s the Beatles!

HOU03 Kens 14th other cake

Ken’s 14th birthday Beatles themed cake.

Beatles fans take great pride in sharing their stories about discovering the Fab Four. For many first-generation listeners, the story often centers around The Ed Sullivan Show on that auspicious Sunday evening of February 9, 1964, when the Beatles launched the British Invasion by seizing control of millions of American television sets.

For yet others, ground zero of their Beatles fandom finds its origins in a darkened movie theater while gazing upon the bandmates’ kinetic screen energy in A Hard Day’s Night. And there are thousands upon thousands who proudly display their ticket stubs from a concert experience during the throes of Beatlemania—or perhaps later, during Paul McCartney’s triumphant Wings over America tour in 1976. But as for me, it’s nothing of the sort. In fact, as Beatles discovery stories go, it’s pretty lame.

As it happens, I discovered the Beatles during my preteen years in the mid-1970s when my favorite television program, The New Zoo Revue, was suddenly and unforgivingly preempted. I won’t mince words: I loved The New Zoo Revue and its depiction of a perfect utopian harmony between humans and life-sized animal puppets. What’s not to love? Freddie the Frog was a hoot and Henrietta Hippo was a show-stealer if ever there were one.

But then, on that terrible morning as I prepared to consume yet another mouth-watering bowl of King Vitamin cereal, I turned on the television only to discover that Freddie the Frog and Henrietta Hippo were abruptly and ineffably gone—that The New Zoo Revue had been wrested from my morning routine and inexplicably replaced by, of all things, the Beatles. And I had absolutely no idea who they were.

For reasons beyond my ken, the Fab Four had eluded me throughout my tender years. Sure, I knew all about the Monkees—their television show had been awash in reruns for the balance of my short lifetime—and the Partridge Family were old hat by then and growing unmercifully long in the tooth. And of course, I was more than familiar with the antics of the Banana Splits, the inimitable Fleegle, Bingo, Drooper, and Snorky.

On that fateful morning—as I lamented the untimely loss of The New Zoo Revue—what I found myself watching wasn’t actually a television show that featured the Beatles themselves, but rather, a crudely rendered cartoon facsimile of the group. And, as I would later learn, the cartoons weren’t even voiced by John, Paul, George, and Ringo, but instead, by a couple of workaday actors. And worse yet, one of those actors wasn’t even British!

And as for the Beatles—well, the Beatles didn’t really ring any bells for me. At this point, I had no idea that they had disbanded when I was three-years-old or, more importantly, that they held almost every meaningful accomplishment, as vocal groups go, in the vaunted Guinness Book of World Records, which, for kids my age, was the veritable Bible about anything and everything that could possibly matter in the world. How, pray tell, had they succeeded in eluding my grasp?

But there they were, courtesy of reruns in all of their coarsely-drawn glory, having quite suddenly hijacked the airwaves. For a moment, I was perturbed, but then, quite unexpectedly, I had become smitten with these Four Lads from Liverpool. And who wouldn’t be? The Beatles, even as cartoons, were as delightful, if not more so, than Freddie the Frog and Henrietta Hippo could ever hope to be.

And, of course, the Beatles had much more going for them—much more, indeed. In addition to their cartoon hijinks, they could sing! In that inaugural episode, they got into one antics-filled jam after another to the soundtrack of “A Hard Day’s Night” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Where, I wondered, had these songs been all of my life?

I couldn’t believe my ears, much less my eyes, as I watched the animated Beatles rehearsing their music in a haunted house in Transylvania only to seek refuge from their unrelenting fans, scant moments later, by secreting themselves in a diving bell. After bizarrely descending into the deepest depths of the ocean, they find themselves accosted by, of all things, a heartbroken octopus. I was spellbound. Freddie the What? Henrietta Who?

A few nights later, my father trundled home from work with a copy of the Beatles Greatest LP under his arm. As compilation albums go, it was pretty weak—an obscure German imprint that was fairly narrow in terms of the Beatles’ incredible musical breadth. But it hardly mattered: I was once and truly hooked, and nothing would ever be the same again.

Kenneth Womack has published four books devoted to the Beatles, including Long and Winding Roads: The Evolving Artistry of the Beatles and The Beatles Encyclopedia: Everything Fab Four. He is currently preparing a biography of George Martin, the Beatles’ legendary producer, to be entitled The Fifth Fab: Recording the Beatles with Sir George Martin. You can learn more about Ken’s work at www.kennethwomack.com

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