Nov 072008

Here’s an oldie but goodie that gets to the heart of our “This Is Your Rock Town Hall!” reminders. Alexmagic had connections to at least one Townsman before delighting us with his comments, but like a number of other regular participants we now take for granted he wasn’t part of my personal inner circle. I believe this was Alexmagic’s first Main Stage contribution, appearing under my byline, as he had not yet had Back Office privileges in place. I still get chuckle out of it, and I still look forward to his comments and the promise of some more original posts. He’s not the only Townsperson whose take on rock we’d benefit from seeing on the Main Stage more regularly. This is your Rock Town Hall.

This post initially appeared 7/20/07.

Regulars in the Halls of Rock might have noticed a post from a newcomer, Townsman Alexmagic, in the comments section of yesterday’s hypothetical Beatles question. Those who do not follow as closely or who’ve been away might have missed it, so we’re bringing it to the Main Stage. Enjoy. Thanks, Alexmagic, and may you make yourself heard in these hallowed halls on a regular basis!

Unfortunately, this premise is flawed and presents a question impossible to answer, since the 1967 musical landscape would be radically different had the Beatles not shown up until this point. Instead, this should be approached as a complete alternate history (such as, “what would World War II have been like if aliens had attacked?”), contemplating the musical landscape of 1967 if the Beatles had never formed, though all would still have existed. We begin, then, with a starting point of Lennon and McCartney never meeting at the St. Peter’s Woolton Parish Church Garden Fete.

This new history means that there was no British Invasion as we know it. The “Fab Four” are Frankie Avalon, Bobby Rydell, Chubby Checker and Fabian, as the Original Philly Sound (which it would come to be known) sweeps the United States, and the Four make a series of popular, hijinx-filled teen movies about their shenanigans at the Jersey Shore, one of which debuts a young Bill Cosby. Chubby Checker will later spend the mid-1990s through the 2000s demanding that he receive the Academy Honorary Award prior to every Oscars telecast, dubbing himself “the soil Hollywood grows on.”

England responds to the clean-cut, genial sound gripping the States by countering with its own exports of boyishly-handsome actor/singers, possibly led by a young Davy Jones and (as he would be billed) Jimmy McCartney. I speculate that this Alternate Timeline Paul McCartney ends up with the lead in Alfie. John still ends up working with George Martin, but as a comedy record producer and part-time member of the Bonzo Dog Band. He gets into a fistfight with Peter Sellers on the set of I Love You, Alice B. Toklas! – which, for reasons that will soon become clear, is a film about surfing instead of hippies.

George Harrison’s fate is less clear in this Rock Earth 2 scenario, but Ringo stays on with Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, who become The Savage Young Rory Storm and the Even More Savage, Equally-Young Hurricanes when they back Tony Sheridan. Sheridan, incidentally, later forms The Tony Sheridan Experience, featuring himself, Ringo on drums, Ace Kefford on bass and a peculiar pair of guitarists named Jimmy James and Tommy Chong.

Post-Army Elvis fares much better in this Alternate Timeline, with Roustabout holding up better as a film in 1964 compared to the Bobby Rydell-led Fab Four vehicle Wildwood Days than it would against A Hard Day’s Night. An East Coast/West Coast Elvis vs. Frankie Avalon feud is narrowly avoided when Elvis instead turns his attentions that year to the Mike Love-led Beach Boys, now his chief US pop chart competition, though Elvis himself later grudgingly admits that he likes his rivals better after they “got rid of the fat one” (Mike and Murry Wilson secretly kill Brian, disguising it as a suicide, in early 1965 following his anxiety attacks, thinking him too much of a hassle and an anchor on the band’s appeal to their ever-growing surf song fanbase).

Elvis makes no fewer than four surfing movies in 1965 and 1966 (Hang Ten, Wave Goodbye, Surf & Turf and The Kokonuts), and things come to a head in November 1967 when Elvis competes with Mike Love and Dennis Wilson for a guest spot in that Batman episode where Batman and the Joker have a surfing contest. Neither ends up in the episode, but Elvis wins in the long run when he reveals that The Jordanaires had actually played The Penguin’s henchmen in the 1966 Batman movie. A disgraced Mike Love flees to India, where he meets the Maharishi Yogi, who puts together a band featuring Love, Brian Jones and Donovan. Love later goes on to take Jack Nance’s roles in all of David Lynch’s productions. In this Alternate Timeline, Frank Booth wears a captain’s hat in Blue Velvet, but the movie is otherwise unchanged. Dennis, meanwhile, comes up with the idea to do a TV show about a band, and The Sunrays debuts on TV (directed by Murry), with Dennis, Stephen Stills, Charles Manson and John Sebastian. Manson plays drums in the fictional band and 30 years later, becomes a radio DJ and kind of a jerk. This also results in that weird, creepy Dion submission for a Welcome Back Kotter theme actually becoming the theme song for the show, and thus it never becomes popular, preventing Gabe Kaplan from appearing on Battle of the Network Stars, which creates numerous and far-reaching historical shakeups which fall outside of our 1967 vantage point.

This all leaves out what becomes of Motown, which doesn’t run into a British Invasion and perhaps goes folk instead of going psychedelic, in response to Dylan, who probably makes it to this Alternate 1967 mostly intact. Outside of the scope of the question at hand, I also speculate that James Brown and Elvis eventually come to blows in the 70s when this Alternate Elvis – alarmed when Brown (who remains unchanged in all Alternate Timelines) stops riots in 1968 in DC – volunteers to go undercover as a member of the newly-formed JBs on behalf of Richard Nixon when the two meet in 1970.


  20 Responses to “Getting Hypothetical: What If James Darren Was the Fifth Beatle?”

  1. this is the best question i’ve ever been asked.

  2. This discussion seems guided by the “Great Men of History” belief, that is, that individuals, not larger collective movements, are responsible for history.

    I disagree with this belief, especially with with regards to the question raised. There were plenty of innovative performers at the time, such as The Who, Hendrix, Dylan.

    The world didn’t need the Beatles to come along and make history; a larger social movement made it.

  3. Mr. Moderator

    Dr. John, I’m not sure that I follow. Who’s to say, then, whether The Who, Hendrix, and Dylan were actually innovative or whether they filled a role created by a larger social movement? Seriously, what the heck are you talking about in terms of the music of The Beatles or any of these artists?

  4. First off, are you really questioning whether The Who, Hendrix, and Dylan were innovative? A short answer: yes they were. Just in their guitar playing alone they were rewriting what the rules(The Who: controlled feedback, Hendrix: lead, Dylan electrifying folk).

    The Beatles did not drop in from another planet. They were a product of a time and place. What I’m saying is if you removed the Beatles, yeah you wouldn’t have their music, but you would still have all the cultural energies that determined their music (and which all the bands at the time were feeding off of).

    The question is not really about the music of the Beatles, it is a question of how “unique” and “irreplacable” they were.

    Yeah their music was great, I’m not denying that. But if you’re looking for someone who changed history, I’d be more inclined to go with Dylan.

  5. Mr. Moderator

    Dr. John wrote:

    First off, are you really questioning whether The Who, Hendrix, and Dylan were innovative?

    No, but now I’m questioning whether I was not clear enough in my use of sarcasm:)

    Without comparing anyone’s uniqueness, I’m still not sure that you’ve answered how, musically, The Beatles’ contributions would be replaced, how musical history would have been changed, etc.

    Granted, we’re speaking hypothetically and with knowledge of the absurdity of the entire venture, but I spent some time playing guitar with an 8-year-old boy this weekend. The kid’s really good, and he wanted to show me some stuff he was learning from his Beatles book. As I played along with him, I was quickly reminded of why I never got that good on guitar and why I never made much effort to learn and remember other people’s songs. That same Beatles book for guitar was one of my first music books, and every time I was getting into playing a Beatles song some stinking augmented 11th chord would pop up. The hell with remembering that stuff! I thought way back then and just this past Saturday. Later in the day, as I tried to recall some songs I could remember, more or less, from start to finish, I hit on a wealth of Who songs: “Substitute”, “I’m a Boy”, “Can’t Explain”… All tremendous songs but all songs only a step or two ahead of the works of any of rock’s founding fathers and mothers. Not a stinking augmented 11th chord in the batch!

    So what I’m asking is – again, leaving degree of uniqueness and innovation aside – what would these “cultural energies” be without the augmented 11th chords, the Rock Superhero Powers, and the like? And would these energies be anywhere near the same? I don’t know. I’m not convinced that clips of hippies dancing in Golden Gate Park interspersed with news footage from Vietnam with “For What It’s Worth” playing would be quite as significant without the contributions of a handful of humans who happened to be clicking during those times.

    Who knows, this may be one of those cases in which we really agree with each other and don’t yet know it.

  6. Actually, Mr. Mod, I’m more in agreement with you on this question than on the previous “half a career” question.

    The Beatles aren’t SIMPLY the function of a time and place; they’re also about the unique skills they brought to that time and place. I know that art is social, Dr. John, but it’s not merely social; individuals do bring to it a specific set of conditions.

    Rarely in the history of any art has an artist managed to be both earth-shatteringly popular and incredibly innovative, and to be that innovative without losing their audience. Dylan did this too of course, so if the question was which did the most to change rock and roll, that’s a tough call. Dylan brought the music linguistic complexity and emotional/social depth; in that regard the Beatles were his followers, to the extent that they ever made it there. The Beatles did more to expand the possibilities in the SOUND of rock and roll.

    The question with the Beatles then is this; would the array of sound possible within rock have been as complete without The Beatles?

    I think the answer is probably yes. But what there would not be would be one band at the center of so many changes simultaneously. There did not have to be a band as popular and as original simultaneously as The Beatles were. Some band would have done an 11th chord. But they wouldn’t have done all these other things too.

  7. And the other thing is this: would everyone have cared so MUCH about rock and roll without the phenomenon of The Beatles? My guess is they might have cared a little less. It wasn’t like rock and roll was the only thing going on in the sixties.

  8. Anyone who argues against the Beatles as *the* force of the ’60s as Dr. John does I think has to explain why it wasn’t some other band. Why was no other band even close, if it was the times and not the individual?

    Not that the times weren’t important; they were. But, the Beatles had so much that no other band had – unbelieveable musical talent, personalities, a savvy manager, a producer, cool like no others, and on and on. If it wasn’t The Beatles I don’t know who it was going to be.

    The Beatles vs Dylan is a question I’ve long pondered (and is probably worthy of a separate thread). I mentioned recently that it would be interesting to debate which artist had the largest combined musical/cultural impact. I threw out Sinatra, The Beatles, Dylan, and Michael Jackson as possibilities. As a huge fan of the first three, I’ve never come to any conclusion of my own. I love to read the musings of RTH on this.

  9. Sounds like another worthwhile thread, but if we were to limit it to American music and offshoots, these would be the contenders, to my mind:

    Louis Armstrong
    Duke Ellington
    Charlie Parker
    Frank Sinatra (maybe)
    Hank Williams
    Muddy Waters
    Elvis Presley
    The Beatles
    Bob Dylan

    Not quite making the cut:

    Billie Holiday
    Robert Johnson
    Dizzy Gillespie
    Miles Davis
    James Brown

  10. 2000 Man

    I can’t agree with you on that, dr. john. I think Jeff Beck did more with distortion than The Who, and was usually sooner. But without The Beatles, no one in the US would have ever heard The Yardbirds or The Who for that matter. Beatlemania was almost as powerful a force on 60’s culture as the Vietnam War. The Beatles were everywhere, all the time. While I think there were certainly bands as worthy (if not more) to listen to musically, no band has ever had the impact of The Beatles, and with the way media is fragmented today, I doubt any band ever will.

  11. Mr. Moderator

    Feel free to let that Beatles vs Dylan debate take place here. I’m currently having a little trouble getting my head around it. I’m also scratching my head over Townsman Mwall’s inclusion of The Beatles in his list of “American music and its offshoots,” but I think I know what he’s getting at.

  12. Good points 2000 man. But as far as Beatle-mania goes, what specific cultural effects were the Beatles solely responsible for? One that comes to mind is the uproar over Lennon’s “We’re more popular than Jesus” remark.

    What others were there? And did any have the impact of when Dylan went electric?

  13. saturnismine

    ummm….common sense (mostly derided in academia, and unfairly, I think) tells us that it’s not *either* “great individuals” (in the Burckhardtian sense) *or* social / cultural contexts (in the Foucaultian sense) that shape human history, it’s BOTH. In (viable) theory and practice (which always trumps theory), both “great” individuals and culture exist — in fact thrive — in a symbiosis with one another.

    And by “great” I don’t wish to invoke the elitist genius concept; i mean something more subtle: individuals possessing talent and vision, sure, but upon whom fortune smiles, as well, who ultimately loom large in the public sphere and either achieve, or at least approach, iconic status.

    Certainly the Beatles are a product of a rich cultural context (everything from Elvis to post-war prosperity and its technological refinements of the industrial era’s earlier invention of leisure time).

    But are we disingenuous if we point out that the cultural context that sparked Beatles included individuals who performed specific acts that are essential to the Beatles? Marconi invented the radio. Elvis shook his hips. Buddy Holly wore glasses. Each of them are individuals who *responded* to their cultural contexts at places and times that brought them into contact with greater and greater means for their ideas, or greater audiences.

    We’re being more disingenuous if we pretend that either individuals or contexts move history.

    It’s a chicken and egg question.

    So if the Beatles “hadn’t shown up at all” there were certainly others who were interested in Rock and Roll, and *something* would have happened, but it wouldn’t have happened the same way. You can’t take that away from those individuals.

    And as for all this guitar shit, dr. john, to a man, dylan, hendrix, townshend, and beck are ALL cited as having credited the Beatles as being extremely important for them. The Beatles loomed large in the contexts that helped shape them. They not only admit it, they enthusiastically state it. They are, in fact, some of the “specific cultural effects” you’re after. Criminey, Dylan’s decision to go electric was a response to the Beatles.

  14. At the risk of betraying my non-common sense perspective, I agree with you, saturn.

    But, I think it might be worth thinking about it this way. What if the Beatles had arrived a decade earlier, without the benefits of the cultural upheavals in the mid to late 60s? Would they have been as popular?

  15. saturnismine

    Hmmm…at the risk of sounding like a positivist ( : 0 ), I suppose that if the Beatles “had arrived a decade earlier,” they wouldn’t have sounded like the Beatles. They couldn’t have. Lots of the things that went into making them the Beatles (your “larger collective movements”) didn’t exist yet. So how could they?

    I’ll admit to having no imagination whatsoever for the notion of a band looking and sounding exactly like the beatles in 1953 rather than 63. We could argue any response to them! a. A greater number of people would’ve thought they were weird than would have in 64. But would they have ever made it onto the tube for people to see them? Was England ready for their sound in 53? Probably not. Is the other side of the argument is that they would have appeared even more novel, more advanced, and people would have loved them? Of course that’s less likely. So, no, they probably wouldn’t have been as popular….I guess. But so what?

  16. My point is that many really important bands got that way by having perfect timing. For example, the Beatles popularity in England rose greatly after the Profumo scandal, because people were looking for a diversion, and seized on the group’s pleasing harmonies, catchy hooks, cheery attitude, and their self-conscious English-ness as fashion

    In short, I’m arguing that bands fit the historical moment, rather than the other way around.

  17. mockcarr

    Would it be possible to be more popular? What artist was? If you go from Rudy Vallee to Sinatra to Elvis to them, what comes after that raises the fad bar?

  18. saturnismine

    John, if you’re arguing that bands fit the historical moment rather than the other way around, then you might not agree with what I wrote above, despite your proclamation of assent. It sounds like you’re still privileging context over the individual’s ability to have any vision whatsoever.

    I could be wrong but as you articulate your model above, it sounds like the historical moment is a golden goose that laid an egg called the Beatles, unbeknownst to even them, unwitting participants in said moment.

    But there were *so many* bands, contemporaries of the Beatles, and what of them? They were looking to seize the conditions before them and take advantage of them too (i.e. conquer the market…get famous…write hits…what have you). The Beatles had a nice combination of vision, talent, and thus the ability to produce songs that copped a feel on the collective ass of a LARGE percentage of the english public. And they *liked* it.

    And yes, the historical moment IS important. But when I was talking about timing, I wasn’t talking about historical, epochal time. That’s too abstract, too big. I was talking about the little things. For instance, the fact that they managed to get a recording of their cover of “My Bonnie” into stores and Brian Epstein *happened* to be in one while a teen-aged girl was throwing a fit because she had either just gotten her hands on a copy, or was unable to (can’t remember exactly which), is extremely fortuitous.

  19. I would definitely privilege context over the individual’s ability to have any effect whatsoever, even while I acknowledge that the individual can have a significant effect. But of course it’s the combination of history and individual that makes things happen. Right people, place, and time–miss any of the three, and who knows how it all turns out?

    It’s hard to know, for instance, how well a band with the range of the Beatles’ abilities would have done in the Led Zeppelin era, when a heavier sound is what began to sell records. Would Harrison have powered up that guitar? Would Lennon or McCartney have been able to belt out the macho hard rock vocal sound?

    The point, I think, is that the Beatles, with their music, were talented enough (and lucky enough: getting the breaks counts) to be able to get to the heart of what was possible for popular music at their time, just as Zeppelin would do later. They were the ones that made the history that was there to be made.

    The individual, I would say, can make history, but never stand outside it–and there’s only so much history to be made.

  20. I think the Beatles did make history–by breaking up. Not only for many did it mark the end of the “sixties,” but it left the musical marketplace wide open. What happened next was the rise of Taylor-era Stones and post-Beatles pop of CSN(Y).

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