It all started with a tape. Well, two tapes, actually.
The Beatles’ Red and Blue albums (or, to give them their official titles, 1962-1966 and 1967-1970) entered my life from almost the word go, sparking an obsession with the Fab Four from Liverpool that endures to this day.
Most people have a story about a defining moment when they heard The Beatles for the first time and thought, “Wow.” I don’t have one, because I was so young that I simply can’t remember. I can’t tell you what the first Beatles song I ever heard was. All I know is that those Red and Blue compilations were a constant on my parents’ stereo from the time I was born. My dad tells me I used to demand “Beatles” on car journeys as a toddler.
I do have a memory — or it might be a series of memories — of staring at the covers of those cassettes, comparing the two similar yet at the same time very different images of The Beatles looking down from the EMI stairwell. The fresh-faced young moptops of 1963 versus the long-haired rockers of 1969. They could have been completely different people, at least to a little kid like me, and I was fascinated by the transformation.
These tapes shaped how I saw The Beatles for years, dividing the music into two distinct eras, until I was old enough to start collecting their albums for myself. Last year, I was part of a Revolver discussion panel in Dublin, and was asked about the first time I heard it and the impact it made on me. Since I wasn’t alive in the ’60s and therefore didn’t experience The Beatles’ albums in the order they were released, I couldn’t honestly say that I had a sense of how groundbreaking it was. (In fact, I probably heard Sgt Pepper before I heard Revolver, and I’m pretty certain I heard ‘I Am the Walrus’ before either of those albums.) When you’re a second or third-generation Beatles fan, the cultural significance of the music is something you come to realise later on, when you dig deeper into the history and everything else that was going on at the time. To begin with, you only have your own personal connection to it.
One thing that has always intrigued me is the way every Beatles fan will talk about how their music was like nothing else they had ever heard before — even those of us who weren’t born when they were making that music. I was born in the early ’90s, a time when so many different things were happening musically, yet the band I gravitated towards was The Beatles. What does it say about them that a kid can hear their music, over two decades after they broke up, and be captivated by it in exactly the same way as someone who was actually there? It shows that great music is great music. It’s not confined to one time, place or generation.
We were definitely a Beatles family. In addition to the tapes, we had a framed piece of artwork on the wall in our house depicting the 1965 Shea Stadium concert. I think it had originally been on display in my grandparents’ flat, before my dad moved out and took it with him. Naturally I inherited it, and it’s one of my favourite Beatles items because of how it’s been passed down through the family. It’s now on my own bedroom wall. Also, when I was growing up, we had a hardback copy of Paul McCartney’s Many Years From Now (written with Barry Miles) in our bookcase. Predictably, I robbed that too as soon as I was old enough to read it.
There came a time when I left the Red and Blue cassettes behind (left all cassettes behind, full stop — they were a major pain in the arse compared to CDs, let’s be honest) and became the fully-fledged Beatlemaniac I am today. I went on a Beatle-buying crusade; collecting every album on CD (the horribly tinny-sounding 1987 releases, which is precisely why hearing the 2009 remasters was like discovering them all over again) and reading practically every book about them I could get my hands on. Basically, if it had something to do with The Beatles, I wanted to know about it.
As you might expect, I didn’t have any friends at school who were Beatles fans. But I did have the internet, which allowed me to connect with people my own age from all over the world who loved The Beatles as much as I did. At that time, when I did come across a fellow fan in person, it was usually someone closer to my parents’ age (I think that’s partly why I’ve always found it easy to relate to people who are older than me).
The Beatles created so much in such a short space of time. As a child, the two pictures on those cassette covers seemed a world apart. But looking at them as an adult, you realise the gap was only six years, which is incredible. Considering how brief their actual time together as a band was, you might think there couldn’t possibly be anything new left to say about them, or to hear in their music. But quite honestly, I’ve never experienced ‘Beatle Burnout’. Not once. I may take a little break from listening to them, but I always come back (and I’m usually listening to their solo stuff anyway, so it’s not really a break). The Beatles are like my comfort blanket.
Come to think of it, that last sentence sums up exactly how I feel about The Beatles and why. There’s a very specific feeling of warmth and familiarity that only they can give me, despite the fact that there are other artists whose music I love intensely. It’s probably because of my childhood exposure to those Red and Blue tapes, and the fact that it was the first music I ever connected with.
I guess The Beatles are quite simply part of my identity, and to be honest I wouldn’t have it any other way.