If There Had Been No Beatles, There Would Have Been No Me
Can one music group influence a person that much? Apparently so.
Recently I saw the film “Yesterday” in which Himesh Patel’s character suddenly finds himself in a world where the Beatles never existed. The movie forces us to think, among other things, some of the implications of a world without the Fab Four and their music. As I thought about it, it occurred to me that the biggest implication, at least for me, was that I wouldn’t exist either.
Sure, I still would have been born on that hot summer afternoon years ago. Beatles or not, the first ten years of my life would probably have been very much the same, growing up initially with my parents and two sisters, sharing a tiny two-bedroom one-bath house on our city’s east side. My father was a musician, so no doubt I would have still played the trumpet in the school band and sung in the church youth choir. But in early 1964 my identity, my appearance, my tastes and even my career path were set on a new and decisive course when I discovered the music of the Beatles. That was the moment “the Nick Walker that was to be” became vastly different from “the Nick Walker that would have been.”
I’m guessing that was not only true of me, but also true of countless others.
That was because thousands of young people in this country discovered the Beatles on or around that fateful February Sunday night when the quartet made their American television debut on the Ed Sullivan Show. My own discovery actually came a few weeks earlier, via my brand new transistor radio, given to me that previous Christmas. With the gift in hand I was no longer confined to listening to the music of my parents, so every night after lights out I listened to the radio through my pillow, hearing the disc jockey count down the top songs of the week.
I will never forget the night I was drifting off to sleep when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” first entered the countdown. Suddenly I was wide awake, adrenaline shooting through my body. I had never heard such a song before. It wasn’t that the melody or lyrics were anything special; it was simply that sound: daring, electric, different—unlike the docile records by Dean Martin, Leslie Gore, Bobby Vinton and even the Four Seasons that had dominated the charts up to that point. Here was music that moved me, music that touched me somewhere inside, music I could call mine. For the next month my day was not complete until I heard the final “ha-a-a-a-a-a-and” over the closing guitar/bass riff of that two-minute and 24-second sampling of concentrated excitement.
Within a year my crew cut disappeared, replaced by a comb-down-in-front style that stayed with me until I was, as an adult, forced by television consultants to change it. In the sixties my family didn’t own a record player, but I went out and bought Beatles albums anyway, taking them to friends’ homes to play. Every other penny I earned in allowance went into a fund to purchase a guitar. In the meantime I manufactured a makeshift instrument out of a cigar box, a flat wooden plank, 3 nails and some rubber bands. I convinced my parents to buy me a Beatles songbook and a book of guitar chords from the local music shop so I could practice the fingerings on my rubber-band banjo. By the time I finally bought my first guitar (thirteen dollars from a downtown pawn shop) I already knew how to play several Lennon-McCartney compositions.
It was the Beatles’ defiance of convention that led me to rebel against my mother’s wishes that I learn the piano. Instead, I saved up for an electric guitar, playing it as loudly as my ten-watt amplifier from Sears would allow. It may not sound like brazen disobedience now, but I assure you, for this formerly well-behaved pre-teen, it was outright insurrection.
I had an active imagination, and where I had before used it to pretend to be an astronaut or secret agent, my fantasy world now had me the leader of a rock and roll band with thousands of fans screaming for my latest hits. So I wrote real songs to sing to my imaginary fans, copying the Beatles lyrical styles and even recording some of the results on my next big Christmas present: my own desktop reel-to-reel tape recorder.
In 9th grade I turned my fantasy into reality, teaming up with some buddies who had similar interests and forming a four-piece band, plunking out songs not only from the Beatles, but from other groups who followed them onto the charts. My band was rough around the edges, but we nevertheless became the hit of my church’s youth talent show that year, gaining us new friends and new confidence.
Soon I discovered other benefits from the guitar. I found that I could earn extra credit in my junior high classes simply by writing and recording songs about historical figures and events, once convincing a teacher to let me pen a song about the Revolutionary War instead of taking the final exam. I also quickly learned that a guy didn’t need to be an athlete to get a girlfriend, as long as he could play the guitar and sing a few love songs. And if he could write one of his own and sing it to the object of his affection? I’m convinced it was the only reason this awkwardly shy teenager ever had a date.
Later as I began to think and plan about a career, my second choice (my first being “rock star”) was to become a radio DJ. Where else could I get paid for doing what I liked best—playing Beatles records? After two years on the road after high school actually trying to be a rock star, I went back to college and immediately went to work on the campus radio station. That led to increased confidence in my speaking ability and then a minimum-wage job at the local AM station in my college town, eventually serving as an entry point to a 40+ year career in broadcasting.
That’s a lot of impact on one individual from four British guys he never met.
Even now the Beatles still fascinate me. I own most of their records (vinyl as well as compact disc), I have read every book about them that I can get my hands on, and even decorated a “man cave” in our home in Beatles paraphernalia. I have memorized most of the lyrics to all but a few of the 188 original songs they recorded, and I have stored enough Beatles trivia in my brain to bore my wife and children to tears, which I have succeeded in doing on several occasions. I still play the guitar and write music, helping lead music at my church, and now and then recording original songs.
Not long ago I had a conversation with a co-worker who told me he never cared for the Beatles’ music, though he was a fan of many other British artists. I tried to convince him that without the Beatles, many of those artists he enjoyed might have never become popular (something the movie “Yesterday” conveniently ignores). Try as I might, he was unmoved. It’s okay; I recognize that everyone’s personal history is different.
For many people, all it takes to recall strong emotions from their personal history is a few lines from a favorite song. For me, hearing certain Beatles songs taps into a place deep within me. In fact, all it really takes to bring on a rush of memories, warmth, nostalgia, passion and gratitude is the sound of the three guitar notes that open “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
My life, and the lives of many others, would surely have looked very different without them.
© Nick Walker 2019
What about you? Have the Beatles or another musical artist influenced your life in a significant way? Feel free to scroll down and leave a comment.