On the evening of 22nd November 1963 we had gone round to my Auntie Mhairi’s house on Marlborough Avenue and it was she who told me that President Kennedy had been shot. By the time we got home later in the evening he was dead. So. Even a child remembers what he was doing that night. I didn’t suffer any personal anguish over the assassination of JFK but I did feel the community sense of deflation and disappointment. He had been young and glamorous and charismatic. In 1960 during the run-up to the presidential election a posse had swept round our playground and I remember being cornered and asked, “Who are you voting for? Nixon or Kennedy?” As if I were enfranchised.
It was a Catch-22 question that put you in a bind. Nixon was the wrong answer because he was a weasel, not cool. But Kennedy was the wrong answer because he was Catholic. Yet how extraordinary that a US election should excite interest amongst a group of children in an obscure Glasgow playground.
Over the next few days the television endlessly played and replayed the grainy black and white images of the long black open-top limo passing round the corner of Elm and Houston under the shadow of the Texas school book depository, of the momentary confusion, the look of incomprehension on the faces of the kerbside spectators, the hands clutching at the throat, and the lady in shocking pink (as the news magazines subsequently revealed), usually so poised, now crawling panic-stricken across the back of the limo – was she trying to help the secret serviceman on board or was she just trying to get the hell out of there? And later, at Andrews Air Force Base, beside the coffin draped in the stars and stripes, still in her bloodstained pink suit, she looked so lost and dejected.
School over the next few days was muffled in silence. Everything seemed to come to a halt. And I thought, “This is odd!” Meanwhile, across the Pond, the craziness had not ceased, if anything had accelerated and intensified. Some disaffected ex-marine had apparently fled the scene and tried to lose himself in the Dallas suburbs. He had shot dead a policeman and tried to take refuge in a movie theatre where he was finally apprehended. A couple of days later he himself was shot dead in the basement of a police station, and in full view of the TV cameras, by the owner of a nightclub who, for motive, professed “I did it for Jackie!” Watching that footage, I got the impression that the policemen escorting Oswald knew he was a dead man walking. Watch it for yourself and see if I am not right. Look at that big guy in the white suit and the Stetson. His frightened eyes are blinkered. He knows something is about to happen. He knows. But I never warmed to the conspiracy theory. I just thought America was bedlam, a madhouse, out of control.
November 22nd wasn’t exactly a slow news day. Aldous Huxley died. And C. S. Lewis. Oh! And the fab four released their second LP. So for Christmas, I got With the Beatles. Mum gave me the money to get it. I bought it in Cuthbertson’s and hurried in the rain back along Sauchiehall Street to catch a bus at the Charing Cross end of Woodlands Road, all the time cherishing the record in the folds of my duffel coat, in case the rain turned the vinyl into a flower pot. Then a bus emerged from the dark wet night and I prayed, “Let it be a 10 or a 10A” – but it was a 59. O well. I’d just have to get off at the top of Clarence Drive and do the school walk home for the millionth time.
At home I was bitterly disappointed to find they’d sold me a dud. The Beatles sounded like the Chipmunks. I didn’t know that LPs played at 33.3 and not 45 rpm. Once I’d figured it out, it was okay.
“It won’t be long yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah yeah!”
A box set sat cheek by jowl with the Beatles – Benjamin Britten’s War Requiem in the historic 1963 Decca recording with Pears, Fischer-Dieskau, and Vishnevskaya, the composer conducting. I’d wanted it principally for the settings of Wilfred Owen. In the sleeve notes William Plomer wrote a preface and I recognised his name. He was Ian Fleming’s “gentle reader” at Jonathan Cape. (The Bond book published in 1963 was OHMSS. Bond first meets his wife-shortly-to-be when she overtakes him in a sports car with an impossibly glamorous name. A Lancia Flaminia Zagato Spyder.)
The Beatles and Benjamin Britten! I got teased for having eclectic tastes. Pop-pickers thought Britten was poncy and classicists thought the Beatles were naff. But then it became rather stylish to admire the Beatles from a classical point of view. Yehudi Menuhin had a good word for them. Symphony orchestras took to playing covers of McCartney-Lennon melodies, and I thought, “Now, that’s naff!” It sounded so prim and straight-backed. I imagined Peter Pears, with Britten at the piano, singing “It won’t be long yes yes yes yes yes yes!” It would sound like Schubert. I wondered what the Beatles would sound like singing “Anthem for Doomed Youth”. But they would have more sense than to try. They always had an uncanny knack of sensing what would work. I had heard that in the Hamburg days when they were starting to throw songs together, McCartney had said to Lennon, “’ay John, John, I’ve joost written this songuh, called ‘Ah saw ‘er standin’ theh…”
She were joost seventeen,
She were no beauty queen…”
“That’s f****** crap.”
Brian Matthew hosted Thank your Lucky Stars on the telly on Saturday and the Beatles, having sung From Me to You, closed the show with an encore, which was almost unprecedented. It was Twist and Shout. My father looked at them, with their hair over their collars, belting it out. “That’s outrageous.”
Alan Freeman did the Top 10 on the Light Programme on Sunday afternoons.
From a jack to a king!
From loneliness to a wedding ring
I played an ace and I won a queen
You made me king of your heart.
You could make a terrible mess of that song, live on stage. Shuffle the deck and get all your suits and face cards mixed up. It seemed to sit at No 2, like constipation, for a decade. I had no time for Country & Western. Jim Reeves singing I love you because let me entirely unmoved.
And on Sunday night at 11, Brian Alldis did the whole Top 20 on Radio Luxembourg. 208 megacycles. The Mersey Beat was all pervasive. Gerry and the Pacemakers and Freddie and the Dreamers. And The Searchers, singing Needles and Pinsugh!
But still she beginsugh…
I huddled under the bed clothes with my tiny transistor, illicitly, like a member of le maquis in occupied Europe tuning into BBC London. I’d have to wait until midnight because the Beatles would be at No 1. Every Monday morning I was utterly knackered. The songs would be ringing in my ears.
“Hurtn’ meh! Hurtn’ meh!”