Read an extract from
Overpaid, Oversexed & Over There by David Hepworth
In his new book Overpaid, Oversexed & Over There, David Hepworth looks to the States, and the incredible impact The Beatles and British music had over there. The Beatles landing in New York in February 1964 was the opening shot in a cultural revolution nobody predicted. Suddenly the youth of the richest, most powerful nation on earth was trying to emulate the music, manners and the modes of a rainy island that had recently fallen on hard times.
Who would've thought something as simple as a hairstyle would cause such mania? Here you can read an axclusive extract about just that
This being the United States it wasn’t long before the psychologists weighed in. One Joyce Brothers wrote a column explaining ‘why they go wild over the Beatles’. To be fair it took a woman to point out that there was an attractively feminine side to their performances. She noted how the girls in the audience screamed when Paul and George closed on the same microphone and shook their heads. When they did this their hair did something hair had never previously been seen to do in the entire history of American popular entertainment. It moved.
The fuss about the Beatles’ hair, which in truth wasn’t a great deal longer than the average, served only to illustrate how many years it had been since America looked at itself in the mirror. The length of their hair wasn’t the issue. The way they wore it was.
The prevailing American hairstyles of the post-war years, which had been beamed into Europe’s living rooms via TV sitcoms, had valued control at all costs. This applied equally to men and women. American women would visit the salon once a week to have their hair ‘set’ so that it might maintain its shape throughout the following weekend. Men, many of whom had formed their idea of an acceptable hairstyle in the armed services, would have their hair cut every three weeks for fear that anyone should suggest it was anything that could be described as ‘scruffy’. The same conventions were imposed on the rest of the world by Hollywood. In those movie epics popular at the time which were set in the ancient world the hair of heroes such as Kirk Douglas as Spartacus was kept under such firm hold that even a duel to the death in the Circus Maximus would be unlikely to disarrange a single strand. Leading ladies such as Gina Lollobrigida’s Queen of Sheba had clearly spent an inordinate amount of time under whatever passed for a drier back in those biblical days. As Sibbie O’Sullivan writes in her memoir of being a teenage fan at the time, ‘if teenage girls screamed when the Beatles shook their heads they could have simply been responding to seeing hair actually move, given how flat-topped, greased up or encased in military grade hairspray American hair had become by 1964’.
None of this was taking place in a vacuum. By 1964 the British hairdresser Vidal Sassoon had already built a reputation for his revolutionary approach to cutting the hair of fashionable women. Sassoon, who took his inspiration from modern architecture, moved the emphasis from the dressing of hair to the drama of its cutting, ideally in ways that complemented the bone structure of his client. After Sassoon, women could wash their hair, let it dry, and the severity of the cut would take care of the rest. ‘You could even,’ recalled one early client wonderingly, as though lucky enough to have been present at the invention of sex, ‘run your hands through it.’
This sensuality was a galaxy away from small-town America where it was believed that hair, like the emotions, was best kept under tight control. Bruce Springsteen of Freehold, New Jersey, who was fourteen at the time, recalled just how much was at stake when people talked about hair. ‘It is almost impossible to explain today the effect of the hair. In 1964 Freehold was redneck ugly. If you were going to grow your hair you ran the risk of having to get into a fight to earn your right to do so.’
This had already been an issue before the Beatles came along. Back in May 1963, Life magazine had carried a story about hair length and young boys. This had been occasioned by photographs of the two-year-old John Kennedy, the son of the President, with hair which strayed slightly over his ears. The writer told a personal story of how her own young son preferred to wear his hair at the same modest length. She added, controversially, that she had been prepared to support him no matter how much the barber argued that he should be ‘given a butch’ (a butch was the kind of crop favoured by the nation’s heroes of the time, the astronauts). However, even she was forced to give in when a delegation of mothers came to see her and begged her to cut her son’s hair because they were worried about the effect his hair length was having on their own sons.
In December 1964, after almost a full year of American Beatlemania, a Connecticut schoolboy called Edward Kores was involved in a dispute with the education authorities at state level. He had been sent home from school because of his bangs (the American term for hair combed forward into a fringe rather than to the side). He had been dismissed even though, in the words of the New York Times, ‘unlike the British singing group’ he had his hair short at the sides and back. His school had still objected to the style. His parents supported the boy, arguing that the school had infringed his
Whereas similar squabbles in the UK would rarely amount to much more than a few headteachers being quoted in the Daily Mirror and an opportunistic would-be pop star called David Jones popping up on the BBC’s current affairs programme Tonight, announcing himself as being from the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Long- Haired Men, in America the same argument would soon be about the nature of the republic and would involve the enlistment of the Founding Fathers on both sides of the argument. Such disputes didn’t readily go away. Fully two years after the Beatles’ arrival members of a Dallas rock band called Sounds Unlimited actually sued their school in federal court over the length of their hair. They eventually took their case to the Supreme Court. The school in this case prevailed. Two members of the band cut their hair and joined the US Marines.
It is only overstating the case slightly to say that in pop music, hair is everything. The Beatles understood this. One of the first things John Lennon said to Ringo Starr when the latter agreed to join the band was ‘the sideburns will have to go’. The manner in which they choose to wear their hair is one of the few things artists can agree on early in their career, and this usually happens long before they sign a contract or see the inside of a recording studio. The look is who they are. Once they’ve arrived at a look they are unlikely to depart from it. Long before Elvis Presley had made a record he was known around Memphis for the care with which he swept back his hair and the trouble he went to to dye it to achieve the Tony Curtis shade he favoured. Artists like Little Richard were 50 per cent hair, often literally. The Ronettes sported the towering beehives of girls who wished to be taken as slightly older and possibly a tad sluttier than they really were.
In the year 1964 it was impossible for anybody to talk about the Beatles without mentioning their hair. It appeared to be, much as it was with Samson, the source of their strength. That snap decision John and Paul had taken during a short holiday in Paris in 1961 to abandon the last vestiges of their swept-back rocker pompadours and instead to embrace the choirboy style favoured by the Parisians of the nouvelle vague was, it turned out, the most consequential creative decision they ever took. In Liverpool it instantly defined them against the competition. In America it defined them against the adults of an entire continent and invited its youth to join them in this great revolution of the head.
David Hepworth has been writing, broadcasting and speaking about music and media since the seventies. He was involved in the launch and editing of magazines such as Smash Hits, Q, Mojo and The Word, among many others. He was one of the presenters of the BBC rock music programme The Old Grey Whistle Test and one of the anchors of the corporation's coverage of Live Aid in 1985. He has won the Editor of the Year and Writer of the Year awards from the Professional Publishers Association and the Mark Boxer award from the British Society of Magazine Editors. He lives in London, dividing his time between writing for a variety of newspaper and magazines, speaking at events, broadcasting work, podcasting at www.wordpodcast.co.uk and blogging at www.whatsheonaboutnow.blogspot.co.uk.
Author Photo © Imogen Hepworth