Amateur 8mm film of JFK’s assassination…repeated over and over…gave American a taste for violence. Slo-mo and instant replay debut on TV sports. First Wave Boomers graduate high school and the Baby Boom ends exactly nine months after JFK died. A non-incident at the Gulf of Tonkin…the draft…TV’s campaign to sell war…The Beatles assassinate Brill Building Pop, Wall of Sound, Teen Idols and Folk with one appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show…GI Joe (the hottest new Boomer boy toy) debuts in time for Xmas.
1964: Another World, Peyton Place and The Young Married
Have you ever attended a good old-fashioned Irish wake? The strange event usually takes place in two, large adjoining rooms. One setting provides a dimly lit, tranquil area where friends and family can view the body of their loved one and grieve his or her passing. The other room hosts a wild, drunken party, where everyone tells happy stories of crazy times spent with the dearly departed between toasts. But watch friends and family pass from one room to the next and you will notice some people laughing, others crying, and a few displaying both emotions simultaneously.
America held a wake for Kennedy in 1964…a year of extremely complex feelings…of giddy laughter and dark fears, of absurd escapist fantasy and harsh reality, of the beautiful and the grotesque. Opposites converged and crossed over.
The American public acquired a morbid fascination for violence and pain from the repeated viewings of the Kennedy and Oswald murders, and the TV networks catered to this new taste with new technology. Instant replay, in slow motion, offered audiences a chance to fully appreciate the exact point of violent contact. “Watch closely…the injury occurred right there. What a hit! I didn’t know a human body could bounce that high. Let’s look at that again.” The ratings and advertising fees shot sky high, as sports fans stayed away from stadiums to watch bone-crushing tackles, baseball beanings and flaming race car crashes in slo-mo on TV. CBS became so excited about their new success that they bought the New York Yankees. TV sports had come of age, and corporations, rather than families (thanks to the agony of defeat in slo-mo) eventually owned all professional sports teams in America.
The Baby Boom ended exactly nine months after the assassination of JFK, but it would be too simple to point to that terrible shock as the only reason for a sharp decline in the birth rate. The current senior class, by far the largest in history, graduated from high school in 1964. The head of the pig, completely undigested and full of life, suddenly emerged from the other end of the python, blinking at the harsh light of reality. The adult world was neither prepared nor pleased with this new arrival. How could it possibly absorb such a large number of high school graduates into mainstream America? Not enough jobs or housing for all these kids. Many of them scheduled June weddings with their high school sweethearts, and then planned to pop out a few kids of their own. The senior class of 1965 would be even bigger, and the class of ‘66 larger yet. Kids have a nasty habit of growing up.
The Beach Boys wondered, “Well, I’m young and free/ But how will it be/ When I grow up to be a man?” Jan and Dean predicted a collision in Teen Utopia at Dead Man’s Curve. The tide went out for surfer movies with Horror of Party Beach, (one of the worst films ever in either genre.)
Teens couldn’t find permanent and/or summer jobs, especially in the inner city where the unemployment rate was already staggering. Black Boomers were Dancing in the Streets amid a Heat Wave in 1964. Might as well. Ain’t no work around.
Many of the teens from the pioneer Boomer class headed for college in the fall. Their group was 20% larger than the previous year’s, and they found themselves waiting in long lines, trying to get into overcrowded classes. The vast freshman army forced many colleges to install computers to handle the registration load. Boomer students wore T-shirts that read, “Do not fold, spindle or mutilate… I am a human being.”
Game show titles can be just as obvious in reflecting the mood of a time period as those of soap operas. The new titles for 1964 were Jeopardy and Let’s Make a Deal. TV cancelled The Price is Right.
Two popular new family sit-coms showed us that America’s most cherished institution had suddenly turned sour. The Munsters and The Addams Family presented two grotesque clans, completely out of synch with their environment. Although these family units had the best of intentions in their own demented way, outsiders saw them only as a menace. Visually, this year, families were ugly, and motherhood was unnatural. In addition to Lily Munster and Morticia Addams, Samantha (Bewitched) appeared as the only other new housewife/ mother on the tube in 1964. The world’s second oldest profession for females was about to experience massive downsizing. America now considered the role of stay-at-home-Mom a macabre fantasy. Those without supernatural powers need not apply. Even the most voluptuous new “woman” on the tube in 1964 turned out to be physically incapable of adding to the overpopulation problem. Julie Newmar, literally cast as My Living Doll, played a robot to whom pregnancy did not compute. As with most other professions in 1964, Boomer girls found little encouragement and few openings in the field of motherhood.
Why do women want to have babies anyway? The networks concluded that females were just looking for an excuse to stay home and watch the soaps, and thus made it easy for young Boomer girls during the transition to day jobs and/or college by offering a primetime soap opera. Peyton Place, the spiciest tube trash of its time, with sexy Mia Farrow and Ryan O’Neal, played two nights a week in TV’s patriotic effort to suppress the cravings for daytime soaps in young, potential mothers.
How did Americans really feel in 1964? Check the media reflections: World Without Love, Don’t Let the Rain Come Down and Suspicion placed high on the charts. The Drifters, Up on the Roof in 1962, now hid Under the Boardwalk. Harris Against the World and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea premiered on TV, and the titles warned of paranoia and depression in the year to come. Boomer kids really related to the characters on Gilligan’s Island… trapped, isolated, helpless and lonely, while The Fugitive (“What did I do to deserve this?”) continued to soar in the ratings.
Did anyone notice at the time, that our laughter was strained and mixed with tears? The media offered comedies on topics that never seemed funny before: castaways stranded on a remote island, a stumbling blind man (The Adventures of Mr. Magoo), monsters, witches, robots, Martians, spies and counterspies (Man From U.N.C.L.E.).
The movie industry must always find a way to top the tube, and in 1964 offered the hilarious subject of world destruction in Dr. Stranglove; or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb and Fail Safe. The plot of both films involved the accidental bombing of, and retaliation by Russia (inspired by the Cuban Missile Crisis). Each film boasted excellent directors (Kubric and Lumet, respectively), writing and acting, and yet, Strangelove became a Boomer classic while the second film faded from memory. Fail Safe was too damn serious for the time. When the President (Henry Fonda) agreed to sacrifice New York City, as an eye for an eye, he forced Americans to consider the severity of the game that we played with the Russians. Kubric, hip to the times, decided to turn a serious novel, Red Alert, into a black comedy. The audience began laughing during the opening credits, as a B-52 bomber refueled in midair. The planes looked like two giant insects humping as Try a Little Tenderness played in the background. Kubric allowed us to laugh at our pain, and one our greatest fears… the bomb. We felt relief, rather than the anxiety on top of fear that we got from watching Fail Safe.
LBJ’s TV ad campaign people also recognized the mood of the country in planning his bid for reelection. Instead of giving Lyndon a positive image, they attached one negative reflection to Goldwater. Barry ran on a “no-nonsense” platform. His policy on Vietnam, for instance: “Let’s get in there and win the damn thing and then get the hell out.” In the most effective, and perhaps, the most misleading political campaign spot in the history of television, LBJ’s ad showed a little girl picking petals off a daisy, completely unaware of the violent mushroom cloud erupting behind her. The public made an instant connection between Barry and the bomb. Many Americans were fooled into thinking that if Goldwater became President he would waste no time in dropping the big one on Hanoi, and then Russia would retaliate and drop one on us. That fear magnified as the People’s Republic of China exploded its first atomic bomb just three weeks before the election. Meanwhile, Lyndon quietly used the Gulf of Tonkin incident (or non-incident, as we now know) to force Congress to give him carte blanche in Vietnam. Goldwater promised to abolish the draft during the campaign, and Johnson insinuated that he might do the same, but once the election was out of the way, LBJ moved in another direction. LBJ quickly went to work with Selective Service Director Hershey on a plan to speed up the classification of 18-year-olds (pioneer Boomers). The average draft age at the time was 23. A year later, the most popular joke among Republicans was: “My friends warned me that if I voted for Goldwater, we would be at war within a year. They were right; I did, and we are.”
Television embarked on the greatest sales campaign of all time, in an effort to sell patriotism. As usual, Boomers were the targets of the pitch. The networks pushed the “glory of war” concept with 12 O’Clock High, Combat, World War I and The Lieutenant, and tried to sell “War is fun” with Gomer Pyle, USMC, Broadside, No Time for Sergeants and McHale’s Navy.
ROCK & ROLL
Boomers wanted fun all right, but war wasn’t quite what they had in mind. They did, however, find something more to their liking. Our poor parents. Just when they thought that it was safe to turn on the radio… The dreaded din of Rock & Roll returned!
Everything seemed bland and lifeless on Top 40 radio after Kennedy split from the scene. Those four intense media days were a hard act to follow. Boomers wanted something new, exciting and fun, and station managers desperately searched everywhere for a different sound. They noticed faint rumblings from one group, far away across the Atlantic, whose joyful noise dominated the British charts for all of 1963, but remained virtually unknown in the USA. Capitol Records had recently rejected the band: “You just don’t have the new American sound, boys.” (Thank God for that.) Now, a few weeks later, radio stations scrambled to smuggle in some 45s of the Fab Four. The Beatles had just the right sound at the right time, loud, a real backbeat, and pure fun.
Capitol rushed to get legitimate copies pressed and into the stores. The single, I Want to Hold Your Hand finally became available in January of 1964, and by Feb. 1st, topped the charts in America. The Beatles made their first of three appearances on the Ed Sullivan Show on February 9th, which turned out to be the highest rated episode in the show’s history. Crime inNew York City stopped dead in its tracks for twenty minutes. Boomer girls went nuts and fell hopelessly in love. Boomer boys dug the beat, but laughed at those silly haircuts. After a couple of weeks, the girls continued to scream and the boys grew long hair and bought electric guitars.
In the Beatles’ first hit 45 in America, “the middle eight” (bars), as they called the break, contained the line, “It’s such a feeling that, My Love, I get high, I get high.” By 1964, Dr. Timothy Leary had already published the formula for lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), as Ken Kesey and the Merry Pranksters tripped across Americain a psychedelic bus, but very few Boomers ever used the expression “get high.” That would soon change. The “B” side, I Saw Her Standing There began: “Well, she was just seventeen…” Then, “she” was a Baby Boomer. The Beatles sang to, for, and about Boomers their entire career, because we were (and still are) the market.
The Beatles ruled the charts by April 1st, claiming the top five positions with several other Lennon/McCartney tunes on the way up. Parents prayed that those Liverpoolboys would fade away, or at least be deported, but instead, the Beatles became legitimate in August, as their film, A Hard Day’s Night opened to critical, as well as popular good favor. Many skeptics had to at last admit that the boys possessed a bit of talent, and were fun to watch… much more than a fad… Just ask the casualties:
Bam! The Beatles shot down the Beach Boys and the Suburban Myth. Boomers grew tired of “driving up and down that same old strip,” and now, they turned to a group who could harmonize with a real beat.
Bam! They shot down Phil Spector and his Wall of Sound. Boomers suddenly realized that the “wall” separated us from the backbeat. These four guys, a la Buddy Holly, made more and better sound than Phil and a whole studio full of musicians…so much for Spector’s bigger-is-better concept of Rock & Roll.
Bam! They shot down the Brill Building hit factory. Lennon/McCartney wrote most of their songs, and assembly-line music sounded shallow and dull by comparison. Boomers realized that artists should create their own authentic sound.
Bam! They shot down Dick Clark and the world of American Teen Idols. The Fab Four had the look and talent, the latter quality honed in marathon gigs in Hamburg, Germany (8 hours a night/ 7 night a week). The boys knew how to play, and Boomer teens approached an age when they could appreciate musical skill. The worst local garage bands began to sound better than the phonies on Bandstand.
Bam! Folk Music took a direct hit. Too serious. Boomers weren’t in the mood.
The Beatles had that certain something, just like Elvis in his day… But what was “it” exactly? The Black Magic of a Rhythm & Blues backbeat, performed by poor working-class Caucasian boys. As children, Boomers didn’t remember the First Golden Age of R & R, before Rock was suppressed in theUnited States. But the beat continued inBritain; in fact it flourished and developed during our awful Teen Idol and Beach Party eras. Who knows howAmericawould have reacted to the Beatles had Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, little Richard and Elvis been allowed to keep on rocking? The sound (with backbeat) was new to Boomer ears and they loved it… exciting, invigorating, rebellious, loud, outrageous and, most of all, fun… just when fun had been designated to the endangered species list. The Beatles brought it all back home to theUSA, right where it belonged.
The one sad note, barely audible during the Beatles’ meteoric Top 40 takeover during the summer of ‘64, was heard as the last dinosaur of the First Golden Age received a fatal blow. It almost seemed as if the American government blamed poor Alan Freed for the resurrection of Rock & Roll. After all, the noise went away the last time they knocked him down (during the payola hearings). It was only logical that they hit him again; this time with the IRS acting as executioner.
But the cacophony continued, and the Beatles proved to be only a vanguard of an overwhelming British Invasion: the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Animals, the Zombies, the Dave Clark Five, the Swinging Blue Jeans (with Hippy, Hippy Shake), Manfred Mann (Do Wah Ditty Ditty) and countless others.
Parents complained about the dissonance and the constant, pounding R & R beat, just as they had in the ‘50s. TV didn’t listen to their whining. The networks were too busy converting pounds into dollars. They cancelled Folk wannabe, Hootenanny and launched Shindig, featuring all the hot new British groups, plus American regulars, the Righteous Brothers, and “Shindogs” Leon Russell, Delaney Bramlett and Billy Preston.
Another important battalion of the British invasion of ‘64 received much less attention. That Was the Week That Was (or TW3) with David Frost became the first primetime program to include biting political satire on a regular basis. That same fall, Berkeley’s Free Speech Movement began, just as the first Baby Boomers arrived on the college scene. Teens felt rebellious, and undoubtedly the flames had been fanned by the return of Rock & Roll. The reflection soon glowed on the silver screen, as “underground cinema” finally found a market. Boomers loved Kenneth Anger’s Scorpio Rising, which included a clip from Cecil B. DeMille’s King of Kings (1927) showing Jesus riding an ass, while the soundtrack blared the Crystal’s He’s A Rebel. Could it be that society actually needs a rebel or two from time to time?
In what could have been just another get-us-to-the-show schlock rocker, Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night came as quite a shock to Boomers. They grew up listening to teen idols answer, “Yes, Sir, Mr. Clark” on Bandstand, but now they heard snappy comebacks from the Beatles: An Old Man scolds, “Don’t take that tone of voice with me, Young Man. I fought the War for your lot.” Ringo answers, “I’ll bet you’re sorry you won”…A interviewer asks, “Are you a Mod or a Rocker?” Ringo answers, “I’m a mocker.”
Those sassy Brit boys tested the limits of American AM radio. Did Mick Jagger really sing “half-assed games” in It’s All Over Now? Turn it up!
Teenagers were getting uppity again. How would the Powers-That-Be handle the situation this time? By the end of the year, the public received a few reflections that should have given them a clue. Bob Hope entertained happy troops in Vietnamon his Christmas Special, and Santa left an amazing new toy for younger Boomer boys under the tree… GI Joe and all his Friendly Fire Accessories. Joe (like Barbie) appeared as a realistic, grown-up doll, except for the absence of reproductive gear. But Joe’s huge guns dwarfed Wyatt Earp’s, so he, unlike Babs, found a release for his sexual frustrations. With Barbie as a role model for little girls, and GI Joe for little boys, it’s amazing that the Baby Boomer Generation turned out as well as it did.
Kennedy’s New Frontier faded away. Fess Parker returned to the old frontier, this time as Daniel Boone. Ronald Reagan also returned to the tube, as a replacement for the Old Ranger on Death Valley Days. Welcome back to the Great (“Gee, I really wish that it could be once again”) Society of LBJ.
Bonus: “Let’s Make a Deal” debuted on December 30, 1964.