My Obsession with the Beatles…

Esme Garlake 18 December 2018
Image Credit: Esme Garlake

My obsession with The Beatles was practically passed down to me genetically by my dad. It sounds ridiculous, but I am actively jealous that unlike him I am not able to reminisce about how I spent an entire day listening to Rubber Soul on repeat in my bedroom, or queuing (and failing) to see the Fab Four play a local gig. Of course I have had similar experiences – when I was told about The White Album for the first time, when I was about sixteen, I practically leapt home with excitement at the promise of ‘new’ Beatles songs.

My dad was born in the Black Country, the area between Wolverhampton and Birmingham and the birthplace of the industrial revolution. Legend has it that Queen Victoria closed her curtains as her train passed through this black-fumed section of the Midlands. I grew up listening to stories from my dad’s childhood – people from the Black Country are notorious raconteurs. Billy who jumped into the green, sooty canal for a chocolate bar; Dave’s first driving lesson, everyone howling with laughter from their front gates as his car jumped down the street as if it had ‘kangaroo petrol’ in it; the freezing midnight trips to the outside toilet. As a child, I imagined each character as vividly as from any story books; the slums and concrete backyards all held as much fascination and adventure as fairy-tale castles.

The Beatles were just as important in this world as anyone else; they do, after all, have the amazing ability to seem like your friends. When my dad heard his first Beatles song, Please Please Me, crackling through the black and white TV set, he was fifteen. My grandmother, whom I never met, was only really struck by one thing: ‘look at their ‘air’, she apparently said, ‘they look loyk wenches’ (meaning ‘girls’; in Black country dialect ‘wench’ doesn’t hold the same negative connotations as in standard English).

Although their ‘long’ hair was a striking novelty at the time, the most extraordinary thing for my dad and his friends was that suddenly there were four ordinary working class boys changing the face of music forever. John, Paul, George and Ringo were not afraid to hide their strong scouse accents or their working class roots. At a concert attended by members of the Royal family, John Lennon famously asked fans sat ‘in the cheaper seats [to] clap your hands… And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery’. Their working-class pride offered a fresh alternative from the received pronunciation that dominated television and radio culture.

My dad left school that same year, and within two years would be working in a sheet metal factory. When he finally left and went to art college fifteen years later, The Beatles had long since split up, but they were still consistent companions and mascots through life: the definitive proof that working class heroes did exist.

Sometimes my dad has joked that I am ‘fifty percent working-class Black Country’. It’s a pretty impossible claim, considering my southern accent and my middle-class upbringing among Oxford’s dreaming spires. For what it is worth, I have grown up with a parent who has always showed me that he is proud of his working-class roots, despite the struggles and poverty. Yet I’ve always been aware that in my dad’s family, I am the odd-one-out; rarely does a trip to the Black Country go by without the inevitable, though never unfriendly, comment ‘yo’m posh, ay ya?!’ (or as I would say, ‘you’re posh, aren’t you?’). And as my great aunts and uncles reminisce with my dad about my grandmother, I can’t help feeling a twinge of sadness that the only thing I seem to share with her is my middle name.

It is through The Beatles that I have been able to connect with this side of my family history. So much of family is founded on shared experiences, homes, idiosyncrasies, traditions, something that my differences in upbringing and class have made difficult to find with my dad’s relatives. And yet The Beatles’ songs transport me back to stories, places, family members and friends from my dad’s childhood in the Black Country, and merge with my own childhood memories in Oxford: the worlds no longer feel as far apart.

Please Please Me is the television set watched by my grandmother and her son many years ago, and it is a walk home from school when I was fifteen, escaping the day’s social angst by immersing myself in a musical ecstasy. Help! is the woman I watched from my car seat as a toddler; she is mouthing the words along with me and John, or perhaps I imagined it, so convinced was I of the song’s infectiousness. Ticket To Ride is my dad first hearing it on someone’s stereo at Dudley Zoo, and it is me laughing at The Beatles’ shenanigans on the snow slopes in one of their films. Hey Jude is singing along to my dad playing the out-of-tune piano, and it is him leaving the factory on a late summer evening. From Me To You is my dad stood in front of a crackling television, holding me when I was just three days old to show me my very first Beatles song.