The 1960s musical backlash to the success of the Beatles is quite something to experience.
If one thing is guaranteed, success breeds envy, bitterness and opportunism. Things don’t come much more successful than the Beatles and so it is unsurprising that their emergence in the 1960s spawned a lot of records that sought to cash in on the Fab Four’s popularity. From cover versions to novelty songs, answer records to soundalike bands with names that referenced all manner of creepy crawlies (while seemingly missing the whole double-meaning of the Beatles name), there have been hundreds of records by fly-by-night acts and more successful artists alike that reference, copy or spoof the band.
The records that we find the most interesting are the Beatles diss tracks that emerged in the 1960s – mostly in 1964 when the Beatles conquered America. Their huge success – and that of the British bands who followed in their wake – was a source of some resentment with American rock ‘n’ rollers who thought – not unreasonably – that rock music was a very American invention that was now being sold back to them by a bunch of unkempt girly-men with funny accents. While some of the diss tracks are clearly satirical cash-ins, one of two seem genuinely bitter and angry, as if the arrival of the band in America had destroyed the home-grown performers chance at fame and fortune – which, of course, was true. Rednecks with buzzcuts performing hillbilly numbers were no longer going to cut the mustard in this brave new world.
Bill Clifton’s Beatle Crazy might be the first Beatles diss track, though as these things go it’s pretty gentle – more bemused than angry, defiant or dismissive. Clifton’s spoken-word bluegrass record was released in 1963 in the UK – on Decca Records, amusingly – long before the band had broken in America. I’m guessing this struck a chord with some older parents who watched their kids falling for this new band.
Clifton’s track was just the opening salvo in what became a flood of snark, bafflement and ill-judged boasting. 1964 was the heyday of the Beatles diss – this was, after all, the year that the band led the British invasion of America and essentially changed the musical landscape overnight with their appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. There were several immediate – and we do mean immediate – diss records released as a result.
The Four Preps – who definitely looked pretty damn preppy – released A Letter to the Beatles, which tells the story of the narrator’s girlfriend falling head-over-heels with the English moptops (well, look at the Preps – she would, wouldn’t she?) only to be financially fleeced for photos and autographs. Presumably, the Preps never had to think about the financial costs of sending out autographed photos around the world, because… well, who’d want one? Yes, the Four Preps had a long career – but I very much doubt that they were even pin-up material.
The track was recorded just one day after the Beatles had appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and so we can suspect that someone had watched the show and seen their career (and possibly their girlfriend’s affections) vanishing before their eyes. The song cracked the Top One Hundred but – adding insult to injury – the inclusion of direct lifts from I Wanna Hold Your Hand forced Capitol to pull the record from sale.
There’s similar whining on My Girl’s Been Bitten By The Beatles Bug by Annie and the Orphans. In fact, it’s hard not to suspect that much of the Beatles dissing is simply bitterness by men who found, to their complete bafflement, that women actually fancied these Liverpudlian longhairs more than the local oafs. Here, the Orphans sing the moany chorus and Annie fills in a Beatles fantasy that, of course, still manages to be dismissive.
The Hi-Riders came up with Stamp Out The Beatles. Despite the rather desperate boasting about their own greatness on the record, you’ve probably never heard of the Hi-Riders – a couple of bands have used the name but this isn’t them. In fact, the Hi-Riders was the pseudonym of the band The Sunliners, who wisely opted to hide their real identity for this novelty track released (and presumably commissioned) by Scepter Records. It’s actually not a bad little spoof, lifting moments from actual Beatles hits that are reworked in satirical, copyright-skirting fashion. Not the height of sophisticated wit, perhaps, but for all the mockery, it doesn’t feel genuinely malicious.
The Sunliners, incidentally, would transform themselves into Rare Earth in 1968 and had considerable success in the 1970s, signing to Motown and scoring both critical acclaim and commercial success.
Similarly, The Twiliters’ My Beatle Haircut is more gentle mockery than outright fury, with its focus on the outrage caused by the narrator coming home with… well, the title rather gives it away. From the distance of time, it’s baffling to think about just how outrageous the Beatles’ hair seemed to be to middle America in 1964. Their ‘long hair’ was hardly androgynous – or even long, frankly – but to hear these records, you’d think that they all looked like Robert Plant from 1973. This doo-wop number was released by Roulette Records, who would return to the Beatles novelty track world a few years later. We’ll come to that shortly.
Secret Weapon (The British Are Coming) is as much a novelty record as a diss track, though many a sincere belief has been hidden by comedy over the years. The fact that the name of recording act B.R.A.T.T.S. is an acronym for Brotherhood for the Re-establishment of American Top Ten Supremacy might suggest a genuine resentment bubbling under the good-natured humour. The record was a collaboration of singers Carl Spencer and Jimmy Radcliffe and prolific producer Wally Gold.
Allan Sherman was a comedy artist, best known for his track Hello Muddah Hello Fadduh, so perhaps we shouldn’t take Pop Hates The Beatles too seriously – it’s obviously a generational satire played for laughs and written from the view of the harrassed father of a Beatlemaniac, sung to the tune of Pop Goes the Weasel.
In 1965, actor Brad Berwick released I’m Better Than The Beatles, a single that came complete with a testimonial from Jayne Mansfield on the sleeve. It’s odd to hear a track of this vintage still complaining about the Beatles’ long hair – Berwick, as the sleeve shows, has a manly short back and sides with just a hint of a quiff – but there you go. “I can do this by myself…with them, it takes all four” wails Brad, though unless he played every instrument on the record, this seems to be a bit of sleight of hand. This was the first Beatles diss I ever heard and I’ll admit that I find it very entertaining. Brad’s rock ‘n’ roll career was short-lived – he only managed one more single – so presumably the general public disagreed with his take on who was the more talented.
In 1968, John Lennon and Yoko Ono appeared naked on the cover of Two Virgins, causing widespread outrage – frontal nudity, especially from men – and especially from rock stars – was not exactly a commonplace site back then. This was just six years after the Beatles had released their first single and to give it context, the impact must’ve been like Ed Sheeran suddenly releasing an album that showed him being double-fisted on the cover. Among the people shocked by the cover was twee-voiced folk singer Rainbo, who was so distressed (or possibly disappointed) by the image of a naked Lennon that she was moved to record the single John You Went Too Far This Time. Rainbo was, in fact, Sissy Spacek, who had moved to Greenwich Village in the hope of becoming the new Joni Mitchell but who effectively scuppered her recording career with this ill-considered novelty track. It probably wasn’t even her idea – she didn’t write the song (even though she was very much of the singer-songwriter ilk) and was probably talked into it by Roulette Records, who then rewarded her by dropping her from the label. Folk music’s loss was cinema’s gain, of course.
The song is a gimmicky affair, awash with references to Beatles history, musical motifs and past controversies that Rainbo has weathered (“And you were something special when you said, John, That you had more disciples than the man who was too green”) and although oddly cute in its own way was clearly never going to be troubling the charts (or troubling Lennon, for that matter).
You’d think that by 1975, the shock of the new – at least in terms of the Beatles – would’ve long since worn off. But Clive Baldwin – an Al Jolson impersonator who built a successful five-decade career out of his rather niche speciality – still managed to get a novelty record with the exhausting title Now It’s Paul McCartney Stevie Wonder Alice Cooper Elton John released. The gimmick here is that Jolson hasn’t died but been placed in suspended animation, awakening after twenty-five years and is just shocked at the caterwauling music of today. Even in 1975 must’ve felt like the desperate referencing of a man already a few years behind the times. It’s perhaps the worst of all the records here, which is certainly saying something.
Baldwin last made headlines in 2009 when he was banned from using blackface in his Johnson tribute show by a British theatre.
Just as we’re unlikely to ever see a band have the same impact as the Beatles again – the world is a very different place and the musical landscape far too cluttered – so it seems unlikely that the diss record will make a comeback. While some acts will still bad-mouth each other across recordings, this tends to be the result of a personal, very specific beef between the performers, not a cheap cash-in on the fame of people they’ve never met. These novelty recordings are very much of their time.
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