Mitchell Cohen reminisces about a summer to remember for New York radio
First, a confession: I haven’t seen the Danny Boyle movie Yesterday, a fantasy about a musician who is one of only a few people who remember the Beatles after some disruption of time and space, and who therefore has exclusive access to their song catalog. As premises go, it isn’t terrible, but it seems to me that it wildly misses the point. Was it the songs, really, that made the Beatles the Beatles? Wasn’t it the cultural moment, the sound of those records, seeing them and grasping, instantly, that they were transformative? Wasn’t it their voices? Their hair? The way Paul thumped his bass, John crouched behind the mic, George sheepishly stepped forward to take a solo, Ringo sat atop it all, grinning and walloping?
If it were simply about “the songs,” then Del Shannon would have had a hit with “From Me to You” and it wouldn’t have taken so long for “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You” to jump to the toppermost of the poppermost in the United States. To reduce the magic of the Beatles to their songwriting, as incredible as it was, is to divorce them from their musical influences as singers and players. Could anyone have become superfamous with just their material? More to the point, could someone with the songs alone make such a dramatic mark in the 21st century?
VIDEO: The funniest moments on A Hard Day’s Night
I’m thinking about all this because it’s been 55 years since the summer of A Hard Day’s Night, an event that, if it hadn’t been evident already, confirmed that what we were dealing with went beyond a successful pop group. Richard Lester’s film—in which, I realized recently, no one utters the word “Beatles”—is ecstatic. It zips along; it’s genuinely witty; and it feels sublimely attuned to everything we love about the Beatles. The penultimate scene, the “She Loves You” performance, is unbridled joy. By July 1964, we’d been living in Beatleland for half a year; their singles kept flying on to the radio, and their LP tracks, and since our need to hear more was limitless, other British acts soon followed: the Searchers, Dusty Springfield, the Dave Clark 5, Peter & Gordon, Gerry & the Pacemakers. And American acts were unprepared for this. The narrative goes that the British Invasion squeezed out homegrown artists, but that’s only partly true.
The week of July 22, 1964, on New York City radio, merely two of the top 10 singles were by British acts, the Beatles with the title song from their movie, and Dusty Springfield with a cover of the Bacharach & David song “Wishin’ and Hopin’.” The rest of the top 10 was crazily eclectic. Records by the 4 Seasons (“Rag Doll”) and the Beach Boys (“I Get Around”); both groups predated the British Invasion and were determined to stick around for a while (it helped that Bob Crewe & Bob Gaudio and Brian Wilson were wildly gifted writer-producers). The Supremes, with “Where Did Our Love” go, was sitting at #1, and not far behind were the Drifters—who’d been hitmaking since the ’50s—singing about seaside sex on “Under the Boardwalk.” Dean Martin, with help from the Wrecking Crew, had one of his biggest singles ever with “Everybody Loves Somebody.” There was a quintessential girl-group record (“I Wanna Love Him So Bad” by the Jelly Beans), Johnny Rivers doing Chuck Berry, and, a bit further down, the Dixie Cups, the Impressions, and Roger Miller mixed in with the DC5 and ska-girl Millie Small.
AUDIO: WNEW 1130 AM aircheck 1964
But if there was one sound, aside from the Beatles’, that defined the summer of 1964, it was sax player Stan Getz and guitarist-singer João Gilberto (who recently passed away), with Astrud Gilberto on vocals, doing “The Girl from Ipanema.”
She was everywhere, that girl. On transistor radios faintly heard at poolsides, drifting on the charcoal smoke at backyard barbecues, on the hi-fi at make-out parties. By contrast, anything else that summer was a kind of racket, a liberating noise: the British groups, the car songs, the girls in love’s thrall (“People Say”). As so many have noted, it was the first summer after Dallas; people wanted to dance and scream and drive fast. That June, Rudi Gernreich’s invention, the topless swimsuit, was featured in Look magazine, and although no one knew anyone who was brazen enough to test it out in public, the idea of its existence was enough. It was a topless beach of the mind. You hear “The Girl From Ipanema” now, and you can still smell the Coppertone, still feel the grains of sand in your Keds, still see the older girls in their daring bikinis. They were the girls from Ipanema; if they knew their effect on the boys—and they must have—they didn’t show it. They walked on by, and were watched so sadly.
That’s all she did. She walked. The story goes that Antonio Carlos Jobim and Vinicius de Moraes first saw her one day when she was on her way to school, then on the beach, and were in a trance. You can imagine that she had the coltish, blasé beauty that only certain 19-year-old girls possess (some sources say she was 15), and so they wrote a song about her. And with all the commotion that was going on around her, phase two of Beatlemania and all that followed in those insane six months since they landed at JFK, the girl from Ipanema was the object of desire. The Getz/Gilberto album was in everyone’s home; it was the hip LP for parents to have, and the single was on the radio all the time. When the Grammys came around, “The Girl From Ipanema” was Record of The Year, and Getz/Gilberto won Album of the Year, the first time a jazzy album took that prize. Bossa nova, that intimate, slinky sound from Brazil that had begun to whisper in American ears with Getz and Charlie Byrd’s “Desafinado,” was now a full-blown craze.
Part of the Portuguese lyrics are literally translated like this:
Ah, why am I so lonely?
Ah, why everything is so sad?
Ah, the beauty that is out there!
The beauty that is not just mine
that also goes by alone
It’s not the loneliness you feel when you’re alone; it’s the loneliness of seeing “the beauty that is out there!” and not being able to grasp it. “The Girl From Ipanema” is sexy—that melody is a slow-motion reverie—but it’s also about that wide gap. You could say, I suppose, that Jobim and Moraes were voyeurs, the way they followed the girl (Heloisa Pinto was her name) around and captured her golden youth for posterity, but nothing about the song feels creepy, This girl who walks to the sea as though listening to a private rhythm of a samba is catching everyone’s eye, but one guy’s in particular. He can’t approach her, and she doesn’t notice him, and that’s the song. Astrud Gilberto’s vocal and Getz’s saxophone seem tuned to the same sensual frequency. He matches her hush with the softest sax solo, the musical embodiment of a summer wind. Or like the Eric Rohmer film Le Genou de Claire, which has the same type of sun-kissed laziness and admiration from afar. Getz and the Gilbertos are evoking a scene, watching the men watching the girl, maybe from another spot on the beach, this lovely, oblivious girl, and the guys’ unspoken admiration. She walks alone. And then she’s gone.
VIDEO: Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz “The Girl From Ipanema” Live 1964