‘It’s a larger, more inclusive version’: how women reshaped Beatles history | The Beatles
For teenage Janice Mitchell, hearing The Beatles’ I Want to Hold Your Hand on American radio in December 1963 affected her in ways she still cannot express. “How do you explain why [you were] electrified when you were struck by lightning? she said laughing.
I Want to Hold Your Hand not only sounded more interesting than the other songs rotating on his hometown station, the single represented an escape from a difficult childhood. Mitchell, from Cleveland, Ohio, grew up with neglectful parents who eventually abandoned her and her two younger siblings. And 1963 had been another difficult year. Mitchell was reeling from the death of a beloved great-uncle, one of the few adults to show his kindness.
The arrival of the Beatles brought a glimmer of hope. “I realized I wanted to go where the Beatles came from, because I thought that was where happiness would be,” says Mitchell. “That was my goal: to go out there and breathe the Beatles air, walk on hallowed Beatles ground and have a happy life.”
Mitchell got her wish, as she recounted in her riveting book My Ticket to Ride: How I Ran Away to England to Meet the Beatles and Got Rock and Roll Banned in Cleveland. She and another resourceful friend managed to leave the United States and spent three blissful weeks in England in the fall of 1964, enjoying London’s nightlife and sights and even visiting Liverpool – although, sadly, they haven’t met any of the Beatles.
My Ticket to Ride is far from the only Beatles book released in the last year. Most notably, Paul McCartney’s bestseller The Lyrics: 1956 to the Present arrived weeks after The Beatles: Get Back, a companion piece to Peter Jackson’s epic documentary. But Mitchell’s memoir is one of the few Beatles books written by a woman in the 60 years since the release of their first single. The Beatles profoundly shaped and enriched women’s lives, but literature, journalism and critical scholarship – with a few notable exceptions – tend to focus disproportionately on how men experience and appreciate the band and his music.
“For a Gen X woman coming through in the 1990s, the odds of getting a Beatles-related story or interview in a major publication were 100 to 1,” says music journalist Kristi York Wooten. Yet in recent years, more and more scholars, journalists, musicians and podcasters are challenging conventional Beatles narratives and expanding who can lead conversations around the band. For Wooten, this change is long overdue. “Media coverage of the band’s evolution has portrayed women as bystanders, making our stories of the music’s impact less than or merely fandom related.”
The Ardent Beatles fandom is not always viewed in a positive light, despite its importance to the band’s success. As critic Sasha Geffen writes in Glitter Up the Dark: How Pop Music Broke the Binary: “Without the Beatles girls, there are no Beatles. Each group has forged its identity in relation to the other. Still, the narrow stereotype of a Beatles fan that crystallized in the 1960s — think of a teenage girl who yells at the band because they’re so cute — persists.
“Academics who are also Beatles fans always run the risk of being perceived as more of a fan than an authoritative voice,” says Dr. Christine Feldman-Barrett, lecturer in sociology at Griffith University and author of last year A Women’s History of the Beatles. “The legacy of the ‘hysterical’ Beatles fan is such that it has, I believe, made a fair number of women reluctant to write about the Beatles until more recently.”
Feldman-Barrett’s book is a complete corrective to outdated ways of thinking. It delves into less covered topics ripe for analysis (like how the Beatles influenced female musicians) and takes a fresh look at Beatlemania, the women in the Beatles universe, and fan relationships with the band.
The book grew out of Feldman-Barrett’s lifelong appreciation for a group that opened his eyes to other subjects, such as “British history, interest in Eastern spirituality in the 1960s “, she says. “It’s really been a portal to different interests.” As Geffen writes, “A girl might invest her desire in the group, but she might also discover herself in it.”
Decades later, the Beatles’ ability to spark curiosity persists across generations. Growing up in the UK, musician and author Stephanie Phillips was struck by the cultural ubiquity of the Beatles. “As a young person who wanted to develop their own sense of self, it was almost overwhelming,” she says. Coming to the band’s music in their twenties via louder covers of American bands such as Pixies and Throwing Muses “gave The Beatles that alternative glow and almost made them sound like an obscure underground cult band,” she says.
Such sonic leeway has shaped the music Phillips makes in punk band Big Joanie – it references both the White Album’s “experimental song structures” and the tense songwriting of “previous pop-centric albums”. of the Beatles – and helped her cement a different perception of the band. “My version of The Beatles wrote short, catchy love songs, experimented with every possible genre, and was clear about the cultures that influenced them,” she says. “It’s in my mind a larger, more inclusive version of The Beatles than the band I heard on TV as a kid.”
Dr. Holly Tessler vividly remembers hearing news reports about John Lennon’s murder in 1980, although she doesn’t know who the musician was at the time. “Being the silly kid that I was, rather than listening to music, I decided it would be a research project,” she says. The 10-year-old borrowed Nicholas Schaffner’s The Boys of Liverpool from the library and spent the next few weeks reading (and re-reading) the book, “boring all my friends and family” by sprinkling them with Beatles facts. “After what must have been an interminable amount of time, my parents just said, ‘Here, kid, listen to some music.’ And there was no turning back.
Tessler’s insatiable interest in all aspects of The Beatles led her into academia and founded the University of Liverpool’s MA programme. The Beatles: Music Industry and Heritage. Launched in September 2021, it offers a rigorous study of the group’s cultural, media and economic impact. Tessler says the class is diverse, ranging from new grads to mature students in their 60s. “I was a little worried there was a big divide,” she says. “They all have some sort of bond now. And everyone is a happy little group of Beatles students together.
Younger generations of Beatles fans who came to the band long after their breakup are even less beholden to the rigid historical narratives surrounding the band, Tessler says. “[They’re] much more connected to the debates around gender and sexualities than previous generations would have been.
It’s a conversation that’s been expanded by the podcast world. “I see more and more young fans wanting to move away from the ‘who do we blame for the breakup’ approach, and more towards an approach that analyzes everyone’s experiences, emotions and points of view,” says Thalia Reynolds, who co-hosts A Different Kind of Spirit: A Different Kind of Beatles Podcast with Daphne Mitchell and Phoebe Lorde. The show functions as a collective of voices presenting episodes carefully studied (example: “Jealous Guy: Lennon-McCartney and Competitive Admiration”). “We thought it was high time to discuss The Beatles with empathy and humanity,” says Lorde. “It means making the effort to see things from all angles.”
The podcast co-hosts say The Beatles have shaped their lives in many ways: inspiring them to play, write and develop an appreciation for music; deepen friendships; and even find solace in discussions of topics such as John Lennon’s sexuality. “The Beatles’ music, their history, their selves are especially heartwarming,” says Mitchell.
It’s not necessarily a given that several generations of Beatles fans will get along. Allison Boron grew up as a Monkees and Beatles fan. As a teenager, she finally found kindred spirits in the latter’s burgeoning online community around the year 2000. “I can’t imagine who I would be without The Beatles,” she says. “It sounds crazy sometimes when I hear myself say that, but there’s really no way they haven’t had an impact on my life.” A first job with a local Beatles tribute band piqued her interest in the music industry, where she works today.
In 2018, she launched the podcast BC the Beatles. Boron recalls how she and co-host Erika White received lots of encouragement from older fans. But they also experienced ageism, sexism, and fandom scrutiny. “We were running into people who thought we didn’t belong at the table because we weren’t there originally,” she says. “We struggled to be taken seriously.
Empathy for the unjustly maligned Yoko Ono inspired the launch of all about the girl, a Liverpool-based podcast. “All my life I had heard about her in all sorts of ways, that she was some kind of talentless destructive force, or a joke,” said co-host Chloe Walls. “It wasn’t until I started to do my own research that I realized the disservice the dominant narrative had done him.” Walls came to love Ono’s music while researching the Beatles after seeing the 2019 film Yesterday; she was “irritated” by how the film “fundamentally misunderstood what made The Beatles great”.
Several podcasters interviewed mentioned Beatles fanfiction and fan art as an influence on their fandom – and particularly that of younger generations. For Walls, the online Beatles fandom was also formative in that it “allowed me to be creative in a space with other like-minded people” and also introduced her to her partner ( and podcast co-host) Daisy Cooper. The pair met in 2020 on Tumblr, “in a discussion about John and Paul’s relationship,” Walls explains.
As an adult, My Ticket to Ride author Mitchell worked as a journalist and private detective. In writing her book, she used these skills to try to understand aspects of her painful childhood. She discovered a greater empathy for herself younger – as well as a perspective on how hearing I want to hold your hand changed the trajectory of her life. “If I had never heard the Beatles at that time, my life would have been completely different.”