Tuesday, January 14, 2014

How The Beatles Changed Mallorca

The early history of rock and pop music in Britain was one characterised by fears of degeneracy (Elvis, the lip and the hip), by the import of a totally alien sound, by discs brought over by Americans and by crackles on Radio Luxembourg, by the creation of teenage and youth culture, and by imitation, copying and the cover version. But amidst the search for the British Elvis (Cliff!), an indigenous music was born. First there came the improvised washboard of skiffle, Lonnie Donegan's legacy to the world of music, a type of proto-punk that required little or no actual musical ability. And then, of course, came The Beatles.

All the while, there was the discourse as to the social impact of this musical revolution. How could young girls (and occasionally young boys) be so infatuated with long-haired layabouts or an American who sounded as though he was a negro? National Service would have to be restored to drum discipline into the youth cadres of teds then later mods and rockers whose heads were turned to violence by this music. It was a discourse that very few people over the age of thirty could take part in with any sense of impartiality or understanding. They were bystanders witnessing a wholesale and fundamental shift in a society in which the teenager and the young person had been expected to copy only the fashions and tastes of their parents and not those of this strange breed of pop star. 

It is easy, at the distance of 50 or more years, to forget just how much changed as a consequence of the emergence of pop culture and also how much society was further changed in the few years after it emerged thanks to the pill, the Abortion Act and the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. It is also easy to style this change as the product of a progressive, liberated society, when in truth it wasn't. As an example, it should be remembered that where pop music was concerned, the bastion of the establishment, the BBC, held out until 1967 before it launched Radio One.

Nevertheless, pop music and culture played a crucial role in transforming Britain from its post-war austere and staid conservatism into the Britain of the Swinging Sixties, and The Beatles, more so perhaps than Elvis (or certainly Cliff), were the popular flag-bearers of this transformation. But their influence went much further than Britain. Their music and the culture that went with it was felt in repressive regimes, and one of these was Spain's and, in particular, parts of Spain that had opened up to tourism. Which meant Mallorca.

Francesc Vicens is a Mallorcan musicologist about whom I have written on a number of occasions. A couple of years ago, Vicens put out a book entitled "Paradise of Love", which considered how pop music and tourism collided in the Mallorca of the 1960s. He has now, along with fellow researcher Tomeu Canyelles, had a book published which is called "Beatles Made in Mallorca". Its theme is similar to the previous one in that it looks at the social impact of pop music on the island, but it homes in on the impact of one group, The Beatles.

In certain ways, 1960s Mallorca wasn't so different to the conservative Britain of the 1950s. It was ruled by a repressive regime of course, but there was no such thing as a youth culture and very little access to contemporary music. Whereas it was American sailors who were often the means of supply of discs to aspirant musicians in Liverpool, so flight crews and tourists were the ones who supplied the discs for local musicians. Once the musical cat was out of the tourist or flight attendant bag, there was little that the regime could do to put it back in again. Though they never played Mallorca, The Beatles did play Madrid and Barcelona in early July, 1965. Their performances were greeted, as Canyelles has pointed out, with disbelief by the regime. They were hugely successful but, and just had been the case in Britain, there was incredulity as to how young people could be so taken with these longhaired individuals and their music and huge concerns as to the effects on morals and society as a whole.

In Mallorca, though The Beatles were copied and imitated, a discernible style emerged: The Beatles with a Mallorcan flavour, local musicians having found themselves liberated. Suddenly, a conservative music characterised by patriotic melodies and French and Italian crooning was replaced by the guitar, the drums, the bass and the pop song. Vicens and Canyelles, in researching their book, have considered the output of the likes of Los Javaloyas, Los Pops and Los 5 del Este, and how these groups got hold of discs brought to the island and how they would have listened, using long-wave transmitters, to radio stations that were banned in Spain (echoes of those early years of access in Britain to music from Luxembourg and then the pirates). They would note down all the notes, either do their own versions or use the songs as the basis for their own originals. And having developed their own "sound", courtesy of records brought by tourists, they ended up selling their own records to these same tourists, who would take them home as souvenirs.

The Mallorcan Beatles may have been a peculiar phenomenon but they were a perfectly understandable phenomenon. It was mass tourism which truly altered Mallorcan society in the 1960s, and this was a tourism buoyed by its own social change, one in which The Beatles had been crucial.

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