Q&A with Donna Parsons: Beatles guru

BY DI STAFF | FEBRUARY 06, 2014 5:00 AM

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A Beatles fan since childhood, University of Iowa music lecturer Donna Parsons has spent countless hours between Iowa and Britain studying the Fab Four, and teaching the UI's most coveted course, "World of the Beatles." It's been 50 years since the Beatles touched down in America, but Parsons said the band's legacy remains as "electric" as ever.

The Daily Iowan: What was the significance of the Beatles' first trip to America?

Parsons: When the Beatles appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" and a couple days later in the Washington Coliseum, American fans were able to feel the energy of a live show and be inspired. The second generation of rock 'n' roll and pop musicians had arrived. It was not a fad or a novelty but a force that addressed the hopes and concerns of its listeners. American youth found their music and their spokespersons, a synergy was created, and the Beatles and their fans walked in step as the '60s progressed.

DI: We've all seen the videos of the girls screaming for the Beatles when the members landed in New York. Could the band have predicted this reaction?

Parsons: As their plane neared New York, the guys were worried about their reception. They were concerned that they had nothing musically to offer America and consoled themselves that they would at least learn what the new musical trend was. They did not realize it was them. It was utter chaos. Fans were standing on the airport's upper arcade and were screaming so loud you could not hear. Their fans attempted to follow their every move. According to legend, girls were trying to sneak onto their floor [at the Plaza Hotel] by hiding in laundry carts or climbing elevator shafts.

DI: How has Beatlemania shaped the music industry since February of 1964?

Parsons: The Beatles were the first British artists to receive top billing and not be treated as a second thought. They opened the doors for other British groups, such as the Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, and the Who. We have seen brief moments of Beatlemania with Duran Duran, Michael Jackson, the Spice Girls, and even One Direction, yet no one has sustained the momentum the Beatles did. 

DI: The Beatles was initially panned by some American music critics. Why do you think this was?

Parsons: Teenagers saw and heard that the Beatles were different; it was the critics who did not understand what the Beatles brought to popular music and youth culture. If anything, the critics' disdain made the group even more important to its fans. To varying degrees, the Beatles all had antiestablishment attitudes, and they paid no attention to their critics.

DI: Why do you think the Beatles have remained so relevant for so long?

Parsons: Every album challenged listeners to redefine preconceived notions of popular music and its power to transform lives. Musically, the Beatles raised the bar so high with the quality of their songwriting, their musical experimentations, and their ability to create albums that still speak to our hopes and concerns. They remind us that many of the boundaries we encounter are ones we have self-imposed. The Beatles taught us to never let go of our dreams or our desire to attain the impossible.

DI: Paul and Ringo will perform together for a CBS special Feb. 9 at 7 p.m. — exactly 50 years to the day, date, and time of the original "Ed Sullivan Show" performance. What does this event mean to you and other Beatles fans?

Parsons: It acts as an electric charge that reawakens the part of you that fell silent when John Lennon was murdered. The Beatles are a part of our DNA — the music cuts to the heart of our being and drives the way we interact with our environment. It will be a magical moment that words cannot adequately describe.

— by Emma McClatchey

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