JFK, the Beatles & an Appendectomy
"Hush little children, you'll understand. The Beatles are comin' they're gonna hold your hand" - Bob Dylan: "Murder Most Foul" 2020
On the day President John F. Kennedy was assassinated, the Beatles released their landmark second UK album. In the intervening 60 years those two events have become inextricably linked.
Stuart Penney remembers that historic day well.
They say everyone knows where they were when they heard the news that JFK had been killed. Well, I'm one of those who can tell you exactly where I was on that fateful day. On Friday, November 22, 1963, I was in a Yorkshire hospital recovering from an operation.
I’d had stomach pains for a day or two, but my mum thought I was malingering, trying to wangle time off school. I’d used this ruse before, so she was wise to it and didn’t call the GP out until the following day (doctors happily made house calls in those days) by which time I was doubled up in agony on the sofa.
The doc quickly diagnosed a burst appendix and possibly peritonitis as well, whereupon an emergency ambulance was called. With bells ringing and blue lights flashing (this was before the banshee wail sirens they use now), I was whisked across Sheffield to the City General Hospital as it was then called (it was renamed the Northern General Hospital in 1967).
Almost as bad as the acute appendicitis was the acute embarrassment experienced as I was carried from the house on a stretcher. Net curtains in the street twitched furiously and several neighbours even came out of their front doors to see what all the fuss was about. An ambulance visiting our council estate was always a major talking point. I hope I’m not tempting fate when I say this but, at the time of writing, that day in 1963 was the first and only time I’ve ever needed to travel in an ambulance. 60 years later that’s not bad going.
At the hospital I vaguely recall being wheeled into the bright lights of the operating theatre where they put me under using a face mask and gas of some kind. The next thing I knew, it was all over. The appendix was gone, and I was waking up in the ward.
Trying to make sense of my surroundings, I found I was in a large, stark dormitory ward containing about 20 iron framed beds, most of which were occupied by kids my age or younger. Typically for the time, there was no central heating, just an old-style coal fired stove at one end of the room, its meagre output fighting a losing battle against the late November chill. In another corner of the ward stood a tiny black and white television around which several uniformed nurses were gathered. I was still a bit woozy from the anesthetic and thought I must be dreaming because some of the women appeared to be openly weeping and consoling each other. If this had been a film, the scene before me would have been drifting in and out of focus while something by Jean-Michel Jarre played softly in the background.
Before long more nurses arrived to join them, at which point it became obvious they were genuinely upset about something. When one walked over to check on me, I asked her what was going on. “It’s the President” she whispered solemnly, before elaborating helpfully “You know, the President. Of America. He’s been killed. Shot dead.”
Ah, that President. John F. Kennedy, the 35th President of the United States, to be precise. Two years earlier in January 1961 at age 10 I’d watched the fuzzy black & white TV coverage of the Kennedy inauguration. So, while not especially politically savvy, I had a vague idea of the magnitude of what had happened. I somehow knew it was a big deal, even for us in Britain. But at age 13 I wasn’t exactly overwhelmed with sadness like the adults in the room appeared to be. And, of course, unlike today, we weren’t bombarded with hysterical social media coverage and 24/7 TV rolling news. Besides, apart from the throbbing pain in my side which was slowly growing worse as the anesthetic wore off, I had other things on my mind. Visiting time was approaching and my parents had promised to bring something a little special.
Today, visitors can enter hospitals to see their loved ones seemingly at will, and quite rightly so. But back then visiting was strictly regulated to an hour or so in the early evening, after which the friends and relatives were unceremoniously ushered out by a severe matron, like a scene from a Carry On film featuring Hattie Jacques.
That seemingly throwaway Dylan line quoted above became reality in February 1964 following the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. The unbridled joy they brought really did help lift America out of its post-Kennedy depression.
In Britain we were almost a year ahead in this respect, having fallen under the spell of the Fab Four in early 1963. And when Beatlemania was finally given a name in October the deal was cemented. They could do no wrong from this point forward.
In early November, they had played the Royal Variety Show where Lennon delivered his immortal “rattle your jewellery” line, and their eagerly awaited second Parlophone LP was imminent. So it was that only hours after I’d been under the surgeon’s knife, my parents turned up at the hospital bearing gifts.
First item out of the bag was “The Beatles by Royal Command” a glossy A4 souvenir booklet published by the Daily Mirror. The front cover shows the group being presented to Princess Margaret at the Royal Variety Show. Ringo is bowing unfeasibly low as he shakes her hand while the other three Beatles grin inanely, showing a little too much deference for my liking, even then. I guess it was the stage make-up, but the boys look curiously clean cut and artificial, like the photo has been touched up. Susan Maughan, who scored her biggest UK hit with a cover of Marcie Blaine's "Bobby's Girl," can be seen standing next to Paul.
I kept the album in the locker next to my bed for the entire hospital stay (around 7-10 days, I recall, which seems a long time compared with minor surgery today) and memorised every one of the 14 track titles - "All My Loving," "It Won't Be Long," "Money," "I Wanna Be Your Man," "Please Mr. Postman" and the rest. And I must have read Tony Barrow's liner notes a hundred times while counting down the days until I could get home and hear it for the first time on the family Dansette record player.
I still have that actual copy of With the Beatles today. 60 years on, it’s looking a little dog-eared and has been played so many times the grooves have almost worn through to the other side. But although I later picked up several replacement copies over the years, I’ll never part with the original. I may not have realised it at the time, and at the risk of sounding pretentious, that record came into my life at a pivotal time in the history of the western world.
Despite his faults which came to light in later years, has there been a more noble and distinguished president since Kennedy? I can’t think of one. The modern style of US presidency started right there with him. America was traumatised by the manner of his death and it’s not too much of an exaggeration to say the Beatles helped lift the country out of its pain and sorrow and gave them something joyous and pure to be happy about. 1964 was the point where the Beatles career achieved warp speed, when they not only conquered America, but virtually the entire world fell at their feet too.
In the era of Trump and Biden it seems unlikely we will ever see another US President with the gravitas JFK brought to the office (although Obama came close). And it hardly needs saying that in this age of instant fame, social media, Spotify and American Idol nothing will ever come within light years of the Beatles and their impact on the world.
They killed him once and they killed him twice
Killed him like a human sacrifice
The day that they killed him, someone said to me, "Son
The age of the Antichrist has just only begun"
Bob Dylan: “Murder Most Foul” 2020