When rock 'n' roll first began its promise was pretty basic: good times lay ahead. With that primary assurance, a captivating pact was also struck with listeners. The world was going to be a different place than it was today. As early as 1954, Bill Haley's simple pledge told us we'd find our freedom by putting our glad rags on and rocking around the clock. But the song did more than just rock around the clock. Youth riots broke out in movie houses after it was featured in the opening credits of The Blackboard Jungle (1955), an otherwise cautionary story about juvenile delinquency. In the same year as Bill Haley, The Penguins, a quietly graceful doo-wop group with ultimately only one hit up their sleeve, promised us a world of feasible pleasures when they asked us in "Earth Angel": Will you be mine? In answer, people danced with their hips moving just a little bit closer to their partners'. When Elvis Presley first decided to shake his hips on national television, nations of eager teenagers were given permission to do likewise -- and shake them they did.
But for the 15-year-old John Lennon, from Liverpool, England, there was something more to the promise rock offered than just putting your glad rags on and wiggling your hips. Lennon was looking for a way out of his frustrated life in his indigent seaport town. Often he found himself dreaming of being in a plane, flying over Liverpool, escaping altogether. Other times, he was on a giant horse, galloping unfettered, until his own fears detained him and he ended up home feeling frustrated and defeated. One night, though, in May 1956, Lennon discovered a way out, a possible means of escape, when he caught something extraordinary on Radio Luxembourg, which played all the American rock, blues and R&B music that the BBC didn't allow. Lennon was listening to "The Jack Johnson Show" when he first heard the voice of Elvis Presley singing "Heartbreak Hotel."
Lennon had first heard of Presley through his friend Don Beatty, who had shown him Elvis's photo in a copy of New Musical Express, and told him how great a song "Heartbreak Hotel" was. Lennon had only heard Bill Haley's songs to that point. He would even remember his mother Julia dancing to Haley, but the music did nothing for him. As for "Heartbreak Hotel," the title alone came across as phony and corny to the demanding Lennon. But the great benefit of radio then, now lost to generations used to strictly formatted playlists or Ipods, was that on occasion it offered you the serendipity of discovery. There was always the chance you'd hear something you expected to find or perhaps might never find again. That's how Lennon finally encountered "Heartbreak Hotel" and he knew he had to own that record. "When I first heard 'Heartbreak Hotel' I could hardly make out what was being said," Lennon recalled. "It was just the experience of hearing it and having my hair stand on end. We'd never heard American voices singing like that." And more than Elvis's voice, which to Lennon sounded like Frankie Laine, Johnny Ray and Tennessee Ernie Ford rolled into one; he realized all at once that nothing existed for him but rock 'n' roll. From that day onwards, he thought of little else. Besides containing a sound that encompassed him, it spoke to him of freedom, sex and youthful rebellion. "Heartbreak Hotel" also opened up something else to Lennon. But he wasn't sure what it was exactly.
"It spoke only of loneliness and irresolvable despair. Its melody was all stealth, its gloom comically overstated. He loved it all, the forlorn, sidewalk tread of the bass, the harsh guitar, the sparse tinkle of a barroom piano...The song's self-pity should have been hilarious. Instead it made Leonard feel worldly, tragic, bigger somehow."
No question that the song tells an alluring tale capable of pulling you out of your ordinary life. It's about a man who is abandoned by his girl, as Lennon himself was by his own mother when he was five. He has found a new place to abide, right down Lonely Street, there at Heartbreak Hotel. But the hotel gives the singer no comfort; it's a phantom residence. The singer is alone, and so destitute he wishes he could die. The idea of this metaphorical hotel of the heart, this "new place to dwell," spoke deeply to the young Lennon, who would hear his own loneliness and desolation in the song. But also out of that pain, he would hear his own possible, brighter future. By traveling in his mind to Heartbreak Hotel, John Lennon started to imagine a place beyond it. There's a place in this sound, he thought, to find one's salvation. Of course there is. There's a place, don't you know that it's so?
It was February 11, 1963, almost seven years after Lennon had his life changed by hearing Elvis sing "Heartbreak Hotel" on Radio Luxembourg. Now his group, The Beatles, were about to record their debut album Please Please Me at EMI records, not realizing that they too were about to change the course of popular music. After the moderate chart success of their 1962 single "Love Me Do," the follow-up "Please Please Me," recently released, had quickly become a monumental Number One hit. Riding that success, The Beatles were about to record an album of cover songs and original material to try to replicate their dynamic stage performances. After a notable stint in Hamburg, Germany, playing some of the seediest nightclubs, rhythm guitarist John Lennon, bassist Paul McCartney, guitarist George Harrison, and their new drummer, Ringo Starr (who had replaced original percussionist Pete Best), had now become legends in Liverpool. This album was designed to capture not only the excitement everyone was hearing in their music, but also the excitement that was building around the group.
"There's a Place" essentially fulfilled the promise of "Heartbreak Hotel," while simultaneously surpassing it. Like "Heartbreak Hotel," "There's a Place" finds the singer in a blue funk, but the place he takes us to isn't found down some lonely street. Rather than inventing a metaphorical place, Lennon locates it in his mind. Here was a place with no boundaries, no clear definition, a space within which his endless imagination could take flight. In his mind, Lennon could transcend his sadness. For in his mind, he states, he finds no sorrow. Tomorrow won't be sad, either, because there's a place, a place where he can realize love. Coincidentally, the reclusive Brian Wilson also wrote of an alternate place where he could go. But where Wilson goes, in The Beach Boys' beautifully understated "In My Room," is clearly at a remove from a threatening world he sees closing in on him. And despite the song's arresting and seductive harmonies, it's clear that we're not invited to join Wilson in his room.
Over time, though, things changed, for both the culture, and for The Beatles. Nightmares grew out of dreams. Promises couldn't be kept. For some devotees of the band, some were deliberately broken, tilling the ground for the murderous impulses some felt justified in acting upon. The screams of fans were at one time the sharing in the unbridled thrill heard in the group's best music. But soon it would become either screams for blood, or the screams of bloodied victims. Nowhere Land would in time become a ghost town, abandoned even by the ghosts. Over time, The Beatles were no longer shaping history, but becoming it, their utopian hope turning into a lamentable loss. In their later music, like "All You Need Is Love," they tried to supply answers, rather than pose open questions. In the end, we were left wondering what the dream was worth. Is a dream a lie if it doesn’t come true, Bruce Springsteen once asked in a song, or is it something worse?