The Beatles Take It Easy

One day last week I wrote about the Association, “They showed that kids not named Lennon and McCartney could craft pop music every bit as classy and enduring as anything in the Great American Songbook,” even though their songs got no traction on easy-listening/adult-contemporary radio during  the 1960s. Which leads rather naturally to this question: How well did Lennon and McCartney themselves do on easy-listening/adult-contemporary radio during the 60s?

You might guess that “Yesterday” made Billboard‘s Easy Listening chart—it is, after all, the first Beatles song recognized as a masterpiece of songwriting outside of the rock ‘n’ roll universe. And while it might have gotten some play on a few radio stations geared to the adult audience of 1965, it didn’t get enough to chart. Although it’s one of the most-covered songs of all time, no covers of “Yesterday” charted, either—although three versions of “Michelle” did. The biggest, by David and Jonathan, actually the prolific songwriters Roger Cook and Roger Greenaway, went to #3 on AC and #18 on the Hot 100 despite being terrible, at least compared to the original.

(It’s arguable that in 1966, “Michelle” was a more famous song than “Yesterday.” It was certainly more honored. “Michelle” won Song of the Year at the Grammys awarded in 1967 as well as various airplay awards; “Yesterday” had been nominated for Record of the Year in 1966 but didn’t win.)

It wasn’t until 1969 that the Beatles hit the Easy Listening chart for the first time. Now you can guess what did it: “Something,” which went to #17 late that fall in a seven-week run. The next spring, “Let It Be” spent four weeks at #1. None of the late 1969/early 1970 editions of Billboard are available at Google Books, which is a shame—I’d like to be able to see what else was doing big Easy Listening business at the time, and if we could start to detect the shift in the meaning of “easy listening” that was beginning to occur. As I noted last week, by 1970 and ’71, the Easy Listening and Hot 100 charts were converging like never before.

If Easy Listening shunned the Beatles until 1969, it embraced them by 1971: all four Fabs hit the chart with solo hits that year. For the week of January 16, 1971, while All Things Must Pass led the album chart, George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” was #1 on the Hot 100 and reached #10 on Easy Listening. Many of the other top Easy Listening hits were on the Hot 100, but only a handful of rock acts joined George on Easy Listening: Chicago (“Does Anybody Really Know What Time It Is”), Elton John (“Your Song,” which seems like the kind of thing easy-listening radio could scarcely have ignored except, you know, “Yesterday”), and Stephen Stills (“Love the One You’re With”). Paul McCartney’s “Another Day” made #4 during the week of May 15, trailing only Lobo, Bread, and Neil Diamond. John Lennon’s “Imagine” hit #7 in November, and even Ringo made it in 1971: “It Don’t Come Easy” reached #24 in July. That particular week, only a few of the top Easy Listening hits were exclusive to that chart, including “Follow Me” by Mary Travers, “The Flim Flam Man” by Barbra Streisand, and “Let Me Be the One” by Jack Jones, along with records by the Lettermen and the Vogues.

(A pretty good indicator of how things had changed by the summer of 1971 is that a couple of hippie country-blues players, Delaney and Bonnie, were on the Easy Listening chart with “Never Ending Song of Love.”)

Given the relatively abrupt change in the composition of the Easy Listening chart over the space of about a year, I wonder if Billboard jiggered its methodology or its lineup of reporting radio stations at some point in 1970 or 1971. Or maybe the transition was simply demographic, as the first batch of baby boomers reached their mid 20s, and found themselves with kids and mortgages and other real-world concerns. Perhaps the big, established radio stations that made it their business to serve that kind of person realized who was joining their audiences, and found it wise to start picking where the berries were getting thicker.

Beats me. I was 11.

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4 responses

  1. So wide was the cultural chasm separating the generations that the Beatles were still just “kids’ music” to the grownups during 1965, and no one expected to hear “Yesterday” on the adult stations. Never mind that Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” was far more raucous than that “Yesterday” record, yet rose to number 6 on the MOR chart; Bob was a grownup, and the Beatles weren’t. Nevertheless, “Michelle” proved that “Yesterday” had been no fluke, forcing some older folks to ponder whether or not those mop-tops they’d seen on Ed Sullivan might actually have been onto something.

    But that “something” wasn’t “Something.” The one that broke down the fences was Mary Hopkin’s “Those Were The Days.” Adults surely must have thought the words were penned specifically for them, even as they were being sung by an eighteen-year-old. Although MOR programmers held off on “Get Back” and the controversial “Ballad Of John And Yoko,” they had no problem adding a second Beatle-infused helping of Hopkin (“Goodbye.”)

    That it took four-and-a-half years to land the Fabs proper on MOR radio indicates how strong the resistance to that “kids’ music” had been. The Beatles, themselves, were no longer kids by the time MOR programmers finally dipped their toes in the water with “Something.” And whaddaya know, the world didn’t come to a screeching halt.

  2. “a couple of hippie country-blues players, Delaney and Bonnie, were on the Easy Listening chart with “Never Ending Song of Love.”

    Except that great tune wasn’t country-blues. I worked at a PBS station and saw more episodes of Lawrence Welk than is healthy and “Never Ending Song” was aired on multiple shows. It’s a song that tickles the ears of all eras.

    And is currently being used in an Olive Garden ad campaign. A good tune is a good tune, is a good tune…..

    1. Which is my point, I guess. Given the way the Easy Listening charts shied away from all but the most countrypolitan of country music as late as 1970 (Eddy Arnold, Bobby Goldsboro, Anne Murray, etc.), it’s remarkable that less than a year later, “Never Ending Song of Love,” which has more than a little twang and yee-haw in it, was getting Easy Listening airplay. That it ended up on “The Lawrence Welk Show” only amplifies my point.

  3. […] of Easy Listening, which didn’t produce as many posts as I thought it might. Posts about the Beatles’ impact on the Easy Listening chart and after the death of Andy Williams are representative. And on the subject of death, we noted the […]

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