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The last summer before The Beatles

Fifty-five years ago, Canadians were enjoying the last summer of their innocence. Within 12 months, Canada would be changed irrevocably and the world as we knew it would be swept away forever. We didn’t know it yet, but it was the last summer before The Beatles.

In central Canada, the summer of 1963 was as summers were meant to be — the days were warm and the evenings were comfortable. August was wet, but June and July were drier than they had been in a few years.

The top-grossing film in Canadian theatres that summer was The Great Escape, which was released in July. At the drive-in — which was still a preferred way to see movies in the summer — people were watching Elvis Presley’s most recent offering of pap, It Happened at the World’s Fair. It had been released in April, but by June, it made its way to the parking-lot format.

On television, Singalong Jubilee, which was to launch the career of Anne Murray, ruled the roost in terms of summer replacement series.

As for the radio — well, it seems quite extraordinary now to reflect on just how narrow our listening habits were. On the CHUM chart for Dominion Day week, for example, there were only six non-American songs in the top 50. Happily, the No. 1 spot was held by a Canadian — Charlena, by Richie Knight and the Mid-Knights. He’s largely forgotten now, but Knight was a key part of the Yonge Street rock scene of the late ’50s and early ’60s.

The only other Canadian song was by another now-forgotten artist, Clive Clerk. Lookin’ For A Girl sat at No. 34. Most tellingly of all, only two songs on the chart in July of 1963 came from England — both by Cliff Richard. A year later, by the summer of 1964, a quarter to a third of the charting songs would typically be by English artists.

The CFL season began on July 15. In the season opener, Calgary beat Ottawa at Lansdowne Stadium. Earlier in May in baseball, Sandy Koufax had thrown his second career no-hitter — against the Dodgers’ traditional arch-rivals, the Giants, which gilded the lily.

In the six-team NHL, the big news in the summer of 1963 was that Montreal and Toronto traded goalies — Jacques Plante for Gump Worsley.

Canada of 55 years ago seems like a sepia-coloured lithograph hanging on the wall of a country barber shop. In the summer of 1963, our new flag was still two years away. The prime minister and the leader of the opposition had both been born in the 19th century. The governor general was even older, having been admitted to the bar before the First World War. But, to borrow a line from another song written in 1963, the times they were a changin’.

Canada had had a federal election in the spring of 1963, which resulted in the defeat of the minority Conservative government of John Diefenbaker and the election of a minority Liberal government led by Lester Pearson. Bizarrely — at least measured against today’s reflexive assumptions — the key election issue was nuclear weapons for the Canadian Armed Forces, the Tories being opposed and the Liberals in favour.

It was this factor that led the U.S. to openly meddle in the campaign. Diefenbaker and American president John F. Kennedy had a personally dysfunctional relationship to begin with. Kennedy thought of Diefenbaker, with his jowls and country-lawyer mannerisms of speech, as a doddering fool. For his part, Diefenbaker viewed Kennedy as a rich upstart who was still wet behind the ears. 

           

When Diefenbaker prevaricated on the issue of equipping the Royal Canadian Air Force with nuclear weapons and stationing them on Canadian soil, Kennedy did what he could to bring about a change of government. In the worst kind of opportunism, the Liberals suddenly got religion on the nuke issue and adopted a platform favouring them. The Kennedy administration threw all of the might it could muster behind Pearson’s campaign. This included lending his pollster to work for the Liberal Party and arranging for the U.S. ambassador to Canada to publicly denounce Diefenbaker.

As far as foreign interference in elections goes, what Kennedy did in the Canadian election of 1963 makes the Russian version of today seem positively genteel in comparison. But it worked, and Pearson formed a minority government with New Democratic Party support. In the Canada of 55 years ago, the pro-nuke parties were the Liberals and NDP. Who says that political opportunism is a new feature of Canadian politics?

In 1965, Canadian philosopher George Grant published a little book about the 1963 election entitled Lament for a Nation. It is remarkable to read — maybe even more today than it was when it was published. The book anticipated almost perfectly what the election actually signified. It was, in Grant’s assessment, much more than the end of a Conservative government. Rather, it was, in his words, “the end of Canada as a sovereign state.” By allying its fortunes to the U.S. military-industrial-political complex, the Liberal Party of the day irrevocably rendered us subservient to the American will. And that is precisely what we are living today.

Few of us like the two-step of defiant acquiescence that we are going through with the Donald Trump administration today. But our economy is now so utterly dependent on the U.S. that we have no practical alternative. Thanks to the 1960s, all of our supply-managed eggs are in one basket.

But none of that was apparent to Canadians as they went to the beach and listened on their AM transistor radios that summer to Lesley Gore (It’s My Party, No. 2), Bobby Vinton (“Blue on Blue”, No. 6) and the Beach Boys (Surfin’ USA, No. 10). As far as we knew, Camelot was still the theme in the White House, and we had just elected a prime minister who was promising (along with nukes) a Canadianized version of it, complete with a national health-care system, the Canada Pension Plan and a new flag.

To us today, the arrival of The Beatles in North America in February of 1964 represented freshness and excitement. It was the dawn of the Age of Aquarius. There was the hair, the clothes and the insouciance of the press conferences. And, above all, there was the music. Even now, songs like I Want to Hold Your Hand, She Loves You and Twist and Shout remain infectious. They are the embodiment of sheer fun. But viewed in hindsight, what they heralded was the shrouded end of Canada’s dream of an independent future. 

  • Foreign influence

    David Shirlaw
    Well written and timely article.