Take a New Year’s Eve lesson from the Beatles before they were big

In 1962’s final moments, the Beatles were in one of the last places they wished to be. They were wrapping up their final club residency in Hamburg, where they’d cut musical teeth worthy of a lion’s mouth.

But Hamburg wasn’t where the Beatles believed the action was. Their first single, “Love Me Do,” had popped in the autumn, reaching No. 17 in the charts. The band was anxious to get back in the studio and throw themselves headlong into a future they hoped would be replete with triumph upon triumph.

We tend to be a lot like those Hamburg Beatles ourselves at the end of December. We’re so often not where we wish to be, an idea that transcends geography. The thinking is: 11:59 will become 12:00, Dec. 31 bumped aside for Jan. 1, and we can get started again properly.

People often expect de facto magic with the new year replacing the old. A cosmic eraser clears the slate of one’s life, making room for the markings of a happier, richer annus.

The Beatles themselves would transition from a band with one pleasant-enough hit to matchless force of musical nature: 1963 would bring the release of their first two albums, as well as the “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” singles. Hell of a haul.

But perhaps the coolest thing about the Beatles was that they couldn’t stop being what they were. And when that’s true, you end up mining the most meaning even in the liminal zones of life, when we’re looking to what comes next.

The Beatles at Television House, Kingsway,
The Beatles perform at the Television House in London in 1964.
Mirrorpix via Getty Images

We can even say those in-between times, which have a grating knack for being down times we wish would pass, are what allow us to be successful later.

For all their songwriting brilliance, the Beatles wouldn’t have gotten where they did if they weren’t the tightest band on the planet. That aspect is frequently overlooked. In their four-chambered soul, they were a bar band that could blow any competing collective straight out of the joint.

Ringo Starr had joined mere months prior, in August. The Beatles needed that final Hamburg stint. It’s like a football team at the end of a season in which they’re not going anywhere. The squad is eliminated from the playoffs, but it gives some new players and coaches a shot with its final three games, runs the table and wins it all next year — which it wouldn’t have done without that liminal period.

Things in life often start earlier than we think. We get caught up in the fixed points of the calendar. A week. A month. A year. The fidelity is rough, but the surviving recordings the Beatles made around New Year’s Eve 1962 are as exciting as any they ever did. You can hear a lot of what they became because they were becoming it in those dying moments of a year.

We can all be like the New Year’s Beatles in our way. They had a fascinating relationship with that big day. On the first day of 1962, they’d found themselves auditioning for Dick Rowe of Decca, fervent for a record deal. They were tired, their performance mostly anodyne, excepting John Lennon’s take on “Money,” and they failed. I always wonder if Lennon had that New Year’s Day in mind when he stood on the Apple roof in January 1969 for the Beatles’ last live performance and said, “I hope we passed the audition.”

Ringo Starr
Like Ringo Starr joining the band before their launch into international fame, things often begin much earlier than we believe them to, according to Fleming.
Scott Dudelson/Getty Images

There they were 364 days after the Decca date, playing their final Hamburg set. They might not have wanted to be there, but reality calls the shots. The most empowered in this life accept that, then react accordingly by calling their own shots.

Where we are at is where we are at. It’s always wisest to make the most of it. Each Dec. 31 as people revel in the bars, I listen to those tapes the informal Beatles made at Hamburg’s Star-Club.

I think about where I am and where I want to be. I think about how the present is always a form of the future that has just happened. We’re always in a version of the future. Make everything you can of the before times, the in-between times, the waiting-to-start times.

Those are the times upon which all is really built. The audition is always happening, in a way. We may pass it in stages, but it’s always there waiting for us to play.

Colin Fleming is author of “Sam Cooke: Live at the Harlem Square Club, 1963.

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