May 1, 1970: Shablool, Israel's First Rock Album, Released

The Beatles were banned from performing in Israel, but they did arrive, in spirit if not in person.

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The decision not to allow the Beatles to perform in Israel in 1965 was one of the most important missed opportunities in the cultural history of the State of Israel. But the truth is that the Beatles did arrive in Israel, in spirit if not in person. Not only did they arrive, they infiltrated the cultural awareness of young Israelis in a manner whose significance cannot be exaggerated.

Other great musicians on the international scene did not affect Israel in real time: not Dylan, not the Rolling Stones, certainly not Pink Floyd or Jimi Hendrix. But the Beatles erupted into the Israeli culture of the early to mid-Sixties and brought about a major change. No government committee was capable of stopping it. The Beatles didn’t destroy the souls of the country’s youth, as the elders of Mapai (the predecessor of the Labor Party) had feared, but the British group did to some extent change their souls, along with the image of Israeli music.

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After the pop sensations “She Loves You” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” it was impossible to continue with a musical diet of “accordion tunes” and songs by leading songwriters such as the poet Natan Alterman and composer Moshe Wilensky. The Israeli musical idiom had to change. The young audience and the young artists – and the big bang of the Beatles – symbolically forced the older, professional songwriters into retirement and erased the age gap between musicians and their audience. The younger generation sought a new beat, a new sound, a new means of expression, new freedom, and even new sexuality, God help us. Maybe drugs too? Nu, let’s not exaggerate.

Israeli rock developed in the 1960s in two major incubators: The first was the army entertainment troupes, which reached their height after the 1967 Six-Day War. Although the army troupes were the opposite of rock ’n’ roll, they were the principal musical breeding ground and many of the pioneers of Israeli rock – key figures such as Shalom Hanoch and Danny Sanderson, and along with them dozens of guitarists, bassists, drummers and keyboard players – grew up within them and adopted some aspects of their aesthetic while rejecting others.

At the same time, the clubs of south Tel Aviv and Ramle saw the start of the beat bands, whose members weren’t accepted to the army troupes or didn’t even bother to audition for them. For these young musicians, Israeli song was the old-fashioned voice of the hated establishment and they wanted no part of it. At first they only covered songs made popular by British and American bands, but gradually the best of the local groups began writing original material. Musicians from abroad who found themselves in Israel joined some of the beat bands and helped intensify the change: Rob Huxley and Stan Solomon of The Churchills, Abe Orchover of Uzi and the Styles, Dave Watts of The Lions of Judea – these were the foreign reinforcement players of early Israeli rock.

In the final analysis, there was not such a big difference between the members of the army troupes and the members of the rock bands, as shown by the ensemble of musicians who created the album “Shablool” (The Snail) – Arik Einstein and Shalom Hanoch, who hailed from Hebrew song, the army troupes and the kibbutz, along with members of The Churchills. All of them – from the army troupes and the rock bands alike – listened to the Beatles and looked for a way to apply the Beatles’ ideal to the local music scene. When it came to the Beatles’ values, that wasn’t difficult. The lovely melodies, the vocal harmonies, Paul McCartney’s apolitical attitude could all be translated into Hebrew without making anyone angry and without causing a cultural crisis in the transition from traditional song to rock.

It’s true that the more biting and subversive elements of rock ’n’ roll such as noise, anger, deviancy and outright sexuality were not accepted into developing Israeli rock, or had to wait for years until they were allowed to sneak in in tiny doses. That’s why the photo that appears here, in which Einstein and Hanoch are seen in a pose that is so reminiscent of Israel’s traditional Dudaim duo, is a representative picture of Israeli rock, showing what it has and what it lacks.

The big bang of the Beatles symbolically forced the older, professional songwriters into retirement and erased the age gap between musicians and their audience. Credit: Gerard Allon