HISTORY OF THE BEATLES
On February 7, 1964 The Beatles landed at JFK Airport in New York. The airport had recently been renamed by a mourning country in honor of the President who had been assassinated just 77 days earlier. The airport was now full of 4,000 greeters. Not realizing who they were for, Paul McCartney wondered aloud “Who is this for?” as the screaming fans rushed the gates to meet The Beatles. Two days later on Sunday night they would appear for their first of three consecutive Sunday night appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show.
Meet The Beatles was the first record album I ever bought. A monochrome cover and a dozen monophonic songs opened with the clap-track augmented I Want To Hold Your Hand then followed by I Saw Her Standing There, both were already huge hits in the US. To get a glimpse of the kind of cultural impact it had in America, watch the Tom Hanks movie “That Thing You Do.”
Everyone watched The Ed Sullivan Show in the ’60s. My family watched it. 73 million other Americans watched this particular show on February 9, 1964. I was glued to the TV set for what would become a cultural watershed moment in American history and one of the world’s top-viewed television events of all time. 60% of Americans TVs were tuned in to it, over 45% of Americans saw it. Ed Sullivan introduced them with “Tonight, the whole country is waiting to hear England’s Beatles.” The Fab Four performed five songs on the live broadcast. In glorious black and white the personality of the British band came shining through as their names were superimposed over them as the camera panned to each one. Paul McCartney winked and smiled at the camera. George Harrison was standing in the center doing tight guitar licks. For John Lennon whose microphone barely worked, the caption below his name said “SORRY GIRLS, HE’S MARRIED.” Davy Jones, who would later become a teen idol in The Monkees, sang on the show that night as the Artful Dodger with the cast of “Oliver,” but who remembers. He did, and said to himself “This is it, I want a piece of that.” There were 50,000 requests for the 700 seats for the Sullivan show. Elvis Presley had previously been paid $50,000 for three appearances. The Beatles manager Brian Epstein negotiated top billing for The Beatles and three shows, for $10,000. It was about exposure at this time, not money. Years later, Paul McCartney would go down in history as the most financially successful musician in history.
Three nights later they would do two shows at Carnegie Hall. Ticket prices were $4.00, $4.50, and $5.00. On February 11, they played in Washington DC’s Washington Coliseum to an audience of 8,000.
Now Beatlemania had already going on in the US. In 1963 radio stations were playing the UK single I Want to Hold Your Hand and the B-side I Saw Her Standing There. These were released on vinyl in the US the day after Christmas and sold 250,000 copies within three days, 1 million copies within 10 days. Time Magazine wrote “They look like shaggy Peter Pans.”
The British Invasion had begun. While The Beatles were among the first wave — and perhaps more “parent acceptable” than others — they were followed by The Kinks, Dusty Springfield, Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, The Rolling Stones, The Dave Clark Five, Donovan, Lulu, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. Their Mersybeat style of music, focusing around Liverpool in 1962, was a large impetus to this first wave. The second wave included The Who and The Hollies. This was all helped by British movies with Julie Andrews (Mary Poppins), Audrey Hepburn (My Fair Lady), Michael Caine (Alfie), Peter O’Toole (Laurence of Arabia) and Sean Connery (James Bond.)
As Seth Godin said in his TED talk entitled “The Tribes We Lead”:
“The Beatles did not invent teenagers, they merely decided to lead them.”
There was a rebellious tone to this style of rock and roll music, and the impact of The Beatles cannot be underestimated. Everyone recognizes that they influenced clothing and hairstyle, but they did more than that. Their mid-career music contained both psychedelic (Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds) and drug themes (A Day In The Life.) Eastern religion (Across The Universe) and sitar music (Within You, Without You) became part of their later music.
A number of historians, including this one, contend that The Beatles introduced Postmodernism into American culture. They clearly did so in music, which often influences culture, and I believe their music influenced it in the American worldview as well. Postmodernism had appeared in Europe earlier in the 1900s but not in America until the ’60s. The worldview of the Modernism that came with the Enlightenment and Industrial Revolution with an emphasis on science, reason and rationalism gave way to questions about authority and absolutes. It fit the zeitgeist of 1964 with its contradictions, irony, and pop culture. John Lennon’s statement “We’re more popular than Jesus” was often misunderstood even when he tried to explain it, but that didn’t make it sit any better with Grandma. It is no understatement to say that they changed the American mind.
A generation ago, popular musicians served as the voice of their generation. During the ’60s, for example, millions of people hung on every word The Beatles said. They were the musical poets. That is not true today of other artists. Are The Beatles still relevant? Paul McCartney still plays to sold-out arenas. I’ve seen him twice and have written about his local concert here. He plays the soundtrack of my life. On 09/09/09 (“Number Nine, Number Nine, Number Nine”) Harmonix introduce their music-themed video game “The Beatles: Rock Band” with digitally remastered music. Their Cirque du Soleil show LOVE in Las Vegas is still a hot ticket, and in my opinion worth seeing. They recently received the Lifetime Achievement Award from the Recording Academy.
This 7-time Grammy-winning group appeared at the January 27th Grammy Awards, at least the surviving Paul McCartney and Ringo Star. You can catch a glimpse of what it was like 50 years ago — at at time when CBS News had dismissed The Beatles as “non-heroes, making non-music, wearing non-haircuts” — this Sunday when CBS TV will broadcast “The Night That Changed America: A GRAMMY Salute To The Beatles.” on 8-10 pm ET/PT, Feb 9, 2014 … 50 years to the hour after the original event.
I’ll be watching, will you?
Bill Petro, your friendly neighborhood historian