We’ve been awash in 50-year milestones recently. The Kennedy Assassination. Johnson’s introduction of The Great Society. Today is the 50th anniversary of The Beatle’s first American appearance, on The Ed Sullivan Show.
What was it about The Beatles? A recent article in the Bergen Record has been taking note of the Fab Four’s impact on the New York metropolitan area. John Lennon reportedly said on the flight over from Great Britain, “What can we give them that they don’t already have?”
Screaming girls? We’d had them since Frank Sinatra made the Bobby Soxers swoon in the early Forties. Rock and roll, the mixture of rhythm and blues, jazz, and roots? We already had Bill Haley and the Comets, and Elvis (whom The Beatles admired and copied). Working class boys? Again, we had Elvis, the Southern mama’s boy truck driver who did more than just play, but swiveled his hips and shocked parents. Their close harmonies (which were decidedly musical)? Well, The Beach Boys formed in 1961, a year after The Beatles had formally become a European sensation. But they were here and The Beatles were over there. By the mid-1950s, American airwaves were filled with the harmonies of boy and girl bands. We’d also had The Ink Spots from the early Thirties and Forties, who’d gotten their inspiration from turn-of-the century barbershop quartets.
What they had were British accents. Yes, they were singing old music, but in a new way with a slightly nasal British accent.
EMI’s American subsidiary, Capitol Records, hindered the Beatles’ releases in the United States for more than a year by initially declining to issue their music, including their first three singles. Concurrent negotiations with the independent US labels Vee-Jay and Swan led to the release of the songs in 1963, but legal issues with royalties and publishing rights proved an obstacle to the successful marketing of the group in the U.S. American chart success began after Epstein arranged for a $40,000 U.S. marketing campaign and secured the support of disk jockey Carrol James, who first played the band’s records in mid-December 1963, initiating their music’s spread across U.S. radio. This caused an increase in demand, leading Capitol to rush-release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” later that month. Released Dec. 26, 1963, with the band’s previously scheduled debut on The Ed Sullivan Show just weeks away, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” sold a million copies, becoming a number one hit in the US by mid-January.
On Feb. 7, 1964, the Beatles left the United Kingdom with an estimated four thousand fans gathered at Heathrow, waving and screaming as the aircraft took off. Upon landing at New York’s JFK Airport, an uproarious crowd estimated at three thousand greeted them. They gave their first live US television performance two days later on The Ed Sullivan Show, watched by approximately 73 million viewers in over 23 million households, or 34 percent of the American population. According to the Nielsen rating service, it was “the largest audience that had ever been recorded for an American television program,” wrote biographer Jonathan Gould. The next morning, the Beatles awoke to a negative critical consensus in the U.S., but a day later their first U.S. concert saw Beatlemania erupt at Washington (D.C.) Coliseum. Back in New York the following day, the Beatles met with another strong reception during two shows at Carnegie Hall. The band then flew to Florida and appeared on the weekly Ed Sullivan Show a second time, before another 70 million viewers. On the advice of manager Brian Epstein, they cut their hair in a sort of page-boy bowl cut and wore suits and ties. They had to be neat and polite. Never mind their early drug use while playing in Hamburg. I remember watching the show and thought they looked nervous until they were finished. They played some of their popular rock numbers, but they also played, also on Epstein’s advice, “Till There Was You” from the musical The Music Man.
“They’re playing ‘Till There Was You?!” my mother gasped. Dad didn’t like the look of John Lennon. “That one’s trouble,” he pronounced. My favorite number was “I Wanna Hold Your Hand.” I was four. By my sixth birthday, in 1965, my parents bought me a record player and that was my very first record.
The Beatles band was formed in Liverpool in 1957, by John Lennon, then 16. Paul McCartney was 15 at the time and George Harrison, 14. Originally named The Quarrymen (after their school, The Quarry Bank School) with John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison (who replaced Stuart Sutcliffe as bassist), and Ringo Starr (replacing original drummer Pete Best), the band changed names several times: Johnny and the Moondogs, The Beatals, the Silver Beetles, the Silver Beatles, and finally, The Beatles. As the Beatles, they became widely regarded as the greatest and most influential act of the rock era. Rooted in skiffle (a type of popular music with jazz, blues, folk, and roots influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments) and 1950s rock and roll, the Beatles later experimented with several, genres ranging from pop ballads to psychedelic and hard rock, often incorporating classical elements in innovative ways. In the early 1960s, their enormous popularity first emerged as “Beatlemania” but as their songwriting grew in sophistication they came to be perceived as an embodiment of the ideals shared by the era’s sociocultural revolutions.
Starting in 1960, the Beatles built their reputation playing clubs in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany over a three-year period. Manager Brian Epstein moulded them into a professional act and producer George Martin enhanced their musical potential. They gained popularity in the United Kingdom after their first hit, “Love Me Do”, in late 1962. They acquired the nickname the “Fab Four” as Beatlemania grew in Britain over the following year, and by early 1964 they had become international stars, leading the “British Invasion” of the United States pop music market.
From 1965 on, the Beatles produced what many critics consider their finest material, including the innovative and widely influential albums Rubber Soul (1965), Revolver (1966), Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (1967), The Beatles (White Album) (1968), and Abbey Road (1969). After their break-up in 1970, they each enjoyed successful musical careers. Lennon was shot and killed in New York City in December 1980, and Harrison died of lung cancer in November 2001. McCartney and Starr, the surviving members, remain musically active.
Most rock and roll fans concur that The Beatles were the greatest band ever. I thought they were great on The Ed Sullivan Show and loved their early records, but somehow, as the Sixties ground on and down, their initial appeal, for me, faded. The more my generation worshipped them, the deeper my doubts about them became. To me, it seemed as though they were doing less singing and more screaming. Glancing at a biography about The Beatles and their 1970 break-up, it seems Paul McCartney felt the same way; he wanted to sing, not ruin his voice screaming. Yoko Ono was a side issue and fall girl for the break-up.
Other bands, even louder and more obnoxious followed, most notoriously The Rolling Stones. Music went into a steady decline, as heavy metal pounded young brains into mush. Music was defined by the screeching guitar licks of Jimi Hendrix and the screeching of the unfortunate Janis Joplin. By the early 1970s, both were dead from drug overdoses.
By the time I got into high school in the mid-1970s, listeners, weary of the high-decibel music, were turning to other genres. Singers were making a comeback, including Frank Sinatra. Barry Manilow, country cross-over John Denver, The Carpenters, just to name a few. Heavy metal addicts were furious when disco came on the scene. Couples were actually dancing together again. Romance had returned to the music world.
Then, in 1980, John Lennon was murdered in front of his New York apartment building. Any hope of The Beatles ever reuniting was now gone. George Harrison died of lung cancer in 2001. Paul McCartney remained musically active and was knighted by Queen Elizabeth II.
To the teenagers of 1964, The Beatles were something new, when in reality they were something as old as music itself: a fad. They were a young, garage band with a smart leader and an even smarter manager who knew his marketing. In those days, Mom and Dad controlled the purse strings and their children. The age of majority was still 21 then, not 18. Appease 1964 Mom and Dad with a tidy appearance and a rendition of the familiar ballad “Till There Was You” and you’ll sell more records. The screaming girl – I forget whether she was waiting in line at the Ed Sullivan Show or at Shea Stadium a year and half later – was a set-up by a news photographer who wanted a sensational picture, so he told her to scream. Set one teen girl scream and they all scream.
Mom said that’s what happened at the Paramount Theater in the late 30s and 40s when Sinatra would sing between shows. His managers had ringers down in front. They’d start screaming and soon all the girls were screaming. When her friend urged her to join in, my mother refused to do anything as undignified as scream at the top of her lungs. She thought the whole theater of girls were out of their minds.
“Mass hysteria!” That’s what the Prof. Harold Hill character called it in “The Music Man.” Music was never the same after The Beatles. Even The Beatles were never the same after The Beatles. Within 10 years of forming, they broke up. At least they didn’t wiggle in front of the cameras. It’s quite difficult to play an instrument and wiggle and gyrate at the same time. Not even Elvis could do both at once. Today, performers like Miley Cyrus (they don’t deserve the title of “Musician” in my opinion) don’t need to perform music. They just need to perform to get the crowds to go wild.
The Beatles are a distant memory at 50. Mention The Beatles as the greatest band ever and your typical teenager will look at you as if you’re wearing a hooped skirt or a stove pipe hat. The generation that said, “Never trust anyone over thirty” is in its late Fifties and Sixties now. The Beatles are tame by comparison to today’s music. What’s worse, they’re old.
Just a side note, the man who coined the phrase “Don’t trust anyone over 30” is 73 now.
Jack Weinberg uttered the phrase – which became one of the most memorable expressions of the turbulent 1960s era – during the height of the Free Speech Movement at UC Berkeley. The Free Speech Movement was a struggle by students over the right to engage in political speech on campus, which helped to catalyze broader political activism on campuses around the country over student rights, civil rights and the Vietnam War.
The Free Speech Movement. What a laugh. Free Speech is dead. Half of the Beatles are dead. And modern music is dead.
Long live Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (“Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star”).