Fifty-three years ago this week in 1964, New York City in all its Mad Men
heyday, was invaded by a four-man army from the seaport of Liverpool led by their record store salesman/drama school drop-out/pop music manager. It was a fast and decisive battle. No blood was shed and it took only 15 minutes, give or take. The final score:
British: 4, America: 0.
The conquering army's post-battle nourishment included Scotch and Coca-Cola cocktails and cheeseburgers. Their spoils were boxes of American rhythm and blues 45s and a new album by a scruffy folk singer from Minnesota.
On February 7, 1964, The Beatles landed in New York City, their first stop on a three city tour that included Washington D.C. and Miami. They were accompanied on the flight over by record producer Phil Spector, the mad studio scientist whose productions were known for having a "Wall of Sound"--dramatic swirls of guitars, drums, and strings, all in a swirl of reverb and tape delay. Though he said little during the trip, Spector was enthralled by The Beatles who managed to create their own wall of sound with just bass, drums, and two guitars. Spector perhaps more than anyone else in America, knew these odd looking fellows were the future of Rock 'n' Roll.
Thanks to the encouragement of pop radio djs, hundreds of kids cut school to see The Beatles' plane arrive at newly renamed John F. Kennedy in Queens. All three tv networks sent reporters to cover the arrival though most of them were news veterans who had no idea why they should bother. But reporting in those days was an every-man vocation. No one studied journalism. Reporting was like any other job you learned as you went. And it wasn't everyday that an English pop group came to America. Just who--or what--these guys were was a bit of a mystery to the crowd of reporters that watched the flight from London land on that Friday afternoon to a screaming crowd of class-cutting teenagers. What on Earth was a rock and roll band,
At the press conference held in the Pan-Am lounge, The Beatles threw off a few verbal sparks that let the gathered throng know this was not going to be a typical news day. "Sing!
” cried a reporter. "No,
" said 24 year-old John Lennon, "we need money first
!”. But the war was really won from the band's first notes of "All My Loving" broadcast live on the CBS Sunday evening variety program hosted by Ed Sullivan, the same program where Elvis Presley had shocked America in 1956. These longhairs were getting the same reaction except now those kids were teenagers. That night, the Beatles quickly showed what a loud stage-splintering live act they had become after years of non-stop performances in theaters, clubs, basements, BBC radio shows, rehearsals, and recording sessions. Every day was a Beatle Day for John, Paul, George and Ringo. They even wrote hit songs on their day off.
CBS television would later claim 45% of American homes with televisions tuned in to Sullivan's enthusiastic presentation and it's no exaggeration that American pop culture was completely stunned by the sight and sound of the quartet. Their performance even brought down the national crime rate during the broadcast. And musicians all over America—from Bob Dylan to Sam Cooke to young Roger McGuinn--noted that something was happening to popular music and that ‘something’ was The Beatles. For New York-based songwriters like Carole King and Neil Sedaka who made their living writing for other artists, the arrival of The Beatles meant their way of life was in danger. This band from Liverpool not only played their own instruments, they wrote their own songs, too. "Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow" was a better lyric than "I Want To Hold Your Hand" but it was no match for three part harmony, Duane Eddy guitar lines, and slashing drums.
A few days later, the Fab Four took the train to Washington D.C. where they played their first U.S. concert, a marvel of rock mayhem complete with classic Spinal Tap
-esque moments including bad mics, blown out amps, a dodgy PA system, and a drum platform turned backwards. It's one of the most exciting music concerts ever filmed and as close as we'll ever get to seeing and hearing the fellows as they were in Hamburg or Liverpool where they honed their craft. Ron Howard's 2016 documentary Eight Days A Week
is a thoughtful chronicle of The Beatles' touring years but the original un-colored black & white concert film is best seen on its own to get the full effect.
The Beatles were more than Elvis x 4. Elvis Presley, for all his gifts and uncanny knack for connecting with an audience, was musically
sophisticated but at heart just a kid, much like the kids who bought his records. The Beatles, on the other hand, were cocky young adults, street tough musicians who had raised themselves up as a tight-knit family. Where as Elvis got his start playing high school gyms and country & western package shows, The Beatles learned their craft together in bordellos, bars, and theaters night after night. By the time they arrived in America, they had been working without a day off for almost four straight years. Even though Ringo joined the band in 1962, he was often on a similar schedule.
The Beatles played rock and roll songs but they didn’t quite sound like Elvis or Buddy Holly. John, Paul, and George had
been playing rock and roll together since the mid 50s and one could make the argument that they were more trans-Atlantic colleagues of Elvis, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee than rock's next generation. Mixing both British and American pop music, The Beatles produced a slow cooked version of the originally heady mix that made Rock 'n' Roll so irresistible in the first place.
Now, these lads were all grown up and they were fearless, loud, funny, and wicked smart. Their Ed Sullivan performance was a hard counter punch to the plaid world of AM radio and nothing would ever be the same after that Sunday broadcast. With the exception of Motown, Vee Jay in Chicago, and Sam Cooke's SAR records--all African-American owned labels--there was virtually nothing close to Rock 'n' Roll in the U.S. in February 1964. And so, The Beatles re-made pop music in their image and the impression they made is still going strong. Many of you are reading this on a computer, tablet, or phone named after The Beatles’ record company.
Few acts in America--with the notable exception of James Brown and Ray Charles--were so dedicated to their craft. Mainstream press had never seen entertainers quite like this quartet. Between Ringo's malaprops and John's Joyce-meets-Goon Show
word play, they were too quick for the aged, stuffy press corps, who could do nothing but set themselves up to be knocked down. If you've ever wondered what all the fuss was about or doubted it was that big a deal, Albert and David Maysles film The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit
(originally shown as What's Happening! The Beatles In the USA
) is a fantastic introduction to western culture, 1964. As for The Beatles themselves, by early 1964 they had pretty much everything they needed. Except perhaps for a guitar that had some bite
to it and by the end of the year, Paul would take care of that and buy his Casino
which, in 2017, is still going strong.