Fifty years ago this week in 1964, the Earth--or at least New York City (which was in its Mad Men
heyday)--was invaded by the British. It was a fast and decisive battle. No blood was shed and it took only 15 minutes give or take. British: 4, America: 0.
On February 7, 1964, The Beatles landed in America (with future Let It Be
producer Phil Spector also on the plane, having flown over to England just to be with them on their first transatlantic flight). Kids cut school. Disc jockey's shouted. The tv networks--all three of them--sent crews. But just who--or what--these guys were was a bit of a mystery to the crowd that greeted their jet on a Friday afternoon. After all, wasn't rock and roll a thing of the past?
The press conference that The Beatles held in the Pan-Am lounge in newly designated John F. Kennedy airport had a few sparks ("Sing!
” cried a reporter. "No,
" said Lennon, "we need money first
”). But the war was really won from the first notes of "All My Loving" on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday night when the lads showed what a stage-splintering live act they had become after virtually four years of non-stop playing. Club dates, BBC radio shows, dances, rehearsals, recording--everyday was a Beatle day for John, Paul, George and Ringo. 45% of American homes tuned in (some say more) to Ed's presentation and it's no exaggeration that America was completely stunned by the sight and sound of the quartet. The performance even brought the crime rate down nationally during the broadcast. And musicians all over America—from Bob Dylan to Sam Cooke to young Roger McGuinn noted that something was happening to music and that ‘something’ was The Beatles.
The Beatles were more than Elvis x 4. Elvis, for all his gifts and uncanny knack for connecting with an audience, was certainly musically
sophisticated but was--at heart--a kid, much like the kids who bought his records. The Beatles, on the other hand, were adults; street tough musicians who had raised themselves up playing bordellos, bars, and theaters for four years straight, night after night. Even before Ringo joined the band in 1962, he was on the same schedule.
These Beatles played rock and roll songs but they didn’t sound like Elvis or Buddy Holly. Yet John, Paul, and George had been playing rock and roll together since the mid 50s. They were not a rehash, they were a slow cooking--and now fully formed--version of the original heady mix of blues, country, folk, and gospel that turned the music world upside down in 1956. And now, these kids in their smart suits had thrown a counter punch to the plaid world of pop and nothing (as we know) 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 and roll in the U.S. on February 7, 1964. And so, The Beatles re-made pop music in their image and the impression they made is still going strong. Half of you reading this (or more) are doing so on a computer named after The Beatles’ record company.
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.
Since 1961, according to Mark Lewisohn's Beatles bio Tune In,
The Beatles played somewhere—on stage, in rehearsal, or in a studio—virtually every day and every night. No American rock and roll band could match their stage power or their single-minded drive. And as for wit, between Ringo's malaprops and John's Joyce-meets-Goon Show
word play, they were too quick for the press who could do nothing but set themselves up to be knocked down. As for The Beatles themselves, they had pretty much everything they needed at this point. 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 2014, is still going strong.