Their American debut remembered half a century on
The runaway success that the Beatles enjoyed in the United States seems all but inevitable in hindsight. By February 1964, when they finally “turned left at Greenland” and embarked nervously on a whirlwind tour of America’s East Coast, John, Paul, George, and Ringo had already taken Britain by storm — racking up a series of No. 1 singles, bringing an end to the dismal and austere 1950s, and giving voice to an embryonic “teen” culture that was searching in vain for idols at whom to scream. They had even played for the Queen.
And yet, even as the group was inciting hysteria and breaking countless hearts at home, EMI’s obstinate U.S. imprint, the then-minor-league Capitol Records, remained unimpressed. Bemused by the stories of screaming girls and befuddled policemen across the pond, the label’s powers concurred with a skeptical press corps that they were simply witnessing the Brits’ late and eccentric arrival to the charms of popular music. After all, America had already had Beatlemania. It was called Elvis.
Wrongheaded as this proved to be, it was by no means an unreasonable illation. While the early Beatles records had their own eccentric spin on things, their mode was, at root, a cheerful and self-conscious bastardization of the Memphis sound, replete with blues harp, close harmonies, and affected plaint. The group idolized Buddy Holly, Smokey Robinson, Roy Orbison, Ray Charles, Elvis Presley, and Chuck Berry, and they filled their sets with American standards: the Isley Brothers’ raucous “Twist and Shout,” Leiber and Stoller’s rasping Kansas City, and Carl Perkins’s jangling, staccato “Everybody’s Trying to Be My Baby.”
Which is to say that, in their second year of fame, the supernova days of Sgt. Pepper and the White Album were a long, long way off — the future soundtrack to a future era that, although it would come just three years after the innocent, bopping beats of “I Feel Fine” and “Can’t Buy Me Love,” would feel nonetheless like a different century. Later, the group would make a name for themselves as composers and arrangers par excellence; but when they first touched down in America, the flacks charged with writing their records’ effusive liner notes were still explaining to prospective buyers that the deal was “eight of their original compositions alongside a batch of ‘personal choice’ pieces selected from the recorded repertoires of the American R. & B. artists they admire most.”
In the short term, at least, the accidental success of their single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (extensive airplay on American radio forced Capitol to release the record early) and a campaign announcing that “THE BEATLES ARE COMING” had rendered moot any fears that the first tour would be met with complete indifference. And yet when Paul McCartney worried aloud on the plane between London and New York, “What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?” he had a point. As Mumford and Sons do today, the Beatles were effectively selling back to its inventors the music that they had stolen from them and adapted. Sure, this might work for a while. But what would happen when the fad wore off?
This question occurred to some from the start. “Why does [your music] excite them so much?” the American press asked after the group landed at Kennedy Airport, prompting John Lennon to quip that if they knew, they’d “form another group and be managers.” But, truth be told, nobody had a clue. It just did. As with obscenity, human beings have a knack of knowing greatness when they see it. And the Beatles were obviously, unmistakably, palpably great.
Indeed, it is worth pausing for a moment to reflect on just how extraordinarily exciting those early records are. The naysayers may have fairly seen the original owners’ tags hanging from the staves, and the veterans may have recognized correctly that teenage rebellion was not new to America’s shores. But they had chronically underestimated the power of charisma and ignored, too, the miraculous speed at which the Beatles were evolving. By the time that the group released A Hard Day’s Night in late 1964, the music and the lyrics had become cleverer than the average — not just the folksy titles but the imagery, too: “I’ve got a chip on my shoulder that’s bigger than my feet,” Lennon sneered on “I’ll Cry Instead.” But, even before the dexterous wordplays, aeolian cadences, and trailblazing production started to creep into the equation, the records bristled with an energy that has arguably never been matched. Fresh and uncontainable, the sound slams through the speakers and directly into the listener’s heart. Effervescent, amusing, and — when they thought nobody was listening, at least — downright insubordinate; for all their influences, they were just different.
For whatever reason, Americans noticed. Within hours of their arrival in the country, and without their having sung a single note, all hell broke loose. Settling into the limousine that took him from the airport to a locked-down Plaza Hotel, a flabbergasted Paul McCartney turned on the radio and heard the announcer describing the movements of his car. Skimming the channels, he discovered that some of the other stations were playing his records on repeat, and that the ones that weren’t were broadcasting interviews with wailing fans. When, two nights later, Ed Sullivan announced breathlessly that “tonight, the whole country is waiting to hear England’s Beatles,” he wasn’t exaggerating. It was. It had heard about little else since they had landed.
Contrary to lore, it is not in fact true that no crimes were reported while the group was playing for Sullivan. (“Even the criminals took a break,” George Harrison laughed in 1995, repeating a familiar line.) But that the idea is so believable illustrates well the astronomical impact that the appearance had. Roughly 40 percent of the entire U.S. population — around 73 million viewers — tuned in, with 60 percent of all television watchers choosing the band’s inaugural performance. My father-in-law-to-be confessed to me recently that he didn’t see it live but, having spent the whole day at school without finding a single other person who had missed out, eventually took to pretending that he had. Where were you when the Beatles played “From Me to You”?
From behind the stage, their ever-faithful manager, Brian Epstein, must have smiled. Older Americans may have disapproved of the group’s shaggy hairstyle, but they were confused and impressed by the polite manner and matching Edwardian suits on which he had early on insisted. They were seduced, too, by a cleverly contrived set list. Determined to show off their musicianship and versatility — and taking a cue from their successful appearance at Britain’s Royal Variety Performance a year earlier — the group saved the raucous hits for the end of their show, starting with the country-and-western-tinged “All My Loving” and then delivering an acoustic performance of a reworked show tune, “Till There Was You,” from The Music Man. By the time the audience was finally treated to the untrammelled mania of “She Loves You,” even initially dubious parents were tapping their feet in admiration, glancing nervously around the room, and remarking to one other, with a wry smile forming at the mouth, that these boys could really play.
“The thing is, in America, it just seemed ridiculous,” John Lennon later admitted. “I mean, the idea of having a hit record over there.” It was ridiculous, I suppose. The whole thing was ridiculous. Until one day it wasn’t. And, after that, nothing was ever the same again.