Forty years after Beatles’ first American concert, still plenty of celebrations
WASHINGTON – Call it pop culture meets Chaos Theory, where something of importance is rooted in an apparently trivial event that ultimately catalyzes a chain of events of major consequence. Chaos theory is exemplified by the proverb about a battle in which the loss of a nail in a horseshoe leads to the loss of the horse, which leads to the loss of the rider, which leads to the loss of the battle, which in turn leads to the loss of a whole kingdom.
In the Beatles’ case, a whole kingdom was gained because, 40 years ago, a Silver Spring, Md., teenager saw a CBS television news clip and wrote a letter to a Silver Spring DJ who went to great lengths to acquire an imported copy of the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” which became a local sensation after being played incessantly and exclusively on a Silver Spring, Md., station. Six weeks later, a previously unknown British band had captured a nation’s eyes, ears and hearts and ushered in a new era of rock ‘n’ roll.
Forty years on, the Beatles are the band we’ve known for all these years, making it easy to forget the immediate and lasting impact they had on American music, fashion and popular culture. Looking back 20 years later, cultural analyst Greil Marcus called the Beatles’ seminal Feb. 9, 1964, appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” “a pop explosion … an irresistible cultural upheaval that cuts across lines of class and race and, most crucially, divides society itself by age. The surface of daily life – walk, talk, dress, symbolism, heroes, family affairs – is affected with such force that deep and substantive changes in the way large numbers of people think and act take place.”
February marks the 40th anniversary of the Beatles coming to America and there will be plenty of celebrations – in Washington, New York and sites both stateside and abroad. “The speed and the magnitude of it was the important thing,” says Bruce Spizer, whose expansive and authoritative “The Beatles Are Coming: The Birth of Beatlemania in America” has just been published. “The Beatles would have been popular in America regardless,” Spizer says. “But the actions of three people set forth a chain of events that not only jump-started Beatlemania in America, but changed American culture.”
Love me do
By the end of 1963, the Beatles’ fame had reached epic proportions in England, capped by their October appearance on the Sullivan-like “Sunday Night at the London Palladium.” The hysteria surrounding that appearance, and the huge British television audience that resulted, first inspired the word Beatlemania.
America was proving to be a much tougher market.
American rights to the Beatles’ recordings for EMI were held by Capitol, a Hollywood label whose name and logo were directly inspired by the U.S. Capitol building. But no British act had ever broken through significantly on the American pop charts, and Capitol didn’t seem to want to change that: It declined to release any Beatles singles. According to an internal memo, “We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in this market.”
After Capitol passed on the Beatles, EMI licensed the band’s British singles to several smaller labels and Chicago’s Vee Jay released “Please Please Me” on Feb. 7, 1963. With minimal promotion, it did nothing. In May, Vee Jay released “From Me to You.” It did nothing. Philadelphia’s Swan tried next, releasing “She Loves You” in August. It also did nothing. It wasn’t until late November 1963 that Capitol finally agreed to release a Beatles recording.
American media did notice Beatlemania in England: On Nov. 11, 1963, Time and Newsweek each devoted half a page to the “New Phenomenon in Britain.” On Nov. 18, NBC ran a brief British-produced news segment, as did CBS on the morning of Nov. 22. That segment would have run again on “The CBS Evening News With Walter Cronkite,” but all scheduled programs were knocked off the air by the assassination of President
See Beatles, page B2