On a cold Friday afternoon, a Boeing 707 transatlantic jetliner – Pan Am Flight 101 from London’s Heathrow Airport – touched down at New York’s JFK Airport. As the aircraft taxied into its allotted slot, its swept-winged, sleek and modern fuselage proudly displayed the colours of Pan American Airlines. An icon of the modern jet age, the 707 had transported a musical act from Britain whose arrival in New York would spark a sociocultural revolution and be lovingly remembered by Americans for decades to come.
As the doors of the aircraft opened, the deafening screams and scenes of pandemonium which greeted the passengers was unprecedented. Thousands of teenagers lunged forward while hundreds of police and journalists rode the heaving waves of fans while looking on with a mixture of bemused confusion.
It was February 7, 1964 and The Beatles had arrived in America.
Emerging on to the mobile air stair, the appearance of the four individuals was so dramatically different to those of the teenagers and adults surrounding them that it was easy to see why one commentator remarked, ‘They looked like they had just arrived from Mars’. The long hair, caps and Cuban-heeled boots of the British usurpers clashed sharply with the clean cut, greased or crew-cut hair of the Americans. The early British 1960s had just strolled into the tail end of the American 1950s.
In fact, so shocking was the band’s appearance that the first audible remark they heard in a New York accent was a cop who quipped, ‘Boy, could they use a haircut’.
Owing to some hefty marketing campaigns and the viral spread of the group’s fifth single across the airwaves, an English musical act had achieved the seemingly impossible and conquered America without ever having set foot in the country. What was initially planned as an exercise in testing the waters with a view to cracking the American market was a fait accompli before the group’s plane had even taken off from London.
Exposed to TV clips and newspaper articles about Beatlemania in the U.K., American music fans had fallen head over heels in love with The Beatles from a distance of 3,000 miles. The music, the suits, the hair, the accents and the outlandish and quirky similes shared by all four members of the group had created a craze – first in New York and then beyond – which had propelled ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ to the number one spot on both the U.S. Cashbox and Billboard charts.
Ushered through customs and still astonished by the reaction to their arrival, the group prepared to give a press conference to an army of sceptical journalists at JFK Airport who were intent on denouncing and slating a Marx Brothers musical act which was clearly contrived. These guys couldn’t be for real.
What they encountered instead was four sharp-witted individuals who took neither themselves nor their ludicrous celebrity seriously. They didn’t bite the hand that feeds. The Beatles mocked it openly at the press conference, while at the same time displaying a remarkably cynical insight into the murky mechanics of the music industry which belied their youthful innocence.
Q: ‘Would you please sing something?’
John: ‘No, we need money first!’
Q: ‘What do you think your music does for these people? Why does it excite them so much?’
John: ‘If we knew, we’d form another group and be managers’.
Q: ‘Are you for real?’
John: ‘Come up and have a feel’.
These were not the rehearsed soundbites of the smiling, down at heel pop star – even the mighty Elvis had been forced to conform for the press and the cameras. Yet, unable to be anything but themselves in front of the media, the Beatles’ cheeky charm and chirpy cynicism disarmed the press immediately. New York fell, and the rest of America would soon follow.
While completely incidental, the timing of their arrival was primed for success. With the death of President John F. Kennedy less than three months previously, America had lost its youthful and charismatic icon of the post-war age and was ripe for the blind-siding event of The Beatles invasion. The nation had been thrown into a dark and sinister period of grief and the arrival of The Beatles, coming when it did, provided at least a temporary distraction from the deep wound of a self-inflicting act of terror.
Following a two-day carnival atmosphere in New York during which the Beatles and New York’s finest were besieged by shrieking teenagers, the band prepared for the main event of their visit: an appearance on the prestigious Ed Sullivan Show which was broadcast live from NBC’s Studio 50 in Manhattan.
Watched by the largest commercial audience in American television ratings history (at the time), The Beatles performed before 73 million viewers on Sunday, February 9, 1964. Although only 721 seats could be filled within the theater, NBC had received a staggering 50,000 requests for tickets. The show was a resounding success for the band and for NBC.
Even Sullivan, a tough and grizzled Irish-American showbiz star maker fell in love with the band. One commentator said, ‘Ed even smiled, which was a first for fifteen years’. What music fans witnessed on the Ed Sullivan Show that night was new, and yet it was strangely familiar.
The group played and sang with the same sexual energy that had accompanied rock and roll stars of the 1950s, but they did it with louder instrumentation and on an equal footing with each other. America was witnessing the template of the modern rock band. Here were four equal members of a group with no discernible lead singer – and hell, even the usually anonymous drummer was installed on a riser to highlight his integral status.
The most crucial ingredient in The Beatles’ success that fateful night, however, was that the music on the show was rock and roll, an old, yet familiar American phenomenon which had been diluted by the emergence of wholesome crooners with capped teeth and pastel V-neck sweaters. On Sullivan’s show, the Beatles held up a mirror to American audiences and demonstrated that the home-grown culture they had once viewed as morally corruptible was actually a valid and exciting art form once again.
Despite the tragic deaths, imprisonments, or banal sell outs of many of its stars, American rock and roll was not dead, it had merely idled in the clubs of Britain before being delivered back to the U.S. by The Beatles, albeit greatly amplified and mutated.
Buddy Holly had shown a teenage John Lennon that you could achieve stardom with glasses and plain looks. Now Lennon’s band (ironically named in honour of Holly’s) showed American audiences that you could pick up instruments and have a go yourself.
The event was a eureka moment of enormous proportions which would change the landscape of popular music forever. Often cited as the night which launched a thousand bands, new acts sprung up all over America within weeks of the Sullivan broadcast. In fact, the impact of The Beatles’ arrival and the British invasion which followed it has influenced American music definitively through the last 50 years.
In time, the detractors got their moment and The Beatles ran aground of conservative America by having the temerity to question the validity of Christianity in modern culture. But there had been no uproar when the band refused to play segregated arenas at a time when enormously wealthy and popular rock stars such as Chuck Berry, Diana Ross, Michael Jackson, and Marvin Gaye were forced to use segregated facilities while touring themselves.
New York, the band’s port of entry into U.S. culture, eventually became the home of John Lennon. He wore his love for his adopted city not on his sleeve, but literally on his chest, being captured in an iconic photograph with ‘New York’ blazoned across the front of his shirt. Sadly, he was murdered outside his Manhattan apartment in 1980, a little over a mile from NBC Studios
Lennon was cremated at Ferncliffe Cemetery in New York, six years after Ed Sullivan, the kingmaker who had brought the group to America was laid to rest at the same facility.
On my travels throughout America I’m always pleasantly surprised to hear how regularly The Beatles are played on U.S. radio. The band’s music and legacy are cherished and idolised in the U.S. still.
This weekend, NBC is gearing up to make a big deal of the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ debut on American television. And why not? America still loves The Beatles.Powered by Sidelines