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When the Beatles hit America

U.S. arrival 40 years ago changed pop music, culture

By Todd Leopold

Beatles in America
The Beatles arrive in New York on February 7, 1964.

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Great Britain
New York
United States
Ed Sullivan
Are The Beatles still relevant?

(CNN) -- It was all in the future then.

Turn left at Greenland. Carnegie Hall. He's very clean, isn't he? You've got to hide your love away. "Rubber Soul." Bigger than Jesus. LSD. Let me take you down. "Sgt. Pepper." All you need is love. The maharishi. Yoko and Linda. The rooftop concert. You never give me your money. Paul is dead. April 1970. "Let It Be."

It was all in the future then. At the time, on February 7, 1964, the Beatles were four young men heading across the Atlantic on Pan Am Flight 101. They were accompanied by their manager, Brian Epstein, and friends Mal Evans and Neil Aspinall; producer Phil Spector and his group the Ronettes; and a handful of journalists.

The Beatles were heading for New York for an appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," followed by a handful of concert dates. Then they'd go back home.

Photographer Robert Freeman, who took the cover photos for every Beatles album from "With the Beatles" to "Rubber Soul," was on the plane. He remembers them as cool, cracking jokes. "They weren't nervous. It was just another thing to deal with," he said.

But maybe they were a little concerned.

Yes, the group had the No. 1 U.S. single -- "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Yes, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were vaguely aware that Beatlemania -- which had overtaken Britain and much of Europe -- was showing signs of erupting in the United States.

But still: We were talking about America.

"The thing is, in America, it just seemed ridiculous -- I mean, the idea of having a hit record over there," Lennon later recalled. "It was just something you could never do."

"[Harrison] mentioned all the big American stars who'd come across to Britain," recalled a reporter for the Beatles' hometown paper, the Liverpool Echo, in Philip Norman's biography "Shout! The Beatles in Their Generation." "He'd been across [to the States], unlike the others; he knew what the place was like.

" 'They've got everything over there,' Harrison said. 'What do they want us for?' "

'We needed something'

Maybe it was just time. The country was in a funk. President Kennedy was dead, shot 77 days earlier.

"I remember the period well," recalled Billboard chart historian Fred Bronson, author of "The Billboard Book of No. 1 Hits." "Living through it, I didn't think we thought we needed something to lift the nation up. It's only looking back on it now, you realize the nation was depressed. I think now it's obvious -- we needed something."

Maybe it was just talent. Martin Goldsmith, author of the recent "The Beatles Come to America" (Wiley), said he believes the band would have swept the United States even if Kennedy hadn't been assassinated. "Lennon and McCartney were superb composers -- their songs were brilliant and remain brilliant," he observes.

On April 4, 1964, the Beatles had the top five songs on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart -- an achievement never equaled.

He starts singing "I Want to Hold Your Hand," with its phrases dipping down the musical scale -- "Oh yeah I'll/Tell you something/I think you'll understand/When I'll/Say that something" -- and then jumping an octave -- "I want to hold your HAAAANDDD!"

"The structure underpins the message. It's very simple and very profound at the same time," Goldsmith said

Maybe it was just money and media. Capitol Records, which had rejected three Beatles singles in 1963 (the songs, released on other labels, bombed miserably), poured $50,000 into a promotional campaign. Celebrities wore Beatle wigs. An amused Jack Paar played a clip of the Beatles on his talk show. "The Beatles Are Coming" stickers were everywhere.

Betting on the future

Or maybe it was magic, the whole ball of wax, a phenomenon waiting to happen.

Beatles on Sullivan
The Beatles perform on "The Ed Sullivan Show."
"The Ed Sullivan Show" received more than 50,000 requests for its 728 seats -- more than it had gotten for Elvis Presley's 1956 appearance.

Consider this: In August 1963, a New York agent named Sid Bernstein reserved Carnegie Hall for a Beatles concert. He scheduled it for six months later -- February 12, 1964. He was going completely on gut instinct; at the time, the group couldn't have been arrested in America.

Or consider this: In October 1963, Ed Sullivan and his wife were in London, stuck at Heathrow Airport because of the tumult surrounding a Beatles arrival from Sweden. When he found out what was causing the delay, Sullivan, who had the highest-rated variety show in America -- a Sunday night ritual for millions -- filed the name of the group away.

Accounts diverge about what happened next. About two weeks later Epstein flew to New York, where he had arranged a meeting with Sullivan. According to "Shout!," the host planned to book them as a novelty act for one show. But a recent article in American History maintains Sullivan wanted them for three.

At any rate, the Beatles were booked as headliners for three consecutive shows. Again, before they'd had a hit in America.

Which is how, on February 9, 1964, Sullivan looked out at the 728-seat CBS auditorium jam-packed with a handful of adults, boys and apparently hundreds of screaming girls and announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles!"

The invasion of youth culture

The Sullivan show remains one of the highest-rated nonsports programs of all time. Nielsen estimates 45 percent of the country watched the show -- more than 73 million people then. Apocryphal tales maintain that not a single crime was committed in New York during the Sullivan hour.

From there, it was a whole new world.

In his satiric, semifictional Beatles biography "Paperback Writer," author Mark Shipper -- playing fast and loose with the facts -- invented a debut album for the group. "We're Gonna Change the Face of Pop Music Forever," it was titled.

Songs played on the February 9, 1964,  "Ed Sullivan Show":

• "All My Loving"
• "Till There Was You"
• "She Loves You"
• "I Saw Her Standing There"
• "I Want to Hold Your Hand"

It's a joke.

But think: "Sullivan" cemented its stature as the place to see the latest rock 'n' roll acts. Bernstein went on to promote the Beatles' 1965 and 1966 landmark Shea Stadium concerts; he later offered $100 million for a 1976 reunion show.

The British Invasion came in a rush. The Rolling Stones, the Animals, the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, on down to Herman's Hermits and Freddy and the Dreamers.

"I think [the Beatles] allowed the British Invasion to happen. I don't think any of those groups would have paved the way," Bronson said.

And then there was youth culture.

The Beatles had long hair; men grew their hair long. Youthful pop music wasn't taken seriously; the Beatles got people to take it seriously.

One generation "got" it all, another didn't. Into that generation gap fell Vietnam, women's liberation, ideas about civil rights, the sexual revolution, and on and on and on and on.

"In many ways, the Beatles' arrival set off a wave of changes," Goldsmith notes.

But at the time, they were four young men traveling to the United States.

And it was all in the future then.

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