Holding their hand as Beatlemania swept the States

An insider’s account of the Beatles’ American invasion

IF February 1964 seems like forever ago, especially to those of us who were around then, all one has to do is hear the opening power chords of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, and a bolt of magic instantly connects us to that time — the very same magic that brightened the otherwise bleak winter in the shadow of the assassination of John F Kennedy just five weeks before.

‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was the tailwind that propelled the Beatles into America 50 years ago this month. It was their first US No 1 hit (26 more would follow, still a record), reaching the top of the charts on February 1 and staying there for nearly two months.

With $71m in Beatles music and merchandise sales in 2012, it is no exaggeration to say the shockwave from the song continues to push outward, engulfing new generations.

But as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr boarded Pan Am Flight 101 from London’s Heathrow Airport on February 7, 1964, none of us could have imagined the reception they would receive, nor the impact they would have in America. (As an assistant to the band’s manager Brian Epstein, I just missed joining the trip myself, staying behind to “mind the store”.)

Beatlemania was already in full throttle in the UK, but America was still the great unknown. Throughout 1963, the Beatles had received little attention or airplay in the States — partly due to the reluctance of their record label to promote them. The suits at Capitol had reckoned that British acts simply did not have an audience in America and completely ignored them. (The Beatles’ US releases were forced on to other labels.)

That’s why, as far as hits go, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ was so unlikely. Thanks to one disc jockey in Washington, DC, playing a smuggled copy of the song, it was a viral sensation before the industry caught on.

No one, including my friend, boss and fellow Liverpudlian Epstein, expected the single to reach No 1 in the US, certainly not without a tour and marketing campaign to back it. For Epstein, the whole point of the American visit was to give the Beatles a toehold in America, building an audience through television appearances and concerts.

After all, success in the UK had followed a similar, gruelling trajectory. The Beatles had worked long stints in grimy clubs in Hamburg, Germany — and in a particular grimy one in our hometown of Liverpool, called the Cavern Club — to hone their sound and build a following. Epstein first saw the Beatles at the Cavern in November 1961, during a lunchtime performance. These were the same boys who had been crowding the aisles of the record store I ran for him in those days. He and I had met while I was running a competing record department at Lewis’s, a store in Liverpool. I subsequently ran the bigger, more trendy NEMS shop owned by Epstein’s family and frequented by the Beatles.

I had met each of the Beatles individually in that shop. They were about my age and were always hanging around to get a free listen to the latest rock-and-roll records in stock, which I obliged because they were earnest, polite and genuinely mad about the music. (Wikipedia calls them “regular customers” of my NEMS store, which wrongly implies they actually bought records.)

The distillation of their personalities presented by the press later on was quite true to form. John was a cutup, a rocker who was crazy about Elvis. Paul was sweet and eager — and particularly fond of Little Richard, whose trademark howl he would perfect. George was droll and hilarious and loved Carl Perkins. Pete Best, the drummer before Ringo, was handsome and forgettable.

I was pleasantly surprised to see that it was these same boys — they were all 21 or younger; George was just 18 — on stage when Epstein breathlessly took me to the Cavern shortly after his discovery.

It would be more than two years before they would get to America, a period filled with hard work and struggle. In the Cavern, the band was still raw and unpolished, but their energy and magnetism were undeniable. With Epstein at the helm of their business affairs, their ruffian style and stage mannerisms began to professionalise. The tailored suits and polite bows after each song were all his touches.

Under Epstein, the band also became better organised as a business interest. The gigs and the pay improved. Most significantly, he brought the Beatles to the attention of George Martin at Parlophone, a label under the EMI umbrella (the Beatles were notoriously turned down by several record labels in the UK prior to EMI, where several producers had also declined them before Martin reluctantly took them on).

On October 5, 1962, EMI released ‘Love Me Do’, a Lennon-McCartney original song featuring percussion by Starr. The track was produced by Martin, who would go on to be their career-long collaborator. The song reached No 17 on the charts — a remarkable achievement given that most British acts used professional, outside songwriters at the time — convincing EMI Records that the Beatles were a worthy bet.

The frenzy known as Beatlemania built steadily from there. ‘Please Please Me’ went to No 1 in the UK in February 1963, followed by ‘From Me to You’ and ‘She Loves You’. These hit songs, supported by relentless live performances, nonstop airplay and national television appearances, cemented their British superstardom that was crowned by a historic televised appearance at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre on November 4, 1963.

With the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret in attendance, the Beatles headlined the Royal Variety Show, on which John, ever the silver-tongued mischief-maker, famously said, “Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewellery.”

In short, it took a great deal of hard work from the time they started playing together as the Beatles in 1960 until they became an “overnight” sensation in the UK in 1963. This experience would be Epstein’s template for the American invasion. In late 1963, he had struck a deal with the famed variety show host Ed Sullivan to bring the group to America to perform live for the first time on US television. The Beatles would give three performances on the show in 1964 and would receive top billing. To Epstein’s — and Sullivan’s — credit, this was unheard of for an unknown act.

But Sullivan had an ear for talent and for the people’s taste. Legend has it that he had witnessed Beatlemania on a recent trip to the UK while passing through Heathrow Airport en route to New York just as the Beatles were returning from Sweden to a cacophonous reception from fans. While the Beatles were being dismissed in the American media in late 1963 as a novelty act, Sullivan sensed they were something special. Both he and Epstein thought the Beatles would break into America on the strength of their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show stage.

Indeed, in Epstein’s mind, the whole US trip was a daring, calculated gambit. With the exception of Harrison’s brief visit to Illinois and New York in autumn 1963 (after which he lamented that “No one knew us”) none of the other Beatles had ever been to America.

The prospect was all the more intimidating because America was the home of their heroes and the birthplace of the music they most revered: Elvis. Buddy Holly. The Everly Brothers. Little Richard. Indeed, up until February 1964, America had been the global trendsetter in rock and roll. America was the place that had everything.

Epstein used the leverage of the Sullivan agreement to go to the top of Capitol Records to get the Beatles signed to the US label and secure a commitment to a promotional budget to “launch” the group during the tour.

When attorneys for Capitol Records were unable to stop American DJs from playing the leaked copy of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, they relented in the name of good commerce and released the single ahead of schedule, on December 26, 1963. The record sold 250,000 copies in the first three days.

By January 10, 1964, it had sold more than a million copies; and it was the No 1 song on the Billboard charts less than three weeks after it was released — a truly extraordinary speed — and weeks before the Beatles first set foot in America.

In fact, the long hard slog Epstein had planned for the American invasion was not to be. The years of hard work in the UK and the strength of the music had already softened the American beachhead.

Within weeks, Beatlemania was viral. Radio stations were spinning the band’s music nearly nonstop. Teenage fans ate up the Capitol Records hype and sported Beatles wigs. Bumper stickers across the country trumpeted, “The Beatles Are Coming”.

No one was more surprised than the Beatles themselves. Four days after their arrival, amid the hysteria, John told an American reporter, “We thought we’d have to grow [on] everybody, and everybody seems to know us all as if we’ve been here for years. It’s great!”.

Their February 9, 1964 appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show — designed by Epstein to give his unknown act a platform for their new single — was instead an unprecedented media event. About two fifths of the total American population — 73m viewers — watched the boys perform that night, the largest number of viewers that had ever been recorded for a US television program.

The Beatles played two sets that night, opening with ‘All My Loving’ and closing with the burst of stuttering guitars and giddy enthusiasm that got it all started for them in America, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”

I watched the whole spectacle from Liverpool with equal parts pride and disbelief. For the last time in my career with them, I had a sense of detachment from the Beatles, that of an outsider’s perspective, however surreal. That week, with the exception of taking an occasional phone call from Epstein, I followed the Beatles the way millions of others did: as a fan, as a witness.

Nonetheless, it was clear that everything had changed in a flash — for all of us. From then on, I would be at the centre of the storm with John, Paul, George and Ringo and the tiny “family” of management and road crew that would surround the band until they broke up in 1970.

I would soon move to London as Epstein’s advisor and confidant until his death in 1967, at which time I became more immersed in the day-to-day business affairs of Beatles.

Fifty years on, February 1964 seems like a dream. Like every Beatles song that followed ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, that moment was both a beginning and an end. An end to the way things were done up until then and the beginning of something entirely new.

I have said before that the Beatles were a once-in-a-lifetime, freakish combination of talent and timing. The talent is of course self-evident and well-documented. The Lennon-McCartney combo was almost oversuited to the task of pop songwriting, so brimming were they with creative genius.

The timing, however, was no less critical to the phenomenon. America was in a state of despair following the assassination of Kennedy. The Beatles arrived on the scene of a nation deep in mourning for the death not only of a man but of the youthfulness he embodied.

They — being entirely new with their long hair, cheek and sound — completed the generational break with the style and mores of the 1950s that Kennedy started, unleashing the creative and countercultural forces of the 1960s. The moment was also propitious musically. Elvis was in his post-military lull. Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis were embers in the pan in which they once flashed. Buddy Holly was dead. The teen idols who dominated the charts in the late 1950s and early 1960s, such as Fabian, Frankie Avalon and Bobby Rydell, were passé. The pop world was ready for something new.

The Beatles themselves were fortunate to come up in a working-class city connected to the wider world by its heavily trafficked port. The latest American rock-and-roll records were easily available in Liverpool record shops like Epstein’s, giving John, Paul, George and Ringo an advantage of influences few others outside the States enjoyed.

The changing nature of American mass media accelerated their success. The men in the gray flannel suits who ran the news and the advertising companies in the early 1960s mostly reflected the prevailing cultural mores of the day — conformity. However, the media sought a diversion for the nation’s grief following the Kennedy assassination and none other than Walter Cronkite convinced CBS that the group was the tonic, airing a four-minute segment on the Beatles phenomenon in the UK to American audiences in December, 1963. The US media would ultimately bend and change by the force of the Beatles impact. Every ‘adult’ radio, TV and newspaper report on the group’s arrival was condescending in the extreme.

The journalists were way out of touch and the Beatles showed it, particularly in their hilarious, anarchic and charming performance at the press conference in the Pan Am terminal at John F Kennedy airport. Reporter: “A psychiatrist recently said you’re nothing but a bunch of British Elvis Presleys.” Ringo (shaking like Elvis): “It’s not true! It’s not true!”

Now, I think warmly of the Beatles’ arrival in America. It was a time of exuberance and wonder for them. They were so young. There were creative and commercial lands yet to conquer — and conquer them they would. Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band was still three years away. The world was wide open.

Their world would, of course, become smaller as their success grew. They would come to fear the crowds and lament the blind followers. They would turn inward, to meditation and spirituality, and eventually stop touring altogether. None of this trepidation or weariness is evident on the happy faces of the four loveable mop tops who came to America in February 1964.

If the soundtrack of America’s love affair with the Beatles began with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’, its first, indelible visual backdrop was New York City. From the 4,000 fans who greeted them on February 7 at JFK airport — newly named in memory of the dead president — to the photos shot of them at the Plaza Hotel and in Central Park, New York City is seared into our collective memory of the Beatles.

My office is blocks from the Plaza Hotel. I walk each day through Central Park to my home on Central Park West, next door to the Dakota building where Lennon was shot. There’s a whole arc of the Beatles’ story along that short journey. Of joy. Of sorrow.

But to paraphrase John Lennon’s ‘In My Life’, I’ve loved them all.


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