On February 9, 1964, the Beatles performed on The Ed Sullivan Show, reaching an audience of over 70 million.
Overnight, America emerged from post-Dallas national mourning, thanks to the upbeat musical ministrations of those four loveable strangers from Liverpool.
One minute, no one had even heard of the Beatles; the next, thousands of hysterical girls spontaneously descended upon New York’s newly rechristened JFK International Airport to welcome the quartet.
“Beatlemania,” we called it.
The U.S. had never seen anything like it — and neither had the English, who promptly press-ganged more guitar groups to mount a “British invasion.”
The fiftieth anniversary of this epochal night in pop culture has prompted a flurry of books, think pieces and TV specials, all repeating the above received wisdom by rote.
The truth, as always, isn’t quite so pat.
In fact, some of this potted history is just plain wrong.
1. The Beatles were the first British group to score a #1 hit in the U.S.
Proof that being first doesn’t always ensure lasting fame, the Tornados beat the Beatles to that milestone by more than one year.
In December 1962, their space-age surf-flavored instrumental “Telstar” made British (and American) pop music history when it reached #1 on the US Hot 100.
(Had the Tornados been as personable and telegenic as the Beatles, perhaps today we’d be looking back on “Tornadomania.”)
“Telstar” (composed in honor of the historic telecom satellite) was written by Joe Meek.
His name is unfamiliar to most Americans, but in England, Meek is a legend, a kind of combination Alan Turing, Phil Spector and Brian Epstein.
A necessarily closeted gay man who’d been raised as a girl until age four, Joe Meek was a distinctly English type: a garden-shed tinkerer and crank who claimed to be on speaking terms with Buddy Holly’s ghost.
Jon Savage writes:
…in the early Sixties the record industry hardly knew what to make of the man who made a series of hits from his home studio at 304 Holloway Road in north London.
Born in 1929 in the Forest of Dean, he developed an early obsession with gadgets which he nurtured while working for the Midlands Electricity Board and which found full rein when he started to make records in 1956. The best-known of these — John Leyton’s ‘Johnny Remember Me’, the Tornados’ ‘Telstar’ – sounded like nothing else and, far ahead of George Martin, Meek used the studio as an instrument, taking mixing desks apart, playing tapes backwards and adding washes of sci-fi inspired effects.
The fact that in his studio people played guitar in the bathroom while others sang on the stairs only adds to the fun.
Sadly, the fun didn’t last.
Increasingly paranoid and pilled up, his peculiar brand of eerie, insipid music having fallen out of fashion, Meek shot his long-suffering landlady and then turned the gun on himself in 1967, on the anniversary of his hero Holly’s demise.
Three weeks after his own death, a groundless yet costly plagiarism suit over “Telstar” was settled in Meek’s favor. During his lifetime, he’d never been able to collect any royalties earned by the multi-million selling record.
Incidentally, “Telstar” was one of Margaret Thatcher’s favorite songs.
2. Beatlemania was a spontaneous, instantaneous, organic happening
Again and again, we watch newsreel footage of the Beatles’ arrival at JFK in February 1964, but rarely learn, or even wonder, how or why hundreds of screaming teenagers were on hand to welcome this unheard-of pop group.
In a Slate.com article unraveling some of the myths surrounding Beatlemania, Jack Hamilton notes that when “Please Please Me” was released in 1963, it only sold a few thousand copies. The same was true of the Beatles’ subsequent singles all throughout that year.
That, despite the fact that both Time and Newsweek had written features in 1963 about burgeoning British “Beatlemania” which, it turns out, hadn’t been an entirely grassroots phenomenon.
A former associate of Brian Epstein now says the band’s well-to-do manager purchased 10,000 copies of their 1962 single “Love Me Do” just to get it onto the charts. (It couldn’t have hurt that Epstein’s family owned a record store.)
After that, Capital Records, the Beatles’ U.S. label, was impressed enough by the group’s “overnight” success in the UK (in particular their cheeky “Command Performance” for the queen) to spend $50,000 in New York City alone to promote their first American visit — ten times the amount usually budgeted for new bands.
Fifty thousand dollars translates into more than $375,000 in 2014 dollars, which buys a lot of Beatle wigs and bobble heads.
Meanwhile, Epstein’s stateside promoters arranged a deal with radio stations WMCA and WINS “in which every fan who turned up at JFK would be given one dollar and a free Beatles t-shirt. (…) Capitol had also arranged for posters and car stickers, bearing the legend ‘The Beatles are coming’, to be distributed throughout New York City.”
Even then, one revisionist has analyzed the Billboard charts and concluded that in the United States, Beatlemania wasn’t a national craze so much as one confined largely to the East Coast.
3. JFK’s assassination six weeks earlier primed America to embrace the Beatles
It was mourning in America.
Every book, article and movie about Beatlemania repeats the received wisdom that Americans, shattered by the assassination of President Kennedy in November 1963, welcomed the Beatles’ first visit as a much-needed diversion — a return, not just to normalcy, but to something more positively stimulating.
The veritable pope of rock critics, Lester Bangs, declared in a highly influential essay that “[i]t was no accident that the Beatles had their overwhelmingly successful Ed Sullivan Show debut shortly after JFK was shot.”
The sentiment has been repeated time and again.
However, Bangs’ rival music journalist, Greil Marcus, scoffed when asked about the link:
[F]or me there was never at the time any connection between the malaise or shock over the assassination and the arrival of the Beatles.
Professor and Beatles expert Ian Inglish also challenged the cliche in a 2008 paper for the scholarly journal Popular Music and Society.
He points out that in the months following JFK’s murder, other admittedly less dramatic events nevertheless rocked American culture, such as Cassius Clay’s transformation into Mohammed Ali, and comedian Lenny Bruce’s obscenity trial.
“Should we grant Kennedy’s death responsibility for these incidents, too,” he asks, “simply because of their proximity?”
“[T]here is an exaggerated reliance on the two step flow model of ‘Kennedy — gloom — Beatles,'” Inglis concludes.
“Taken to its extreme, such a model implies that had Kennedy not been murdered in Dallas, the United States and much of the world might never have heard of the Beatles or their music — an alternative history I find difficult to accept.”