Arts: 50 Years Ago, The Beatles Landed in America


Fifty years ago, February 7, 1964, The Beatles landed in America for the first time.

I remember it well from the news reports of their arrival at the airport in New York City on a PanAm flight, to the screaming approval of thousands of young girls. It was pandemonium. I remember their TV appearance in black-and–white on The Ed Sullivan Show which for those too young to know was the premier entertainment program of its day on Sunday evenings at 8.

The Beatles were the soundtrack of a generation of kids who grew up in the 1960s. I recently saw a book that listed the 100 best Beatles songs and I knew every one of them. That is amazing considering that most famous groups or singers have three of four memorable hits, maybe 10 or 15 at the outside. But 100? Wow.

The arrival of The Beatles seemed like it was an overnight sensation, which it was to America, but in reality it was quite the opposite. These young “lads” worked for many years together, struggling in grimy nightclubs in Germany and England before making it to the big time. Their persistence is something we all should see as an inspiration, showing that today’s instant-gratification culture is an illusion.

If you look up Beatles biography clips on YouTube you will find lots of information. It is a fascinating story and well documented. Once their career took off in 1963 the next 7 years were a whirlwind until their breakup in 1970. With LP albums (the precursor of CDs) including Rubber Soul, Revolver and The White Album they hit home runs over and over. There is not a bland song anywhere in their repertoire whereas most albums are one or two big hits and then a lot of unremarkable filler material.

One thing you will notice is that Beatles music was surprisingly upbeat and was rarely maudlin or negative. While the Rolling Stones were growling about Sympathy for the Devil or Paint It Black, The Beatles gave us Here Comes the Sun. While Led Zeppelin produced throbbing hard rock The Beatles gave us melodic joy like Dear Prudence, one of my favorite songs of all time (the subject is Prudence Farrow, the sister of actress Mia Farrow).

And while they started innocently enough as the young “mop tops” from England, the Beatles’ appearance changed and seemed to become more threatening with the rise of the ‘hippie’ culture, marking the end of their career as a unit. They looked to Indian gurus and drugs and fell out of favor with many Americans. They looked more devilish with longer hair and shabbier clothes. Then John Lennon became a vocal critic of American policy in Vietnam which tarnished his image. This caused a lot of people to oppose the entire Beatles culture. But still their music remains a masterful example of popular culture.

Is their music “high art”? No, of course not, but in the history of popular music it certainly rises above the rest, hitting unique, original notes again and again. Who could forget Blackbird or Norwegian Wood? How about Paperback Writer, Yesterday or As My Guitar Gently Weeps? Every one a hit.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney, who wrote most of the Beatles music individually or as a team, made the group great. Lennon was famously assassinated in 1980 while George Harrison died at age 58 in 2001. Today we have Sir Paul McCartney and Ringo Starr left and time will eventually take them but never their music.

I remember getting my first prolonged kiss from a pretty girl listening to the song I Will . It is uncanny how you remember details like that. Us old folks can tie many life events to Beatles music.

What were some of the great Beatles moments?

You can see some of them on YouTube like their rooftop concert on a gray, chilly day in London which was an impromptu weekday event that caused a stir in the streets below. Or their 1965 Shea Stadium appearance in New York where their manager Brian Epstein stood calmly by the stage chewing gum as the crowd of 50,000 roared. Or think about the silly marketing ruse that kept us kids guessing, that Paul McCartney was really dead which was suggested in subliminal messages over several albums. Or the release of the Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band album that was revolutionary with its synthesized music and including Indian sitar, marking a new generation of sound.

Video clips of The Beatles working on their songs in the studio show a difference between music now and then. Today we often see music that is highly contrived, with songs written and polished for the market ahead of time and then recorded by the “star”. In contrast The Beatles sat in the studio for hours at a time composing and innovating, trying all sorts of new things while the “brains” behind the group, George Martin, looked on quietly offering his steady wisdom when called for.

But of course it was that first appearance on Ed Sullivan that really electrified America and the world. It was the end of the bobby-sox era, when the girls still wore dresses and The Beatles wore matching outfits. In fact they looked like kids.

Just imagine what it must have been like for John, Paul, George and Ringo (born Richard Starkey) after their years of struggle, still in their early 20s, to suddenly be the most famous people in the world. That, of course, led to one of the great controversies, when John Lennon said that The Beatles were more famous than Jesus Christ.

This caused an uproar and to his credit Lennon explained that he was just making an offhanded comment and that he meant no disrespect to Christians. After all he was just a young man in the glare of the spotlight and his every word was being captured. But the remark was damaging and marked the beginning of the end for The Beatles, who lasted much less long than many groups from the 1960s.

Then again, it is irrelevant that The Beatles dissolved. They carried on as individuals after they squeezed a huge amount of quality music into a short period rather than overstaying their welcome and fading away.

Today we have grey-haired groups from the 1960s still going strong and playing sold-out concerts to aging audiences. That would have sounded pretty strange back when Paul McCartney first sang When I’m Sixty Four in 1967 when we all thought that the age of 64 was impossibly far away. McCartney is now 71 years old.

Indeed by 1971 The Beatles were history but, hey, it was perhaps the most memorable history in 20th century popular culture. Their arrival in the US marked the beginning of what was called The British Invasion with groups like The Kinks, The Animals, The Who and others. It changed pop music and was all very memorable, original stuff and much better than the canned songs that you hear today.

Fifty years ago, on February 7, 1964, The Beatles first landed in America. Amazing. How time flies.

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