It was early 1964. America knew an attack was coming. The chatter had been on the radio for weeks, played again and again. Then on Feb. 7, the shock troops from England landed at Kennedy International Airport, renamed six weeks earlier for the president recently assassinated in Dallas.
For two days they surveyed the place they proposed to conquer. Then, on Sunday, Feb. 9, the first wave of a cultural attack on the United States began in Manhattan, at CBS Studio 50, 53rd Street and Broadway, the home of “The Ed Sullivan Show.” In what was either some supernatural coincidence or the shrewdest move in the history of popular culture, four young Brits entertained and energized a still deeply traumatized nation.
That night, the Beatles played for a television audience of more than 73 million people -- about 40 percent of the U.S. population -- and began popular culture's seismic shift, jump-starting the process of making pop culture really pop, in every sense of the word.
“I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit No. 1 on the music charts in the United States on Jan. 16, 1964. That song was the first salvo in the Beatles onslaught.
Over the next four years or so, a menagerie of animals, stones, troggs, zombies, kinks, faces, hermits, yardbirds, pacemakers, bluesbreakers (and Who else?) would land on American shores, their music crowding the airwaves and the Billboard charts -- reaffirming the “special relationship” between Britain and the United States that Winston Churchill hailed in a speech in 1946. But in a way Churchill probably never saw coming.
Fab Four fetesThere's a lot powering this year's model of Beatles retrospective: An exhibit of photographs from the 1964 North American tour, images by former life photographer Bill Eppridge, will be on view at the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of American History in Washington through July 5.
Reuters reported that the Fab 40 Committee, an ad hoc group of former friends and associates of the band, will begin its own anniversary celebrations with a party and concert at New York’s Hard Rock Cafe on Monday, organizers said Jan. 16.
A Beatles' film tribute continues through Feb. 12 at the American Film Institute's Silver Theater and Cultural Center in Silver Spring, Md., and for the next three months, the New York and Los Angeles branches of the Museum of Television & Radio salute the group with photo and audio retrospectives. In Seattle starting Feb. 27, the Experience Music Project celebrates the anniversary with “Beatlemania!,” an exhibit on the band and its cultural influence. All these come in the wake of a recent book on the group's arrival in the U.S., and last year's release of a DVD box set of the band's “Ed Sullivan” performances.
It’s somewhat ironic that the biggest moment in the history of popular music was first experienced in America as a television event. “The Ed Sullivan Show” had for years been a comfortable hearth-and-slippers experience; the show's variety format accommodated a wide range of stars, from Soupy Sales to Jackie Gleason to the Italian puppet mouse Topo Gigio. For the 73 million viewers watching in February 1964, the Beatles were a cultural wake-up call that few, if any, could fully understand.
“Especially because they appeared in four shows, the Beatles became a miniseries within the series of the ‘Ed Sullivan Show,’ ” said Robert J. Thompson, director of the Center for the Study of Popular Television at Syracuse University.
“What made it fascinating as television is that music was already part of a fragmented culture,” Thompson said. “The kids were buying Elvis, the adults buying other things, but television was a huge cultural trough everyone was feeding from. ‘Ed Sullivan’ was watched by everyone -- kids, parents, grandparents -- so it forced everyone to come to terms with this phenomenon. “The Beatles going on ‘Ed Sullivan’ was the beginning of the domestication of rock and roll,” Thompson said. “ ‘Ed Sullivan’ was like the Good Housekeeping seal of approval. Once you appeared on ‘Ed Sullivan,’ it made you mainstream.”
Thompson said the Beatles and the later British bands would usher in a cultural shift that, by the late 60s, meant “the counterculture had jumped the counter. The bubbling counterculture would become the culture.”
“Today they seem so harmless, so unshocking, so milquetoast,” said noted rock biographer Charles Cross, now working on a book about Jimi Hendrix. “This wasn’t the Sex Pistols singing about the Queen, but it had a similar shock value. It made being a rock fan in America special, it gave an identity to that role it didn’t have previously.
“I can’t tell you how many journalists have done stories on people who cite that as the moment they decided to be a musician,” Cross said. “[E Street Band drummer] Max Weinberg told me that seeing Ringo on that show solidified in his mind that he would be a drummer.”
The frequent fliers
“In the U.K., you had a really rich environment for the blossoming of this new musical style,” Thompson said. “Since [Americans and Britons] speak the same language it was inevitable it was coming anyway. ... Once the Beatles came here and did so well, the natural tendency was to see what else was going on.”
What else included a range of bands literally on the Beatles’ heels. The Rolling Stones took their first U.S. tour in June 1964, beginning their own special kinship with the states. The Animals came over in September 1964; the Hollies and the Kinks first toured America in 1965, followed by late-comers The Who, who first toured the states in 1967, opening for (believe it) Herman's Hermits. And on and on.
“It wasn’t just the success of the Beatles, the Kinks and the Who,” Cross said. “This beachhead brought two dozen other bands into the United States. They found an audience and a popularity that exceeded their popularity in Europe. America was finally right for multicultural influences.”
No taxation without emigrationReasons for the British Invasion seem to often hinge on emotional timing and rock's inevitable global reach. But for the British emigres making the music, another side of it was purely practical. Their migration was also spurred by the chance to make a handsome living without the crushing burden of British taxes, which exceeded 90 percent in the highest brackets.
[Britain's tax-law bite survived the Beatles. In 1998 the British government imposed full tax penalties on all foreign-earned income of a British resident working in the United Kingdom at any time during the tax year, and bands protested the decision by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown to remove income-tax exemptions on U.K. earnings of Britons who lived overseas.]
Some bands in the 1960's took it creatively to heart. Beatle George Harrison's 1966 song “Taxman” put the situation in perspective:
Let me tell you how it will be
There's one for you, nineteen for me
Fellow traveler Ray Davies, leader of the Kinks, was in a similar mood with his song “Sunny Afternoon,” out the same year:
The taxman's taken all my dough
And left me in my stately home
Lazing on a sunny afternoon
I can't sail my yacht
He's taken everything I've got
All I got's this sunny afternoon
Financial considerations put other kinks in the Kinks' plans, in ways that showed not everybody was crazy about the British onslaught.
In 1966 the American Federation of Musicians, convinced that British bands were getting a disproportionate share of musicians income, had the Kinks banned from touring in the United States. The organization finally relented in October 1969.
Despite such minor events, the culture continued to shift at different levels.
“It sounds absurd to say it now, but a Beatle cut in 1964 was considered shocking,” Cross said.
“Every grad student was dressing hipper. Many things in American culture changed: fashion, the style of speech. The British invasion helped launch what happened three or four years later. The Summer of Love, the hippies ... Without the British Invasion, that sea change in American culture couldn’t have been possible.”
The British Invasion helped bring forth a transformation in the business of popular music, a change aided in part by the mass production, in 1965, of the audiocassette, which made pop music's portability more practical than before. In another boon to bands of the time, commercial sales of pre-recorded music began the same year.
“Suddenly there were international record companies that could have a base outside their native countries,” Cross said. “Everything from Britain was hot in America, the biggest market in the world.”
By century's end, the Recording Industry Association of America would proclaim the Beatles were the top-selling artists of the 20th century, selling more than 106 million albums in the United States alone.
Sending American music back to AmericaThe onslaught of British bands also had a paradoxical effect on musicians who started their careers in the United States, but ultimately left for greener pastures.
“Jimi Hendrix’ first record was only available in Britain. It was almost four months between its release in the U.K. and release in the United States,” Cross said. “Hendrix was someone in America who couldn’t get a break doing what he wanted to do in America. Only when he was reflected back to America, only by going to Britain was he able to find a level of success.
“Hendrix was playing some of the same music in [Greenwich] Village early on, with no response. He comes back to America literally a year later, and he’s transformed and becomes, to that point, the single biggest thing in music,” Cross said.
Sounds across the waterFor Cross it confirms there’s a frisson, an undeniable buzz about cultural artifacts from other shores. “What people forget about the Beatles is that prior to that point very few forms of entertainment were imported into America. Britain at that time was considered a far-off place,” he said.
“It’s like when you taste a sample of music, food or culture,” he said. “If you know it comes from, say, Tacoma, Washington, it has a certain flavor. You find out it comes from Liverpool, and it suddenly tastes better.”
For Thompson, it's proof of the longtime attraction, “the symbiotic relationship between us and the former mother country.”
Evidence of Churchill’s “special relationship” has lasted, even while many of the groups have long since faded -- and half the shock troops that led the Invasion are gone. On the Rolling Stones 1981 tour, lead singer Mick Jagger played concert dates wearing a cape whose design joined the Union Jack and the Stars and Stripes.
The BBC America cable channel, launched in March 1998, is one of the most popular viewing U.S. TV destinations -- now available in more than 37 million homes, up from 28 million in 2002, Time magazine reported.
And after Sept. 11, 2001, the armed forces of the United States and the United Kingdom jointly undertook a war against terrorism, an action in Iraq that more than two years later is still being prosecuted, in practical military terms, by that coalition of two.
What the Beatles ushered in, embedded in hysteria, was maybe the most rousing, frenetic evidence of something already there: a cultural kinship that still endures.
Reuters contributed to this report.