Friday, February 07, 2014

When Beatlemania Crossed the Pond

Many Americans probably knew little, if anything, about the Beatles when they arrived in America 50 years ago today.

That was understandable. John F. Kennedy had been assassinated 11 weeks earlier. Americans were in a daze, numb, grieving, shocked, scared. They weren't focused on pop culture.

Beatlemania was already in full force in England 50 years ago, and many Americans probably had already seen the Beatles in a four–minute segment on NBC's Huntley–Brinkley Report a few days before the assassination, but, in the dizzying flurry of events in late 1963, it would be understandable if few remembered.

(Then, as now, teenagers were more likely to be aware of shifts in pop culture than their elders, of course, and there was considerable excitement among the young on this day 50 years ago.)

CBS actually broadcast a segment on the Beatles on its morning news show the day of the assassination, a segment that was slated to be repeated on the evening news but was not, obviously, because of the events in Dallas. A couple of weeks later, CBS finally ran the segment on the evening news, prompting a hurried release of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" the day after Christmas.

The United States, consequently, was probably one of the last countries in the civilized world to recognize what was happening. But, like the rest of the world, music in America was dominated by Elvis Presley and the so–called "Memphis sound." Even the bands in Britain — the Beatles included — sought to emulate that sound, thinking it to be the key to their success.

But the Beatles — and the groups that followed them in the British invasion — were responsible for a new sound, and music lovers in America were looking for a new sound.

"Everything about them ... seemed outlandish, compared with American pop groups," writes Allan Kozinn in the New York Times. "And though their music was firmly rooted — as they were always quick to point out — in American rhythm and blues, soul and rock, they produced a sound that was fresh, energetic and unmistakably their own."

A lot of people in America were eager to hear that sound.

Roughly 4,000 people were on hand when the Beatles arrived at New York's John F. Kennedy Airport 50 years ago today — about the same number who saw them off at London's Heathrow Airport.

Two days later, they were introduced to the American people at large — via the Ed Sullivan Show — and set new records for TV viewership.

Beatlemania had arrived on American soil. America and the world would never be the same again.