February 2004

It Was 40 Years Ago Today...

The Beatles were in Paris on January 17, 1964 when word reached them and their manager, Brian Epstein, that "I Want to Hold Your Hand," their fourth single to be released in the US, had reached number one. The previous evening they had played a show at the Olympia and it went badly -- technical problems and an indifferent audience helped ensure a lukewarm response from the French press. While the good news of a hit single in the US probably made it easier to shrug off the bad reviews, it must have come as a surprise to the band. The record, after all, had been officially released in America only a few days earlier.

When the Beatles landed at JFK Airport three weeks later, on February 7, 1964, for their first visit to the US, they were greeted with hysterical enthusiasm by a country that had barely heard of them a month earlier. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" had been joined on the charts by "She Loves You" at the number two spot and by "Please Please Me" a little further down. The band’s producer, George Martin, had failed months earlier to convince Capitol Records to release the latter two titles, despite the fact that Capitol was owned by EMI, which also owned the Beatles’ British label, Parlophone. When two small independent labels, Vee-Jay and Swan, released them instead, they promptly disappeared until the current number one swept them onto the charts.

Marking the 40th anniversary of the Beatles’ arrival in the US -- the moment when it can be said that they conquered the world -- probably seems hopelessly nostalgic to someone who wasn’t there to see it. It may even seem that way to some of us who were. The idea that a rock'n'roll band could capture the attention of a whole nation so quickly must seem especially quaint to people who don’t remember a time when there were only three television networks. But on February 9, 70 million people - - 60% of the viewing audience in America - - watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the next day they were all talking about it. In a much smaller world, in a world where there was no cable TV and no Internet, it was possible for the Beatles to change everything.

And the Beatles really did change the world, although it may seem na´ve or silly now to hear anyone claim that for them. Before them, most rock'n'roll albums contained one or two recent hits and were filled out with duds. After them, it was unthinkable for any self-respecting rock act to release an album that didn’t at least attempt to be complete. Before them rock was something kids grew out of. After them, it was something college students and intellectuals took seriously (and, yes, a lot of silliness grew out of that). Fashion, culture, and attitudes were different after the Beatles, and the world we live in is a world that, for better or worse, they helped create.

They didn’t do it alone. Bob Dylan, Pete Townshend, Jagger and Richards, Smokey Robinson, Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ray Davies, Paul Simon, and many others contributed to an exceptional era of pop songwriting. But it was the Beatles who inspired Dylan to return to rock (his influence soon showed in their music as well) and it was they who kicked open the door for other British bands. When Martin pitched "Please Please Me" to Capitol, an executive told him, "We don’t think the Beatles will do anything in this market." Who could blame him? No English rock act had done well in the US. In February 1964 the Beatles and Dusty Springfield were the only British acts on the US charts. A month later they were joined by the Dave Clark Five and the Searchers. Soon after came Gerry and the Pacemakers, the Hollies, the Animals, the Rolling Stones, and the Kinks. By the end of the year the US charts were packed with mop-topped, guitar-playing Brits.

The Beatles didn’t save American rock'n'roll. Bobby Rydel and Bobby Vinton were on the charts in late ’63 and early ’64, but so were the Kingsmen, Major Lance, the Beach Boys, the Impressions, and the Trashmen. Motown and Stax were also placing singles in the top 40. The Beatles did, however, raise the stakes. Think of it: 11 LPs, 22 singles, and an EP in the space of seven years, and yet we can point to early-, middle- and late-period Beatles. It wasn’t unusual before the Beatles for a pop act to record that prolifically, but it was unheard of for one to maintain such a high level of quality and ambition.

Other British bands, such as the Stones, the Who, and the Kinks kept up with them, to be joined soon by American bands like the Byrds, and, a little later, Jefferson Airplane. The Beach Boys rose to the standard and created Pet Sounds, which, in turn, inspired Sgt. Pepper's. Motown, in the meantime, maintained its astonishing level of quality and created a series of pop masterpieces. The pop culture marketplace was smaller then -- AM radio, television variety shows, and word of mouth were the promotional tools, and in that smaller world change happened quickly.

A phenomenon like the Beatles won’t occur again soon, for reasons I don’t have the space to consider here. For now, I just want to celebrate a moment that still reverberates in my head the way it probably still does in others’. George Martin toured the US in 1999 to lecture on "The Making of Sgt. Pepper." Frank Houston, writing in Salon, described Martin’s appearance in New York’s Town Hall: "Each time he introduced a song…there was a round of applause, and Martin would say, ‘Yes, that’s a great one,’ or ‘Really marvelous, isn’t it?’"

I say those same things many times, even after all these years, when I listen to all my Beatles records. I’ll be saying them 20 or 30 years from now when I play them for my grandchildren.

...Joseph Taylor

Music Editorial Archives