This is a new excerpt from my Fish Delusions article, and hopefully works as a standalone piece for Reflections today.
Beatlemania launches in Britain over the course of 1963; but the hand on Beatlemania being introduced in the United States is nothing short of amazing.
Ed Sullivan happens to be in London as the Beatles are returning from Sweden and sees Beatlemania in person at the Heathrow Airport. A few days later Brian Epstein approaches him about having the Beatles on his show.
He agrees, but considers them to be more of a novelty. There has never been a British band that achieved commercial success in the US at this stage.
Film crews from each network do stories on Beatlemania during November of ’63 but only one airs their story. CBS airs a story on Beatlemania on November 22nd in the morning and plans to show it again on the evening news that night; but then JFK is assassinated and all news is pre-empted.
A few weeks later, on December 10th, Walter Cronkite decides to show the piece in search of something lighter to lift the spirits of the Nation.
At this point there aren’t any Beatles singles or Albums in record stores; a couple of singles had been released early in ’63 but neither did anything and they had been pulled in the US long before December.
One teenage girl, Marsha Albert of Silver Springs, Maryland, sees the piece on CBS News and something clicks. She writes a letter to the local DJ in Washington DC and asks “Why can’t we have music like this in America”?
What is difficult to comprehend now, is that music in fact had gone backwards in a sense since 1959; the Beatles were a guitar band and really hearkened back to the origins of Rock and Roll in the United States but Rock and Roll in 1963 was more about Bobby Vinton types and vocal groups like the Shirrelles; there weren’t bands like the Beatles on the charts at all at this stage; certainly not groups that were not only guitar based but a full band that played their own instruments.
The station tried and failed to find an actual Beatle record to play in response to Marsha’s request; but the DJ Carroll James knew someone in England who was a flight attendant and asked for his friend to bring a Beatles record overseas when possible.
Meanwhile, Ed Sullivan had seen Walter Cronkite’s Beatles story as well and called him, asking famously “Who are these bugs or whatever you call them?”
Sullivan reasoned then that if the Beatles warranted Walter Cronkite’s attention then they must be important enough to start promoting also; so the show put out a press release on December 13th (weeks before they would have otherwise, if they would have at all) stating that the Beatles were to appear on their show on February 9th 1964.
The snowball is now starting to roll…
Capitol Records’ initial plan had been to release the Beatles’ LP in mid January of ’64; with the Ed Sullivan appearance looming they thought they might be able to start some Beatles momentum in the US and possibly the Ed Sullivan appearance could get them over the top in the US.
But the “plan” was overruled by fate, or a script of some type perhaps.
The song delivered from England turned out to be the Beatles brand-new single, I Want to Hold Your Hand, and James asked Marsha Albert to come down and introduce it on the evening of December 17th.
She did, they played the song and the phone lines lit up like a Christmas tree well before the song ended. Everyone wanted to hear this song again. So they played it again. And again.
Next thing you know, the song was in heavy rotation. Capitol found out that the single had exploded in DC and tried to issue a cease and desist order to the station. They had no product to offer in America and would not have any for weeks.
The station refused to budge; they kept playing the song. Then copies of I Want to Hold Your Hand were acquired and sent to DJs in Chicago and St. Louis and the song took off in each of those two markets also.
Among the differences in the world in 1963 is that there was no thought to capitalize on the Christmas season. It seemingly hadn’t occurred to anyone that all of the kids were home from school and listening to their radios during this time of year.
The Beatles changed that too. Capitol realized within a couple of days that to try and stop Beatlemania from reaching the United States may be a really foolish and counter-productive thing for them to do and instead ordered full out production of the new Beatles LP over the span from December 20th through December 26th.
After working non-stop on pressing Beatles records through the Holiday; Capitol was able to release Introducing the Beatles on the 26th, with company reps hand delivering the record to radio stations across the country.
It was likewise unheard of in 1963 to have a band catapult up the charts within a month of release. The conventional wisdom had been that the Beatles “might” be able to get a song in the top hundred in the 26 days between the album’s initial release date and the Ed Sullivan appearance.
That was the original hope.
Instead, markets all over the country started playing I Want to Hold Your Hand as soon as they got the chance; buoyed by the word of mouth of what the single had done in 3 markets over a 9 day span.
By January 18th, I Want to Hold Your Hand had already reached the top 50.
By January 25th, it was the number 1 song in the country.
It was an unprecedented rise to the top; and came from a band playing a brand of music that was considered a throwback, oddly enough, and coming from a country that had absolutely no track record of success in the US market.
So instead of being a novelty act that Capitol hoped would catch on as a result of their Ed Sullivan appearance; the Beatles landed in New York on February 7th to an absolute frenzy of fans, as the hottest band on earth with the number one song in the Country; and then shockingly had the wit to handle and in fact completely charm the NYC media.
73 million people tuned in to watch this on February 9th.
For all of the events that catapulted the Beatles to superstardom, there wasn’t much question regarding their talent.
Actually there were plenty of questions following their initial appearance on Sullivan; but they were mainly uninformed opinions that centered on the hair, pure singing ability and the “yeah yeah yeah” components of their songs.
Anyone who really knew music however, heard the combination of chord structure, melody and harmonies and their ability to write and realized that there was a magic in their music that was absolute genius.
In fairness, the Beach Boys were the closest; but the Beatles had something that no one had ever conceived in popular music and somehow managed to package coupled with a return to the original rock and roll of the ’50s.
By the time 1964 was finished, bands had come out of the woodwork that had a fraction of what the Beatles had.
A lot of the greatest music we ever heard started in 1964; and if the Beatles had stood pat they could have easily gotten surpassed by the rise of groups like the Rolling Stones; the Byrds; the Dave Clark Five or the Who over the next couple of years.
But the Beatles owned 1964.
Vietnam started for real in 1964 too; and as that conflict began to escalate the Beatles met Bob Dylan and this perhaps started their fall from innocence.
By the time LBJ gets his full term, the Beatlemania of 1964 has started a chain reaction that will change the world forever.