We don’t like their sound, and guitar music is on the way out.
-Decca Records executive in 1962
We thought we’d be really big in Liverpool -Ringo Starr
Look guys, if you’re just going to stare at me, I’m going to bed!
-Elvis Presley to the Beatles when they met August 27, 1965
They weren’t hit material, I didn’t think anyway. But they had tremendous charisma, those guys. I fell in love with them really – -George Martin
We got into music to avoid a job and get lots of girls -Paul McCartney
I say in speeches that a plausible mission of artists is to make people appreciate being alive at least a little bit. I am then asked if I know of any artists who pulled that off. I reply, ‘The Beatles did.’
For our last number, I’d like to ask your help. Would the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you’ll just rattle your jewelry. -John Lennon, Royal Variety Performance November, 1963
I’m happier than I
would have been with the Beatles.
The Beatles saved the world from boredom. – George Harrison
In November of 1963 the 35th President of the United States was murdered as his limousine rolled past a book depository and through Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas. Just two days later his alleged assassin was murdered in full public view on television by a local Dallas strip club owner.
In February of 1964 images of the young first lady cradling her husband’s fatally wounded skull in her hands as a brave Secret Service agent chased down and climbed into the back of the ambushed vehicle to shield the couple from further injury were still indelibly pasted in the memories of all Americans.
Earlier in that fateful 1963 November, Malcolm X, who would himself be assassinated a few years later, gave a speech highly critical of other prominent African-American leaders of the time sending ripples through the civil rights movement. In December he would be suspended from the Nation of Islam for comments regarding the Kennedy assassination. That same month singer Dinah Washington died of a barbiturate overdose. The Studebaker factory in South Bend, Indiana closed resulting in the layoff of 6,000 workers. In January of 1964 Americans, who for decades had been told by actors masquerading as doctors what brands of cigarettes to smoke were now warned for the first time by the Surgeon General of the United States, a real doctor, that smoking could in fact be hazardous to their health. A US Air Force B-52 carrying two Mark 53 nuclear bombs crashed into a mountain in Maryland killing three of the crewmen, the bombs were fortunately recovered a few days later.
Aside from the Kennedy assassination and personally witnessing the Oswald murder on TV during a time slot usually reserved for Sunday morning cartoons a nine-year-old boy was blissfully ignorant of many of the aforementioned events. But he was very aware of the sadness and general malaise sweeping the country early in the new year of 1964. On top of everything else the sting of the Yankees being swept four games to none in the 1963 World Series by the hated and according to many of the adults, traitorous Los Angeles Dodgers, had the boy still reeling. Someone had to come up with a way to solve Sandy Koufax as he seemed absolutely unhittable. If the end of the world had not yet come it was surely going to happen any day now. The nuns made sure he and all of his classmates practiced the art of hiding under desks a few times a week in preparation of the coming godless Soviet onslaught by nuclear weapons that would surely annihilate their Hudson River landscape in the very immediate future. One had to stockpile as many Hail Mary’s as humanly possible as penance to impress St. Peter of whom it was said was a stern gatekeeper.
But as January bedded down until 1965 and February woke, brushed its teeth and gargled, there seemed to be a glimmer of optimism rearing its head again, well at least among his classmates, particularly the girls. The nine-year-old Yankee fan kept hearing the word ‘beetles’ as the girls giggled and used adjectives like “cute” and “dreamy”. He quickly surmised they were talking about a band and he could not for the nine-year life of him understand what could be so enchanting about a bunch of singers named for the type of red vegetable his mother forced him to eat. Although he had to admit it was less yucky than the green ones. Especially the stuff that looked like little green trees.
He himself hadn’t heard any of their music yet, although one of his boy classmates had and seemed to be a fan himself but to his credit, he laid off the types of adjectives the girls trifled with and was more into the music itself and more importantly the guitars. The band, who were from some strange city in England, and of whom he was informed spelled their name differently than the red vegetable, were to be on the Ed Sullivan show the following Sunday and because of the girls with all the silly giggling and otherwise maniacal behavior this was an attraction the nine-year old boy would be sure to miss. Which really was a shame because generally he liked watching old Ed and his weekly cast of miscellaneous show business types. He especially liked the rubbery faced impressionist Frank Gorshin who did a really great Kirk Douglas. It would be a shame to miss him. So, he made a deal with himself. His folks would have the show on anyway as they always watched it and he would just stay in his room which was in a fair enough vicinity to be able to hear what was going on and when they announced Frank Gorshin, he would slip into the living room and watch.
As the show was starting all the boy could hear was screams of the girls in the audience, and curious, he poked his head out. Four young men with longish hair and funny suits were singing and playing instruments, bobbing their heads up and down as the girls in the audience continued to scream their lungs out making it difficult to discern anything musical. It was a mania and as such the press labeled it as just that: Beatle-mania.
It all began at 8:12 PM EST, after a commercial with a song called All My Loving. The boy still couldn’t make any sense of it but whether he was conscious of it or not the music was starting to get under his skin and the fun the four lads were having was infectious, especially as he watched the long-nosed drummer who appeared to be having the time of his life while he beat his drums smiling widely the whole time. He kept thinking of all the girls in class and how silly they all acted in the build-up to this moment. The girls in the audience were even worse as they screamed like banshees. He didn’t know what a banshee was but the expression sure seemed appropriate and he was willing to bet that if he looked up the word in the dictionary he sure enough would get a definition befitting what he was witnessing from the predominately young female studio audience, if not a picture as well. The boy couldn’t take it anymore and snuck off back to his room waiting for Frank Gorshin.
He missed Fred Kaps the magician who had the horrible luck of the draw to follow the four Liverpool lads. It wasn’t much better for the other acts sandwiched between the mop tops two appearances that night. Aside from the talented Messieurs. Gorshin and Kaps, the comedy team of McCall and Brill, acrobats Wells and the Four Fays and Georgia Brown and the cast of the Broadway hit Oliver! with one Davey Jones (who would ironically three years later star in a television sitcom based on the lunacies of a similar band called The Monkees) all had to deal with a studio audience that wasn’t much interested in any of them and continued with a degree of audible impatience that had to be more than a little annoying.
At some point he did get to see Mr. Gorshin who concentrated his talents on the politicians of the time since it was 1964 and the buildup to the coming national elections were in full swing. The elected president from 1960 was buried in Arlington National Cemetery and his successor was executing a war in Southeast Asia that would ultimately result in his predecessor having way too many new neighbors before the decade was over. Mr. Gorshin didn’t do Kirk Douglas and the politicians weren’t that funny. In a few years Mr. Gorshin would redeem himself when he took on Batman as The Riddler, but for now the boy had to gear up for the second set from the long-haired girl animators.
He peeked a little more and then slipped away again telling himself that the whole thing was ridiculous, and he would rather have even seen that silly little Italian mouse again. But alas, Topo Gigio was not on the bill that night. Good thing because all these hysterical girls might have trampled him under foot at the stage door trying to get to the furry band, even though they were already told that at least one of them was married.
But something had happened to the boy. As much as he detested the silly girls who were the revered pets of the nuns (all the boys were spawns of Satan himself) there was something about the band and the tunes that was eminently likable . Also, some of his male classmates seemed to like them too. And the adults seemed to be conflicted as well but not about the music. No, the music was just silly teenage ditties filled with absurd yeah, yeah yeahs and hand holding. It wasn’t as threatening as say, Elvis a few years before with the gyrating hips. And although they didn’t like the long hair, it wasn’t the type of teenage rebellion the more straight-laced media outlets had convinced them the country was on the verge of dealing with. The crowds of screaming teens at the airports and on the city streets was only more testimony to this paranoid narrative. But aside from the guitars, the music, the harmonies, the suits, the long hair and the screaming these lads seemed quite affable. They were clean, humorous and respectable. In fact, it was said that on the night of their first American appearance with Ed Sullivan the juvenile crime statistics were at a record low. Even the juvenile delinquents were watching The Beatles. The next week the boy watched a little more and by the third appearance he was all in. A few weeks later his dad had brought home some chopsticks from a Chinese restaurant he had eaten at much to the dismay of his mother who had prepared a meal. In those days groceries were often delivered from the store in corrugated cardboard boxes of various sizes. Soon the boy swiped the chopsticks and a few boxes from the groceries. The largest became a bass drum and the smaller ones were assembled around him in a manner of a drum kit and for weeks the boy amused himself as the long nosed long-haired drummer having so much fun on the Sullivan show.
The boy stopped resenting the girls, maybe they were on to something. Maybe America was finally healing. Maybe it was okay to sing and laugh and smile again. Here, there and everywhere. This first brush with Beatlemania in America took place 55 years ago today February 9th. And this 64-year-old boy couldn’t be more grateful for their appearance. Yeah, yeah, yeah!