That Old Feeling: Meet the Beatles

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It was 40 years ago today — February 7, 1964 — that the Beatles taught the U.S.A. The four sprightly young Merseysiders landed at New York City's Idlewild Airport (it had yet to be renamed for the assassinated President John F. Kennedy) and emerged from Pan Am flight 101 two days before they were to appear on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Three thousand fans screamed and, with an urgent group wave toward the Fab Four, effectively brushed off earlier heartthrob vocalists. Frank Sinatra? A fossil in a tux. Elvis Presley? "He's old and ugly," one girl at the airport spat. (The King had just turned 29 — 116 in pop-idol years.) A gaggle of fans sang "She Loves You" into the impassive faces of Irish cops, and some carried signs: "Beatles are Starving the Barbers," "Beatles Unfair to Bald Men" and, in an early clue to the protest generation, "England Get Out of Ireland."

Not all those present were unabashed admirers of the new blokes on the block. "It's phenomenal that people would come to see this and yet they wouldn't come to see the President," one young man observed to the Maysles brothers, who were filming a documentary called "The Beatles First U.S. Visit," now on DVD with extra footage. "President Johnson came a few days ago, and there was practically nobody here." But, as Babe Ruth said in 1930 when asked why he made more money than President Herbert Hoover: "I had a better year."

Actually, with the passage of the Civil Rights Act and a landslide election that November, Lyndon Johnson had a pretty good year. But nobody, possibly including Jesus, ever had a better one than John, Paul, George and Ringo enjoyed in 1964. Or a busier one. In the first month they became instant idols in America. In ten February days they came, were seen, and conquered; the whole invasion took less time than the U.S. assault on Iraq last year, and with far more beneficent consequences. Later that month they returned to Britain and spent six weeks in London, Surrey and Middlesex shooting a little promo feature called "A Hard Day's Night," whose blend of documentary and surrealism, localized comedy and universal appeal revolutionized film for a while. Their songs monopolized the pop charts for most of the year; one week, the Beatles had the top five songs. And during the dozens of concerts, the hundreds of press conferences, they found time to write some of the perkiest, most vigorous pop around. For starters.

Back then, this was the week that was. The Anglo-Irish quartet had been pop sensations in Britain for the previous year, but now they faced America: world's most powerful nation, commandant of international pop culture, cauldron of rock 'n roll. If they could make it here, they could make it everywhere. And what they made, it soon became clear, was history — musical, cinematic, social and showbizzical. The wonder was that they did it with such blithe, unflappable grace and good humor.

This point is pellucid in "The Beatles' First U.S. Visit," a brisk rough sketch of "A Hard Day's Night." Same dashing from train to limo to photo op to TV stage. Same release of tension on a dance-club floor. Same use of wit as armor against imprisonment and ennui. And the same amazing display of nimble geniality by four blithe Liverpudlians, ages 20 to 24. (The Maysles brothers — Albert on camera and David on sound — show the same gift for improv; they got the assignment to hang with the lads just two hours before the plane landed.) Leaving their hotel room to go to the Peppermint Lounge, the lads wave a sweet goodbye to the two-man camera crew. Did celebrity ever take such innocent pleasure in its own good fortune? Was the world ever this young?


Fresh (or exhausted) off the plane that Friday afternoon, the Beatles faced U.S. reporters, many of whom wanted to hang their cojones around the necks of these British invaders. So often in that wild weekend the questions were rude and ignorant, focusing as they did on the Fab Four's coiffure. And without fail, the lads replied with witty equanimity. Q. "Are you gonna get a haircut while you're here?" George (in all seriousness): "I had one yesterday." Q. "Which do you consider the greatest danger to your careers: nuclear bombs or dandruff?" Ringo: "Bombs. We've already got dandruff." Q: "How many are bald that you have to wear wigs?" Paul: "I am. I'm bald." John: "Oh, we're all bald, yeah ... And deaf and dumb too."

Hair. That's nearly all the American press knew of the "moptops," who "look like shaggy Peter Pans, with their mushroom haircuts? (TIME, Nov. 15, 1963) and "sheep-dog bangs" (Newsweek, Nov. 18, 1963). Our cultural custodians didn't hear much artistry from under the din of their caterwauling acolytes. "Americans might find the Beatles achingly familiar," TIME opined. "Their songs consist mainly of "Yeh!' screamed the accompaniment of three guitars and a thunderous drum." The other newsweekly was every bit as dismissive: "Beatle music is high-pitched, loud beyond reason and stupefyingly repetitive." One wonders if the writers of these stories had listened to a Beatles record; a couple of singles ("Please Please Me" and "She Loves You") had already been issued in the States, to tepid response.

As Beatle records were released here and scampered up the charts, the mainstream press still had trouble understanding the group's appeal and acknowledging the music's value. Often, Olympian disdain masked simple ignorance. After Jack Paar's January 3, 1964, show, on which he aired a clip of the boys performing "She Loves You," Jack Gould wrote in the New York Times that they had "offered a number apparently titled "With a Love Like That, You Know You Should Be Bad'." (The lyric is, of course, the much more congenial "With a love like that, you know you should be glad"; and since the song features the phrase "she loves you" 12 times in just over two minutes, it shouldn't have been hard to deduce the title.) Gould predicted no duplication of Beatlemania in America: "On this side of the Atlantic it is dated stuff. Hysterical squeals emanating from developing femininity really went out with the payola scandal and Presley's military service."

Disinterested grownups weren't the only ones who rook a while to "get" the Beatles. In September 63, when "She Loves You" was played on the Rate-a-Record segment of the teen dance party "American Bandstand" — remember, kids gave a score of from 35 to 98 for a song, which should "have a great beat" and "you could dance to" — it pulled a tepid 73. That's a D+ where I come from. (Why was the song even submitted for consideration by the kids from South Philly? Perhaps because Dick Clark had been a part-owner of Swan Records, which distributed the song.) And when Vee-Jay Records released the group's first American single, "Please Please Me' b/w "Ask Me Why," the artists' name was misspelled as the Beattles.

All this is chronicled in a fabulous, fabulous, fabulous, fabulous — fab-four, for short — book called "The Beatles Are Coming! The Birth of Beatlemania in America." Bruce Spizer, author of three other Beatle books, documents the shortsightedness, missed opportunities and plain dumb decisions that delayed the British invasion by a full year. Capitol Records, whose connection with the Brit label EMI-Parlophone gave them first dibs on the Beatles, turned down the group four times before finally signing them in November 63. Capitol then chopped the 14-song British LPs down to 11 cuts for the American releases, thus squeezing an extra album out of the Beatles' first three. The U.K. LPs for the Beatles films "A Hard Day's Night" and "Help!" each featured seven songs from the movie and another six or seven new songs; Capitol released each with the movie songs only and instrumental filler. The company that had first been myopic now graduated to greedy.


To get the Beatles, from the beginning, maybe you had to be a teenager, as I was, in Philadelphia, in a state we renamed Beatlevania. These guys were smart, funny, good singers, excellent songwriters. And talk about gentlemen: at the end of a song, they bowed deeply, almost to a right angle. Sullivan, calling them "four of the nicest young kids we've ever had on our stage," passed along salutations from Elvis Presley and commendations from Richard Rodgers. The group's influence was, in every way, salutary. Couldn't even a grownup tell they were not just the next big thing but The Big Thing?

To appreciate the Beatles, you also may have needed a taste for (not a prejudice against) rock 'n roll in its primitive or prime years — the songs of Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins and early Motown, which the Beatles covered in their Cavern period and on their first albums. It helped to know the three-chord structure the Beatles used, then expanded, in their own music. I liked "She Loves You" as soon as I heard it (on that September 63 "Bandstand" show), in part because the musical strategy of its chorus — a melodic line whose notes are repeated twice while the chords change underneath — was the same as two of my favorite hits of that year: the Ronettes' "Be My Baby" and Leslie Gore's "It's My Party." Beatle music was the next stop on a road that led from Broadway, Nashville, Memphis and Detroit. But a big stop. Everything before was Kansas, in black-and-white. The Beatles were, musically, a Technicolor Oz.

And if you were a true fan, you had to know where they came from geographically. To a Beatle-lover, Liverpool seemed about the hippest place on earth. Adoptive kid brothers of Lennon and McCartney made pilgrimages to the Cavern, to Brian Epstein's record store, to the holy homes of the Fab Four. Teenagers from Connecticut studied the accent and vocabulary like the most fervent Berlitz grind, and recited lines from "A Hard Day's Night" with the fervor of mimic acolytes.

It was not only the Beatles' music that inspired this love for all things Liverpudlian. It was the discovery of an English city — working class and influenced by Irish and American adventurers — that had seen it all and was not easily impressed. A thick lilt, a fond parodic cynicism rode the crest of every inflection; a suspicion of all things posh lurked in the slurs and slang. This was the perfect voice to carry pop culture through the mid-60s, till things went tragic and the Beatles turned into eminences cloistered enough to be their own parodies. But for that luscious moment, the Merseyside moptops were the divine Other: different, hence better. Stateside, we gulped down that Liverpudding.

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