How the Beatles Took America: Inside the New Issue of Rolling Stone

A close-up look at the biggest explosion in rock & roll history

The Beatles on the cover of Rolling Stone. Credit: Bill Ray/Time & Life Pictures/Getty Images

Fifty years ago, the Beatles landed in the U.S., generating the biggest explosion rock & roll has ever seen. In the new issue of Rolling Stone (on stands Friday, January 3rd), contributing editor Mikal Gilmore examines just how the Fab Four arrived in the States facing media disdain and a clueless record label in the wake of the devastating assassination of John F. Kennedy — and still managed to conquer America. 

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On February 9th, 1964, Ed Sullivan famously intoned, "Tonight, the whole country is waiting to hear England's Beatles." Eight months later, the band had landed 28 records in Billboard's Hot 100 Singles chart (11 in the Top 10), seen 10 albums released worldwide and been introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan. But the band's voyage from Liverpool to New York City in '64 was filled with far more apprehension and stress than relaxation and glee.

Gilmore's story traces the band's early fears, label woes and other hardships that threatened to derail its journey. "They've got their own groups," Paul McCartney worried to Phil Spector on the plane. "What are we going to give them that they don't already have?" Lennon tempered his own concern with confidence: "We knew we would wipe you out if we could just get a grip," he later told Rolling Stone's Jann S. Wenner.

But the band needed to win over more than just fans — the U.S. media was fiercely skeptical of the longish-haired British foursome, and Capitol Records was unconvinced of the band's prowess despite its success in the U.K. When Brian Epstein struck a deal with Sullivan to feature the Beatles on three consecutive Sunday nights in February 1964, he brokered a sum far below the fee Elvis Presley had commanded years earlier for a trio of performances.

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And in the months before the Beatles landed at JFK airport, the American press treated them as an irksome novelty. "They look like shaggy Peter Pans," Time wrote. "The precise nature of their charm remains mysterious even to their manager."

But then the band's fate seemed to change nearly overnight. How exactly did it happen? And what were the Beatles themselves thinking and feeling as they accomplished the largest victory in rock & roll history? Gilmore's electric account of the band's American invasion provides a refreshing close-up look at an historic watershed.

Also in this issue: Josh Eells profiles Arcade Fire, David Kushner on the WikiLeaks mole, an exclusive Q&A with Bruce Springsteen about his unexpected new album, and Bruce Barcott on the tension between states legalizing marijuana and others locking up pot offenders.

Look for the issue on stands and in the iTunes App Store this Friday, January 3rd.