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The British Invasion: From the Beatles to the Stones, The Sixties Belonged to Britain

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Beginning in 1961, the Beatles commuted between Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, where, dressed in black leather, they played dives like the Kaiserkeller and the Star Club. By 1963, they had an act, an image, a repertoire, a following and a manager — Brian Epstein, a local record-store manager. They also lost a bass player (Stuart Sutcliffe), fired a drummer (Pete Best), jelled as a quartet with the addition of Ringo and spruced themselves up, ditching the black leather and the bad-boy antics. The Beatles performed their 282nd and final show at the Cavern on August 3rd, 1963. They'd already scored two Number One hits in Britain with "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You." Only one month after their Cavern farewell, they saw their fourth single, "She Loves You," turn gold on its way to becoming the biggest-selling single ever issued in Britain. An October 13th television performance, on Sunday Night at the London Palladium, was viewed by some 15 million of their countrymen. Mob scenes followed them wherever they played.

"This is Beatlemania," the Daily Mail reported. "Where will it all lead?" To the lost colonies, of course — and the world's biggest market for rock & roll.

Nineteen sixty-four belonged to the Beatles. From the moment "I want to Hold Your Hand" was first played on an American radio station — WWDC, in Washington, D.C., in December of 1963 — the country fell under their spell. Preceded by a promotional campaign that included bumper stickers (The Beatles Are Coming! and Ringo For President), buttons (Be A Beatle Booster) and Beatle wigs — as well as tantalizing glimpses of their performances on Walter Cronkite's newscast and The Jack Parr Show — the Beatles' February 7th landing at New York's Kennedy Airport generated an unprecedented fanfare. Sounding what would become a recurrent theme, one of the first questions shouted at the Beatles' airport press conference was "Are you in favor of lunacy?" Paul McCartney, not missing a beat, replied, "Yes, it's healthy."

The group's February 9th appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show drew a TV audience estimated at 70 million, the largest in the history of the medium. "I Want to Hold Your Hand" topped the singles charts for seven consecutive weeks, and by March, Meet the Beatles — their first album for Capitol Records — had shipped 3.6 million copies, making it the largest-selling LP in history. Several record companies owned the rights to early Beatles tracks, and these also began turning up in the Top Forty. When the group issued "Can't Buy Me Love" in mid-March, it caused a veritable Beatles logjam on the pop charts. As records were sold, records were broken. Rising to Number One in its second week, "Can't Buy Me Love" was the third consecutive Beatles single to top the charts, breaking Elvis Presley's previous record. During the first week of April the Beatles occupied twelve positions on the Top 100 — and every position in the Top Five. The hits in this quintuple hegemony were, in order, "Can't Buy Me Love," "Twist and Shout," "She Loves You," "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "Please Please Me."

The Beatles' dominion was carried to new heights by the July release of their first movie, A Hard Day's Night — the Village Voice called it "the Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals" — and the August kickoff of their first American tour. The merchandising of the Beatles, whose names and likenesses adorned everything from lunch boxes to inflatable dolls, accounted for an estimated $50 million in retail business in 1964 alone. The Beatles had become Britain's leading cultural export, and the trail they blazed to the colonies quickly became a well-trampled one.

Scads of would-be contenders were tapping their toes on the far side of the Atlantic, just waiting for a chance to show the Yanks a thing or two. The group that initially gave the Beatles the best run for their money was the Dave Clark Five, who hailed from London's northern suburb of Tottenham. Although they placed a poor second to the Beatles, the DC5 racked up seventeen Top Forty hits between 1964 and 1967 — more than the Rolling Stones or any other British act during that span of years. By the time the Sixties rolled to a close, the DC5 had sold 70 million records worldwide.

Because the band's single "Glad All Over" unseated "I Want to Hold Your Hand" from its lengthy perch atop the British charts in January 1964, it was assumed for a while that the DC5 were neck and neck with the Beatles in the superstar sweepstakes. But they didn't "progress," in the sense of graduating from pop stars to poets, as the Beatles did. Nonetheless, the Dave Clark Five were what they were: a singles band, a dance band and one of the best.

Meanwhile, Liverpool was teeming with an estimated 300 bands, and several performers under the aegis of Beatles manager Brian Epstein were having a field day. Gerry and the Pacemakers weren't a very convincing rock band, but they had a solid way with ballads like "Ferry Cross the Mersey" and "Don't Let the Sun Catch You Crying." Gerry's star shone only dimly after 1965, but his hits are pleasant memories, and he's notable for being the second act out of Liverpool (behind the Beatles) to crack the British charts.

Another Epstein protégé was Billy J. Kramer. Kramer and his band, the Dakotas, made their mark with some unreleased tunes from the Lennon-McCartney song bag; "Bad to Me" was a Number Nine hit stateside in mid-1964. The only other Mersey groups that saw any significant American chart action in 1964 were the Swinging Blue Jeans ("Hippy Hippy Shake," a song that was part of the Beatles' early repertoire) and the Searchers. This group was Liverpool's second most talented export. With their ringing harmonies and melodic, twelve-string-guitar hooks, the Searchers recast borrowed American tunes, like "Love Potion Number Nine" and "Needles and Pins," in fresh new arrangements. All in all, a handful of Liverpool bands did hit the big time, but legions more got lost in the shuffle, including such talented entities as the Merseybeats, the Mojos, the Escorts, the Fourmost, the Big Three and the Undertakers.

Like Billy J. Kramer, a London duo called Peter (Asher) and Gordon (Waller) turned Beatle leftovers into gold. Their access to unreleased Beatles songs came through Peter's sister, Jane, who was dating Paul McCartney at the time. This cute, strait-laced pair were the first British act to follow the Beatles to the top of the U.S. charts. Their ticket to ride was the McCartney-penned "A World Without Love." More singles followed from the same cask — "Nobody I Know," "I Don't Want to See You Again" and "Woman" — and all made the Top Twenty. But even without McCartney's help, Peter and Gordon reaped hits, with Del Shannon's "I Go to Pieces" and a music-hall novelty titled "Lady Godiva." After the duo split in 1968, Peter became a producer at the Beatles' Apple Records label. He produced James Taylor's first album at Apple, but his most famous client is Linda Ronstadt, whose classic sound he helped tailor in the Seventies.

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