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How the Beatles Took America: Inside the Biggest Explosion in Rock & Roll History

When Fab Four landed in a country mourning the death of John F. Kennedy, they faced media disdain and a record label that barely understood them

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

The Beatles: JOHN LENNON, GEORGE HARRISON, RINGO STARR, PAUL MCCARTNEY arrive in New York. February 2004 marked the 40th Anniversary of Beatlemania and thier first visit to the USA. The Fab 4 celebrates their Fab 40.

Keystone Press Agency/ZUMA

John Lennon began to fall silent as the flight wore on.

For that matter, Paul McCartney – who said he had believed in the Beatles’ success from the moment in December 1962 when the band’s debut single, “Love Me Do,” first appeared on British charts – also had some apprehensions, though he might deny it. It was Friday, February 7th, 1964, and only a few hours earlier the Beatles had left England, headed for their first American appearances, including a U.S. TV debut on Ed Sullivan’s massively popular Sunday-night variety show. It had taken about a year after their early U.K. successes for the Beatles’ music to win attention in the U.S., but matters had changed dramatically in recent weeks. On January 17th, while playing a three-week residency in Paris, Lennon and McCartney, along with the band’s lead guitarist, George Harrison, and drummer, Ringo Starr, were all gathered in their hotel suite after a show when manager Brian Epstein told them he’d received a telegram from Capitol Records: Their first single for the label, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had just hit Number One on Cashbox, having sold a quarter-million copies in the U.S. within three days of its release. “The Beatles couldn’t even speak… Just sat on the floor like kittens at Brian’s feet,” said the band’s photographer Dezo Hoffman. Arranger and producer Quincy Jones was also present in Paris, and he, Epstein and McCartney made a bet that the Beatles would take America by storm. Lennon (who founded the band and would, years later, be its undoing), Harrison and Starr bet against the Beatles’ fate. In September 1963, Harrison had visited his sister, Louise, in Benton, Illinois. “They don’t know us,” he later told his bandmates about America. “It’s going to be hard.”

Now, as the Beatles headed toward the U.S., “I Want to Hold Your Hand” also occupied the top position on Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart, and their first Capitol Records LP, Meet the Beatles!, would head the albums list on February 15th. Lennon, Harrison, McCartney and Starr had been up and about on the plane, talking with friends and companions, including Epstein and producer Phil Spector. “Since America has always had everything,” McCartney said to Spector, “why should we be over there making money? They’ve got their own groups. What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?” Lennon, sitting with his wife, Cynthia, was – as he was throughout his life – a mix of anxiety and arrogance. “On the plane over, I was thinking, ‘Oh, we won’t make it’ … but that’s that side of me,” he later told Rolling Stone‘s Jann S. Wenner. “We knew we would wipe you out if we could just get a grip.”

As the flight landed at New York’s John F. Kennedy International Airport – renamed in honor of the recently slain U.S. president – the pilot relayed to the group there was a crowd waiting. The Beatles were used to crowds. For more than a year in Britain, young people had been showing up at their shows screaming; in November, London’s Daily Telegraph compared the fans’ intensity to that of Nazi Germany’s Nuremberg rallies. Yet as the plane neared the gate, those aboard grew confused by a massive sound. “We could hear this screaming,” Cynthia Lennon later said. “We thought it was the engines, but the screaming was that of the fans.” As the Beatles disembarked, McCartney glimpsed the tumult and asked, “Who is this for?” The Beatles stopped on the plane’s stairway and took in the sight – 4,000 exhilarated young people, waving jubilantly, amassed behind plate-glass windows, hanging over airport terminal balconies, clustered atop buildings, holding large signs that welcomed the band, as policemen formed lines to hold back the surging crowd. Tom Wolfe – who was covering the Beatles’ arrival for the New York Herald Tribune – reported that “some of the girls tried to throw themselves over a retaining wall.”

McCartney – who had a matchless talent for controlling and timing his facial expressions for effect – looked dazed. “On a scale of one to 10,” he later said of the scene at JFK, “that was about a hundred in terms of the shock of it.”

The Beatles’ momentous American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show two nights later, on February 9th, 1964, blew wide open the doors of the 1960s and drew new borderlines of era and generation across this country. Elvis Presley had shown us something about using rebellious style as a means of change; the Beatles would help incite something stronger in American youth that night – something that started as a consensus, as a shared joy, but that in time would seem like the prospect of power. Their impact was about something more than fad or celebrity; it was about laying claim to a brand-new kind of youth mandate.

America, though, had not paid attention to the Beatles until almost the last minute. By early 1964, in fact, America had mostly left rock & roll behind. Buddy Holly had died, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry had been blacklisted, Elvis had joined the Army, and pioneering rock DJ Alan Freed had been booted off the air – all these events neutered rock’s early spirit and hindered its future.

John Lennon and Paul McCartney had come of age as rock & roll first exploded. In the summer of 1957, Lennon’s band, the Quarry Men, performed at a church garden party in Liverpool, and McCartney happened to be there. Sixteen-year-old Lennon was introduced to 15-year-old McCartney, who later that day got to show off his own musical prowess: He played Eddie Cochran and Gene Vincent songs on guitar, and pulled out his stunning Little Richard impression. John and Paul shared a passion to perform rock & roll, but they were also bonded by tragedy: McCartney’s mother, Mary, died of breast cancer in October 1956, and Lennon’s mother, Julia, was hit by a car and killed in July 1958. Working together, John and Paul found a new place in the world. They wrote songs together, shooting melodic and lyrical ideas back and forth, and even after they began writing apart, each still counted on the other to help finish or improve a song. “Imagine two people pulling on a rope, smiling at each other and pulling all the time with all their might,” producer George Martin told Ray Coleman in Lennon: The Definitive Biography. “The tension between the two of them made for the bond.”

When Brian Epstein – a Liverpool record-store supervisor who was aspiring to a more eventful life – became the group’s manager, he cleaned up the Beatles’ punkness. But he didn’t deny the group its spirit or musical instincts, and his faith soon paid off. At the end of 1962, the Beatles were still something of an obscure, seemingly upstart beat band who, with Epstein’s devotion and the keen instincts of George Martin, had just broken into Britain’s Top 20 with “Love Me Do.” It was catchy but rather monotone; Lennon and McCartney weren’t yet distinguished songwriters. That changed rapidly, though, as the Beatles’ next few recordings began a momentum that would forever shatter the American grip on the U.K. pop charts.

Two of these songs, “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You,” were audacious enough to be radical, full of wild, imaginative leaps. Lennon and McCartney borrowed from the music they’d heard through their lives – including British music-hall songs, show-tune ballads, a great deal of country & western, ribald and tough R&B and blues, and whorehouse jazz. The two songwriters – who, Lennon later said, often worked “eyeball to eyeball” – weren’t afraid to set down an almost flat-line melody (often a Lennon feature) and then spread it out into the sort of mellifluous arcs that came naturally to McCartney. They also liked to play despondent and hopeful moments, or major and minor keys, off each other in ways that could be thrilling or evocative, or both in succession.

Then there were the Beatles themselves. They looked like an outsider but elegant band of brothers, dressed in European-cut mod suits, and sporting longer hair – bangs combed forward over the forehead, the back grazing their collars. Everything about their music and attitude bespoke something new: In his book Stoned: A Memoir of London in the 1960s, former Rolling Stones manager Andrew Loog Oldham recalled seeing a gig in the early days of Beatlemania: “The noise they made was the sound of the future,” Oldham wrote. “Even though I hadn’t seen the world, I heard the whole world screaming. I didn’t see it – I heard and felt it.”

By the end of 1963, the Beatles had five singles in Britain’s Top 20, three of which hit Number One. Their debut album, Please Please Me, had held the Number One spot on Britain’s album charts for 30 weeks – to be displaced by the band’s second album, With the Beatles. The band was seen by some of the largest TV audiences the nation had known, played a command performance for the British royal family and was front-page news almost every day in one or another of Britain’s major newspapers. At the end of the year, the London’s Evening Standard newspaper declared, “An examination of the heart of the nation at this moment would reveal the name ‘Beatles’ engraved upon it.”

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George Martin – a classically trained musician with an ear for the unconventional – also headed EMI’s Parlophone label. As 1963 progressed, Martin knew he was in the midst of something singular. He saw no reason the Beatles’ compelling success couldn’t be repeated in the U.S., and he and EMI repeatedly tried to persuade its American licensee, Capitol Records, to issue the band’s singles.

But Capitol had no interest. It saw the Beatles as a British curiosity that could not translate to American tastes. Dave Dexter, in charge of international A&R for Capitol, rejected “Love Me Do” after EMI sent it to him in late 1962. “In sum,” wrote Capitol insider Charles Tillinghast in How Capitol Got the Beatles, “[Dexter] found it a generally amateurish and unappealing rendition… He classified it in his mind as a dog, a description he conveyed to any company executive who inquired.” Dexter continued to reject Beatles hits that EMI sent him, including “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You.” Author Jonathan Gould believes that Dexter might have been speaking for Capitol’s “institutionalized distaste for rock & roll.”

Capitol’s ongoing resistance became increasingly frustrating to Martin and Epstein. EMI instead licensed the group’s early singles to independent labels Vee Jay and Swan. Nothing, though, came of those releases. Epstein grew more puzzled and impatient – especially after he received a bid from Sid Bernstein, a New York concert promoter, to book the Beatles in New York’s Carnegie Hall. “I could see what they were,” Bernstein later said, “and they were going to be monsters here.”

Days after the Beatles’ celebrated November 4th, 1963, London appearance at the Royal Command Performance, Epstein left for Manhattan to meet with Ed Sullivan, whose show had run on CBS since 1948. Sullivan – according to his own, possibly apocryphal account – had been at London’s Heathrow Airport on October 31st, when the Beatles returned from Sweden and were met by clamorous fans. Sullivan told his producer: Find out who the Beatles are. By the time Sullivan and Epstein met, the TV impresario knew the band’s legend, but he was surprised by the deal Epstein bargained for. Epstein was willing to accept much less money than Sullivan generally paid acts. What Epstein secured, instead, was an agreement that Sullivan would feature the Beatles – in top billing – on three consecutive Sunday nights in February 1964. To Epstein, the benefits of such exposure far outweighed the importance of immediate money. (Sullivan ended up paying the Beatles $10,000 for two live appearances and a taped rehearsal that was broadcast following the band’s return to England. Years earlier, he had paid Elvis Presley $50,000 for three shows.)

Despite the Ed Sullivan and Carnegie Hall bookings, Capitol still had misgivings. It probably didn’t hearten Capitol when the label began to see the tenor of the American press’s advance coverage. Newsweek and Time regarded the Beatles cynically, as an irksome novelty. In its November 15th article “The New Madness,” Time wrote, “They look like shaggy Peter Pans… The precise nature of their charm remains mysterious even to their manager.” CBS Morning News, on November 22nd, broadcast a vitriolic commentary by journalist Alexander Kendrick, who dismissed the band as “merely the latest objects of adolescent adulation and culturally the modern manifestation of compulsive tribal singing and dancing… They symbolize the 20th century non-hero as they make non-music, wear non-haircuts, give no ‘Mersey.’ Meanwhile, yeah, yeah, yeah, the fan mail keeps rolling in and so does the money.”

But nobody in the American press – nobody in the American public – had any room to think about the Beatles that day. Hours after the report aired, the entire nation’s attention turned to a horrific loss: President John F. Kennedy had been shot to death in Dallas. Kennedy’s presidency had both its triumphs and its troubles, but the impact of having a young man in the presidency – at 43, the youngest ever elected – was immensely galvanizing. His manner and presence symbolized new possibilities and inspired numerous young Americans to more open-minded ideals and to political initiative. “The torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans,” Kennedy had said in his 1961 in-
augural address. Now,
that likelihood seemed 
suddenly and brutally
cut down, along with
the man who had articulated it. The Beatles’ second album,
 With the Beatles, had
been released in England the same day –
 a much anticipated
 event. Two years later,
 McCartney told reporter Larry Kane, “From
my point of view, and
a lot of people in England’s point of view, he
 was the best president that America had had for an awful long time. And he was creating a great image for America, and he seemed to be doing great things.”

A little more than a week after Kennedy’s funeral, the Beatles’ fates in America began to change. According to Jonathan Gould in Can’t Buy Me Love, Capitol Records’ Eastern head, Brown Meggs, was surprised to find an article in The New York Times Magazine, on December 1st, previewing the Beatles and their sensational popularity in Britain. A few days later, another article – this time in show-business weekly Variety – caught Meggs and Capitol Records executives even more off guard. Variety reported that the Beatles most recent single, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had become the first British record to sell a million copies before its release. The band’s previous single, “She Loves You” – which had been rejected by Dexter on behalf of Capitol – had also surpassed a million sales, and the group’s second album, With the Beatles, sold 500,000 copies a week after its release. “This meant,” writes Gould, “that in a market one-third the size of the United States, the Beatles had released as many million-selling singles in 1963 as the entire American recording industry… With a kind of idiot’s delight, it dawned on the men who ran Capitol Records that the rights to sell it in the United States were theirs for the asking.” Capitol now intended to issue “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in mid-January 1964, to be followed within weeks by a version of With the Beatles – to be retitled Meet the Beatles!

But the curiosity of Marsha Albert, a 15-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, revised those plans. On December 10th, she saw a rebroadcast of the CBS Morning News report from November 22nd disparaging the Beatles and the frenzy they inspired in England. Albert wanted to hear more of the music. She wrote to a local station, WWDC; the disc jockey there, Carroll James, located a flight attendant for a British airline, who brought a copy of the 45 rpm “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on her flight to Washington, D.C.

After the record arrived, James invited Albert to WWDC’s studio. In the early evening of December 17th, Albert announced, “Ladies and gentlemen, for the first time in America, here are the Beatles, singing ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand.'” “The switchboard just went totally wild,” James later told Bob Spitz in The Beatles: The Biography. Callers – apparently not all of them teenagers, since WWDC was an MOR station – wanted to hear the song again, and again. James told Spitz he “played it again in the next hour, which is something I’d never, ever done before.” After that, he played “I Want to Hold Your Hand” every night that week. The single found its way to other U.S. stations, where it met with similar responses. Capitol pushed the song’s release up to December 26th – requiring pressing plants to work 24 hours a day to meet the demand. The company told receptionists to answer phone calls with the greeting “Capitol Records – the Beatles are coming!” Sales staff had to wear Beatles wigs – being manufactured by the thousands – during workdays in January. Gould reports that the label sent a memo to its regional sales managers: “You’ll find you’re helping to start the Beatle Hair-Do Craze that should be sweeping the country soon.”

By February 1st, the song appeared at Number One on Billboard’s U.S. charts. As described by David Hajdu in his book Positively 4th Street, Bob Dylan was driving on California’s coast when he first heard “I Want to Hold Your Hand” on his car radio. “Did you hear that?” Dylan said to a friend. “Fuck! Man, that was fuckin’ great! Oh, man – fuck!” Dylan later told biographer Anthony Scaduto that, as he continued to hear the Beatles on the radio in early 1964, his admiration grew: “They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid… But I just kept it to myself that I really dug them. Everybody else thought they were for the teeny-boppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go.”

Here, after America’s long winter of death and shock, was a song offering love, comfort, joy. It opened up a vista of freedom that hadn’t been dreamt before, in a land that had always dreamed of new ways to freedom.

On January 3rd, talk-show host Jack Paar had mildly scooped Ed Sullivan. “I’d seen them in London and had them filmed,” Paar said later. “I never knew these boys would change the history of the world’s music, which they did. I thought it was funny.” The clip – of the Beatles performing “She Loves You” on a London stage – was short and grainy, like something glimpsed in a dream’s haze, which made the moment all the more startling. Sullivan was furious over Paar’s small feat. “Pay them off and get rid of them,” he told a producer, but he soon reconsidered.

Brian Epstein knew that, given both the anticipation and unfamiliarity surrounding the Beatles, first impressions upon their arrival would be crucial. Epstein has sometimes been seen – even by the Beatles – as a naif who left them vulnerable, before his death from a drug overdose in the summer of 1967. Epstein was indeed a sometimes tortured man – Lennon often played on Epstein’s insecurities about his sexuality and his religion, once suggesting Epstein title his autobiography Queer Jew. But the band knew Epstein had done a great deal that was right: He’d found the route to George Martin and EMI, he had pressed tirelessly for Capitol’s advocacy, and he had conceived and won an imaginative and effective deal with Ed Sullivan.

Now, after the Beatles disembarked from their overseas flight, Epstein agreed to their first U.S. press conference, in the Pan Am terminal. Some reporters likely came with the view that the group was a superficial sensation, to be questioned and maybe skewered. But the Beatles liked talking to people – they had a group wit that was quick and that couldn’t be shaken. (Mick Jagger, noting how collectively intimidating the Beatles could be, described them as “the four-headed monster.”) In this first encounter with the Beatles, a few reporters asked questions implying that there was something hyperbolic or fraudulent about the band and its fame – but the suggestion never got a foothold that afternoon. “Are you a little embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?” went the first question. “We like lunatics,” Lennon replied. “You’re in favor of lunacy?”

John: “It’s healthy.”

Moments later, another innuendo: “There’s some doubt that you can sing.”

Lennon, casually examining his shirt’s cuffs, said, “No, we need money first.” Another reporter: “How many are bald, that you have to wear those wigs?”

Ringo: “All of us.”

Paul: “I am. I’m bald.”

“You’re bald?”

John: “Oh, we’re all bald, yeah.”

Paul: “Don’t tell anyone, please.”

“Do you know American slang? Are you ‘for real’?”

John: “Come and have a feel.”

Wrote Beatles photographer Dezo Hoffman, “Two hundred hard-boiled reporters who’d come to destroy the Beatles ended up adoring them.” But many in the press remained unconvinced. NBC’s famed anchorman Chet Huntley said, “Like a good little news organization, we sent three cameramen out to Kennedy Airport today to cover the arrival of a group from England known as the Beatles. However, after surveying the film our men returned with, and the subject of that film, I feel there is absolutely no need to show any of that film.”

It wasn’t until after they left the airport that the Beatles allowed themselves to feel any of the wonder of what was happening. In the Maysles brothers’ TV film The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit, McCartney, Starr and Lennon sit in the back seat of a limousine, en route to their Manhattan hotel, with McCartney holding a transistor radio to his ear, listening to a live narrative of their entry into American providence. Horses, carrying mounted policemen, rode alongside their car, like escorts shepherding the Beatles from one age and culture to another. “We thought, ‘Wow! God, we have really made it,'” McCartney recalled. “I remember … the great moment of getting into the limo and putting on the radio, and hearing a running commentary on us: ‘They have just left the airport and are coming towards New York City…’ It was like a dream. The greatest fantasy ever.”

Two nights later, on February 9th, 1964, the Beatles made their first Ed Sullivan Show appearance. Sullivan introduced them in the hour’s opening minutes: “Tonight, the whole country is waiting to hear England’s Beatles.” A camera cut first to the euphoric audience – the show had received 50,000 ticket requests for a theater that held 728 – then to the band. McCartney counted off to “All My Loving,” and the camera pulled in on him: He was beaming, talking to the viewer as much as he was singing – “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you” – his head wagging back and forth, as Harrison played sharp, thrifty guitar fills.

Throughout most of the evening’s five songs – “All My Loving,” Meredith Willson’s “Till There Was You” (from Broadway’s The Music Man) and “She Loves You” in the first set, “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the second – it was Paul’s show. He was full of cute looks and charming poise. And because Lennon’s microphone was barely audible, it might have seemed to TV viewers that McCartney was the band’s lead vocalist, even during shared vocals with John. For that matter, Paul played to the camera – his winks and smiles knew where the lens was, no matter the camera’s location – whereas John and George played to the theater. The band’s final song of the night, “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” was a blockbuster performance – a manifesto of a new creed of confidence and openness. The first time one hears the song, it’s impossible to gauge where the melodic line, harmonic construction, vocal revelation and rhythmic impetus are headed: from colloquial opening, to blues turnaround, through a meditative interim that explodes in an outrageous, soaring exclamation – “I can’t hide! I can’t hide!” – in three-part harmony, Ringo slamming away, until it all detonates again.

The Sullivan appearance drew 73 million viewers – the largest TV audience ever at that time. Virtually overnight, the Beatles announced that not only the music and times were changing, but that we were changing as well. Several critics, though, saw it as a premonition of something worse. New York’s Herald Tribune headlined: BEATLES BOMB ON TV. Newsweek said, “Visually they are a nightmare: tight, dandified Edwardian beatnik suits and great pudding-bowls of hair. Musically they are a near disaster, guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythms, harmony and melody. Their lyrics (punctuated by nutty shouts of ‘yeah, yeah, yeah!’) are a catastrophe, a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.”

On Tuesday, February 11th, the Beatles played for an audience of 8,000 at Washington D.C.’s Washington Coliseum. Despite what might have been an impediment – the band played in a boxing-ring-style stage in the center of the arena’s floor, and had to pause occasionally to move microphones and equipment to different sides of the stage, to be seen and heard by the entire audience – the performance was remarkable. They played with a force, and with a risk, that would not have worked in Sullivan’s domestic-minded environment; Starr, in particular, played with a precision and abandon that made plain his centrality in the Beatles’ sound and spirit. In many live shows in these years, Starr was a cymbals man – the sheets of sound cut through the audience’s screams and made it easier for the others in the band to know exactly where they should be in the music.

After the concert, the Beatles attended a charity ball at the British Embassy. It was not the sort of event they relished – kowtowing to the upper crust and power holders – and they began to get edgy from how they were stared at and touched, “like something in a zoo,” said Starr. At one point, somebody walked up to the drummer and snipped his hair. Starr wheeled around on the interloper. “What the hell do you think you’re doing?” he snapped. Lennon, enraged and swearing, abruptly pulled the Beatles out of the event, and the group warned Epstein never to put it in a similar position again. Years later, the residue of such moments still ate at Lennon. “All that business was awful; it was a fuckin’ humiliation,” he told Rolling Stone in 1971. “One has to completely humiliate oneself to be what the Beatles were, and that’s what I resent.” The band’s two shows at Carnegie Hall also left Lennon disillusioned: Even at that distinguished venue, Lennon thought, the audience couldn’t hear the Beatles’ performance because of the fans’ constant yowling. The problem had been building for some time. “The music was dead before we even went out on the theater tour of Britain,” he said in the same 1971 interview. “That’s why we never improved as musicians. We killed ourselves then to make it. And that was the end of it.”

The next day, the Beatles visited Miami Beach (5,000 fans greeted them at the airport) to tape their final live 1964 appearance for Sullivan, at the Deauville Hotel. The audience was more staid, but the sound was much improved. Lennon came through prominently this time as a forefront figure in the band, and for his formidable and taut vocals. (McCartney often had greater range, but in many of the band’s live shows, Lennon was steadier at holding pitch.) More significant, in some ways, than that performance was something else the Beatles did while in town. Heavyweight boxing champion Sonny Liston and challenger Cassius Clay were preparing for a fight at Miami Beach’s Convention Hall. Liston – a foreboding, seemingly indomitable man – was heavily favored, while Clay, who was loud-talking and disrespectful of his opponent, was expected to be brutally overpowered. Photographer Harry Benson arranged for the Beatles to meet Clay at his training gym – an atypical kind of summit, except that both the Beatles and Clay were regarded as flaming comets of the moment, renowned as anomalies. According to sportswriter Robert Lipsyte, Liston had been given a chance to take a photo with the British group but demurred. “I’m not posing with those sissies,” he said.

Clay was late for the meeting, and the Beatles grew irritated. “Suddenly,” wrote Lipsyte, “the door bursts open and there is the most beautiful creature any of us had ever seen. Muhammad Ali. Cassius Clay. He glowed… he was perfect… And then – if I hadn’t known better I would have sworn it was choreographed – he turned and the Beatles followed him … out to the ring and they began capering around the room. They lined up. He tapped Ringo. They all went down like dominoes. It was a marvelous, antic set piece.” Clay and the Beatles reveled in the joy of their irreverent ascendancy. Benson’s photos capture an early moment of a new history and its new heroes.

Days after returning to England, the Beatles began the filming of their first major movie, A Hard Day’s Night, which would open in 500 theaters in America on August 13th. Many reviewers were astounded at how good the film was. Newsweek, which had earlier viewed the Beatles with contempt, now wrote, “With all the ill will in the world, one sits there, watching and listening – and feels one’s intelligence dissolving in a pool of approbation and participation.” Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and social critic Arthur Schlesinger Jr., who had been a special assistant to President Kennedy, characterized A Hard Day’s Night as a “conspiracy of delinquency against pomposity.” The U.K. version of the soundtrack – the first and only Beatles album composed entirely of Lennon-McCartney songs – showed a new range of artistry. The title track, by Lennon (who dominates the album), bursts open with a startling and unusual chord thrum, then pushes ahead with unrelenting desire. The band was starting to consider more sober themes of longing, absence and bitter regret.

The Beatles certainly had reason to proclaim “A Hard Day’s Night”‘s dead-tired message. In the summer of 1964, they toured seven countries before returning to the U.S., and lived fully – for better or worse – the moments that were given them, as their fame soared. On June 3rd, just before the start of the tour, Ringo Starr collapsed from tonsillitis, and drummer Jimmy Nicol played the first 10 dates, from Copenhagen to Melbourne, Australia. Nicol had a unique vantage: He saw the hidden side. “Paul,” he later said, “is not the clean chap he wants the world to see. His love of blond women and his general dislike of the crowds are not told. John, on the other hand, enjoyed the people, but used his sense of humor to ward off any he didn’t care for. He also drank in excess. In Denmark, for instance, his head was a balloon. He had drunk so much the night before that he was onstage sweating like a pig. George was not shy at all, as the press has tried to paint him. He was into sex as well as partying all night with the rest of us… I thought I could drink and lay women with the best of them, until I caught up with these guys.”

Lennon, the most candid member in the group, affirmed Nicol’s view. “The Beatles tours were like the Fellini film Satyricon,” Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1971. “If we couldn’t get groupies, we would have whores and everything, whatever was going.” He also said, “When we hit town, we hit it. There was no pissing about. There’s photographs of me crawling about in Amsterdam on my knees coming out of whorehouses and things like that. The police escorted me to the places because they never wanted a big scandal.” The Beatles were the first band to live rock & roll bacchanalia on a large scale.

Though Harrison said in February, before departing the U.S., “They’ll never see us again,” the Beatles returned to North America in August for a tour of 24 cities and 32 shows in 34 days. Broadcast reporter Larry Kane published a breathtaking account of the experience, Ticket to Ride: Inside the Beatles’ 1964 Tour That Changed the World. In Kane’s book, the story is high drama, on the verge of violent and deadly chaos: Crowds awaiting the Beatles surge out of control, a fan gets shoved through plate-glass windows. In Quebec, an anti-British faction threatened the band. “One group of extreme separatists,” reports Kane, “had apparently complained about Ringo Starr, whom they called the ‘English Jew’… Ringo replied with a chuckle to a newspaper reporter, ‘I’m not Jewish. But I am British…'” Kane asked Lennon how the tour’s opening show, at San Francisco’s Cow Palace, felt. “Not safe,” said Lennon. “Can’t sing when you’re scared for your life.”

Prior popular-music idols Frank Sinatra and Elvis Presley had also provoked intense reactions, but clamor for the Beatles was much more ardent. “For the girls who participated in Beatlemania,” feminist thinkers Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess and Gloria Jacobs wrote in 1992, “sex was an obvious part of the excitement … It was rebellious (especially for the very young fans) to lay claim to sexual feelings. It was even more rebellious to lay claim to the active, desiring side of a sexual attraction: The Beatles were objects; the girls were their pursuers … To assert an active, powerful sexuality by the tens of thousands and to do so in a way calculated to attract maximum attention was more than rebellious. It was, in its own unformulated, dizzy way, revolutionary.”

The same night as their Forest Hills Tennis Stadium show in New York, the Beatles met Dylan. “I’ve never been so excited about meeting any other musician before,” Lennon later said. The Beatles had been fascinated with Dylan since first listening to The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan during their January stay in Paris. The artists met in the Beatles’ suite at Manhattan’s Hotel Delmonico. They were, at first, shy with one another. Epstein asked Dylan if he wanted a drink: Dylan asked for cheap wine, and Epstein had to send an assistant out to a local liquor store. Dylan wondered if the Beatles smoked marijuana, and was surprised to learn they had little experience with the drug. Then why, he asked, were they singing “I get high! I get high!” in “I Want to Hold Your Hand”? Lennon embarrassedly explained that they were in fact singing “I can’t hide! I can’t hide!” Dylan had marijuana with him and offered to share it. The band stuffed wet towels at the bottom of the room’s doors, so the drug’s pungent odor couldn’t be detected. Lennon made Starr try the first marijuana cigarette. What did Ringo think, his bandmates wondered. “The ceiling’s coming down on me,” the drummer replied. After that, the rest of the Beatles and Brian Epstein indulged themselves. Soon, McCartney decided, he was “really thinking” in a way he’d never done before. He told the Beatles’ road manager, Mal Evans, that he had found the meaning of life, and instructed Evans to transcribe everything McCartney said that night. (The meaning of life turned out to be “There are seven levels.”) “Till then,” McCartney recalled later, “we’d been hard scotch-and-Coke men.” Marijuana would have bearing on how they heard and made sounds and conveyed ideas, evident by the time of 1965’s Rubber Soul. “We believed in cannabis as a way of life,” said Derek Taylor, the Beatles’ press officer. McCartney later said, “We were kind of proud to have been introduced to pot by Dylan.”

Dylan’s other effect on the Beatles was to help politicize them and broaden their themes and lyrical language. By the time of their final 1964 LP, Beatles for Sale, the group’s music started losing its naiveté and facade of effervescence.

A ll these things happened within eight months after the Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. By the end of 1964, the band placed 28 records in Billboard’s Hot 100 Singles chart, 11 of them in the Top 10. They also saw 10 albums released worldwide, five of them on Capitol.

It was a fast and matchless epic, though by year’s end strains would begin to set in. After returning to London in late September, Harrison said, “I’m a bit fed up of touring. Not so much in England, but particularly in America, for instance. I feel sure we won’t do another tour of the States for as long as five weeks ever again. It’s so exhausting and not really satisfying.” The relentless pace of travel and recording worked on nerves within the band. In The Beat­les: Off the Record, John Badman relates an incident witnessed by British journalist Ray Coleman in mid-October, backstage in Edinburgh, Scotland, when McCartney tired of hearing his partner’s complaints about the demands on the Beatles’ lives:

Paul (glancing from a TV set in the dressing room): “Hey, I’ve had enough of you blasting off, John.”

John (immediately retorting): “You say what you want to say and I’ll say what I want to say, OK?”

Paul: “You’re bad for my image!”

John: “You’re soft! Shurrup and watch the telly, like a good boy!”

But the affinity between all the Beatles stayed strong; for years, nobody could disturb that fraternity. George Martin later wrote, “No one else had gone through what they had; no one else understood. They seemed to find a tremendous inspiration from each other’s presence. There was a kind of love between the four of them, some feeling that gave them strength… Although the world had accepted them with open arms, it could also, in many ways, be their enemy.”

No matter what, in 1964 the Beatles weren’t near ready to let go. Perhaps the one question they were most commonly asked in interviews during that year was: How long could it last? Reporters were generally implying that the Beatles’ fame was a fool’s paradise that would vanish almost any day.

The Beatles never answered in a defensive way. They usually said that it would end when it would end – they didn’t expect it to last forever. Discussing the matter with author Michael Braun in the days of Beatlemania, Lennon knew how remarkable their story was; he knew what was at stake.

“This isn’t show business. This is something else,” he said. “This is different from anything that anybody imagines. You don’t go on from this. You do this and then you finish.”


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