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How the Beatles Took America: Photos of the Historic 1964 Invasion

A closer look at Rolling Stone’s cover story tracing the biggest explosion rock has ever seen

The Beatles

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Fifty years ago, the Fab Four landed in a country mourning the death of John F. Kennedy – facing media disdain and a record label that barely understood them. Rolling Stone's cover story told the true tale of the biggest explosoin rock has ever seen.

As the Beatles disembarked from their flight to America, 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."

AP Photo

The Beatles Have Landed

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." 

Courtesy Everett Collection

‘The Ed Sullivan Show’

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.

The Beatles, Delmonico Hotel, New York, 1964

Arthur Buckley/NY Daily News Archive via Getty Images

Beatlemania Begins

On December 10th, Marsha Albert, a 15-year-old in Silver Spring, Maryland, 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.

1978 Gunther/MPTV Images

George Harrison Tunes Up

Though George 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."

John Lennon, phil spector, The Beatles in New York, John and Cynthia on the plane

Mirrorpix/Courtesy Everett Collection

Phil Spector WIth John and Cynthia

On the flight to the U.S., Lennon, Harrison, McCartney and Starr had been up and about, talking with friends and companions, including Brian 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."

Hulton Archive/Getty Images

‘A Hard Day’s Night’ Premiere

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. 

AP Photo

The Beatles and Muhammad Ali

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. 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. 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.

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