In the early ’90s, Babe Ruth biographer Kal Wagenheim told me the only way to describe the Bambino’s effect on the game of baseball and America at large during his first few tumultuously historic years in New York pinstripes would be to say it was like he had been dropped from another planet. “There had been nothing like him before or since,” he said. “No one could remember what the game or American sports were like before Babe Ruth arrived on the scene. He changed everything.”
For my money, this is as close as anyone has come to framing The Beatles’ arrival on American soil half a century ago this week.
Like Ruth, there was no lead-up to The Beatles in New York City on the second week of February, 1964.
How could there be?
Much of The Beatles’ image—the four cheerfully pasty, monochromatically dressed mop-topped British lads—was a hodgepodge of German art-house nihilism drenched in a transsexual sheen. At first glance, it was if the four figures were equal parts of a whole—what Mick Jagger once described as “the four-headed monster that went everywhere together.” The Beatles were a moving pop sculpture, a walking billboard of patent waves and cheeky smiles; on stage the rhythmic bouncing and bobbing of heads and the choreographed bows became inseparable from the music.
Beatles music was also odd. A jangling echo-saturated guitar assault launched upon primitive foot-stomping drums adorned with high-pitched semi-accented voices, as if mimicking normal cadence between all the “oohs.”
This was more than Sinatra, more than even Elvis. The Beatles were a thing. This weird inexplicable force of nature; seemingly fabricated, built in a lab somewhere to perfectly capture the intangible drift of hope.
In England, where Beatlemania had exploded through the previous summer, the copycats, both amateur and professional, already abounded, but in the States there was barely minor curiosity. Beyond a three-minute report from an American news organization that autumn smarmily mentioning some outlandish behavior by European youth over a caterwauling guitar band, The Beatles were a footnote by late January of ’64, when the band’s fifth single, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” bounded onto the Billboard charts at a modest number 45.
Everyone in the growing organization that was The Beatles, including their wide-eyed genius of a manager, Brian Epstein, sent from central casting as king-maker deluxe, had any clue as to what awaited them at New York’s Kennedy Airport (ironically named after the fallen president scarcely two months in the grave, grieved by a nation starving for a little silly foreign distraction).
New York, much like the four Beatles’ home, Liverpool, was a port town, an artery of cross-culture and, perhaps more than any city in the world, always a hive of “happening.” It did not take long for “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to torch the charts, and by February 7, the day The Beatles walked out on the tarmac to hundreds of frenzied kids and a phalanx of grizzled Gotham reporters, it was number one with the proverbial bullet. John Lennon (23), Paul McCartney (22), George Harrison (20) and Ringo Starr (24) were babes in the woods in age and experience—they had never been outside of Europe before—but their time on the rough road from late 1960 through the red-light district of Hamburg playing endless sets of American R&B music prepared them well for the onslaught.
This was a well-oiled machine; no Memphis “aw, shucks” trucker or pristinely coached turtle-necked pop idol. From the harried ad hoc press conference at the airport, where they deflected questions with one-liners and breezy repartee, The Beatles drew the adoration, worship and envy of a scary amount of the American public. It was an organic template for the modern roll-out of pop stars for ensuing generations, which culminated on the most watched live program in the nation.
48 hours on American soil, after all the hoopla and mobs in front of the Plaza Hotel and a swirl of photo shoots and half-assed radio “interviews,” arguably the most influential and time-altering few minutes in the history of human communication occurred on The Ed Sullivan Show. In less time than it takes to boil water, The Beatles’ performance of “All My Loving” (viewed by a record for the time of 73 million) ambushed an entire generation, set alight the British Invasion, and legitimized the heretofore idiotic notion that rock and roll would be anything other than a teen fad.
Before February of 1964, rock and roll, the last truly original American youth movement (its children being rock, new wave, punk, rap, hip-hop, etc.) was on life support. Its founders and heroes—Elvis Presley (the army), Chuck Berry (jail), Buddy Holly (dead) and Little Richard (religion)—had gone away. Pop music was mired in bland, white, corporate creations, interrupted briefly by the brilliance of Phil Spector and Barry Gordy’s machinations, but mostly a plastic wasteland.
Before February of 1964, the art of pop songwriting was practiced in smoke-filled cubicles deeply tucked away in monolithic brick and mortar castles like the Brill Building, controlling the force and message of teen angst, lust, and yearning to challenge the status quo and find a voice.
Before February of 1964, this free-form expansion of cultural mayhem known as the ’60s seemed resigned to fight the battles of civil rights, sexual revolt, and youthful upheaval to the angry folk brilliance of Bob Dylan.
And here’s the kicker: The Beatles were good—real good. And soon this thing would take us all on a wild ride over six years, 12 studio albums, 13 EPs and 22 singles. Each one was, without exception, really, really good. Crazy good. Scary good. Along the way this thing changed everything (Babe Ruth style), in fashion, experimentation (both sonically and chemically), business, mass communication, and culture.
It remains an element all its own, this Beatles, this thing, that for all intents and purposes began for America here in New York City in early February, 1964.
50 years ago, The Beatles came, saw, and conquered like no one or nothing since. To think of what mattered to us in 1964 being as relevant and nostalgic and passionate as this continuing movement is today is laughable.
John Lennon famously said, “Before Elvis, there was nothing.”
He and his band made sure we didn’t forget that notion ever again.
Dedicated to my friend, Lisa Geller, born the day this all went down.
James Campion is the Managing Editor of The Reality Check News & Information Desk and the author of “Deep Tank Jersey,” “Fear No Art,” “Trailing Jesus” and “Y.”