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Authors: Steve Greenberg

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How the Beatles Went Viral in '64

BOOK: How the Beatles Went Viral in '64
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How the Beatles Went Viral In ‘64
Title Page



Copyright 2014 by Steve Greenberg
All rights reserved

Cover design: David Gorman


In the late 90s, while head of Artists and Repertoire at Mercury Records, I had the good fortune of signing Ringo Starr and releasing three of his solo albums. During a meeting about the packaging for the first of those albums, held in the living room of Ringo’s bungalow at the Bel Air Hotel, we contemplated a photo that would be included on the back of the CD jewel case. The question at hand was, should the photo face right or left? The meeting had gone on for a long time, and our exhausted marketing director made the mistake of saying “I guess it really doesn’t matter which way it faces—let’s move on.” Ringo suddenly became quite agitated and proceeded to educate us: “Everything matters, and it’s all important,” he said. “You never know which detail will catch someone’s attention, cause them to react or not react. A single thing can make it all go one way when it might have gone another. History changes.” His tone suggested he was speaking from experience.

A remarkable chain of events led to the explosion of Beatlemania in America during late 1963 and early 1964. Some of what occurred was the result of deliberate effort on the part of those involved, but much of what happened was outside of anyone’s control. Mistakes created opportunities; failures enabled success; tragedy gave birth to joy. And everything unfolded in just the perfect way, leading to that breathtaking moment on February 9th, 1964, when the Beatles took the stage on The Ed Sullivan Show with 73 million people watching. Reconstructing the events of those few weeks, it’s clear Ringo was right: Everything indeed mattered, and it all really was important.


“The time is so near and yet so far. There are millions still living who knew it and were part of it. Only 50 years ago Europe—and to some extent America—was basking in an age of stability and leisure, of splendor and well-being, and—above all—of peace.”

The above quote is from a Life Magazine article looking back at the world as it was 50 years prior. The issue date was November 22nd, 1963 and the lost world of 1913 recalled in the article, entitled “The Last Years of Splendor,” stood on the verge of the societal cataclysm that was World War I. Of course, there was no way the editors of Life could have foreseen that November 22nd, 1963 itself would prove to be an historical inflection point of equal magnitude. The death of JFK that day heralded the end of one era, while a CBS television news report that same morning spotlighted a British phenomenon called Beatlemania, which would turn out to be a harbinger of the social upheaval to come.

The Beatles at that moment, without even thinking about it, were remarkably effective at serving the artist’s function as early warning system vis a vis societal change—and British Beatlemania was the fire alarm. Although the Beatles’ concerns at the time didn’t go far beyond having hit songs, and their lyrics consisted of little more than “She loves you, yeah, yeah, yeah,” they managed to address perfectly the psychological needs of a generation and—more importantly—were five minutes ahead in anticipating them. With America suddenly plunged into the convulsive trauma of the assassination, the addition of the Beatles into the mix would result in the cultural equivalent of an atomic blast.

Except it wasn’t quite so simple…..


A while back I was talking about old records with my friend Lenny Kaye when I posed a question that has long intrigued me: “At the end of 1963 virtually no one in America had heard of the Beatles; yet on February 9th, 1964, they drew the largest television audience in history—73 million viewers—when they appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. How in the world did that happen in the course of six weeks?” Lenny thought for a couple of seconds and then answered: “Everybody was ready for the 60’s to begin.” While that reply was surely true on some metaphysical level, I suspected that there was more to the story. And in fact there’s much more.

While the Beatles’ sheer talent and drive made it nearly inevitable that they would eventually conquer America, quite a few interlocking gears needed to click into place in order for Beatlemania to hit with the speed and force that it did fifty years ago. The rapid explosion of the Beatles in America was the result of a mind-boggling combination of persistence, luck, good timing, and passion.

There’s no sense trying to explain WHY the Beatles hit as dramatically as they did. It’s a subject that’s been written about exhaustively (Short answer: They were really great). Rather, let’s focus on the nuts and bolts of it all: How did it happen that they came out of nowhere to become the biggest cultural sensation ever, in six weeks?

Of course the Beatles didn’t really come out of nowhere; they came out of England. And England was where the frenzy that was Beatlemania began. But unlike its blitzkrieg-like arrival in America, Britain’s obsession with the Beatles emerged over the course of nearly a year. The band was already huge locally in their native Liverpool, even before they’d begun to make records. After they signed to EMI’s Parlophone label, a series of singles appeared beginning in late ‘62—“Love Me Do,” “Please Please Me,” “From Me To You”— each a bigger hit than the previous one. The first whispers of remarkable mass hysteria — the fainting, the screaming, the extreme lengths to which fans would go just to get near the band — wafted out of the north of England in late spring, just as the “Please Please Me” album moved into the number one position on the UK chart, a spot that a succession of Beatles albums would hold for nearly a year solid. With the Beatles touring the country relentlessly, the screaming girls, the frenzied chase scenes, the whole carnival spread steadily through the UK, town by town.

In late August the band released its biggest hit yet: “She Loves You,” which quickly became the all-time best-selling single by a UK act. It was then that the major newspapers brought the Beatles frenzy to national attention and by doing so, whipped it up further. Previously, pop hadn’t been a subject to which the papers paid much attention; in fact, it took John’s involvement in a fistfight at Paul’s birthday party in June to garner the band its first headline in the national press: “BEATLE IN BRAWL—SORRY I SOCKED YOU,” read the banner across the back page of the Daily Mirror.

But by late summer of ‘63, the press couldn’t have been more eager for the story of four young outsiders from the hinterlands who had the power to arouse young British womanhood to heights of hysteria. In the wake of the Profumo sex scandal (which at that very moment was in the midst of bringing down the government) and several concurrent revelations of outrageous sexual escapades involving Britain’s upper crust, the UK press were newly fascinated by, and emboldened in covering, sexually charged topics, which previously had been swept under the rug. This new attraction to raciness, the precursor to Britain’s subsequent sex-crazed tabloid press, found an eager audience with the British public. The Times of London opined: “On the island where the subject has long been taboo in polite society, sex has exploded into the national consciousness and national headlines.” Stories about the Beatles craze, a phenomenon viewed as overtly sexual in a nearly primal fashion, fed the media’s hunger for more. The Beatles quickly became a daily presence in the tabloids.

At first, the press took a bemused stance toward the whole spectacle. In September, The Daily Mirror ran a story about the Beatles headlined “Four Frenzied Little Lord Fauntleroys.” But then, on October 13th, the frenzy hit London itself: The Beatles appeared that evening on Val Parnell’s Sunday Night at the London Palladium, the biggest TV variety show in the country, and thousands of screaming fans descended on the venue, closing off entire streets and clashing with the police for hours.

Coincidentally, on that same day the Daily Mirror coined the term “Beatlemania” to describe a similar scene at the band’s concert the previous day in Cheltenham. (The term itself was a play on Lizstomania, the 1840s frenzy that had accompanied the concerts of Franz Liszt.) It wasn’t long before the more “serious” broadsheets were weighing in with pseudo-psychological analyses of the anatomy of Beatlemania. The Sunday Times of London got straight to the point, quoting a young girl who answered a BBC interviewer’s question regarding why she screamed at the mere mention of the group by confessing “It’s not something I could say on the radio.”

Meanwhile, America was oblivious to what was transpiring across the ocean. Throughout 1963, Capitol Records, who as a sister EMI-owned label held the US rights to Parlophone’s product, showed no interest in the band. This was largely due to the tastes of the man in charge of the label’s international A&R, Dave Dexter, whose responsibilities included sifting through EMI’s international product searching for potential US hits. Capitol’s track record in international A&R was actually quite good: In June of ’63, for example, they released a record from EMI Japan called “Sukiyaki” by Kyu Sakamoto and had a number one hit with it. But rock and roll, well, that was American music—Capitol already had the Beach Boys—and there was no reason to be importing it from England. After all, no English act had ever sustained a career as a hitmaker in the US.

Besides, Dexter just plain didn’t like rock and roll. A 20-year veteran of the label who had joined Capitol shortly after it was founded, Dexter rued the day rock and roll hit the scene. In an internal memo several years earlier, he condemned rock as “juvenile and maddeningly repetitive” decrying the fact that the music biz was increasingly being driven by the tastes of children. Dexter’s musical preferences ran towards jazz, and he’d had a good run signing jazz artists to the label, including Peggy Lee, Nat “King” Cole and Stan Kenton.

The first two #1 Beatles singles offered by Parlophone to Capitol, “Please Please Me” and “From Me To You,” were turned down by Dexter and licensed instead to the Chicago indie label Vee-Jay Records, whose attorney, Paul Marshall, happened to be EMI’s US attorney, as well. Vee-Jay might have been a good home for the Beatles, as they were seeing considerable success at the time with The Four Seasons, another Paul Marshall client. But by early ‘63 the label was short of funds due to its president, Ewart Abner, having dug into Vee-Jay’s operating budget in order to cover personal Las Vegas gambling losses.

Upon its February, 1963 release, Vee-Jay was able to get some airplay for their first Beatles single, “Please Please Me” (mistakenly credited to “The Beattles”on the 45 label and in trade ads), notably on local Chicago Top 40 radio station WLS. WLS DJ Dick Biondi, a personal friend of Ewart Abner, was the first DJ to play a Beatles record in the US, and can be viewed as the band’s first US champion at radio. Due primarily to airplay on Biondi’s show, “Please Please Me” made it to #35 at WLS in March, although it did not chart nationally.

By late May, when Vee-Jay released the Beatles’ next single, “From Me To You,” Biondi had been fired by WLS. A month later, Biondi was back on the air, this time at KRLA in Los Angeles. Although no longer working in Vee-Jay’s hometown, he continued to be supportive of the label’s Beatles releases, and by the end of June convinced KRLA to add “From Me To You” to its playlist, even though it was clear by then that the record hadn’t gotten any national traction in the month since its release. “From Me To You” charted for six weeks on KRLA’s survey in July and August, peaking at #33, which was enough to get it into the Billboard Bubbling Under Singles chart, where it reached #116. Still, it had sold fewer than 15,000 singles by the end of 1963.

Faring slightly better with “From Me To You” was American rocker Del Shannon, who had toured with the Beatles in England that spring and returned home determined to have a US hit with the song. Shannon’s version, which spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 in June and July, peaking at #77, marked the first appearance of a Lennon-McCartney song on the Hot 100. Had Shannon not beaten them to the airwaves and the chart, perhaps the Beatles’ record could have spread nationally off of Biondi’s championing of their version. As it stood, Shannon’s release may have eliminated that chance. A letter from the program director of KXOK St. Louis, to George Harrison’s U.S.-based sister Louise—who had been trying to drum up support for the band’s version of “From Me To You”—cited the station’s earlier support for the Del Shannon cover as reason for not playing the Beatles’ version.

Meanwhile, Vee-Jay’s financial problems were catching up with them and they dismissed Abner from his post upon discovering his malfeasance. This aroused the suspicion of Paul Marshall, who quit as Vee-Jay’s attorney, opting to cast his lot with EMI. In August Marshall, acting on behalf of EMI’s US licensing agent, Transgobal, accused Vee-Jay of non-payment of royalties, ordered Vee-Jay to cease and desist in distributing the Beatles’ music, and revoked the indie’s options for future singles. Losing the rights to the Beatles over non-payment of royalties was a particularly silly mistake on Vee-Jay’s part, as royalties owed on Beatles sales at that point totaled less than $1,000. But Vee-Jay were not particularly bothered about losing the unsuccessful Beatles; at that moment they were far more concerned with Marshall’s efforts to get the Four Seasons out of their Vee-Jay contract, also for failure to pay royalties, which he successfully did.

At the same time, “She Loves You” was beginning its record-breaking ascent of the UK chart and, having canceled the Vee-Jay deal, Paul Marshall approached Dave Dexter at Capitol with the hot new single. Incredibly, in spite of the British buzz that was growing to deafening levels, Dexter turned the band down yet again, reasoning that the Vee-Jay flops proved he was right to have passed on them in the first place. “Dead in the water,” was how he described the Beatles’ US prospects. Transglobal thus licensed “She Loves You” to a much tinier indie, Swan Records of Philadelphia, who released it stateside on September 16th.

Swan had even less success with the Beatles than Vee-Jay: The song failed to chart at any radio station and was, in fact, roundly rejected by audiences when it was played at all, despite having garnered a favorable review in Cashbox, which predicted that the song “could do big things in this country.” DJ Murray the K at WINS New York played “She Loves You” on September 28th in a 5-way “battle of the hits,” where it came in third. He continued to play it every night for a week solid, but got no reaction. Swan convinced American Bandstand, which still broadcast from Swan’s hometown of Philadelphia, to play the song in its “Rate A Record” segment, with horrifying results: The song received a score of 73 out of 100, and worse, the teens on Bandstand laughed when host Dick Clark held up a photo of the long-haired Beatles. After that incident, recalled Clark, “I figured these guys were going nowhere.” (The song did, however reach the Top 5 in Canada on Capitol, which had released all of the band’s singles to date, each one somewhat more successful than the last. Undoubtedly, some Americans living near the border heard it on Canadian stations.)

The Beatles’ career had, in fact, so thoroughly failed to take off in the US that George Harrison was able to come to the states to visit his sister Louise in Benton, Illinois on the same September day Swan released “She Loves You” and remain totally anonymous. Louise, who had been trying unsuccessfully to bring attention to the Beatles’ music for nearly a year, even took her brother to a radio station in West Frankfurt, Illinois, that she’d previously convinced to give airplay to “From Me To You.” The station played the copy of “She Loves You” that George had brought with him to the States. The Beatle was then interviewed on-air by the 17-year-old daughter of the station owner, all to no discernable listener response. While in Illinois, George actually jammed on-stage at a VFW dance with a local band called the Four Vests, playing a number of 50’s rock songs, and no one even asked for his autograph. Perhaps the most productive thing, professionally, that he did while in Illinois was purchase an album by R&B artist James Ray, which included the song “Got My Mind Set On You.” George’s cover of this song was to become the final number one pop hit to date by any Beatle when it hit the top of the Hot 100 nearly 25 years later. He returned to England at the end of the trip feeling despondent about the Beatles’ chances in the States.

After the October 13th Palladium TV broadcast, the fan frenzy and tabloid press hysteria in the UK built ever more rapidly. Almost immediately, the American press began to take notice of what was happening in England. On October 29th, The Washington Post published the first U.S. press story on the phenomenon, written by London correspondent Flora Lewis. Entitled “Thousands of Britons ‘Riot’”, the piece reported on the need for riot squads to calm the crowds in four British cities where the band had recently played. Lewis’ piece was dismissive of the Beatles’ music, looking down on their lyrics and remarking on how the beat was the same “over and over.” As for their looks, Lewis compared the Beatles to “limp, upside-down dust mops.”

Britain got a respite from the madness for a few days in late October while the band toured Sweden. Upon their return on October 31st, the Beatles were met at a very rainy London Airport by over 1,000 screaming fans, thrilled to have their idols back. The New York Times, covering the airport scene, reported that even the sound of the taxiing jets was no match for the screams of the crowd. As fate would have it, US television variety show host Ed Sullivan was also at London Airport that day and couldn’t help but notice the commotion. Sullivan assumed the ruckus must have been for a member of the British royal family. When informed it was for the Beatles, he asked, “Who the hell are the Beatles?” Sullivan, a former gossip columnist, had a nose for a good story and something about the scene reminded him of the early days of Elvis Presley, whom he had famously presented on his variety show years earlier. He began to contemplate booking the Beatles, perhaps as a novelty act.

BOOK: How the Beatles Went Viral in '64
11.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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