On the night of Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964, 73 million Americans were glued to their television sets.
Live from New York came four long-haired young lads from Liverpool, England to invade North America through the Ed Sullivan Show on CBS.
That night helped launched a new phrase, "Beatlemania," and it still resonates today.
It is the timing of the arrival of the Beatles and their inventive new stream of music that has intrigued historians. Feb. 9, 1964 was barely 10 weeks after a far more ominous event — the assassination of President Kennedy on Nov. 22, 1963.
Losing a father?
Here, claim musical and cultural critics such as Jonathan Gould, was the effective cause of that pop culture explosion called Beatlemania, at least in America. Child psychologist Martha Wolfenstein even drafted a book called "Children and the Death of a President" (1965). The author claimed that John F. Kennedy fulfilled the role of a father figure for most of the youth disturbed by the events in Dallas just weeks before. At that time half the U.S. population was under 30. The Associated Press declared 1964 “The Year of the Kid.”
As Gould summarized, Kennedy had been “a role model…whose sudden violent death had the power to force a confrontation not only with the loss of a parent but also, on a level that could not be acknowledged directly, with one’s own mortality as well.”
But, as Gould and others assert, when the Beatles launched into their falsetto “oooohs” and hairy head-shaking that night, it was time for the mourning to end and the party to begin. Beatlemania had arrived.
Implications of comfort and reassurance flowed from their lyrics. The Lennon-McCartney tactic of following a quiet, introspective moment (“And when I touch you I feel happy inside …”) before building to an over-the-top crescendo had the power to shake the outer defences of the listeners. It potentially swept the already engrossed into the higher emotional registers with “It’s such a feeling that my love, I can’t hide, I can’t hide, I can’t HIDE!”
A gritty background
In 1964, if you were a teenager with money to spend, Beatle music seemed fresh and inventive. There may have even been a subliminal effect at work in the fact that the Beatles had been raised musically on American rhythm and blues and the Elvis Presley explosion of the 1950s.
Retired pastor John Adams remembers hoofing it across St. John’s from Memorial University to watch “Hard Day’s Night” downtown.
“The Beatles clearly idolized our pop culture and sang it back at us doing us one better," a driving, melodic back beat and captivating harmonics delivered by what even their critics called "four pleasant young men."
How intriguing that in 2010 the Vatican of Pope Benedict had singled out the early Beatles music for its optimistic lyrics and lively melodies, forgiving John Lennon for his misunderstood mid-60s outburst "we’re more popular than Jesus now."
There was, of course, the untold story. John, Paul, George and Ringo projecting the image of fun-loving totally liberated mop-heads seemed to offer a new hope to a youthful generation under the shadow of the mushroom cloud and the Kennedy tragedy. These working class troubadours were already experienced men of the world. They had been raised beneath “the blue suburban skies” of gritty Liverpool. England in the 1950s — their cultural incubator — was not yet fully recovered from the austerities of World War Two.
The Beatles had honed their musical skills in the seedy nightclubs of Hamburg, Germany and the exhaustion of all-night stands and barely manageable accommodations found later melodic expression in such songs as “Hard Days Night” and “A Day in the Life.”
It was easy to see for those with discerning eyes even back in 1964-65 that songs such as “I’m a Loser” and “Nowhere Man” made pathetic counterpoints to the exuberance of “She Loves You” and “From me To You.”
Finances and fame
We all know what happened next. Even the upbeat early Beatles music quickly spanned the gamut, from “I Want To Hold Your Hand” to “I’m Down,” from “I Feel Fine” to “Help!” Later on the four musicians tried to assuage the emptiness they felt and sang about in a very public quest through the drug culture and Eastern mysticism. It’s a route many are still travelling today.
The Beatles, said friend and fan Steve Turner, had the finances and the fame to explore their inclinations in a way few people can. They were mega-celebrities before the word became a fixture. But the dream-world of Beatlemania could never last. Six years after their Ed Sullivan debut the band broke up, and 10 years after that their leader was tragically assassinated.
In some ways, as London columnist Bernard Levin wrote, the Beatles were highly visible victims of their own success. After about 1966 they confined themselves to studio recordings. John Lennon was deathly afraid of the threats coming from outraged religionists after his "more popular than Jesus" comment.
Their insightful sound engineer, George Martin, saw their slow unraveling across the 60s as a product of truly talented composers yearning to explore their own separate musical tastes. George Harrison delved into Eastern mysticism with “My Sweet Lord.” John was more and more preoccupied with his girlfriend Yoko Ono and Paul’s predilection for sentimental ballads was irritating his peers.
An optimistic throwback?
Still, their moment was unusual. Lynda O’Grady, a retired elementary teacher from Carbonear South, remembers it well.
“It was all so different. Young girls saw them as cute and since there were four of them you had four to look at. They seemed to know it was their time, their hair styles and all that," said O'Grady.
True. Their brash confidence was refreshing. When asked at an airport press conference how they found New York, Ringo replied, “We went to Greenland and turned left.” John told a Royal Charity audience they didn’t have to applaud, simply “shake their jewelry.” Cheeky.
Still, my 78 year-old grandmother said, “I like their English accents.” My wife, Susan, inadvertently picked a Beatle song for our wedding day — "Here, There and Everywhere."
That they were a permanent phenomenon of modern music is evidenced by Paul McCartney’s sellout tours around the globe. He was asked to perform at a memorial concert in New York after the events of Sept. 11, 2011. He closed out the 2012 London Olympics with “Hey, Jude.” The worldwide audience of youthful athletes seemed to know the words … all of them.
On June 30, 2006 Cirque Du Soleil launched a Las Vegas tribute to the band. It was eloquently but simply titled, “Love.” The Beatles, for all their many flaws as human beings, inserted “Love” into their songs as much as any artists before and since.
“Love Me Do,” “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “P/S. I Love You,’ “All You Need Is Love.”
The pop circus extravaganza that made up their Sergeant Pepper album signs off with “Love is all you need.” Perhaps this gets close to the reason they have survived, as the Vatican may have intuited.
We certainly live in different times today. Maybe here is a key to the nostalgic mood some people get when humming lyrics such as those from “Hello Goodbye,” the song that pleads most insistently that, “Life is very short and there’s no time/ For fussing and fighting my friends.”
The call is still there, embedded for all time in the music: “Come together, right now.”
That's still a good message, five decades later.
— Neil Earle is an adjunct history professor at Citrus College in Glendora, California, but calls Carbonear home.