Fifty years ago tonight, I was an 11-year-old schoolgirl, one of countless girls across America poised before the family television set, our nerves buzzing like struck guitar strings, a joyful scream already rising in our throats.
We were waiting for The Ed Sullivan Show, a stodgy but highly rated variety hour where the standard fare was comics, crooners and novelty acts. But tonight was different. A cultural tidal wave we'd been watching as it rolled too slowly across the Atlantic was about to hit the United States, and everything would change in its wake.
The Beatles were making their first live U.S. appearance.
In these times of instantaneous international access to just about everything, it's hard to remember, harder to imagine if you weren't born in time for it, the delicious anticipation we felt. For most of us (boys too, but it felt then as if the band belonged to the girls) the Beatles began as a rumor, then exploded through our transistor radios and turntables like nothing else we'd ever heard.
We played their records until the vinyl warped and wobbled. We bought piles of fan magazines and papered our bedroom walls and ceilings with photos of our favorite Beatle. (I started out as a George girl; later, once puberty was in full swing and I developed a snarky attitude and a penchant for bad boys, I became a John girl.)
We talked about them all day, dreamed about them all night, treasured the few news clips that showed up on American TV. But oh, how we wanted to see them play. Their first U.S. tour would consist of only four performances, two in New York, one each in Washington, D.C., and Miami — out of reach for most of their multitude of fans. But everyone could see two of those performances on the Sullivan show.
And they did. The first show, aired from a CBS studio in New York City, had 73.7 million viewers — about 40 percent of the U.S. population at the time and the largest audience for a TV program to date, according to Nielsen. (The broadcast of their Miami show would draw 70 million viewers.) There they were on our screens at last, in sleek suits and ties, with those moptop haircuts that roused such outrage, and that look so mild today.
The Beatles knew just what we wanted: "Close your eyes and I'll kiss you" kicked it off, and you probably could have heard the screaming from outer space. After All My Loving came Till There Was You, a corny tune from The Music Man made swoony when Paul of the puppy-dog eyes sang it.
Their first set finished with a shot of the hard stuff — I'm getting goosebumps just thinking about She Loves You, that primal "Yeah, yeah, yeah" and the looks on their faces when they sang it.
The second set was pure Dionysian rock 'n' roll ecstasy: I Saw Her Standing There followed by I Want to Hold Your Hand.
That night, Ringo Starr was 23, John Lennon 22, Paul McCartney 21, George Harrison 20, and they had begun to change the world. No other musician or celebrity has ever had the kind of electrifying impact — in music, in fashion, in culture, in politics — that the Beatles had. Yet the entire arc of the band's career, from their first single, Love Me Do, in 1962 to their finale, Let It Be, lasted only seven years.
Half a century on from that magic night, a tribute concert will air tonight. The two surviving Beatles, Paul and Ringo, will join a lineup of musicians who have followed the trail they blazed
I'm sure it will be a delight, but it won't be 1964. For a real flash from the past, here are three new books that offer a genuine taste of Beatlemania.
'That's what I want to do'
Penelope Rowlands has the bona fides to put together a collection of essays called The Beatles Are Here! In the book's cover photo, which ran in 1964 in the New York Times, she's the curly-haired girl in the center of a line of young women screaming over a "Beatles Please Stay" banner.
She's also a journalist who has written or edited several books, and she has culled a great crop of recollections of the first wave of Beatlemania for this one. There are reminiscences by fans from big cities and tiny towns, some sweet, some hilarious, like Mary Norris' account of her determination, starting when she was 12, to not only marry Paul but convert him to Catholicism into the bargain.
Writers weigh in, Carolyn See with her tale of seeing the Beatles' first movie, A Hard Day's Night, two dozen times as a young graduate student; Roy Blount Jr. explaining why a large part of the group's allure was their humor: "One thing the Beatles were, that so few rock gods have been, was droll." Joe Queenan captures the group's transformative quality perfectly: "I was thirteen years old when the Beatles came to the United States and to this day I believe that my life as a sentient human being, and not merely my parents' chattel, began at that moment."
Rowlands also includes the band's galvanizing effect on musicians. You might not expect opera legend Renee Fleming's detailed praise for their songwriting. But it makes sense to read that hearing I Want to Hold Your Hand for the first time made Bruce Springsteen's hair stand on end (and made him buy his first guitar), and that realizing the Beatles were working-class kids who wrote their own songs and played their own instruments made a teenage Billy Joel decide instantly, "That's what I want to do."
Battle of the bands
John McMillian writes about the band's most intensely competitive relationship in a dual band biography, Beatles vs. Stones. The Beatles and the Rolling Stones gained stardom within months of each other, and they came to represent a kind of dualism in not just musical taste but world view that led many fans to pick clearly defined sides. As Tom Wolfe put it, "The Beatles want to hold your hand, but the Stones want to burn down your town."
McMillian points out that the two bands' images were somewhat at odds with reality. The Beatles, who under manager Brian Epstein's careful guidance came off as cuddly and charming, were in fact working-class kids from the rough port of Liverpool. Before they got a record contract, John, Paul and George spent 38 weeks playing bars in the even rougher port of Hamburg, Germany, a time that honed their musical teamwork to a razor edge, but that also gave them opportunities for debauchery — drink, drugs, brawling and no-strings sex — that they enthusiastically enjoyed.
The Stones, on the other hand, were mostly middle-class London boys, practically toffs by McMillian's description, whose surly, dangerous demeanor was in considerable part invented by their manager, Andrew Loog Oldham, who was rather mad, bad and dangerous himself.
How much of the bands' rivalry was real and how much media invention is impossible to pin down, but McMillian shows us it was probably some of both. He also explores both groups' involvements in drugs, politics and meditation, their legal scrapes and their convoluted business dealings, as well as noting in the epilogue that, for better or worse, the Stones have outlasted the Beatles as a group by "a staggering forty-three years."
Every day in the life
Mark Lewisohn's Tune In: The Beatles: All These Years Vol. 1 is full-immersion Beatles history. The first book in a projected trilogy by "the world's only professional Beatles historian," it's a fat 932 pages long (with over 100 pages of notes and index) — and it only brings the band up to the end of 1962.
We'll have to wait for Vol. 2 to get the inside story on the first American tour, but every imaginable jot and tittle of background is packed into this volume.
After a prologue about the formation of the friendship between John and Paul — "a union, stronger than the sum of their parts, and everything was possible" — Lewisohn gets back to the family trees of the four Beatles in Liverpool, a community made up largely of Irish immigrants. John, Paul, George and Ringo were all born during World War II and grew up amid the rationing and rubble of postwar England.
Packing his story with colorful characters and endless detail, Lewisohn paints the Beatles' often difficult childhoods — John and Paul both lost beloved mothers early, Ringo was seriously sickly — and teenage years, separately and together. The author is neither fawning fan nor milker of scandal; he doesn't flinch from presenting his subjects' flaws, but their portraits are fully rounded.
As the Beatles take form, he adds the stories of two men who had immeasurable influence on the group: manager Brian Epstein and producer George Martin. The book also has a trove of photos, some previously unpublished, including one during the Germany sojourn of John standing in a Hamburg street in only his underwear, a cap and sandals, nonchalantly reading a newspaper.
Lewisohn's depth of research is simply amazing; he conducted hundreds of interviews and consulted thousands of documents, some of them in private archives, to add never-before-told richness to a story we think we know. And it's a good read. Can't wait for the next 900 pages.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8435.