In less than two hours the country would be left stunned, sickened, and terrified. But before then, on the morning of November 22, 1963, the CBS Morning News, hosted by Mike Wallace, aired a light trend segment about a band called The Beatles and a phenomenon called “Beatlemania” that was taking Britain by storm. Walter Cronkite was planning on re-airing the report later that day on the CBS Evening News, but it was preempted by John F. Kennedy’s assassination in Dallas.
These two events, some of the first communal moments of the live television age were not quite related, but they did abut one another. A few hours before Kennedy was shot, the Beatles released their second studio album in the U.K., With The Beatles, which went to number one on the British charts in less than two weeks and remained there for 21 more, and propelled their fame to the U.S. Some two months later, the Beatles would land in New York City at Kennedy International Airport, renamed only six weeks prior for the fallen president. And at a little past 8:00 p.m. on the bitter New York City evening of February 9, 1964, Paul McCartney turned to his three pals on the stage at CBS’s TV Studio 50, and with the snap of a finger and a count to five jumped right into “All My Loving.” There was no musical intro to the song — just a bar of McCartney’s a cappella voice going right to the verse — spoke to the immediacy of the moment. Four lads were shaking the world, and by the time Dutch magician Fred Kaps was doing card tricks for the restless The Ed Sullivan Show audience following a commercial break, history was written and for the second time in 79 days America would never be the same.
Today’s viral journey for memes, videos, trends, etc., can go any number of ways. For example, a photo gets posted on 4chan, spreads onto Twitter and then to Reddit before sites like Buzzfeed and Gawker pick it up, wherein it floods the rest of the media. But what happened in the 79 days between Kennedy’s assassination and the Beatles live American debut on The Ed Sullivan Show? And how did the Beatles go viral in the off-line era so quickly and thoroughly? Nothing of the Beatles in America timeline has been undocumented, and between Capitol Records, The Ed Sullivan Show, and Beatle manager Brian Epstein, little was left to chance by the time the boys took the stage on February 9. But perhaps we can pinpoint some of the bigger beats that explain the rapidity of the Beatle saturation of the American market. And like many on-line viral voyages, a seminal moment in the early spreading of Beatlemania happened in the quaintest of ways.
CBS's Beatles segment did, in fact, end up airing on Cronkite's evening news December 10, 1963. And though it is often remembered as an example of Cronkite’s great instincts in giving America some much-needed levity, the reality, according to NBC News' Andy Franklin, wasn’t so. The segment’s reporting by London bureau chief Alexander Kendrick was not terribly admiring, stating that the Beatles “make non-music and wear non-haircuts.” Cronkite later admitted he was no fan himself, saying in 2003, “I was offended by their long hair. Their music did not appeal to me either.” The segment did appeal, though, to a 15-year-old girl living in Silver Springs, Maryland, named Marsha Albert. According to Beatles historian Martin Lewis, Albert wrote to her local deejay, WWDC’s Carroll James, asking, “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” James pulled strings, called in favors, and a BOAC flight attendant arrived from England a couple days later with a copy of “I Want To Hold Your Hand” in tow. Then, on December 17, 1963, James invited Marsha Albert to the studio where she introduced the song to America for the very first time.
That Capitol Records and Brian Epstein had a meticulously-planned roll-out strategy that was being usurped by this unsanctioned radio play meant little to James, who simply ignored the cease and desist warnings. Capitol then wisely stopped fighting and moved their “I Want To Hold Your Hand” release date up from January 13, 1964 to December 26, 1963. According to pophistorydig.com, in New York City, 10,000 copies of the record were sold every hour, and in three days a quarter-million copies flew off the shelves. Capitol had to outsource pressings to rivals like Columbia and RCA simply to keep up with demand.
The next significant media hit came on January 3, 1964, when The Jack Paar Show featured the band in footage, acquired from the BBC, performing “She Loves You” to a theatre full of apoplectic girls. After airing the tape, Paar wryly quipped, “It’s nice to know that England has finally risen to our cultural level.” Paar presented the group as a joke, a fleeting zoo-exhibit of a spectacle, and later in life gracefully acknowledged that he’d certainly misread the green on that one.
Following the media momentum, Capitol continued to push up their original Beatles roll-out schedule and on January 20, 1963, Meet the Beatles was released in the States. Interestingly, another amazing stroke of luck for the band was the album cover. As Jonathan Gould wrote in his book Can’t Buy Me Love, “On its cover, Robert Freeman’s somber black-and-white photograph (of the band) was providentially in tune with the contemporary American mood.” In one week, Meet the Beatles sold 400,000 copies.
When the Beatles finally arrived at Kennedy International Airport on February 7, 1964, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was still the No. 1 song in America and Meet the Beatles was about to be the number one album. The Paar undermining of The Ed Sullivan Show’s exclusive enraged Ed Sullivan, who reportedly wanted to cancel The Beatles booking. (Does an anecdote exist about Ed Sullivan where he is not enraged?) Cooler and wiser heads prevailed, of course, and the historic night went off as planned. But the Beatles choice of the jaunty, mid-tempo “All My Loving” as their live debut song was no fly-by-night decision, but one perfectly curated for the occasion. The late, great English music critic Ian MacDonald said of the song, “The innocence of early Sixties British pop is perfectly distilled in the eloquent simplicity of this number.” And if it was innocence that The Beatle Machine was selling on February, 9, 1964, they had certainly found a country in the market for some.
It was a mere eleven weeks earlier that the dream post-war America built had been abruptly and forever contaminated. ‘Loss Of Innocence’ is a phrase so closely associated to the Kennedy assassination that for those of us not yet born it’s hard to not dismiss as vague, hokey sentimentality. But in truth, the dream was innocence in post-war America. There was seemingly endless pride and prosperity, and the near-certain reelection of a young president with approval ratings around sixty-percent promised to galvanize a young country’s faith in itself even more.
But Kennedy’s assassination left a country suddenly horrified, afraid, and deeply ashamed. And once the reality of that terrible act had fully settled into the American psyche there was a pervasive feeling that there was no turning back. Punched in the collective gut, we had lost faith in ourselves overnight. Evil had triumphed over good in a country so ensconced in optimism it hadn't realized the two were even at war, and a nation that characterized itself as tough, dignified, and enterprising suddenly felt dispirited and filled with doubt. For most of a cold, gloomy winter there was no event to even jostle the mood of the masses, no unifying cultural moment or shared experience to buoy spirits. Not even a holiday season could enhance the attitude of the American people. That is, of course, until the Beatles demanded their attention.
The statistics surrounding viewership of The Beatles live debut on The Ed Sullivan Show remain so astonishing that it’s hard to not point to the deeper emotional, perhaps spiritual, needs of a nation. The population of the United States at the time was 190 million. According to official statistics from Neilsen Media Research, ABC, CBS, NBC, and the U.S. Census Bureau, 73 million people tuned in to watch, which amounted to 45.3 percent of American households with televisions. In the end, 40 percent of the population, regardless of age, gender, or whether or not a television was in their home, had seen The Beatles perform. Sure, America was primed for the band’s arrival, and the marketing factory of Brian Epstein and Co. ensured an enormous reception, but the sheer volume of viewers amounts to what seems, in hindsight, something like a deep exhale of gratitude. Families got to be families again. Dads had something innocuous and fatherly to grumble about, a generation of young girls - and some of their mothers - found aching crushes, and teen boys were tipped off that perhaps the quickest route to teen girls may very well go through rock ’n roll.
So with one firm tug, four kids from Liverpool pulled America, albeit temporarily, out of a deep depression. And once this initial respite was granted, The Beatles continued to help America frame its response to its loss of innocence with their music for the rest of the decade and beyond. The post-Kennedy era presented an identity crisis for America, eventually sending it to Vietnam, to two more unbearable assassinations, and to Nixon and Watergate. The Beatles, though, continually offered a reimagining of this identity. They were hope. They were love. They were innocence. It’s now impossible to deny the inextricable link between the two world-changing events that took place seventy-seven days apart. “If you want to know about the Sixties,” said Aaron Copland, known as The Dean of American Composers, “Play the music of The Beatles.” On February 9, 1964, America did just that. We have since never stopped.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
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