Today, the Beatles are considered the most influential band in the history of popular music. They have sold more albums than any other artist on the planet. Their music transcends generations, with young fans jamming along to Beatles: Rock Band and contemporary artists covering their classics. It's a given that the arrival of John, Paul, George, and Ringo was a pretty big deal.
But on Feb. 7, 1964, when the Fab Four first stepped on U.S. soil, they were dismissed by some as merely a fad, a passing phase, not a group of young men who would change popular music and culture forever.
Later that month, U.S. News sought the wisdom of a Harvard sociologist to find out if teenagers, in the midst of "Beatlemania," had lost their minds and if older Americans should pay any attention to these British invaders.
This story originally appeared in the Feb. 24, 1964, issue of U.S. News & World Report.
What the Beatles Prove About Teen-Agers
Interview With a Leading Educator and Sociologist
In case you're worried about the craze over those Beatles—Here are some reassuring words from one of the best-known sociologists in U.S.
David Riesman, Harvard professor and noted author on social trends, was interviewed by "U.S. News & World Report."
Q Professor Riesman, is the furor over the singers who call themselves the Beatles a sign that American youngsters are going crazy?
A No crazier than hitherto. In the first place, any large city will turn out a minority capable of nearly anything. One mustn't exaggerate and attribute to the vast majority the reactions of the minority.
Q Would you say that the fad for the Beatles is a mania, then?
A It's a form of protest against the adult world. These youngsters are hoping to believe in something, or respond to something new that they have found for themselves.
Q Will it last very long?
A No. No craze does. The way to describe a craze or fad is to point out that it starts out as a minority movement. It is self-fulfilling, self-nourishing for the minority that supports it, and every member of the minority is supposed to respond in the same way. As soon as the majority takes it up, it can no longer be a fad. Some new fad has to come along for a new minority.
Q Does the fact that the Beatles are British have anything to do with the craze over them?
A The relevance, I guess, of these young men being British is that it is perhaps more difficult to cultivate fads within America because they're so quickly promoted by TV, records and other mass media. So we have to use other English-speaking lands in order to have a place for the fads to grow.
Q How would you compare the current Beatle craze with the Elvis Presley craze of a few years back?
A Compared to the Elvis Presley craze, it is a very minor one. Presley created a definitely "antiparent" outlook. His music—and he, himself—appeared somewhat insolent, slightly hoodlum.
Presley was a much more gifted musician than adults gave him credit for, but he antagonized the older generation. And that gave the younger generation something to hang on to which their usually permissive parents openly disliked.
In this respect, my impression is that the Beatles have none of this somewhat sinister quality Presley represented for adults. They don't have the quasi-sexual, quasi-progressive note that was present in Presley.
Q What about the shaggy-dog hairstyle of the Beatles?
A Well, they are British, and the British are accepted as being eccentric, anyway.
So the hairstyles don't have the same meaning as they would have if the Beatles were unkempt in the American "beat" style. Actually, these young men, although unkempt in one way, are very "kempt" in another.
Q Does that account for their popularity with teen–age girls?
A I don't know. Presley also had this tremendous impact on girls. But he had a male audience, too, with his swagger and his aggressiveness and his defiance. But it's very safe for a young girl to admire these Englishmen. Then, too, there are four of them, and there's safety in numbers.
Q So you would just let the craze run its course—
A What else? I don't see it as at all dangerous. I think, actually, that adult concern, worry, monitoring, and so on, is probably the best fuel to add to the fire.
If I were the Beatles' press agent, I'd work to have ministers and professors and the press all saying, "Oh, dear! Oh, dear!"