What the Beatles Meant to America

Just a few months after JFK's assassination, British pop music sensation the Beatles brought comfort and fun back to America

Photographers surround the Beatles before their first live television appearance on CBS' Studio 50 lot for "The Ed Sullivan Show" in New York City on Feb. 9, 1964.
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“At the same time, it’s like, ‘We’re not going to bend to please the forces that be,’” Riley says. “They watched Elvis go off to the Army and go into Hollywood and it was a tremendous, tragic story. They always felt they were determined to do it differently and that’s almost conscious in the Sullivan thing.”

We focus on the stars, but the impact of Beatles manager Brian Epstein cannot be understated. Vivek Tiwary, a Broadway producer (“American Idiot,” “A Raisin in the Sun”) and author of the graphic novel-style biography “The Fifth Beatle,” says, “When they came to the United States, it was at a period where JFK had just been assassinated and the world was in turmoil. He [Epstein] saw in the band a global message of love, that if packaged properly would be embraced everywhere. Certainly it was, but when it came to the U.S., it was particularly needed. The U.S. needed some comfort and love and that’s what the Beatles represented.”

Changing Pop Music Forever

Will Lee, bassist for the CBS Orchestra on “Late Night With David Letterman,” also leads the Beatles tribute band the Fab Faux. They know 211 Beatles songs out of a possible 219, and pride themselves on album-quality versions of tunes the Beatles never got to play live. Lee was bitten by the Beatles bug when he was a kid; he was 11 when the Beatles played “Ed Sullivan.”

“It was such a life-altering thing for this country which was so depressed after Kennedy’s assassination,” Lee says. “It hit us so hard, such a shock, such a downer, we kept looking for answers. Even if we didn’t get the answer [from the Beatles], there was a lot of fear and uncertainty in the air and the Beatles were this total distraction from that. They had all this positivity and it was something completely out of the realm of what we’d seen before.”

“Their appearance on ‘The Ed Sullivan Show’ changed everything – fashion, attitudes, music writing and lyric writing,” he continues. “We didn’t know it was happening at the time, but they were about to go in and alter the course of the river of pop music and change it forever.”

Greg Hawkes was also 11 when he saw the Beatles on Sept. 13, 1964, at the Baltimore Civic Center. His parents said they’d take him only if he kept taking the piano lessons he was getting bored with. He took the bribe. (Sorta worked out for everyone – he went on to become the keyboardist for the rock band The Cars.) It was his first concert.

“What a way to start,” Hawkes says. “Everybody stood on their seats and screamed throughout the whole show, which was over in 25 minutes. It was revelatory and exhilarating, a moment of awakening.”

This kind of Atlantic crossing had never been done before. “The thing about America was that this was unexpected because they were foreign and they’re British and they were playing an American style of music,” says NPR’s Riley. “That wasn’t supposed to happen. Rock ‘n’ roll was all American. It had sprung directly from American styles and culture. And the idea that it had taken root in another country was just the weirdest possible thing.”

Riley says America didn't take its own indigenous music seriously. But, he says, when the Beatles took American forms and sent them back Beatle-fied, people thought this was "a new way of hearing the whole rock ‘n’ roll catalog.”

“All of that was packed into that ‘Ed Sullivan’ appearance and it was all coded with this incredible ear candy,” he says. “They were handsome, they were witty, they were charismatic and they just had the goods out the wazoo."

“When they started, pop bands didn’t even write their own songs,” Tiwary points out. “The mere fact that they were writing songs was radical. Everything about the Beatles was striking and new. There were no road maps that were being drawn.”

We look at the arc of other British bands of the day, such as the Rolling Stones, The Who and the Kinks, and see these long lifespans. The Beatles’ career, in retrospect, was but a short burst. They formed, out of the Quarrymen and the Silver Beatles, in 1960, began recording in 1962 and were done with it all by the end of 1969. They were all young when it began, and really, though the times had changed radically they were still young when it ended. There was acrimony, discord and lawsuits. When it was over, George Harrison sang, “All things must pass.” John Lennon sang, “I don’t believe in Beatles.”

Updated 1/24/14: The sales figures mentioned in this story were provided by RIAA, Apple Records, and EMI.