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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'The Best Pop Song I’ve Heard in My Life'

The Beatles were, of course, no overnight sensation. They worked tirelessly in Liverpool and Hamburg, Germany, clubs and honed their chops covering songs by Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard, the Isley Brothers, Barrett Strong and others. And then, as the world quickly learned, the Beatles were not just masters of the American cover song. Lennon and McCartney had a magic touch, complementary as composers, as harmony and lead singers, as front men. They weren’t just interpreting; they were creating.

Peter Asher, formerly of the folk duo Peter & Gordon, later the head of Artists & Repertoire at the Beatles’ Apple label and subsequently a famous producer, was there when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was written. McCartney, who’d been dating his sister Jane Asher, was staying in the Asher family’s London house part-time when the Beatles weren’t on tour. “Our parents took pity on him and offered him the guest room,” Asher says, with a laugh. “We both sang and played guitar, him much better than me. It was fascinating to get to hear the songs they wrote as they wrote them. In the basement of our house was a little music room that just had a small upright piano, a sofa and a music stand and Paul would go down there to write. I remember one particular day when John came over and they were down there together for a couple of hours and Paul said, did I ‘want to come down and hear the song we just did?’ That was the early days when they were actively, physically writing together.

“I came down sat on the sofa and they sat side-by-side at the piano, no guitars, and played ‘I Want To Hold Your Hand’ for the first time to anyone and asked me what I thought,” Asher remembers. “I said I thought it was very good. It was hard to know what to say. One doesn’t want to be pretentious -- it’s only a pop song -- but there was something of an epiphany, hearing something that good for the first time. And you ask to hear it again, which is what makes for a hit record – ‘God, that’s good! Could I hear it again?’ I thought either I’m going completely mad or that’s the best pop song I’ve heard in my life.”

Robbins remembers how the Beatles made him feel as a kid in the mid-‘60s. “We saw every moment they entered our lives as crucial,” he says. “When they released a single it was ‘Oh my God, we’ve got to go the store! We’ve got to buy the record!’ I remember when ‘Paperback Writer’ came out. We took it home. My friend Greg and I listened to it 100 times ‘til we figured out the words and of course we got ‘em all wrong. It was the event-ness of everything they did. If they made an album, you bought it and played it ‘til your eyes rolled back in your head .”

An Evolution of Sound

The Beatles evolved – quickly. The ‘60s was the most volatile of decades and the Beatles creative juices were moving at the speed of sound. You might say they were in the forefront of what might be considered progressive rock, if you consider the real meaning of the word “progressive” and not the over-use of keyboards that it became in the ‘70s. To wit: The Beatles compositions grew ever outward. With ample aid and encouragement from producer George Martin, they used droning guitar sounds and dissonance, employed “nonsensical” (but clever) lyrical juxtapositions, constructed complex arrangements that were nevertheless melodious. There were changes within songs, changes from song-to-song over the course of an album, changes from album to album.

“They never copied their own records,” says Asher. “It was never ‘Oh, this is obviously the follow-up to that.’ We had no idea what to expect.”

Adds Riley: “In some ways, the Beatles led the technical advances of their era. They were always one step ahead of where the studios were and were pushing those engineers to do things they didn’t think possible. So they always sounded fresh and new and that idea of constantly paying attention to inventiveness and newness kept them contemporary. And you can get into musicology, about how well this material is built.”

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