MUSIC - The British Invasion

An European cultural product conquers the US and not vice versa.  

On 9 February 1964, 73 million US television viewers saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show. They sang five songs, including “I Want to Hold Your Hand”, the 45rpm single that had been topping the Billboard charts for the previous six weeks. It was the beginning of the British Invasion, one of the rare instances of a European cultural product conquering the US and not vice versa.

The story goes that Capitol Records had ignored the Fab Four’s UK singles until by pure chance, in late October 1963, Ed Sullivan met The Beatles at London Airport. Sullivan booked them on the spot for three televised shows, persuaded by manager Brian Epstein.

Epstein, with the Sullivan contract in hand, convinced Capitol to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the US in February. He also encouraged CBS News London to shoot footage of the Beatlemania sweeping the UK, which was aired on the CBS Morning News of 22 November 1963. 

John F. Kennedy was assassinated just a few hours later and all other news was quickly swept aside. However, anchorman Walter Cronkite, looking for ways to lift American spirits in the wake of the trauma, ran it again on the evening news of 10 December.

The day after the broadcast, teenager Marsha Albert wrote to Carroll James, a DJ at WWDC, a radio station in Washington D.C., asking, “Why can’t we have music like that in America?” Intrigued, James asked a British flight attendant to bring him the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” single from London and then invited Albert into the studio to introduce its very first play.

The station’s telephones exploded. Girls dashed to buy the single, which was not in stock. Capitol tried to ban the song’s airplay, then changed tack. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” hit the airwaves and stores on 26 December 1963, during Christmas vacation, when all kids were at home, glued to their radios.

One million copies sold in two weeks. And when The Beatles landed at New York’s Idlewild Airport (soon rechristened JFK), they were already superstars.

In August of 1966, The Beatles were back in the US for what would be their last commercial tour. Their single “Eleanor Rigby” was only number 11 on the charts. It was about a desperately lonely person, who died in a church where Father McKenzie wrote sermons “that no one will hear”. “No one was saved”, sang Paul McCartney, accompanied by a string octet, apparently inspired by Vivaldi.

But that was the least of their worries. In March, in a controversial interview for the London Evening Standard, John Lennon claimed The Beatles had become “more popular than Jesus”, adding: “I don't know which will go first – rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was all right but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me”.

As a result, in America’s Deep South, the band’s concerts – security nightmares to begin with – met with violent protests from ultra-religious groups. Their records where burned and even the Ku Klux Klan vowed vengeance. After that tour, The Beatles would play one more live gig: the famous Apple Studios rooftop concert in London in '69.

In 1965, however, the American Federation of Musicians had barred The Kinks, also part of the British Invasion, from performing in the US for four years. The ban came towards the end of a tour where both financial and personal problems emerged, and the situation came to a head when the band was late for a taping session of their biggest hit “You Really Got Me” for a popular TV show.

In his autobiography, Kinks frontman Ray Davies claims one of show’s executives started insulting British bands, saying “Just because the Beatles did it, every moptopped, spotty-faced limey juvenile thinks he can come over here and make a career for himself. You’re just a bunch of Commie wimps.

The Kinks, huh? Well, once I file my report on you guys, you’ll never work in the USA again”.

Which is more or less the kind of approach America showed towards football –just as English as The Beatles and The Kinks – decades later.

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