It has been 50 years since the Beatles arrived in the United States, forever altering the landscape of popular music. But contrary to the general notion that the mop-tops hopped off a plane in 1964 and were just so talented and lovable that they took the states by storm, the Beatles’ conquering of America was actually the result of a long and complex struggle. It was the end result of the actions of numerous people acting in their own interests, with little knowledge of or concern about what the other was up to.
While the Brits are credited with giving the world the idea of popular music through the comic operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, after World War II British popular music was in a creative slump. Weak transnational relationships between record labels and the dominance of state-controlled media tended to keep out foreign records (particularly American ones), leaving British audiences to make do with British artists’ covers of American hits. As a result, recordings of American folk and rhythm and blues artists became almost contraband, complete with all of the cool rebelliousness the black market can provide.
There were some American records available and American artists occasionally performed in the U.K., but the best place for a young British teenager to hear American music was at the movie theater. From Blackboard Jungle, which had British teenagers rioting in the aisles to the sounds of Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” to The Girl Can’t Help It, which featured energetic performances by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran, film introduced U.K. teens to rock’n’roll. To British teenagers rock ’n’ roll was choreographed cool, and staging and imaging were part of the package. Removed from the racial and political context of the music in the United States, it is no wonder that the Beatles were able to project such a well-crafted insouciance into American living rooms on that momentous night in February 1964.
But the Beatles struggled long and hard to get to the United States. Starting out as a loose band of friends, the Beatles climbed their way up the ranks of the Liverpool club scene and eventually landed a steady gig in Hamburg’s red light district, the Reeperbahn. Night after night, the Beatles entertained rowdy crowds of sailors, gangsters, and prostitutes, all the while honing their craft and expanding their repertoire. It wasn’t particularly glamorous; house bands are simply another part of a club’s entertainment package, along with the drinks and the décor.
The repertoire was based first on other people’s songs. The Beatles played everything from rock ’n’ roll covers to pop showtunes, eventually developing their own songs and recording them in Germany.
Returning to Liverpool in the fall of 1961, the boys set up shop at the Cavern Club. They were still a red-light district club act; being “the Beatles” was just another daily grind, like any job. But then they met Brian Epstein.
Epstein was in charge of the record division of North End Music Store (NEMS), his family’s Liverpool shop. In a short time under his management, the store had seen tremendous success. He took great pride in always stocking what customers wanted. But Epstein’s ambitions were far greater. Repeated customer requests for a record by some group called the Beatles caught his attention.
Deciding that the easiest way to get the Beatles’ record was to see them in person, he stopped by the Cavern Club one afternoon. He saw a band that, to his mind, had great potential but little direction. In the Beatles, Epstein recognized his own frustrations in struggling to overcome the ordinary. As he would later write in his autobiography A Cellarful of Noise, “They, like me, were becoming bored because they could see no great progress in their lives.” Epstein attended several of the band’s performances and eventually offered the group his services as a manager.
The band refined their witty stage banter and donned their trademark suits under Epstein’s tutelage. He used his connections as a retailer to get the band out of their enervating club routine, convincing Decca Records to send an artists and repertoire (A&R) manager to see the Beatles at the Cavern Club. In January 1962, the band appeared to be on the brink of success when the Beatles recorded 15 demo songs for Decca Records in the company’s London Studios. But the prestigious label decided to pass on the band because, in the words of the label’s head A&R man, Dick Rowe, “Groups of guitarists are on the way out.” Undaunted, Epstein took the band to audition for Parlophone records; he found the person who would transform the Beatles from a band of good club musicians into musical revolutionaries.
Parlophone producer George Martin was not a rock ’n’ roll fan. He was a respected producer with numerous jazz and pop recording credits. But Martin felt Parlophone was being ignored by its American parent company, EMI. When Brian Epstein approached Martin about producing the Beatles, Martin saw his chance to finally get EMI’s attention. His diverse experience and varied tonal palette would end up being indispensable as the group undertook its pioneering recordings over the next decade.
In September 1962, Parlophone released the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do.” With Epstein in charge of bookings and promotion and Martin guiding the recording process, the group went on to record a string of popular U.K. releases. Beatlemania had taken root in the United Kingdom, and the band that had once played opposite strip-tease shows in Munich found itself playing for her majesty Queen Elizabeth and the queen mother at London’s Prince of Wales Theatre.
While Beatlemania was in full swing in the U.K., the group was afraid to come to the United States. British groups had struggled stateside. Hoping to avoid similar flops, Epstein and the Beatles decided not come to America until they had a hit record on American radio. But Parlophone’s parent company, EMI, had little interest in promoting the group in the States. Again, it was Epstein’s tenacity that helped the group break through.
On an unrelated business trip to New York in November 1963, Epstein met with television show host Ed Sullivan. Sullivan hadn’t heard the band, but he’d heard of them: The month before, his flight into London had been delayed by the arrival of England’s biggest stars, the Beatles. Determined to not miss out on the next big thing—as he had done with Elvis Presley nearly a decade earlier—Sullivan agreed to feature the Beatles on three consecutive Sundays in February of 1964.
But the Beatles still did not have a hit record in the United States. Capitol Records, EMI’s American affiliate, had little interest in the British group, prompting Epstein to use smaller labels to release Beatles records in America, with little success. Having been refused by Capitol four times, Epstein made a personal call to label president Alan Livingston. Presenting the release as part of a larger plan that now included the television performances, Epstein convinced Livingston to sign the Beatles to Capitol and commit $40,000 to the promotion of the band’s “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” It was supposed to be released January 13, 1964, but Carroll James, a DJ in Washington, D.C., beat them to the punch with a copy he’d gotten from a British friend. He was simply obeying the market: A local teen, Marsha Albert, had seen a story on Beatlemania and written a heartfelt letter to James requesting the airplay.
Throughout January 1964, American media were fully saturated with all things Beatle. So when the band members stepped off the plane at JFK airport in February 1964, all they needed to do was be themselves. While the Beatles' conquest of America seemed so easy, it was anything but—something the Rolling Stones learned the hard way when they unsuccessfully tried to duplicate the Beatles’ success in America later that summer.
After the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan show, The British Invasion was in full swing. Major labels rushed to sign anyone strumming a guitar within 100 miles of Liverpool, and guitar-driven bands playing original music became the norm. And the Beatles, with their ambitious recordings and brilliantly crafted public personas, would define the era and set the model for all musical acts to follow. A sea change in popular music had happened, and it appeared to happen overnight, almost accidentally. In truth, the story of the Beatles’ success is an intricate web of creative risk-taking, aligning self-interests, and entrepreneurs responding to market demand.