If you were born in the western world and have a pulse, chances are you know The Beatles. They have been so widely conversed about, analyzed and appreciated that they are virtually inescapable. Everyone knows that their influence was and still is massively widespread and nothing short of revolutionary; but, like electricity, Oreos and automobiles, The Beatles are so deeply etched into our society and cultural DNA that we can easily take them for granted or even be unaware of just how big of an impact they made when they first reached the masses. It’s hard to imagine a world that existed without The Beatles, but this actually once was the case (weird, I know). Thus, when they arrived on the scene 52 years ago to this week, after formidable, Hamburg-spent, often forgotten years worth of struggle, practice and a honing of their image and craft, they made quite the splash: Beatlemania.
The term Beatlemania gets thrown around loosely and a lot when describing the cultural phenomenon that took shape when four mop-topped lads from Liverpool successfully resonated with people across oceans and became true stars. The term’s frequent usage is certainly justified; however, many people don’t understand just how severe and intensely manic the fandom and admiration that The Beatles received actually was, or how powerful and all-mighty of a musical and cultural entity the Beatles were at the height of the craze.
It all started in the United Kingdom. The Beatles saw their first glimpses of enormous popularity there in 1963 after the release of their single, “Please Please Me” and gained an even greater superstar status with their next one, “She Loves You”, later that same year. At this point, the band was firing on all cylinders, touring non-stop across the U.K to screaming fans who didn’t pay much mind to the American artists that were supposedly “headlining” these shows. For whatever reason though, probably lack of exposure and publicity, they weren’t generating the same degree of buzz in the U.S. This all changed when “I Want to Hold Your Hand” entered the charts in the very beginning of 1964. It spread like wildfire and sold 1.5 million copies in under three weeks, firmly proving that Beatlemania had now swam across the pond and truly taken flight. Its fathers hadn’t even arrived at the airport.
On February 7th, when Pan Am Flight 101 touched down to JFK, the hysteria only intensified as The Beatles could now be seen in the flesh rather than merely as voices or two dimensional images boxed inside of a screen. Just think about this for second. 3,000 people wanted to see these guys get out of an airplane….you read that right.
Their first United States television appearance was on The Ed Sullivan show, just two days after they arrived, and it shattered viewing records with approximately 34 percent of the American population tuning in. The firmness of The Beatles grip on America is also evidenced by their sales as Americans purchased more than two million Beatles records and more than 2.5 million dollars worth of Beatles related goods in just the two weeks that they were in the states. In that painstakingly tiny amount of time, the band had five songs in the Billboard top 100 including the top 2; and during their six and half year, all one unending peak career, they had the number one single in the U.S for 59 weeks and they topped the LP charts for 116 weeks. In simpler terms, The Beatles had the top-selling single one out of every six weeks, and the top-selling album one out of every three weeks. In simplest terms, they were every bit as talented, consistent and machine-like in their craft as they were adored; and the swells of fandom and idolization that characterized Beatlemania were every bit as earned as they were downright insane.
And insane they were, often in chaotically unthinkable and never before seen ways. Fan’s psychotic obsessions and undying determination to catch even the slightest glimpses of the band forced maximum police protection to be called for upon their arrival. 100 officers were ordered to be with them at all times and arrangements of this magnitude were entirely unheard for a pop group, typically reserved for royalty or leaders of the free world. But now…The Beatles. Police sometimes resorted to using fire hoses to hold back fans, people climbed through fire escapes, hid inside of hotel bathtubs, staked out elevators, cracked open windows, frantically screeched, trampled each other, fainted and even died all because of these four men. It has been said that the only time the British had a comparable influence on the states was when they governed them.
As The Beatles said goodbye before returning to London, tears of joy were replaced with one’s of sadness, four girls collapsed, and when their plane took off into the sunset, America was forever changed. Now that they were gone, it could finally exhale. There had been pandemonium and outbreaks of fandom both before and after with artists like Sinatra and Presley, M.J and Cobain, but no one left such earth-shattering imprints or resonated so profoundly with so many like The Beatles did. So the real question is: Just what was it about the fab four?
Firstly, the fact that there were four of them, unified yet each with distinct appeals and individual charms, allowed for them to resonate even more deeply with the American public. The Beatles had the best of both worlds. Their synergized look and masterful skills made them a collective, wholesome, fire-breathing band, yet at the same time they were still separate individuals which gave people the ability to chose which one most reflected their own preferences and desires. Ringo was the gritty goofball with thick lips, a “cute nose” and fingers covered in blisters and jewels. Paul, the inclined songsmith and the easiest on the eyes. John, the avant-garde philosopher who never took off his shades. He was mysterious and also the most artistically intense but this would become more evident in the latter half of their career. And finally George, the youngest and the most innocently unassuming (until, of course, he tried LSD and picked up a sitar). Each exuded irresistible charm in their own way, so not only did fans love the music, they were also enamored with the four men behind it. Their cheerful, sweet yet effortlessly cool style and sound made them sexy, but in a way that was approachable. Girls everywhere wanted to hold their hands just as much as they wanted to endlessly listen to their songs.
Secondly, their arrival was nothing if not perfectly timed. They came along right as the booming babies turned into aching teens, when televisions became a staple in the American household, and just two months after the president was murdered, leaving the nation with violent fears and uncertainties. For the grievers, The Beatles represented hope. They were not only a distraction, but also an alleviation and a revival for a country that had just seen its worst nightmare become something they couldn’t wake from. For the adolescent boomers, an army of preteens on the brink of a revolution, The Beatles were much more than just the hippest musicians or even the biggest icons, they were a zeitgeist. The leaders in the intriguing movement towards modernity and the spokesmen of a generation that needed them right at the exact time that they were ready to guide. And as times changed and that generation evolved from cooke-cutter innocents into floral-soaked acidheads, so did The Beatles. They fascinatingly mirrored the cultural trends as much as they drove them. Stories this good can’t be made up.
In a sense though, what made Beatlemania so truly one of a kind was just that: the one of a kind talent and ability that The Beatles possessed. Above everything, their sheer skill is the reason that their impact was as immediate and hard-hitting as it is powerfully long-lasting. In fact, one could argue that the concept of Beatlemania is never-ending. While it certainly morphed, it continued to follow the band as they changed styles, stopped performing, smoked pot, delved into the studio, experimented with psychedelic drugs, fully grew into themselves, got tired of being themselves, forgot about boundaries, re-wrote the rule book, broke the rule book, re-wrote it again, grew their hair, grew apart and eventually fell apart in the same turbulent decade they started in. As they did all these things and more and transformed from straight edged pop rockers into music’s most innovative and audacious architects, they never lost their unparalleled intrigue. Even today, the mania still exists as generations upon generations continue to discover their music with admiration and awe: the same feelings those 3,000 screaming fans had when The Beatles first crusaded
America over half a-century ago, and changed music and the world forever.