By Gordon R. Thompson
For many of us raised in the British Commonwealth, Boxing Day can bring back memories of visiting family and friends, even as the modern world transforms the date from an opportunity to exchange gifts between one another into one on which you return gifts at shopping malls. For Americans, the notion of Boxing Day commonly represents a quaint British anachronism; one of those holidays like Victoria Day that remain obscure to a nation preferring to celebrate its declaration of independence and the birth of a new regime. As such, forty-five years ago on 26 December 1963, Capitol Records seized the commercial opportunity to release a 45-RPM disk, numbered 5112.
In Britain, Parlophone Records had released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (backed with “This Boy”) at the end of November 1963. Within weeks, the disk was gaining unofficial airplay in Washington, DC, just as the eccentricities of Britain’s Beatlemania were beginning to attract the attention of American broadcasters eager for distraction. The buzz convinced Capitol (a subsidiary of Parlophone’s parent company, EMI) to conclude that they could no longer resist the entreaties of the Beatles’ producer George Martin and their manager, Brian Epstein. So, in the relative commercial dead zone between Christmas and New Year’s, after the rush to buy presents and before the depth of that depressing winter settled down to hibernate until spring, Capitol released “I Want to Hold Your Hand” with “I Saw Her Standing There” on its flip side. Like a virus, interest in the Beatles spread clandestinely throughout the adolescent corners of North America, disseminated through millions of pairs of earphones plugged into transistor radios and breaking into the open at high school dances. The adults never knew what hit them.
For comedians and drummers, timing is everything. As winter descended, America’s youth contemplated the assassination of their president, even as the power of their numbers began to rise in their consciousness. Their futility rubbed their conscience raw: Why could they not have stopped this? And now a new question arose in their minds: “What can we do to rule our own world?” The passion that the Beatles brought to their music and their polite but open disdain of all things adult (their hair, their press conferences, and their sexuality) over the coming months would transform our world in ways none could have imagined. The Beatles became the first talisman with which this generation would attempt to take control of their lives and to distinguish themselves from all who had come before them.
With the Beatles already scheduled to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show (more on this in my February blog), Capitol had at first agreed to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in January. But they could no more stop the growing interest in the Beatles than they could resist the opportunity to make a buck on what some executives in the iconic tower at the corner of Hollywood and Vine in Los Angeles surely must have considered a novelty act. Boxing Day, whether recognized in the US or not, would become the official launch date for what Americans would call the “British Invasion.”
Gordon Thompson is Professor of Music at Skidmore College. His book, Please Please Me: Sixties British Pop, Inside Out, offers an insider’s view of the British pop-music recording industry. In the timely post below he looks at how the Beatles on Boxing Day.