By Gordon R. Thompson
When Pan Am flight 101, the “Jet Clipper Defiance,” touched down at the recently renamed John F. Kennedy Airport on 7 February 1964, the grieving angst that had gripped the Western world lifted, if just a little. What emerged from the darkness of the Boeing 707’s doorway was something so joyful, so deliciously irreverent that we forgot for a moment the tensions of the Berlin wall, the Cuban missile crisis, and the assassination of a young president. The sigh that North America released felt so deep that it sounded as one big exuberant scream of delight.
That New York served as the Beatles’ gateway to the west and consequently to the world was not chance. A number of factors a decade in the making had inevitably colluded to spark those initial days of pandemonium. By the early sixties, the first transatlantic jet route between London and New York City had become one of the most heavily traveled international routes in the world—and had delivered one New Yorker to view Beatlemania first-hand.
On 31 October 1963, Ed Sullivan sat at London’s Heathrow Airport waiting for Beatles fans to release his flight. Coincidentally, a week later, Beatles manager Brian Epstein was negotiating three appearances by the Fab Four on Sullivan’s weekly Sunday night variety show. The native New Yorker had already been looking for British talent as he pursued a strategy of internationalizing his program, with Belgian nuns, Italian puppets, and others to complement the Catskill comedians he regularly featured. American audiences easily accepted British performers, and so Sullivan had brought singers from London like Cliff Richard and Helen Shapiro. But nothing could have prepared him for the Beatles.
The band had already proved itself in Britain, and Sullivan’s temporary confinement on the Heathrow runway came as fans greeted the band returning from a successful Swedish tour. Time and Newsweek would run stories about the Beatles on 18 November, and American TV newscasters filmed and edited stories on this strange British phenomenon. On 22 November, CBS and NBC ran reports on their morning news programs, but, with the assassination later that day in Dallas, those stories never made the evening news. The Beatles remained a murmur in the background behind a national tragedy.
New York City was, and arguably still is, the news and media capital of America, if not the world. Postmodernists might argue that the dissemination of information has become so decentralized that the world no longer has a media center, but in 1964 Manhattan Island was it. If the Beatles were to enter into America’s media bloodstream, New York would be where it happened.
For most of 1963, Capitol Records in Los Angeles had resisted releasing a Beatles record, even though its British parent company EMI had lobbied otherwise. Capitol was finally pushed into it by the news coverage and by disc jockeys who repeatedly played the British disc of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The American company rush-released a version of that record on 26 December. The Beatles would learn that it had reached number one on Cashbox’s charts while they were playing in Paris a month later.
Capitol Records’ Brown Meggs, in conjunction with CBS and United Artists (who had signed an agreement to release the Beatles’ first film), lobbied New York disc jockeys and plastered the city with signs that showed four reddish-brown mop-top haircuts with the tag “The Beatles Are Coming.” Nicky Byrne, Brian Epstein’s head of Beatles marketing in America, also printed t-shirts that some teens received for free. Disc jockey Murray Kaufman played the role of Paul Revere on New York’s WINS radio, which kept announcing how far away the Beatles were, as though they were tracking an ICBM’s trajectory and projected detonation. Area teens and others began migrating toward the airport, feeling they needed to be there.
The Beatles’ first Ed Sullivan Show appearance, on 9 February 1964, signaled a fundamental shift in our cultural center of gravity. American households had locked into their television sets in November to watch the news of Kennedy’s assassination and funeral. Television as a medium had now taken on a quasi-religious role in many households: the electronic oracle in the living room, channeling an era’s zeitgeist. On 9 February, families again gathered to experience this divination from the ether and, after patiently waiting through ads for shaving cream and shoe polish, they were rewarded.
The hundreds in the studio and the millions in the TV audience knew the world had changed for the better; most of North America collectively exhaled for the first time in months. Sullivan’s audience released their anxiety in an expression of the hope that good still had a place in the world and that happiness could be found simply by singing “Yeah, yeah, yeah.”
Gordon R. Thompson is Professor of Music and Chair of the Department 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. Gordon Thompson will be speaking at a number of Capital District venues in February. His lecture, “She Loves You: The Beatles and New York, February 1964,” will contextualize that band’s historic relationship with the Empire State. Check out Gordon Thompson’s posts on The Beatles and other music.
Subscribe to the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Subscribe to only music articles on the OUPblog via email or RSS.
Image credit: The Beatles arrive at Kennedy Airport in February 1964. Public domain via Library of Congress.