The Day the Beatles Landed at Kennedy: A Tale of Two Fridays in America
There was a turning point in their career, a specific date on which the breadth and scope of their future was to be altered and it was the day their Pan Am jet touched down at Kennedy International in New York to a welcome that has seldom been equaled anywhere.
On Friday, February 7, 1964, some two months and two weeks after Friday, November 22, 1963, a jetliner from the United Kingdom brought forth upon these gloomy, blustery shores “something completely different.” Whether the four-headed juggernaut made you laugh or cry or scream or curse or roll your eyes, there was no denying it. Suddenly, the absurd name was everywhere. Beatles? What was that? Like those sudden vast weather events named Andrew and Sandy and Irene, here came a superstorm called The Beatles and a state of mind the British press called Beatlemania.
In The Beatles Anthology DVD, seconds after you hear the voice of Beatles manager Brian Epstein explaining the long-term significance of the moment, a young fair-haired girl heaves into view, almost as if she’d flung herself through the air into the rapture of that arrival, eyes closed in a transport of blind need as she’s caught and held back, like the others you later see rushing the limousine carrying the Beatles to the Plaza Hotel. In back, four celebrated tourists from Liverpool are having the time of their lives watching the unfolding frenzy they’ve created and listening to their own music on the transistor radio Paul’s holding, as the fans pound on the side of the car and mounted New York cops trot alongside.
“Box Office Poison”
A Beatles landing in late October 1963 at the airport then known as Idlewild would have been an embarrassment, to say the least, even though the first rumblings of the storm roiling England had already been detected stateside. Operating on the assumption that English performers were the equivalent of “box office poison,” executives at Capitol Records summarily dismissed the notion that a group of British musicians with a silly name could make it in the showbiz-savvy Land of Elvis. In spite of the fact that “Please Please Me,” the Beatles’ first hit single, was at the top of the charts in the U.K., Capitol had turned down their right to release it in America, a decision seemingly vindicated when the record went nowhere after a small label called VeeJay issued it. The same thing happened with “She Loves You,” which even VeeJay turned down. As for the first Beatles album, Please Please Me, a chart topper in the U.K. for 29 weeks, Capitol once again said “Nothing doing,” and, true to form, the version released by VeeJay flopped in the U.S.
Early in November 1963, Time became the first mainstream American publication to register what was going on in England with an article entitled “The New Madness.” As Jonathan Gould points out in his book, Can’t Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain, and America (Harmony 2007), the early coverage in the American press was “playfully condescending,” with repeated references to “the stereotype of English ‘eccentricity’ and much reliance placed on metaphors of infestation and epidemic” like Variety’s headline, BEATLE BUG BITES BRITAIN. On December 1, 1963, when the nation was suffering through a post-assassination hangover, the New York Times Magazine ran an article titled “Britons Succumb to Beatlemania” showing the group with Princess Margaret along with images of mobs of fans being restrained, but barely, by the police.
What finally opened the eyes of the Capitol execs was a front page story in Variety announcing that the Beatles’ “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” had become the first record in Britain ever to sell a million copies. According to Gould, when Capitol saw that “the Beatles had released as many million-selling singles in 1963 as the entire American recording industry,” and that “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was “arguably the fastest selling single ever released in any market, anywhere,” it was “with a kind of idiot’s delight” that “it dawned on the men who ran Capitol Records that the rights to sell it,” the veritable golden goose, “were theirs for the asking.”
The plan was to release the single in mid-January, ahead of the group’s February 9 appearance on Ed Sullivan, which had come about, as fate would have it, because that charmless mortuaryesque impresario of “really big shews” happened to be passing through “the madhouse” of Heathrow Airport months earlier when the Beatles were being greeted by a mob of frenzied fans. No matter, with the record already being smuggled into the country and played compulsively by American DJs, people had began hearing “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” so Capitol rushed it out the day after Christmas. On January 3, 1964, a clip of the Beatles singing “She Loves You” was shown on Johnny Carson’s late-night predecessor, The Jack Paar Show. On January 15, New York disc jockey Scott Muni reported receiving more than 12,000 applications for a Beatles fan club. A few days later “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” was at number 3 on its way to the top of Billboard’s Top 100.
The Elephant in the Room
Last week’s CNN special on “The British Invasion” shows the great arrival and the press conference at Kennedy where reporters came prepared to have their cynical way with the Beatles and found themselves playing straight man to four bright, funny, spirited, instantly likable young men with a quick comeback for every silly question:
“What do you think of Beethoven?”
“We love him — especially the poems.”
“Are you for real?”
“Come have a feel!”
“How many of you are bald, that you have to wear those wigs?”
“Oh we’re all bald … and deaf and dumb too.”
What the CNN special leaves unmentioned, the so-called elephant in the room, was that a country in shock needed something like this, a media-powered event mad and massive enough to offset the assassination, never mind how crass and noisy Beatlemania seemed before people began to hear the music and get into the spirit of it. Gould’s book describes the way the fallen president’s “princely aura of youth and good looks and vitality had come to personify for many Americans their country’s most hopeful and flattering vision of itself.” With the intense, relentless television coverage of November 22 and its prolonged, numbing aftermath, “never before in history had the means existed by which the people of an entire country could simultaneously bear witness to an event such as this.” For the first time ever “commercials stopped” and “the living rooms of America” were witness to “a tableau of unmediated shock and grief.” As Gould shows, teenagers found it particularly hard to deal with the “sudden violent death that forced them to confront their own mortality as well.” Gould quotes Jack Greenfield, who was 15 at the time: “If he wasn’t safe, no one was.”
At first, American teenagers sensed the Beatles, in Gould’s words, “as shadowy figures on the periphery of this riveting national drama.’” College students had their first exposure to the music during the vacation week between Christmas and New Years when stations across the country were playing “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” At the same time, “word of the Beatles began to spread through the high schools and middle schools of America.” In the middle of January, Capitol released the album, Meet the Beatles, which became “the focal point of Beatlemania in America.” Gould points out how the incongruously shadowed and somber black and white cover photograph of the group suggested “shades of empathy, sensitivity, and, above all, an uncanny feeling of mystery.” For young viewers, the cover implied “there was another side to this music and the success that came with it. Who were these people? Where did they come from? And why should they come to us now?”
Two nights after the Beatles arrived, a television audience of 70 million, the largest ever at that time, watched them perform four numbers on the Ed Sullivan Show. Gould may be embellishing the reality when he writes, “as Paul stepped up to the microphone and sang the words, ‘Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you,’ the spell of fear and unreality was finally broken for American’s 21 million teenagers,” but if you’ve heard that joyous, infectious love song, with its chorus “All my loving, I will give to you,” and can imagine how it was to hear and see it at that moment in time, you’ll grant Gould some poetic license: “Eleven weeks after it began, the television wake was over, and the party had just begun.”
Referring to the first appearance on Sullivan in The Beatles Anthology, Ringo says, “I still have people talking about where they were that night, it’s like where were you when Kennedy was shot.”
Of course the same Paul McCartney who sang “All My Loving” would be howling “Helter Skelter” four years later and the “party” would sprawl in some historically unfestive directions before the decade was over.