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The Beatles are coming. The Beatles are coming.
Reliving an exciting and exhilarating moment in the history of the Fab Four
In the late summer of 1963, a young English bloke by the name of George Harrison holidayed in America with one of his older brothers. After visiting their sister in Illinois, they spent a few days in New York before heading back home at the start of October. Just two anonymous tourists from overseas.
About four months later, our young Englishman returns to New York with three of his associates. They arrive at John F. Kennedy International Airport, formerly known as Idlewild and newly renamed in honour of the slain 35th President of the United States. They spend a few days in New York, take the train for a short visit to Washington, D.C. and eventually wind their way to Florida before heading back home. Wherever they go, pandemonium ensues. Just the hottest group in America who were almost completely unknown only two months prior. The reverberations of this momentous trip are still felt to this day.
Will we ever get tired of the Beatles? Talking about their music, thinking about their impact, ruminating about which albums and song mean the most to us, selecting who is our favourite Beatle, trying to decisively crack the mystery of why…why, of all the bands, the Beatles were the one chosen to deliver the second Big Bang of the rock era, the band whose music reached more deeply, more widely, more enduringly and more satisfyingly than anyone else, destined to be the Pied Pipers whose followers are legion and continue to grow and probably will everlastingly.
If there is a moment from the Beatles’ incredible and improbable ride that gives even a hint of some answers to this question and provides the key insight into the phenomena of their story, look no further than that first visit to America.
Rock music in the United States was in a peculiar place as 1963 came to a close. Perhaps even a little adrift. That’s not to say that exciting sounds weren’t being made—the girl group explosion, the birth of Motown, surf music, the “Wall of Sound,” the fast emergence of Brian Wilson and the Beach Boys—but the sense that the music was moving forward and evolving would be hard to find. The number one record at the time was Bobby Vinton’s ‘There, I’ve Said It Again,’ hardly music for the youth that parents would find hard to understand. While a revolution was brewing in Britain with the onset of Beatlemania, the Beatles were such an unknown commodity across the Atlantic that George Harrison took his summer holiday in 1963 with nary a peep, relishing an anonymity that just a few months later would likely have been hard to find even at the outer edges of the planet.
The main reason? Any effort to get the Beatles to crossover in 1963 was met with a complete shrug. Capitol Records, EMI’s American label, saw zero potential in their music stateside and left it to smaller labels like Vee Jay and Swan to issue their records. Through the power of persistence from their manager, Brian Epstein, Capitol was eventually convinced to change course and release their fifth UK single and fourth chart topper, ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand,’ and to push it hard with advertising dollars. In a sign that fate was beginning to intervene, select DJs began playing the song—obtaining it from overseas—and generated such a groundswell of demand and curiosity that Capitol rush released the single to hit stores the day after Christmas 1963. An album, Meet the Beatles!, was released a mere three-and-a-half weeks later. By the time the Beatles touched down at JFK, the single had topped the charts and the album was well on its way to joining it.
The next two weeks form the most ecstatic and exhilarating chapter of Beatles lore: the throng of fans greeting our heroes as they disembark from the Pan-Am plane, the giddy press conference soon afterwards, a Saturday stroll in Central Park, the record-breaking appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show (the first of three straight Sundays on the show), complete fan hysteria at concerts in Carnegie Hall and D.C.’s Washington Coliseum, R&R in Florida, a photo op with Muhammad Ali (soon to have his own rendezvous with destiny through his bout with Sonny Liston). A trip where fantasy intersected with reality. Moments too good to believe they were really happening forming memories too vivid to believe they couldn’t be anything but real.
It all brings to mind one time when I asked a work colleague of mine what it was like to see the Beatles in concert. He saw them in 1964 at Toronto’s Maple Leaf Gardens. He just looked at me and said, “You wouldn’t believe it.” In other words, you had to be there. But we can dream of what it might have been like to bear witness to the height of Beatlemania. To hold vigil outside the Plaza Hotel on a New York February morning, longing to catch a glimpse of John, Paul, George and Ringo.
That’s one of the many moments captured by Albert and David Maysles—soon to revolutionize documentary filmmaking—in The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit, their fly-on-the-wall account of those two historic weeks in February 1964. Throughout the film, the sound of a transistor radio is ever present, often carried around by Paul and tuned to WINS, home of Murray the ‘K',’ the music perpetually hanging in the air.
And that’s the key. It’s the music, the explosion of energy that characterizes those early, historic Beatle sides. In Britain, the album of the moment was With the Beatles, an adrenaline rush of an LP offers 14 absolutely persuasive reasons to live. It remains a fresh, vital and potent recorded document.
Ten seconds of the euphoric opener, ‘It Won’t Be Long,’ powered by a potent double-tracked John Lennon vocal and a freight-train of a beat is all that is needed to convert even the most stubborn skeptic to Beatle fandom. There’s hardly a moment to catch one’s breath as we move to the hook-laden Mersey beat of ‘All I’ve Got to Do,’ the exuberant ‘All My Loving’ which is perhaps the ultimate capturing in sound of the frenetic pulse of Beatlemania in all its glory, the forever danceable ‘Don’t Bother Me,’ George Harrison’s first songwriting credit and the piano-and-harmonica driven ‘Little Child.’ It’s an onslaught of pop craftsmanship, for sure, but so wonderfully received. Indeed, to describe the experience of listening to With the Beatles is to quickly exhaust synonyms for exciting.
How about exquisite instead for their version of The Music Man’s ‘’Till There Was You,’ with a supremely lovely guitar part by George? It is a quick respite before we are back in high gear for their cover of the Marvelettes’ ‘Please Mr. Postman,’ complete with handclaps punctuating the extended ending. Flip the record over and be greeted by George doing his best Chuck Berry impression on guitar for Berry’s ‘Roll Over Beethoven.’ Ringo’s drum roll provides a perfect lead-in for a double-tracked vocal by George to shake you to your core with handclaps adding to the frenzy. They’re also there for ‘Hold Me Tight,’ in which Ringo’s toms during the bridge create an intriguing counterpoint to one of the Beatles’ sunniest performances.
‘You’ve Really Got a Hold On Me,’ among Smokey Robinson’s earliest signature songs, is part of the debt the band paid to the Black music of their era, the three-part harmony of John, Paul and George and the slow, methodical build in the bridge are highlights here, moments of sweet blue-eyed soul before the proto punk scorcher that is ‘I Wanna Be Your Man,’ with a killer drum break by Ringo as the song’s chorus transitions into the verse. We go back to relative calm as George takes the lead on ‘Devil in Her Heart’ and then it’s one of the Beatles’ greatest unheralded tracks, ‘Not a Second Time.’
The song has an ingenious and seductively ingratiating melody—hear how John stretches out “cry,” “why,” “mind” and “mine” and repeats “no” three times before singing the song’s title. Its’ rhythm conjures an early-sixties British discotheque, the dance floor full of couples moving easy and in perfect time to the music. The feel is heightened by a beautiful piano break in the middle by producer George Martin. In all, ‘Not a Second Time’ reminds that writing a compact, two-minute pop song is a true gift too often overlooked and undervalued.
The concluding cover of ‘Money (That’s What I Want),’ is, on the surface, an attempt to replicate ‘Twist and Shout,’ the closer to the Beatles’ first British long-player, Please Please Me, but far transcends mere imitation. The heavy low-end here brings a real nastiness as John snarls his vocal. The multiple repeats of the chorus at the end are a sign of not wanting the fun to stop, but it does with John declaring one last time, “that’s what I want” followed by a quick three-beat with a final chord hanging in the air as the needle winds its way to the end groove.
In the States, nine of the songs that comprised With the Beatles were included on Meet the Beatles!—all the covers save for ‘’Till There Was You’ removed in favour of ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ and its American and British b-sides, ‘I Saw Her Standing There’ and ‘This Boy.’ The album’s 27 minutes blaze by, fuel to the American teenager’s imagination awaiting to see the Beatles on their native soil.
Another reason why I believe the Beatles’ first visit to American continues to hold our imagination is what came after. Soon, Beatlemania and its trappings became infused with monotony, a numbing excursion from one city to another, one hotel to another, one concert after another where they couldn’t hear the music. By 1966, the final year of the Beatles as a touring band, monotony gave way to danger, disgust and ennui—fleeing Manila, enduring record burning demonstrations over a John Lennon comment taken out of context and the realization that the music they were recording in the studio could no longer be replicated on the stage. To recall February 1964 is to remember that for a brief moment, Beatlemania was magical, a fairy tale made real where all was new and the possibilities were endless.
The Beatles came and nothing was the same.
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