Thursday, April 4, 2019

It was 55 years ago today

Not bad - they may go somewhere someday
That the Beatles reached the high point of Beatlemania, and set several records that will be mighty difficult to break.

The Beatles redefined celebrity and consumerism in an alliance between the two that forever changed the course of Western celebrity.  Never before had a singular entertaining act generated so much merchandise and press coverage.  Never before had a non-sporting, non-political personage drawn so many tens of thousands of fans into single venues.

For better or worse, they revitalized and reformed the Rock and Roll genre, they set the future for popular music and the recording industry, they impacted culture, fashion, attitudes and the entertainment industry as a whole, and they even contributed to events that changed forever the course of Western culture.  Again, for better or worse.

The story is too long to tell in detail.  I'm no entertainment historian.  But long and short, in 1963, almost overnight the Beatles became a genuine phenomenon in England.  There is something about those Brits who go bat crazy over things and then get Americans on board with the same hysteria (I'm looking at you Harry Potter).  They all but monopolized the British entertainment industry in 1963, and were becoming bona fide superstars across Europe (except for France).

Nonetheless, try as they might, they couldn't get Capital Records (EMI's American subsidiary) to release any of their songs.  We're America.  We don't need Brit musicians, especially ones with no clear front man (was it Paul McCartney or John Lennon and the Beatles?).  A couple rogue labels took it upon themselves to release a few songs, but they went nowhere.  So lame was their performance on the charts, that George Harrison was able to visit his sister in America in '63 and perform at a local bar with no more than the owner saying 'he's not bad, might actually go somewhere someday.'

But when President Kennedy was killed, America went through what we went through after 9/11.  Remember those brief weeks when we were close to unified, when Giuliani appeared with the president of NBC on Saturday Night Live to say it was OK to laugh again?  They had that, too.  That came in the form of Jack Parr running a clip on his television show that made fun of silly Brit kids going bonkers over some rock musicians named after insects.

Parents may have laughed, but the kids suddenly wondered why they were left out.  Then one thing led to another, and by January, Capital picked up the Beatles' next single, I Want to Hold Your Hand.  Radio stations were saturated with requests.  Before the Beatles set foot on American soil, they were the number one recording act in the country - an unprecedented thing in those pre-satellite, pre-Internet days.

When they appeared on Ed Sullivan, in excess of 50% of the US population tuned in to see what it was all about.  That would be equal to 160 million people watching the same show today.  It still stands as one of the largest television audiences in history.

With that, it was like the flood gates opened.  Like Britain, a literal tsunami of Beatles products flooded the American market.  They were round the clock front page news.  And all those records they released the previous year that hadn't gone anywhere were now skyrocketing to the top of the charts.  By the end of March, 1964, the Beatles had no fewer than fourteen songs on the Hot 100.  By the first week of April they held seven songs in the top ten.

And on April 4th, 1964, the Beatles - likely the only ones who will ever be able to accomplish such a feat - held all five of the top five spots on the American charts.  They held the number one spot for almost four months (being knocked off briefly by Louis Armstrong's Hello Dolly).  They would have several more number ones by the end of the year.  If we count B Sides to some later singles released as double releases, the Beatles ended up with 22 number one hits in America in fewer than seven years of recording.  An average of over three #1 hits a year for seven years.  That makes them the most successful and best selling recording artists of the 20th Century (and so far at least, of all time).

There would be much more of course.  The Beatles were not the authors of their place in history.  That place was chosen by forces other than them.  Nonetheless, in every photo montage of the 20th century, you will see their appearance on Ed Sullivan along with the bombing of Hiroshima, the March on Washington, the Moon Landings, D-Day, and the Titanic.  Their place in history would have been etched anyway, but it received help by their own desire to be better than they needed to be.

They could have sat back and wallowed in their teenybopper status and then faded away.  But they didn't.  They were good, and were aided by an amazingly talented set of support players (not the least being their wizard producer, the late George Martin).  They were also hard working.  In less that seven years of recording activity, they released 13 albums, including the double album of original material known as The White Album.  They released over two dozen additional singles, as well as an extended play album soundtrack.  They produced four films, and embarked on four world tours, including two tours in America in 1964.  Not bad for seven years.

But it was on this day, 55 years ago, that the high point of the frenzy and mania that etched them into the history tablets reached its zenith when the top five songs in the country were all by the same artist - and them not even American.

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