by Dr Roger Fagge, Comparative American Studies, Collin Lieberg, Department of History
The Beatles had unprecedented success in the USA when they touched down in 1964, beginning what some see as the British Invasion, but two years later the band was witnessing a backlash from parts of conservative America. What caused this change? And is it fair to say that they filled a musical void which rock and roll had left as it became less popular in America? Dr Roger Fagge from Warwick’s School of Comparative American Studies and Collin Lieberg, a PhD candidate from the Department of History discuss what happened when The Beatles went across the pond. Words by Gareth B Jenkins.
It is February 7 1964. The temperature’s around 3 degrees Celsius in New York City, there’s a moderate breeze coming in off the Atlantic, and four young men from Liverpool are disembarking from a Boeing 707 at the recently renamed John F. Kennedy airport. The Beatles have landed in the United States of America. John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr were greeted by thousands of American fans at JFK, mirroring the scenes they had left behind at Heathrow. American fans waved placards in the air and screamed, demonstrating a high degree of adulation for a band that, up until now, had not yet set foot on American soil¹. This was the beginning of ‘the British Invasion’; The Beatles were being welcomed onto the shores of the United States as the first wave of a new musical revolution.
But just 18 months later the mood would change, at least for parts of America, when The Beatles were boycotted in parts of the South. Radio stations went from playing their songs to banning the band from their playlists and organising public ‘drop offs’ for Beatles paraphernalia to be burned on bonfires. Memphis City Council attempted to cancel a scheduled concert at the Mid-South Coliseum and the Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles album (1964’s Meet The Beatles) to a cross before setting it alight in South Carolina.
What happened? The prevailing view is that the reaction followed Lennon’s ‘more popular than Jesus’ comment. But talking to Dr Roger Fagge, from the School of Comparative American Studies at the University of Warwick, and Collin Lieberg, a PhD candidate from Warwick’s Department of History, it becomes evident that things were more complicated than that. Let’s start at the beginning: why was The Beatles’ arrival in New York such a big deal?
“In order to understand the effect The Beatles had, I think we need to understand what happened in the 1950s,” explains Roger. “There were two strands to the 1950s; one had an element of conformity. This was built around suburbia, the rise of a more affluent middle-class and the accompanying shift towards greater conformity. Political dissent was repressed and this created both problems and opportunities for those working in the cultural sphere.
“The other strand contained the rise of the teenager, the birth of rock and roll, the impact of existentialism, bebop and modern jazz. There’s tension between this strand and the comfortable, conformist, middle-class society. Then you have McCarthyism and the Cold War unsettling things as well. “Rock and roll very clearly met the needs of a more energetic group of teenagers who had economic power and who could demand a slice of the market place. It wasn’t a form of music people felt would be around forever; it was a music that was made for the now. Teenagers responded to that. Marlon Brando captured the mood best in The Wild One. He’s asked “What are you against?” and he responds, “What have you got?”
American rock and roll began to unravel at the end of 1950s. Elvis had conformed by joining the army, Buddy Holly was dead (killed in an air crash along with Jiles P Richardson (the Big Bopper) and Ritchie Valens), Chuck Berry was in prison for violating the Mann Act and Little Richard had given up life as a musician to become a minister.
Rock and roll had come to Britain slightly later so there was a lag between the genre waning in popularity in the USA and a similar experience in the UK. Skiffle, itself based on American blues, had been the prominent genre in the UK before American rock and roll started to dominate the charts. “Rock and roll was in part introduced by the ‘Cunard Yanks’; people who worked on the Cunard Line and brought these records back into British ports like Merseyside,” explains Roger. “Although rock and roll had a downturn at the end of the 1950s in America, to young people in Britain it still seemed fresh and new.”
Rock and roll wasn’t the sole source of pop music in the USA at the time and its demise should not be seen as opening a void that The Beatles would later fill.
Explains Collin: “American’s musical landscape wasn’t a wasteland at the end of the 1950s and start of the 1960s. There was definitely good music being made. The Beach Boys were making music. Surfin’ USA, one of those quintessential California songs, was released in 1963.” The teen idols were also popular at this time; Neil Sedaka began a solo career in 1957 (having previously sang with The Tokens), signing with RCA Victor, and having hits with songs like The Diary and Oh! Carol! Jerry Lee Lewis once said, ‘Bobby Vee, Bobby Benton, Bobby Denton, Bobby Darin, nothing but Bobbies on the radio’ before the Beatles surfaced. Although he was degrading the music, for the fans it was catchy, it was fun, it was ‘teenage’ music. It wasn’t ground-breaking rock and roll like Elvis had released in the 1950s and it wasn’t designed to make you think or to engage the world outside. It was just fun music.”
In Detroit, Motown had been established and artists like The Temptations, The Supremes and The Four Tops would soon begin entertaining audiences – black and white alike – with ‘The Motown Sound’. “It was good, catchy music and it appealed to a lot of people,” says Collin. “You also had Stax in Memphis and there’s a whole bunch of music being made in Philadelphia. There’s lots of regional sounds in the USA at the start of the 1960s, it wasn’t a musical wasteland. It wasn’t a barren musical landscape that was then transformed by The Beatles.”
Roger is in agreement and points to Frank Sinatra as an example of the approach American music was taking.
“Sinatra helped pioneer the idea of the concept album,” explains Roger. “Albums like Songs For Swinging Lovers, Come Fly With Me and In The Wee Small Hours took music on to another level and this is picked up by artists like The Beatles in the 1960s.
“I think jazz is also important in this regard. In post-Second World War America there’s dramatic change with the modern jazz revolution. You’ve got people like Miles Davis, Charlie Parker, Thelonious Monk and Dizzy Gillespie beginning to shake up and reinvent the established lines of music. Jazz is moving very, very quickly in this period. It moves to the West Coast and you see the emergence of what becomes known as cool jazz; we have hard-bop and by the end of the 50s and early 60s there’s modal jazz. There’s a very significant album by Miles Davis called Kind of Blue; John Coltrane is the saxophonist on that and he’s pushing music forward. John Coltrane is recording Love Supreme in 1964 and then it’s released in 1965. That album is very clearly a sign of a very vibrant American music scene. This isn’t a country where the music is dead by any means.”
Unfortunately death does, however, play a part in the success of The Beatles. The assassination of John F Kennedy in November 1963 changed the American political and cultural landscapes.
“The death of Kennedy is a profound shock to America,” says Roger. “We have to understand, as Brits, that the American President is not just the American head of state, they have an almost monarchical air to them. Kennedy had a strong appeal for young people, there was a sense of abandoning some of the political dormancy of the 1950s and offering a more idealistic vision for young Americans; the loss of this optimism increased the impact of this death.”
Kennedy was a young President and, like The Beatles, he offered an optimistic outlook. “After Kennedy’s assassinated, there’s a period of mourning and then, in 1964, The Beatles arrive and, culturally, it reignites that hope,” says Collin.
“I think what The Beatles brought was something that was fresh, something that was new,” adds Roger. “I think they were very funny at the press conferences and this struck a chord with Americans. Americans liked to see themselves as being classless, democratic and open. In some ways that was true.” In Britain, The Beatles had been a refreshing voice from the working class that brought an American sound to British radio. On radio John, Paul, George and Ringo presented noticeably regional accents next to the cut, upper-class British accents of BBC presenters of the time.
“In America it worked slightly differently,” says Roger. “Class does doesn’t operate on the surface in America. Americans embraced The Beatles because they were funny, because they were good at press conferences, because they were comfortable in front of a camera and because they were good performers. Their song writing also developed at quite a prodigious rate. I think The Beatles worked because they genuinely were that good and Americans realised that.”
The arrival of The Beatles in February was just the beginning of the cultural juggernaut and over the following year the band’s popularity developed a momentum all of its own. Their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show on 9 February 1964 drew in an audience of more than 70 million and the show demonstrated their love of American music; the first track the band played was I Saw Her Standing There which directly lifts the bass line from Chuck Berry's I'm Talking About You².
In the August of 1965, the band returned to the USA and played their largest gig to date at the Shea Stadium in New York.
At this point The Beatles became more integrated into American culture. There were choreographed meetings with Elvis and Dylan.
“The Beatles, particularly Lennon, are very impressed by Dylan and his music and they begin to write more complex, more socially aware and more culturally specific lyrics,” says Roger. “And Dylan begins to introduce more of a pop/Beatles element into this music.
Beatles tracks like In my Life, You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away and I’m A Loser are often quoted as being influenced by Dylan.
“One of the interesting dimensions is that when The Beatles come back to America in August, they’re asked by the White House if they would be willing to visit JFK’s grave and to be pictured laying a wreath with Lyndon B. Johnson. The Beatles politely decline to do that because they’re not interested in getting involved in political issues at this time.”
1965 was a popular year for The Beatles but by 1966 there were clouds on the horizon. In March 1966, John Lennon made a comment in an interview for the London Evening Standard, saying that The Beatles were “more popular than Jesus.” When the quote was republished in the American magazine Datebook, it created a public backlash against John Lennon and The Beatles.
“John Lennon’s comments were definitely taken out of context,” says Roger. “What he actually said was not that unreasonable but he unwittingly walked into a big fissure in American culture between a more religious, in some ways anti-modern, section of America and a more liberal and progressive part of America which embraced modernity. His comments were, perhaps inevitably, going to be taken the wrong way. There was quite a vociferous reaction from parts of the South.”
In the article, by the journalist Maureen Cleave, Lennon is quoted as saying; “Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn't argue about that; I'm right and I'll be proved right. We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first—rock 'n' roll or Christianity. Jesus was alright but his disciples were thick and ordinary. It's them twisting it that ruins it for me.”
The article was republished in the US in August 1966 and it led to public condemnation of The Beatles in some parts of America, particularly in the South. In South Carolina, the Ku Klux Klan burnt a cross with a Beatles album attached to it, elsewhere there were public burnings of records and the Memphis authorities tried to ban a Beatles concert, although it eventually took place.
“There were some who spoke out in defence of The Beatles,” says Roger. “And I think most rational people understood the context of Lennon’s words. But the ‘66 tour wasn’t as successful as the previous year’s tour. Lennon was forced to make a sort of mea culpa statement at the start of the tour, but he was clearly uncomfortable as I don’t think he thought he’d said anything wrong.” For Roger, this incident is but one aspect of that soured The Beatles/US relationship, with The Beatles development as artists also playing into it.
“Their music is becoming more complicated and it has higher production values,” he explains. “This isn’t so easy to perform live and they also got fed up of touring. With their fans screaming, they found that when they were on stage they weren’t always able to hear their own music when playing live, and this created a tension for them as artists who were trying to produce not just pop but art. “Another issue, and Bob Dylan was influential here, was that The Beatles moved from being pop to rock and this had repercussions for their audience. They become associated more and more with the counter culture; the drug references are more obvious in their songs. Before, they were seen as unthreatening and in some ways mainstream but by 1965/66, particularly with the releases of Rubber Soul and Revolver, they were more associated with providing the soundtrack to the counterculture.”
Colin adds, “Part of it was the effect the Vietnam War had on America. Most British artists didn’t engage with it. The closest The Beatles got was Revolution. There are two different versions of the song. One says ‘you can count me out’. The other says ‘you can count me in’. That feels like ambivalence for America; Americans were conscious of this fact and had a view that ‘you’re either with us or against us’. And The Beatles didn’t seem to be either.”
The Beatles kick-started the British Invasion, with bands like The Rolling Stones following them across the Atlantic, but the invasion went beyond British bands conquering the American charts. The style, sound and ethos of The Beatles became a template for American bands with many young men seeking to emulate their success. Bands like The Beau Brummels from San Francisco and the Sir Douglas Quintet from Texas took British-sounding names to secure appearances in the American charts. “The Byrds have admitted a number of times that they saw A Hard Day’s Night and said ‘we want to do that’,” says Collin. “They got a Rickenbacker 64 12 string guitar – which is the quintessential Byrds sound – but George Harrison was playing that in A Hard Day’s Night.”
“The Beatles in many ways were the 1960s and in many ways they helped start the 1960s in America,” concludes Roger. “They weren’t political (there were political elements in their work but Revolution was the only attempt, and in part an unsuccessful attempt, at intervening in politics), but The Beatles’ 1960s was about a sense of optimism, it was about a sense of possibility, it was about popular culture becoming more central within mainstream culture, and I think The Beatles captured that perfectly.”
Please note, we said ‘the band’. We know George Harrison had been to the USA before this to see his sister who had emigrated there. Interestingly, the last song they played in concert was a cover of Little Richard’s Long Tall Sally which meant The Beatles ‘bookended’ their career with American covers.
Dr Roger Fagge is interested in the paradox of America in English minds; the way the English can slip into anti-Americanism but at other times embrace parts of America. His current research is looking at the way the English approached modern jazz in the post-war years and what this tells us about the English relationship with the United States.
Collin Lieberg is a PhD candidate at the University of Warwick. He is researching the influence and exchange of American and British identities, culture and thoughts during the 1960s. His supervisor is Dr Roger Fagge.