On Feb 7, 1964, events were set in motion that changed the culture so fundamentally, life for millions could be cleanly divided into before and after. When Pan Am Flight 101, carrying The Beatles, touched down at Kennedy Airport in Queens at 1:20 in the afternoon, they were met by 4,000 teenagers, 200 members of the press and more than 100 New York City police officers. “It felt as though there was a big octopus with tentacles that were grabbing the plane and dragging us down to New York,” Ringo commented in “The Beatles Anthology” documentary. “It was a dream.”
On Feb 7, 1964, just 77 days after the JFK assassination, the Fab Four stepped off of Pan Am Flight 101 at the newly-minted Kennedy Airport. The city and the Beatles would never be the same.
Fans run to get a look at the Beatles following the Fab Four’s arrival in NYC in 1964.
“They’re so cute,” 17-year-old June Clayton of Brooklyn told The News right after the band landed. “And Ringo’s the cutest. Look at them comb their hair!” Two days later, such swoons and screams would be magnified by a factor of 70 million as the band performed for the first time in America, on the stage of the Ed Sullivan Show at 52nd St. and Broadway.
"They gave their money and they gave their screams, Fifty years later, I can still hear their screams ringing in my ears."
Millions yelling themselves blue over pop stars wasn’t new. Frank Sinatra inspired that response decades earlier, as had Elvis ten years before the Fab Four ever arrived. But never in American history had so many young people screamed so hard at exactly the same moment, a reaction made possible, in part, by the escalating power of television. Nielsen measured The Beatles’ debut as the most-watched program in U.S. history, reaching a full 45% of the population.
The spontaneous, coast-to-coast outpouring of ecstasy was the precise inverse of the national reaction to an event that took place just 77 days earlier. On Nov. 22, 1963, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, shaking the country to its core and spreading a kind of fear it hadn’t known in a century. A palpable depression enveloped the nation.
“There wasn’t alot to cheer about after Nov. 22nd,” recalls Larry Kane, the only reporter to travel with The Beatles on every date of both the ’64 and ’65 tours, and the author of “When They Were The Boys.”
“There was concern about the escalation of the Viet Nam war, the civil rights movement was escalating, inflation was high. There was a tension,” Kane said. “When the Beatles arrived in February they started to distract everyone from all that.”
By their talent, charm and energy, the boys made pleasure once again a part of the public conversation. If that was the effect they had on the mass consciousness, they had an even deeper, and more lasting, effect on an individual level. The maiden performance by the Fab Four captured the imagination of young people so profoundly, it helped them envision entirely different lives for themselves.
Most of the girls may have screamed, but more of the boys (and some of the girls) decided in that moment that they could play and sing too. How many significant later bands — as well as routine amateur groups — have reported that, after Feb. 9th, they took to their garages to form groups of their own?
There’s barely an act from the classic-rock era that doesn’t date the inspiration of their forming from around that time. The Beatles debut excited an entire generation to seek their own voice, either in songs they played or through recognizing music as a key way to understand themselves.
As revolutionary as those days in early February may have been, they didn’t come out of nowhere. The Beatles’ phenomenon had been gaining steam in their native U.K. for over a year, and had already made major inroads in the U.S. before their plane set down.
Admittedly, their earliest efforts in the States weren’t promising. When “She Loves You” came out on Sept. 16th, 1963, it didn’t even make the Billboard chart. Yet Time Magazine made note of the rise of “Beatlemania” in England by November. That same month Ed Sullivan saw for himself the power the boys had at home on a trip over there. It inspired him to book the band for no fewer than three performances the next year.
By late November, Beatles manager Brian Epstein persuaded Capitol Records to risk $40,000 ($250,000 in current dollars) to promote the single “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” based on the boost sure to come from the Sullivan events.
Two weeks after Capitol issued that single, it had sold 1 million copies. By January 17th, it was the No. 1 record in America, followed three days later by the release of their U.S. album debut, “Meet The Beatles.”
Even so, when the group boarded that Pan Am jet bound for JFK they were dubious about their American prospects.
“They’ve got everything over there,” George Harrison said, according to Philip Norman's classic Beatles biography “Shout.”
“What do they want us for?”
The reaction at the airport offered only a hint of just how wrong George was. The crowd that jostled and crammed their way to the terminal flooded more people into the airport than any time before. Famed author Tom Wolf, who was covering the event for the New York Herald Tribune, observed that “some of the girls tried to throw themselves over a retaining wall.”
An animated and playful press conference followed. A typical exchange:
Q: “What do you think of Beethoven?”
RINGO: “Great. Especially his poems.”
The boys were herded into individual limos (one for each Beatle) and ushered to the Plaza Hotel at 5th Ave. and Central Park South. All along the route, DJ Murray the K offered a running commentary on their whereabouts over the radio, like he was reporting live from D Day.
Two days later, on Sunday the 9th, The Beatles performed five songs live on TV, including “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” “She Loves You,” and the show-tune standard “ ’Til There Was You.” On the 11th, the band gave its first U.S. concert, at the Washington Coliseum, before returning to New York to play Carnegie Hall on the 12th and 13th.
A second Beatles appearance on Sullivan’s show — on Feb. 16th, live from the Deauville Hotel in Miami — attracted some 70 million viewers.
Kane, who attended that show, was struck by how well they played. “In person they were astounding,” he says. “They could sound just like the records.”
By Feb. 22nd, the band was back in the U.K., not to return to the U.S. until August. No matter. They had already insured their legend. During the week of April 4, 1964, the Beatles held the first five slots on the Billboard Singles chart. Their impact created such a demand for music from their homeland, that, by the summer of ’64, the British Invasion was in full bloom. One third of all U.S. Top Ten hits of the year were by British acts, from The Dave Clark Five to Billy J. Kramer to Gerry & The Pacemakers. Later came The Animals, The Rolling Stones, Petula Clark, The Troggs, Freddie and the Dreamers and more. For the next six years, The Beatles dominated pop culture, dictating new styles and sounds, innovating until the end. Even their break-up with the new decade, in 1970, hardly diminished their impact. Their approach to melody, production, and to style kept influencing and inspiring new generations to come. It still does.
Never was that more clear than this past October 9th, during a Beatles-related encounter in another part of Queens, mere miles from their initial JFK touchdown. To promote his latest album, Paul McCartney made an appearance at the Frank Sinatra High School of Music. He performed before several hundred teenagers, five decades removed from the ones that gaped and swooned for those Sullivan shows. Their reaction mirrored their forebears exactly, screaming with abandon as McCartney played songs from “Eight Days A Week” to “Hey Jude,” with amazing verisimilitude.
15-year-old Alexus Getzelman of College Point told the News she first knew The Beatles’ music from her parents. She has since downloaded much of it herself from iTunes. “We all know the songs,” Getzelman said of her generation. “And we all love them just as much.”