It was 50 years ago today.
Long before Sgt. Pepper taught the band to play, back when the idea of a rock band driving any fans into any sort of mania seemed ridiculous, The Beatles turned America upside down on Feb. 9, 1964, when they made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
“That night changed everything,” says Billy Joel, one of countless musicians who was inspired to join a band after seeing The Beatles that night. “I saw them and said, ‘I want to do that.’”
Some argue that Beatlemania began that night — as the Fab Four performed “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You” and “She Loves You” over the sound of screaming girls. Some argue that it actually started days earlier, when the band first touched down on American soil at the recently renamed John F. Kennedy Airport, as the news media covered the wild reaction of fans, which, in turn, led 73 million Americans to tune in to the Sullivan show.
What’s important at this point, though, isn’t when Beatlemania started, but the fact that it hasn’t ended.
“The point is that they’re still here,” says Penelope Rowlands, author of “The Beatles Are Here!,” which collects the remembrances of the band’s American arrival from nearly every angle — from fans, including Rowlands herself as well as Joel, to those who were there, including DJ “Cousin Brucie” Morrow and reporter Gay Talese. “The story of The Beatles isn’t just the moment they came. It’s that they’ve endured. I don’t think there’s a cultural equivalent to them.”
Of course, there are plenty of ways The Beatles are unparalleled. The band has sold 106 million albums in America alone, the most of any artist in the 20th century. It holds the record for the most No. 1 singles on the Billboard charts with 20 and the most No. 1 albums with 19.
However, it’s The Beatles’ cultural impact that remains the most impressive. Though fandom today is much more easily quantified in Twitter followers or YouTube views as one generation of boy bands after another — from New Kids on the Block to Backstreet Boys to One Direction — walk in The Beatles’ footsteps, the level of mania doesn’t come close.
In part, it was because of the era when they arrived, a dark time in America after the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. “My daughter went through her childhood desperately waiting for her generation’s equivalent of The Beatles to show up,” critic Joe Queenan writes in an essay for Rowlands’ book. “They never showed up. The Backstreet Boys and ‘N Sync showed up instead ... The arrival of The Beatles was the first time I felt that the world might belong to me.”
It’s a feeling Rowlands, who was captured mid-scream in a photo for The New York Times, and so many others shared. She says that when she started writing about The Beatles, she wanted to capture “what it had meant, what they meant, what it was like in my room with all the pictures.”
“Obviously, I was not alone in this obsession,” she says. “I thought the only authority I have to do this book was that photo. If you’re going to do a book on The Beatles, you’re going to go to (music writer) Greil Marcus first. But as I talked to people about this project, I gained confidence. I had lots of memories. I loved them, and I screamed. I could talk about their impact on us.”
WE LOVE THEM, YA YA YA: TOP 10 BEATLES SONGS
Based on the music’s popularity, importance and quality, here are the Top 10 Beatles songs as chosen by Newsday music critic Glenn Gamboa, reporter David J. Criblez and Entertainment Editor Andy Edelstein.
1. “Hey Jude” (1968): Paul McCartney originally wrote “Hey Jules” as a song to cheer up John Lennon’s son, Julian, as his parents divorced. But it became an uplifting anthem for the turbulent end of the ‘60s, as people tried to take their sad songs and make them better. “Hey Jude,” the band’s first single on their own Apple Records label, became The Beatles’ biggest American hit, staying at No. 1 for nine weeks.
2. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (1964): Lyrically, they were still writing and thinking like teenagers as they sought out hand-holding. Sonically, though, they were building something revolutionary, something new and exciting that even built the screaming that was destined to follow them into the song’s verses.
3. “A Day in the Life” (1967): John Lennon actually sounds haunted when he opens the song with “I read the news today, oh, boy.” There was so much worry and dread then that the paper could cause despair, but as they work through the day, they find ways to cope. The middle part, where McCartney sings a bouncy ode to a regular workday that ends with a smoke, is the counterpoint to Lennon’s despair. And it wins out in the end.
4. “Yesterday” (1965): The Beatles’ most-recognizable song and its most-covered composition came to McCartney in a dream, where the lyrics were “S greatest of the 20th century. That McCartney, who recorded the song just before his 23rd birthday, could conjure up such feecrambled eggs, oh, my baby, how I love your legs.” Sure, the lyrics had to change, but his feelings of loss and regret at his young age only proved how quickly the band was progressing as artists.
5. “Something” (1969): The beauty of this George Harrison composition is in its lack of specifics. He can’t really pin down anything. He gets the most excited about declaring, “I don’t know!” But his love permeates the entire song so thoroughly that it’s easy to see why it became one of the most-covered songs in The Beatles’ catalog.
6. “She Loves You” (1964): It was the chart-topping tipping point for Beatlemania in England. Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!
7. “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” (1968): The achingly beautiful song is a rarity for several reasons, including the guest appearance of Eric Clapton and the fact that it was written by George Harrison.
8. “I Saw Her Standing There” (1964): The brilliance of the Lennon-McCartney song is in the opening couplet. “You know what I mean” divided the world into two camps — the ones who did and were ready to dance through the night and hold each other tight and the ones who didn’t.
9. “Help!” (1965): The title track to The Beatles’ second movie really was a cry for help — an incredibly catchy one. Though the movie plays as a comedic race to save Ringo Starr from getting sacrificed by a cult, the song talks of how Beatlemania made life tougher, especially for Lennon.
10. “Let It Be” (1970): It started out as a personal pep talk as Paul McCartney sings of “times of trouble,” as the band self-destructed, and having a comforting vision of his mother, Mary. But “Let It Be’s” message of acceptance and faith has provided far more universal inspiration to generations of fans.