50 years of Beatlemania

History and hysteria: Marking five decades since the Fab Four first touched down in the United States.

The Beatles encapsulated the birth of pop culture with their first visit to the United States [Al Jazeera]
The Beatles encapsulated the birth of pop culture with their first visit to the United States [Al Jazeera]

New York, United States of America – If the Beatles really were more popular than Jesus, as John Lennon once famously said, then this would be the second coming.

Four lads from Liverpool landed at New York’s John F Kennedy airport to a reception of screaming fans on Friday, recreating the Beatles’ first visit to the United States, 50 years ago. Sure, these lads were actually members of the cover band, “The Cavern Beatles”. And the fans were much older than the hysterical hordes of young women who swarmed the plane back in 1964.

Nonetheless, this event – and the host of other activities taking place to mark the anniversary – are a tribute to the enduring appeal of the band and its tunes.

Beatles fans mark 50 years of first US visit

“You can see them now and appreciate the music,” explained Erica Macpherson, who travelled across the country from Oregon to attend the event.

“But then it was just like a lightning bolt, like getting struck.”

Gillian L’Eplattenier was a stewardess on the Beatles’ original Pan Am flight. She said John, Paul, George and Ringo couldn’t sit still.

“It was mostly: ‘Excuse me guys, could you sit down so we can do the cart service? Okay, we’re coming through, you’d better sit down’.”

That’s probably because the band was thrilled to be visiting the place that was home to their musical influences, from Chuck Berry to Elvis, to Buddy Holly.

The display at the New York Public Library for Performing
Arts includes the band’s instruments [NYPLPA]

“New York was jumping, and we were jumping that we landed in New York, in America,” Beatles drummer Ringo Starr told Al Jazeera’s Michael Shure:

“There’s nothing more far-out than that, because of all the music we loved. And we were in our twenties anyway. We were all lads. [It] was incredible. I’ve said it before: We felt even on the plane that New York was pulling us down.”

Irene Katz was another of the screaming fans who greeted the band in 1964. She was 13 years old when she and a friend decided to sneak out of their house to go to New York’s Plaza Hotel, where the Fab Four were staying.

Black and white footage from the time shows her smiling and jumping up and down with a sign that reads: “Elvis is dead, long live the Beatles.” 
“We had seen the Beatles on TV and fell in love with them,” she said. “The lyrics were good, the beat was good – it was new, it was fresh, it was different.”

The Beatles were already so popular in Europe that the British press had coined the phrase “Beatlemania”. And it didn’t take long for the United States to follow suit.

“They literally took over America in the space of days,” said Beatles historian Martin Lewis. “In an era before the internet, they went viral.”

Martin points out that, with the country still recovering from the shock of the assassination of President John F Kennedy, the antics of these cheeky young men proved the perfect antidote to the melancholy which had gripped much of the nation.

“Suddenly, along come the Beatles with exuberant charm and optimism and it gave people a chance to smile again,” said Lewis.

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At the time, the media focused more on the band’s style than its music: the “mop top” haircuts and “Beatle boots”. An exhibit currently on display at the New York Public Library for Performing Arts contains photos and artifacts from their first US tour in 1964, including magazine covers and one of Paul’s jackets. There’s even a display set up to look like a typical teenager’s room from the time, complete with Beatles posters and albums.

Other events will also mark the anniversary. The Fest for Beatles Fans includes three days of panel discussions and Beatles memorabilia displays.

On Sunday, US television network CBS will air a 90-minute special entitled “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America – a Grammy Salute”.

On that date in 1964, the group made their first appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show”. The group played five songs in a set that was watched by 74 million viewers. To this day it is one of the biggest events in music and television history.

“The Beatles expanded the boundaries of what was possible in music,” said Lewis. “By 1966 they were creating music nobody had ever envisioned.”

It is the music, of course, that has kept the Beatles relevant all of these years – and likely will continue to do so for years to come.

Follow Kristen Saloomey on Twitter: @KSaloomey

Source: Al Jazeera

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