Gripping 'Beatlemania'

Gripping 'Beatlemania'

The year 1964 catapulted four dashing young men from London, who called themselves The Beatles, to a cult status in the world of music. Fifty years on, their music is as popular as ever, writes ajoy Alexander.

Crying, shouting and screaming teenage girls running amok, launching themselves against a hundred-strong police force... Could this be mass psychosis or social disorder, or both?

Actually, it was a phenomenon known as ‘Beatlemania’.

Beatlemania unofficially began 50 years ago, when The Beatles did a transatlantic jump and landed in America in February 1964. Till this time, they were just another popular club-performing boy band in jolly old England. But after their appearance on the American television programme The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, they became instant international music celebrities.

For a long time, during the early 1960s, The Beatles were local lovable heroes with a strong fan following. Picture yourself in the Cavern Club in Liverpool with a new breed of rebels and a new brand of music. In other words, if you had been a regular patron of this warehouse-turned-nightclub, you would have seen four dashing young men entertain and enthrall audiences week after week with their unique music. While other young bands were performing cover songs of popular musicians, The Beatles had the audacity to write and play their own songs.

But the early life of The Beatles was uncertain and tumultuous. For example, there was a procession of band members who stayed for short stints before walking out or being kicked out. Bass guitarists Stuart Sutcliffe and Chas Newby and drummers Pete Best and Johnny Hutchinson were all part of The Beatles at one time or the other. Till finally, by trial and error, the Fab Four line-up came together... and the rest was history.

Original compositions

John, Paul, George and Ringo were neat looking and great sounding, their strengths being their original compositions and harmonious singing. But, quite soon, their adoring audiences realised that these boys could handle their assorted instruments quite well (though critics have often said that the band could have found a better drummer than Ringo Starr). As the band’s popularity grew in England, it was only a matter of time before they stepped into the international spotlight.

But their path to global fame was initially blocked by a few technical difficulties. The British record company, EMI Music, had grabbed The Beatles in June 1962, while they were still relatively unknown. After a few hit singles, the band felt that they were ready for their next step, to get introduced to America. But EMI’s American subsidiary, Capitol Records, blocked their ambitions by refusing to release their music in the US. Brian Epstein, the band’s hard-working manager, desperately negotiated with independent record labels Vee-Jay and Swan.

As a result, a few of their singles were released in America, yet some legal troubles regarding royalties and publishing rights prevented the proper marketing of the band in the US.

But Epstein was not asleep. He arranged for a huge $40,000 marketing campaign, while enlisting the help of American disc jockeys. Special thanks should go to DJ Carrol James, who introduced the band to America on his radio show. By the end of 1963, radios from New York to Los Angeles, and all places in-between, were tuned to the tunes of The Beatles. Fans demanded more Beatles, and Capitol Records, caught unawares, rush-released I Want To Hold Your Hand. Within a few weeks, by mid-January 1964, this single sold a million copies and rose to the number one spot on the charts.

In February 1964, The Beatles took America by surprise. On February 7, the band landed at New York’s John F Kennedy Airport as thousands of screaming, roaring fans welcomed them.

And two days later, musical history was made. The Beatles performed live on US television on The Ed Sullivan Show, watched by an estimated 73 million viewers, about 34 per cent of the American population, making this a landmark television event in American history. Though the media was critical of their sudden success, their first US concert on February 9 at the Washington Coliseum saw an unprecedented explosion of emotion among fans, which could only be described as ‘Beatlemania’. Though Elvis had previously enjoyed a fanatic fan following, thanks to his hip shakes and pelvic gyrations, the Beatle experience was something the world had never seen before.

Back on the show

The Beatles were back in New York the next day, performing two shows at the famed Carnegie Hall with continued support from crazed fans and music lovers. By popular demand, they were brought back to The Ed Sullivan Show a second time, and again, about 70 million viewers saw them perform on television.

Fans had already realised that this was no ordinary band, and the world caught on soon enough. Their talent and virtuosity became obvious within a few years, when their music left behind straight ‘n’ simple tunes like Love Me Do and evolved into a more classical style, exemplified by the orchestral arrangements in the ‘Abbey Road’ album. They were probably the earliest musicians to import classical music structures into pop songs.

Fab Four

The Beatles soon became a global cultural phenomenon, defining not only the sound but also the look, style and lifestyle of their generation. They started out with leather clothes and greasy hair, graduated to sharp suits and shaggy hair and went on to more colourful contemporary fashions and longish hairstyles. Magazines featured every little Beatle fad or fashion on their colourful covers. And fans followed their every move, sporting Beatle haircuts, wearing Beatle clothes, donning Beatle sunglasses, walking in Beatle boots, and faithfully imitating the life and times of The Beatles in every way.

Hundreds of musicians have done their own renditions of Beatle songs, including some heavyweight names like Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Deep Purple, Billy Joel and Elton John. And even James Bond was not exempt from their magic. The first and best Bond, Sean Connery, loved the song In My Life so much that he recited the lyrics to background music. And let’s not forget The Rutles, a fictional band created by Eric Idle, of Monty Python fame, that parodied the life and music of The Beatles. The Rutles appeared regularly in a British television series and featured in the 1978 mockumentary, All You Need Is Cash. 

The Beatles are not done yet. They continue to enjoy popularity even today, selling more records now than they did when they were together. And people are still flocking to see The Beatles imitation bands. B B King’s restaurant in New York City features a Beatle Brunch every Sunday. And BritBeat, a Beatles tribute band, is all set to elaborately recreate several concerts in 2014 to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the band’s invasion of America.

This month, February 2014, which commemorates the 50th anniversary of one of the most historic moments in music and television, a mini-wave of Beatlemania is all set to take off in America. The CBS television channel will present The Night That Changed America — A Grammy Salute To The Beatles. This primetime special will celebrate the legendary seven-time Grammy-winning group and their musical legacy. And all across America, there will be concerts and celebrations focused on the Fab Four.

The Beatles lit a spark and kindled a flame amongst a youthful and powerful counter culture that was emerging against the backdrop of civil rights and anti-war, anti-establishment sentiments. They were part of a new generation that rose up to express itself through political expression, social commentary and contemporary lifestyles. It could truly be said that The Beatles have been the most influential band of all time, because of their effect on music, fashion, culture and society.

The Beatles have given entire generations a ticket to ride on a fantastic musical journey, whether it is the long and winding road to strawberry fields forever or a magical mystery tour across the universe.

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