This February 7 marks 50 years since The Beatles first came to America. A thousand tributes will tell you what happened. But how and why did it happen the way it did? What was America really like then, culturally and socially, that allowed the group to strike such a deep nerve? And what was it about The Beatles themselves—their backgrounds, their style, and of course their music—that made them so unlike anything Americans had seen before?
In his new e-book Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now, Michael Tomasky explains the group’s impact in the context of the times in a richly detailed, often surprising, I-never-knew-that! account of why they became the phenomenon they did. Kurt Andersen says of Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: “This book was a revelation. No one has more lucidly and entertainingly distilled the whys and hows and look and feel of the moment the Sixties began.”
If there’s one idea on which humanity doesn’t need to be sold, it’s that The Beatles were good. But I say, as we approach the 50th anniversary of their arrival in America, we need to be reminded of what precisely it was that made them great. Because that gets lost as the years pass. The story gets reduced to its most threadbare clichés. Tributes on television are scrunched into ever-shorter segments. A clip of them performing in 1964 or ’65 appears on VH1 for about four seconds; to a young person watching today, they must look as quaint as an old ladies’ baking society. Without a proper discussion of the social and cultural contexts in which the group first appeared, it’s impossible to understand why they had the impact they did, and why, half a century later, they still hover over the culture the way they do.
The America that existed in early 1964 was a society that was changing, starting to boil, that was ready for… something; a volcano spitting out little bursts of lava, the townspeople watching nervously below, waiting for the event that would come along to trigger the big eruption. In demography and technology and publishing and film and science and politics, the things that became the enormous changes that we now call “The Sixties” were tentatively getting their new clothes on. But in pop music, not so much; after the raucous mid-’50s, the industry softened itself. Of course there was great and interesting music coming out in 1962 and 1963, out of Detroit and Memphis and Chicago; but for the most part, the music that dominated the charts was candied, bleached of anything that might produce in its pubescent listener an impertinent or certainly a sexual thought.
And then, in February 1964, boom. Here were these people who looked and acted and sounded completely unlike anything that anyone had ever seen or heard. The sound was totally new—so full of joy and excitement, and, by the standards of the day (and this is an important and extremely underappreciated point), loud. Most “serious” people dismissed them at first, but a few, like Leonard Bernstein, knew from the start: This was a radical departure.
The Beatles did two big things. First, they popularized—I’d even say they basically invented—the rock’n’roll two-electric guitar sound. That fundamental rock’n’roll line-up—guitars, bass, drums, emulated millions of times—comes from them. Second, they broke down the wall between teen music and adult music, a wall that had been insuperable until then. And not just with Sgt. Pepper—from the start.
And knocking down that wall was crucial, because once it happened, all sorts of other stuff started happening, too. Once the audience for this music wasn’t limited to teenagers, it started to gain recognition as “art”; and once that happened, it began to influence other modes of cultural expression, giving birth to a new sensibility that started out in the musical empire and spread to film and literature and other cultural realms. From there these new attitudes—which, make no mistake, were anti-authority—fused with politics, where they linked arms with a nascent political consciousness among young people that in turn produced a whole new set of political demands and grievances. All that would have taken place without the music, but it would have unfolded a lot more slowly and placidly and boringly than it did.
At bottom, The Sixties were about personal liberation. We take that freedom as a given now. Today, there’s no turning back the clock on individuality, sexuality, the freedom to be who you are without worrying that society will find a way to punish you because you’re gay or eccentric or interested in a life that’s different from your parents’.
This is a revolution in human history; a personal and cultural revolution arguably more profound and far-reaching than most political ones. And in the scheme of things, it’s quite new. That your average person even had a “self” to express was hardly recognized for centuries. For most of history, most people just worked, feared God’s wrath, raised their children, and died. This started to change, for a lucky few, in the wild 1920s. Depression and war slowed the process, and necessarily so, because defeating fascism required a subordination of self-fulfillment and devotion to the greater good of beating Hitler. But after the war was won, that urge that had gestated in the ’20s re-emerged. Rock’n’roll was born in the ’50s, but the ’50s were also a time of strict social mores, so it really wasn’t until the ’60s that society began to recognize young peoples’ rights to self-expression and joy. Much of society, of course, still resists this recognition, and this cultural clash is the basis for some of our most divisive political fights. But on the whole, the side of liberation is winning.
I do not claim that The Beatles alone made this freedom a reality. That would be absurd. I would say, though, that it started to become a reality on a mass scale and across class and even previously unbendable racial lines, in the ’60s. And that it became reality most meaningfully, among all human media and all forms of creative expression, through the music. And that the music was turned on its head in February 1964, when young Americans first started hearing these sounds on the radio—exotic, sexual, full of climaxes and screams—they’d never heard before. It made them think: This is different. This is an earthquake. The earthquake’s tremors continue. You should want to know where, when, and how they started.
Tomorrow: The pre-Beatles music scene; why and when the LP record was invented; Dylan and the folk boom; Mary Poppins and Alan Sherman; Bobby Vinton and The Singing Nun.
You can buy Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now, by clicking here.