‘You’ve Got to Be Kidding’: Why Adults Dismissed The Beatles in 1964
Despite The Beatles ruling the pop charts, the general posture of the adult world, in early 1964, was a kind of dismissive indulgence. Boy, were they wrong. Read the third of four short excerpts from Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now. You can order the book, for $5.99, here.
In this third excerpt from Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!: The Beatles and America, Then and Now, Michael Tomasky talks Ed Sullivan and charts and the amazingly condescending highbrow reaction to the group.
You can buy Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by clicking here.
The first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show happened on February 9. The numbers on that first show are still staggering: More than one-third of the country watched—73 million people, in a nation then of 191 million. The equivalent today would be 100 or 105 million people watching something. That is true only of Super Bowls, typically viewed by 110 to 120 million Americans now. The M*A*S*H finale in 1983 is still tops, percentage-wise; it got nearly half the country, 106 million out of 234 million. But outside of those two examples, nothing else quite stacks up, 50 years later.
On February 21, after two more Sullivan shows and concerts in Washington and New York, the group flew home. By then they had the two top spots on the singles chart. By February 29, they had numbers one, two, and six. On March 7, one, two, and four. On March 14, one, two, and three. On March 21, one, two, three, and seven. On March 28, one, two, three, and four. Then came the release of a new song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” and on April 4, the group claimed the top five spots on the Billboard singles charts, which had never happened before and has never happened since.
The album charts told a similar story. On February 1, The Singing Nun was at the top. The next week, Meet the Beatles! was at #3, and finally, on February 15, it hit #1. It stayed there for 11 weeks. It was dislodged by The Beatles’ Second Album, which stayed #1 for five more weeks. On May 2, the group held three of the top four album spots. The fever finally broke in early June—until late July, when A Hard Day’s Night came out and nailed down the top spot for 14 more weeks, into late October. So 30 of the 52 weeks of 1964 had a Beatles album at the top of the charts.
We’re all familiar with pop-culture crazes—Gangnam style, the Harlem Shake. The Beatles craze of 1964 in America was treated very like those at first, as an inexplicable but more or less harmless influenza that would pass. And of course this flu spread only among teens, because it was understood then that this kind of “music” was purely for the hormone-sprouters.
The idea that this was all potentially quite subversive wouldn’t really take root for another year or two. So the general posture of the adult world, in early 1964, was a kind of dismissive indulgence. In those days, The New York Times did not write about this sort of falderal; neither did The New Yorker or any other serious magazine. “Music” was classical music, jazz, and Broadway.
The Times made one exception to its rule about what constituted music in this single high-profile case—Theodore Strongin, one of the paper’s music critics, filed a 324-word report on February 10 that attempted (although not really) to take the group seriously as music. He tossed around words and phrases like “diatonic” and “pandiatonic” and “Mixolydian mode” before delivering verdicts like: “The Beatles’s vocal quality can be described as hoarsely incoherent, with the minimal enunciation necessary to communicate the schematic texts.”
The serious magazines felt similarly behooved to weigh in, also largely to sneer. Read today, the pieces are deeply embarrassing. The New Yorker’s Anthony Hiss, who would write for the magazine for 30-plus years and produce some of its loveliest pieces, penned a Talk of the Town ditty in the voice of a teenage boy named Hiram, who followed the group around New York and concluded that they were “worth listening to, even if they aren’t as good as the Everly Brothers, which they really aren’t.”
The Nation’s correspondent was far harsher. Under the headline “No Soul in Beatlesville,” Alan Rinzler observed, correctly, that the group came “pure and unadulterated from the early 1950s, the simple, halcyon days of rock’n’roll” (typified, he wrote, by acts like Bill Haley, Elvis, and the “Eberle” Brothers). Oddly, he did not intend this as praise. The music, he wrote, was “amplified to a plaster-crumbling, glass-shattering pitch” and, on top of that, was “loud, fast, and furious, totally uninfluenced by some of the more sophisticated elements” of the then-current pop scene. Rinzler concluded that while the group’s members themselves were not without their charms, the music was “vapid” and “Beatlemania as a phenomenon is manna for dull minds.”
Cultural arbiters weren’t the only serious people to weigh in. It was demanded of psychologists that they declaim on all that screaming and its meaning. A New Zealand social scientist named A.J.W. Taylor looked into the matter. In the wake of the group’s appearance in Wellington in June 1964, Taylor rounded up 346 “subjects” who’d gone to the concert and gave them a series of psychological tests in an attempt to divine whether there were traits peculiar to the adolescent fan that made her or him behave that way. He published his (presumably peer-reviewed!) results in the British Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology in 1966. He found, perhaps reassuringly, that “there was no evidence from the Hysteria Scale of the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory to support the popular opinion that the enthusiasts were hysterics, and there was no supporting clinical evidence for the neuroticism that was marked on the Maudsley Scale.” The “younger and immature” females were the most enthusiastic, he reported, and the older girls less responsive, which gave hope that “the enthusiasts themselves may grow through their stage of immaturity.”
Tomorrow: Technical but accessible: why the music was so unlike anything that had come before it. You can buy Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! by clicking here.