We are kicking off the celebration in honor of the digitally remastered Beatles reissues set to hit Amoeba September 9! Each Wednesday until September 2, we will present a segment of The Beatles' biography. Then, the week of September 2-9 will be marked here on the blog with a number of Beatles related posts with a huge variety of topics! You can begin with Part One of the fabled band's history if you missed it by clicking right here; then check out last week's Part Two right here. Now, we are on to Part Three:
BEATLEMANIA HITS THE US
It was now Brian Epstein’s job to break The Beatles in America, the world’s largest music market. To date, it had been a frustrating task. Capitol Records, EMI’s American arm, had declined to release the group’s records, pointing to US listeners’ historic indifference to English acts. The band’s material had instead been licensed to American independent labels – Vee-Jay, Swan, and Tollie – without any measurable sales.
But Epstein’s acumen and a propitious confluence of events reversed the band’s stateside fortunes. In November 1963, Epstein convinced Ed Sullivan, host of the top-rated TV variety show in the US, to book The Beatles for four appearances in early 1964, after Sullivan had witnessed a frenzied mob of Beatlemaniacs at London’s Heathrow Airport during a overseas trip.
And, in the wake of President John F. Kennedy’s assassination on Nov. 22, 1963, the group’s music started to get airplay; the upbeat power of The Beatles’ sound connected with still-grieving, novelty-starved young American listeners. DJs in Washington, DC, Chicago, and St. Louis began spinning import copies of the new 45 “I Want to Hold Your Hand” (which had already broken UK records, selling 1 million copies before its release). After initially contemplating cease-and-desist orders, Capitol Records instead officially signed the band, and rush-released the single, backed by a huge promotional push, on the day after Christmas. The Beatles’ music blanketed top 40 radio during the Yuletide lull of 1963. By the third week of January 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had secured the top slot on the U.S. charts. A love affair had begun.
On Feb. 7, 1964, The Beatles arrived at the rechristened Kennedy International Airport in New York for their first US TV and concert appearances. They were greeted by thousands of shrieking, swooning fans (whose madness had been stoked by incessant airplay on New York City’s fiercely competitive top 40 radio stations), and a cordon of teens besieged their Manhattan residence, the sedate Plaza Hotel. Their bow on Sullivan’s show was watched by an estimated 73 million (a record 34% of the viewing public); they played sold-out dates at the Washington, DC Coliseum (where, during an in-the-round show, they were forced to rearrange their own equipment on a recalcitrant revolving stage) and New York’s prestigious Carnegie Hall.
During 1964, The Beatles conquered America as surely as they had England. During one week in April, their singles occupied the top five slots on the US chart (with two Capitol releases and three previously licensed indie 45s); a total of 30 Beatles tracks would reach the singles rolls that year. Four albums – Capitol’s Meet the Beatles, The Beatles’ Second Album, and Something New and Vee-Jay’s Introducing…The Beatles (all 1964), reconfigured versions of their UK LPs – peaked at No. 1 or No. 2. (Following the expiration of Vee-Jay’s license, Capitol reissued Introducing…The Beatles as The Early Beatles in 1965.)
Variant versions of another Beatles album, A Hard Day’s Night (1964), topped the UK and US charts that summer. It was the soundtrack for the quartet’s movie debut, directed by expatriate American Richard Lester (who, like George Martin, was a former collaborator with the comedic Goons). The script was penned by Welsh playwright Alun Owen, who had been raised in Liverpool. The high-energy black-and-white comedy with music, spiced with recent hits and new songs (including the title number, an exclamatory No. 1 single), followed the misadventures of The Beatles, playing themselves, as they attempted to dodge their delirious fans and make a mishap-plagued live TV appearance. The exuberant film cheekily amplified the group members’ well-defined public personae, and inspired critical comparisons to the Marx Brothers. The inexpensively shot feature became the year’s most profitable theatrical release. “A Hard Day’s Night” went on to collect a 1964 Grammy as best performance by a vocal group (and The Beatles, predictably, were named best new artist). The movie’s July release prefaced a fall US tour that climaxed with a sold-out appearance at the Hollywood Bowl (belatedly issued on LP in 1977).
At the start of that tour in August, journalist Al Aronowitz arranged a meeting between The Beatles and Bob Dylan at a New York hotel. Dylan – whose impressionistic folk music would give way within the year to surrealistic rock ‘n’ roll – was already a songwriting role model for the Liverpool musicians (especially Lennon), and his influence would be deeply felt in their music of the next two years. During their meeting, Dylan produced some marijuana; the English performers, who had never smoked it before, soon embraced it as a creative catalyst.
The Beatles moved from strength to commercial strength in 1965. Their British album Beatles For Sale (1965) and its retooled US counterparts Beatles ’65 and Beatles VI (both 1965), all vaulted to No. 1. Their chart-topping singles included “I Feel Fine” (which began with an unprecedented burst of guitar feedback), “Eight Days a Week” (which kicked off with an equally unusual fade-in), and “Ticket to Ride” (a chiming number that bore the influence of America’s Dylan-spawned folk-rock movement).
That summer, "Ticket To Ride" was used in a key sequence in the band’s second feature film, Help! Again directed by Richard Lester, this spoof of contemporary James Bond-styled spy films found The Beatles, again playing themselves, fleeing a group of Eastern cultists in pursuit of a sacrificial ring lodged on hapless Ringo Starr’s finger. Shot in brilliant color on locations in England, Austria, and the Bahamas, this frothy, loosely-scripted picture found less favor with critics, but was still a box-office smash. Its No. 1 soundtrack album included John Lennon’s anguished big-beat title track, a No. 1 single. After a sitar was used as a prop in the film, George Harrison grew fascinated with the multi-stringed Indian instrument; his deepening devotion to Eastern music and spirituality, which led to studies with Indian sitar master Ravi Shankar, would have a far-reaching effect on The Beatles’ development.
In August, George Martin, frustrated by EMI’s refusal to compensate him fairly for his lucrative work, exited the company and formed his own independent production entity, with The Beatles as his first clients.
In September – a month after 55,000 fans packed a Beatles concert at New York’s Shea Stadium -- “Yesterday,” a track from the UK version of Help!, was issued as an American single. The song, which became a much-covered No. 1 hit, was the first Beatles 45 that didn’t feature all four members of the band: McCartney was accompanied on the affecting ballad by a string quartet arranged by George Martin. (The follow-up US odds-and-ends compilation Yesterday…And Today  sparked an uproar: Retailers were offended by its cover photo of The Beatles clad in butcher smocks, surrounded by dismembered dolls and draped with hunks of gory meat. The so-called “butcher block” cover, now a prized collectible, was withdrawn by Capitol in favor of a more innocuous sleeve.)
On Oct. 26, 1965, the members of The Beatles received the Order of the British Empire (MBE), the lowest rung on the English monarchy’s annual honor roll. The move outraged conservative Britons who still found the group little more than a mop-topped annoyance, their contribution to the national economy notwithstanding.
1966-67: REACHING THE PINNACLE
Released just before Christmas 1965, Rubber Soul dominated the charts for much of 1966 in variant American and British versions. It sold a million copies in its first week of US release. Comprising elegantly crafted folk-rock and driving rock ‘n’ roll, it begged to be taken seriously, and audiences sensed that a new chapter in The Beatles' career was beginning. In its English incarnation, its tracks included the striking autobiographical Lennon composition “In My Life,” the Dylanesque “Norwegian Wood” (which featured Harrison’s first studio sortie on sitar), the popular French-inflected ballad “Michelle,” the love-professing “The Word,” and the biting, richly harmonized “Nowhere Man.” It was the first rock album to be considered not as a collection of singles and filler, but as a work that was all of one piece.
As they worked at Abbey Road on sessions for a new single and album in the spring of 1966, The Beatles contemplated their forthcoming tour commitments wearily. After nearly four years of unrelenting Beatlemania, the group had tired of the high-pitched screams that obliterated their music in concert. Their private experimentation since early 1965 with the powerful hallucinogenic drug LSD had led to detailed, densely layered material, and they understood that their new music, with its multitudinous studio effects, could not be replicated with any fidelity on stage. Shortly, events conspired to hasten an end to their career as live performers.
In July – shortly after the release of the storming 45 “Paperback Writer” and its druggy, studio-manipulated flip side “Rain,” supported by short films that prefigured music videos – The Beatles made a stadium appearance in the Phillipines. Their perceived snub of a reception organized by Imelda Marcos, wife of Filipino strongman Ferdinand Marcos, led to a near-riot at the Manila airport that left the group fearing for their lives.
Then, on the eve of The Beatles’ US stadium tour in August, an interview with John Lennon sparked an outbreak of furious controversy. First published in England’s Evening Standard and later excerpted in The New York Times, Lennon’s spontaneous remarks about the waning of organized religion – which included the statement, “Christianity will go…We’re more popular than Jesus now” – had run without comment, but they inflamed a firestorm of criticism when reprinted in the teen magazine Datebook. Lennon offered a half-hearted apology at a press conference as the tour commenced, but hard-core Christians reacted by organizing public burnings of Beatles albums and boycotts of their shows. The dates were marked by threats of violence (to which the band responded by traveling via armored car to their Los Angeles appearance) and a prevailing atmosphere of paranoia. The Beatles played what would be their last concert before a paying audience at San Francisco’s Candlestick Park on August 29.
Revolver (1966) was released as The Beatles commenced their final tour. The product of more than 300 hours of sessions at Abbey Road by a band now free to use the facility virtually at will, it boggled listeners with its complexity and its devotion to experimental techniques. Its songs were elaborated with extravagant studio wizardry that tested the limits of EMI’s technical capabilities with the employment of tape looping, additional instrumentation, and intricate overdubbing.
Its release was prefaced by the album’s startling single “Eleanor Rigby,” an evocative sketch of a lonely woman’s demise, with McCartney’s solo vocal framed by a string octet. The UK LP’s key tracks included Harrison’s caustic “Taxman” and his sitar-driven
“Love You To,” Lennon’s acid-saturated “I’m Only Sleeping” and “Tomorrow Never Knows,” and the sing-along Starr specialty “Yellow Submarine,” which was banned in some quarters for its perceived reference to drugs. As it soared to No. 1, many wondered what The Beatles could do to top such a barrier-busting achievement.
After a three-month layoff, which gave rise to rumors that The Beatles had broken up, the group reconvened to begin work on a new album, which Lennon and McCartney first envisioned as a look back at their Liverpool childhoods. The first tracks completed – recorded and edited, painstakingly, over a period of three months in late 1966 and early 1967 – were “Penny Lane” and “Strawberry Fields Forever,” a matched pair of songs that considered their writers’ old Northern haunts through the veil of memory, gilded with horns, woodwinds, strings, and a panoply of studio effects.
Hungry for new Beatles product, EMI and Capitol released these astonishing tracks as a double-A-sided single in February 1967, to universally stunned acclaim. Now hunting for another concept around which to build an album, The Beatles chose as a framing device a new McCartney number inspired by memories of the provincial concert bands that played in Liverpool when he was a child. The 13-song album – to be released for the first time in uniform U.S. and U.K. editions – would be climaxed by a five-minute track, stitched together from separate contributions by Lennon and McCartney, that resolved itself with a dizzying glissando, played by a hired 40-piece orchestra, and a thunderous end-of-days chord, struck simultaneously on several keyboards.
The climactic song was “A Day in the Life,” generally acknowledged as The Beatles’ creative high-water mark (and banned by the BBC for its supposedly drug-related lyrics). The album, issued on June 1, 1967, was Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. Formulated as a riposte to such ambitious precursors as Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde (1966) and The Beach Boys’ Pet Sounds and “Good Vibrations” (both 1966), it was a zeitgeist-defining work. It contained such enduring creations as “With a Little Help From My Friends,” “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds” (yet another song attacked and banned for purportedly advancing a drug-friendly agenda), “She’s Leaving Home,” and “When I’m 64.” It was honored with Grammy Awards as album of the year and best contemporary album.
Issued at the dawn of ‘67’s psychedelic Summer of Love, Sgt. Pepper – an instantaneous worldwide No. 1 mega-hit – seemed to speak universally. As rock critic Ellen Sander – one of a new breed of musical commentators fresh on the scene that year – noted, “It wafted over the horizon like sweet incense, and its permeation was so complete that everyone who heard it lived it, breathed it, and spoke of little else.” In late June, the group appeared on the international satellite TV show “Our World,” performing their new single and next No. 1 hit, the self-explanatory “All You Need Is Love,” before an audience estimated at 500 million. The Beatles’ conquest of contemporary popular music appeared complete.
...But of course, there's still more to come! Namely, The White Album [The Beatles], Magical Mystery Tour, Let It Be, Abbey Road...so much more! Next Wednesday will commence with disorder, final triumphs, dissolution and in the end...
In the meantime, you can preorder any of The Beatles reissues (p.s., when you do, you'll get a free copy of Paul McCartney's Amoeba's Secret!) and read about staff favorites right here, and you can find out what will be going on in each store on Beatles Day right here! We're gonna have a good time!