How the Beatles Went Viral: Blunders, Technology & Luck Broke the Fab Four in America

The Beatles arrive at Kennedy Airport for the first time from London for a 10-day tour on February 7, 1964 in New York City, New York.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Six weeks is all it took for the Liverpool foursome to go from unknowns to the biggest pop stars in the USA. Here's an exhaustive look at how it happened

Consider the following: At the end of 1963, virtually no one in America had heard of the Beatles. Yet on Feb. 9, 1964, they drew the largest TV audience in history-73 million viewers-when they appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show." How could such a conquest have occurred so quickly? I once asked my friend Lenny Kaye that question, and he answered: "Everybody was ready for the '60s to begin." There's some truth to that, but of course there's much more to the story. The explosion of the Beatles in America was the result of combined forces-artistic, social and technological-as well as persistence, showbiz rivalries and more than a bit of luck. So how did it happen that the Beatles came out of nowhere to become the biggest cultural sensation ever, in six weeks?

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Of course the Beatles didn't really come out of nowhere. They came out of England. And England was where the frenzy that was Beatlemania began. Unlike its blitzkrieg-like arrival in America, Britain's obsession with the Beatles emerged during the course of nearly a year. The band was huge locally in its native Liverpool, even before the group had begun to make records. After the Beatles signed to EMI's Parlophone label, a series of singles appeared beginning in late 1962: "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You"-each a bigger hit than the previous one. The first whispers of mass hysteria wafted out of the north of England in late spring, just as Please Please Me moved into the No. 1 position on the U.K. chart, a spot that a succession of Beatles albums would hold for almost a year.

With the Beatles touring relentlessly, the screaming girls, the frenzied chase scenes, the whole carnival spread steadily, town by town. In late August, the band released its biggest hit yet-"She Loves You," which became the all-time best-selling single by a U.K. act.

Pop hadn't been a subject to which the major newspapers paid much attention. In fact, it took John Lennon's involvement in a fistfight at a birthday party for Paul McCartney in June to garner the band its first national headline: "Beatle In Brawl-Sorry I Socked You" read the back page banner of the Daily Mirror.

But by late summer of 1963, the press couldn't have been more eager for the story of four young outsiders from the hinterlands who had the power to arouse young British womanhood to heights of hysteria. In the wake of the Profumo sex scandal (at that moment in the midst of bringing down the government) and concurrent revelations of outrageous sexual escapades involving Britain's upper crust, the U.K. press were newly fascinated by, and emboldened in covering, sexually charged topics. This new raciness, the precursor to Britain's subsequent sex-crazed tabloid press, found an eager audience with the British public. The Times of London opined: "On the island where the subject has long been taboo in polite society, sex has exploded into the national consciousness and national headlines." Stories about the Beatles craze, a phenomenon viewed as overtly sexual (and rightly so), became a daily presence in the tabloids.

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At first, the press took a bemused stance. In September, the Daily Mirror ran a story about the Beatles headlined "Four Frenzied Little Lord Fauntleroys." But then, on Oct. 13, the frenzy hit London itself: The Beatles appeared that evening on Val Parnell's "Sunday Night at the London Palladium," the biggest TV variety show in the country, and thousands of screaming fans descended on the venue, closing off streets and clashing with the police for hours. Coincidentally, on that same day the Daily Mirror coined the term "Beatlemania" to describe a similar scene at the band's concert the previous day in Cheltenham. (The term itself was a play on Lisztomania, the 1840s frenzy that had accompanied the concerts of Franz Liszt.) It wasn't long before the more serious broadsheets were weighing in with pseudo-psychological analyses. The Sunday Times of London got straight to the point, quoting a young girl who answered a BBC interviewer's question regarding why she screamed at the mere mention of the group by confessing, "It's not something I could say on the radio."

CAPITOL TO THE BEATLES: 'DEAD IN THE WATER'

Meanwhile, America was oblivious to what was transpiring across the ocean. Throughout 1963, Capitol Records, which as a sister EMI-owned label held the U.S. rights to Parlophone's product, showed no interest in the band. This was largely due to the tastes of the man in charge of the label's international A&R, Dave Dexter, whose responsibilities included sifting through EMI's international product searching for potential U.S. hits. Capitol's track record in international A&R was quite good: In June 1963, for example, it released a record from EMI Japan titled "Sukiyaki" by Kyu Sakamoto that went to No. 1. But rock'n'roll was American music-Capitol already had the Beach Boys-and no English act had ever sustained a career as a U.S. hitmaker.

Besides, Dexter just didn't like rock. A 20-year veteran of the label who had joined Capitol shortly after it was founded, he'd condemned rock'n'roll as "juvenile and maddeningly repetitive" in an internal memo several years earlier, decrying a music biz increasingly driven by the tastes of children. Dexter's preferences ran toward jazz, and he'd had a good run signing Peggy Lee, Nat "King" Cole and Stan Kenton.

The first two No. 1 Beatles singles that Parlophone offered to Capitol, "Please Please Me" and "From Me to You," were turned down by Dexter and licensed instead to Chicago independent label Vee-Jay Records, whose attorney Paul Marshall happened to be EMI's U.S. attorney as well. Vee-Jay might have been a good home for the Beatles, as it was having considerable success at the time with the Four Seasons, another Marshall client. But by early 1963, the label was short of funds due to its president, Ewart Abner, having dug into Vee-Jay's operating budget in order to cover personal Las Vegas gambling losses.

Upon Vee-Jay's February 1963 release of "Please Please Me," Dick Biondi-a DJ at top 40 WLS Chicago and a friend of Abner's-became the first DJ to play a Beatles record in the United States. Due primarily to airplay on Biondi's show, the song (mistakenly credited to "The Beattles" on the 45 label and in trade ads) made it to No. 35 at WLS in March, although it didn't chart nationally.

By late May, when Vee-Jay released the Beatles' next single, "From Me to You," Biondi had been fired by WLS. He was back on-air a month later at KRLA Los Angeles. Although no longer working in Vee-Jay's hometown, he continued to be supportive of the label's Beatles releases, and by the end of June convinced KRLA to add "From Me to You" to its playlist, even though the record hadn't gotten any national traction in the month since its release. The song charted for six weeks on KRLA's survey in July and August, peaking at No. 33, which was enough to crack Billboard's Bubbling Under Singles chart, where it reached No. 116. Still, it had sold fewer than 15,000 singles by the end of 1963.

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Faring slightly better with "From Me to You" was American rocker Del Shannon, who had toured with the Beatles in England that spring. Shannon's version spent four weeks on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at No. 77 in July and marking the first appearance of a Lennon-McCartney song on the Hot 100. Shannon's cover may have eliminated any chance of the Beatles' original spreading nationally off of Biondi's support. A letter from the PD of KXOK St. Louis to George ­Harrison's sister Louise-who lived in Benton, Ill., and had been trying to drum up support for her brother's band-cited the station's earlier support for Shannon's single as reason for not playing the Beatles' version.

Meanwhile, Abner was dismissed from his post at Vee-Jay when his malfeasance was discovered. This aroused the suspicion of Marshall, who quit as Vee-Jay's attorney, opting to cast his lot with EMI. In August Marshall, acting on behalf of EMI's U.S. licensing agent Transglobal, accused Vee-Jay of non-payment of royalties, ordered Vee-Jay to cease and desist in distributing the Beatles' music and revoked the label's options for future singles. Total royalties owed on Beatles sales at that point were less than $1,000, but Vee-Jay wasn't particularly bothered about losing the unsuccessful band. The label was far more concerned with Marshall's efforts to get the Four Seasons out of their Vee-Jay contract, also for failure to pay royalties, which he successfully did.

At the same time, "She Loves You" was beginning its record-breaking as­cent on the U.K. chart and, having canceled the Vee-Jay deal, Marshall approached Dave Dexter at Capitol with the hot new single. In spite of British buzz growing to deafening levels, Dexter turned down the Beatles yet again, reasoning that the Vee-Jay flops proved he was right to have passed on them in the first place. "Dead in the water" was how he described the band's U.S. prospects.

Transglobal licensed "She Loves You" to a tiny indie, Swan Records of Philadelphia, which released it stateside on Sept. 16. Swan had even less success with the Beatles than Vee-Jay: The song failed to chart at any station, and was roundly rejected by audiences when it was played at all. DJ Murray the K at WINS New York spun "She Loves You" on Sept. 28 in a five-way "battle of the hits," where it came in third. He continued to play it every night for a week solid, but got no reaction. Swan convinced "American Bandstand," which broadcast from the label's hometown, to play the song in its "Rate a Record" segment, where it received a score of 73 out of 100. Worse, the teens on "Bandstand" laughed when host Dick Clark held up a photo of the moptopped Beatles. After that incident, Clark recalled, "I figured these guys were going nowhere."

On the same September day that Swan released "She Loves You," Harrison came to the States to visit his sister in Illinois, where he remained totally anonymous. Louise took her brother to a radio station in West Frankfurt, Ill., that had played "From Me to You" at her urging. The station spun a copy of "She Loves You" that Harrison had brought with him, and he was interviewed on-air by the 17-year-old daughter of the station owner, all to no discernible listener response. And when Harrison jammed with a local band called the Four Vests, playing '50s rock songs at a dance, no one even thought to ask for his autograph. (Perhaps the most productive thing he did while in Illinois was purchase an album by R&B artist James Ray, which included "Got My Mind Set on You." Harrison's cover of the song would become the last No. 1 Hot 100 hit to date by any Beatle when it topped the summit nearly 25 years later.) Harrison returned to England feeling despondent about the Beatles' chances in America.

GO TO PAGE 2: WINNING OVER ED SULLIVAN

 

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