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

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After the band's performance on "Sunday Night at the London Palladium" on Oct. 13, the tabloid press hysteria in the United Kingdom reached a fever pitch, and the American press began to take notice. On Oct. 29, the Washington Post published the first U.S. story on the phenomenon, written by London correspondent Flora Lewis. Titled "Thousands Of Britons 'Riot,'" the story reported on the need for riot squads to calm the crowds in four British cities where the band had recently played. Lewis' article was dismissive of the music (declaring that the beat was the same "over and over"), and she compared the Beatles' look to "limp, upside-down dust mops."

Britain got a respite from the madness for a few days in late October while the band toured Sweden. Upon their return on Oct. 31, the Beatles were met at a rainy London Airport by more than 1,000 screaming fans. The New York Times reported that even the sound of the taxiing jets was no match for the screams of the crowd. Ed Sullivan, also at London Airport that day, assumed the ruckus was for a member of the British Royal Family. When informed it was for the Beatles, he asked, "Who the hell are the Beatles?" Sullivan, a former gossip columnist, had a nose for a good story and something about the scene reminded him of the early days of Elvis Presley, whom he had famously presented on his variety show years earlier. He began to contemplate booking the Beatles, perhaps as a novelty act.

On Nov. 4, the Beatles performed as part of the Royal Variety Performance at the London Palladium. In the British press, it was the moment they morphed from the objects of a barbarous throng's coarse obsession into lovable moptops. As with all acts on the bill at the annual charity event, the Beatles performed at the invitation of Queen Elizabeth, although the Queen herself stayed home that evening, pregnant with Prince Edward. The Queen Mother, best-loved of the Royal Family, was in attendance, however, and was reported to have been clapping along on the off beat during the Beatles' set, while Princess Margaret snapped her fingers.

Famously, Lennon introduced the band's finale that evening, "Twist and Shout," with the quip, "Will the people in the cheaper seats clap your hands? And the rest of you, if you'll just rattle your jewelry." It was a display of cheekiness that heretofore one simply didn't exhibit before the Royal Family. And yet, by narrowing the distance between the monarchy and the working-class foursome onstage, Lennon brought down the house-and in the process managed to make the band all the more beloved in an England where notions of one's proper place were evolving rapidly. Even the Queen Mother came away a fan, calling the Beatles "so young, fresh and vital."

From then on, the Beatles were treated as something akin to national heroes. While the Nov. 2 Daily Telegraph had compared a Beatles concert to Hitler's Nuremberg rallies, the morning after the Royal Variety Performance the band achieved a new legitimacy from a love-struck press. As the Daily Mirror put it, "You have to be a real square not to love the nutty, noisy, happy, handsome Beatles." Victory was total: By December, London Sunday Times music critic Richard Buckle was comparing their music to Beethoven.

Despite the undeniable phenomenon of the Beatles in England-which was growing by the day-Capitol U.S. dealt yet another blow to the band in early November when Dexter again turned down its latest single. This one, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," had advance orders in the United Kingdom of more than 1 million singles. The day after the Royal Variety Performance, the band's manager Brian Epstein headed to New York. Ostensibly the trip was to promote one of his other acts, Liverpool singer Billy J. Kramer, who was signed to Liberty Records and who accompanied him on the journey. But more importantly, Epstein was determined to figure out how to get the Beatles' U.S. career on track.

Part of Epstein's efforts in New York would focus on securing the Beatles a spot on "The Ed Sullivan Show." Sullivan's European scout, Peter Pritchard, had taken the show's talent coordinator Bob Babb to see the band perform earlier in the year and was regularly updating Babb on the group's progress. Pritchard called Sullivan and encouraged him to meet with Epstein. The reception the band had received at London Airport was intriguing, but it was Pritchard's report of how the group wowed the Royal Family that made Sullivan agree to a sit-down with Epstein.

After two meetings, the deal was set: The Beatles would appear on two episodes of "The Ed Sullivan Show" on Feb. 9 and Feb. 16, and a third appearance would be taped for broadcast at a later date. (The three episodes would ultimately be broadcast on consecutive weeks.) Sullivan had done something similar with Presley in 1956, when he booked the singer for three appearances in a four-month period. But the Beatles were flying in from England, and the time frame for their appearances was condensed to avoid the expense of repeatedly flying them in and out.

Sullivan had quite a reputation for being budget-conscious, but in the case of the Beatles he was particularly parsimonious. While performers on his show regularly received $10,000 or more for a top-billed appearance-a red-hot Presley had received $50,000 in 1956 for his three appearances-Sullivan held the upper hand in his negotiations with Epstein, who represented a group unknown in America. Thus, Epstein settled for $10,000 total for the three appearances. But he'd gotten what he wanted: a top-billed performance on "The Ed Sullivan Show," plus two more. For an unproven act, such a commitment from Sullivan was unprecedented, but, as Sullivan later recalled in a New York Times interview, "I made up my mind that this was the same sort of mass hysteria that had characterized the Elvis Presley days."

Sixteen seasons into his unparalleled 23-year prime-time run on CBS, Sullivan was just now reaching the zenith of his own fame and his show's star-making power. A few months earlier, he'd been lionized in the film version of the stage musical "Bye Bye Birdie," in which he played himself and which featured an eponymous musical number-performed cathedral-choir style-devoted to just how monumental it was to appear on the show: "Ed Sullivan," the choir sang. "We're going to be on Ed Sullivan!" A single appearance on the show could be a ticket to the top for a lucky performer. Getting three made Epstein feel like it was a lock.



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