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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A backlash from adults was just as immediate. On Dec. 29, the Baltimore Sun, dreading a replication of Beatlemania on U.S. shores, summed up the grown-up position by editorializing: "America had better take thought as to how it will deal with the invasion. Indeed a restrained 'Beatles go home' might be just the thing."

"They look like four of the Three Stooges with a hairy measure of Ish Kabibble," Donald Freeman quipped in the Chicago Tribune, referencing some of the most unkempt performers of the 1940s. "And if they ever submitted to a barber who loves music-snip, snip!-that would be the end of the act."

The condescension was just one more reason for teens to love the Beatles: "This annoys the grownups! It's something that's ours, that's not part of the whole messed-up adult world." Capitol understood the value of adult condemnation in whipping up teen frenzy, and noted the Sun's comments in its own press release.

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Of course, in those days, rock'n'roll was still, to quote Sullivan's typical on-air introductions of rock acts, "for the kiddies." And so, the sudden rise of the Beatles naturally caused nearly all the adult pundits to cover their ears and complain. The king of the complainers turned out to be NBC TV host Jack Paar. And by his attempt to mock the group on his Friday night variety show on Jan. 3, 1964, he managed to send Beatlemania into an even higher orbit.

Paar had been in attendance at the Royal Variety Performance in November and thought the hullabaloo over the Beatles was ridiculous. Like so many adults, he found rock'n'roll to be juvenile and had never booked a rock act on his show. Still, once his rival Sullivan announced the band's February appearances, Paar decided to scoop him. He licensed Beatles footage from the BBC and issued a press release announcing that he'd be the first to present the band. (This actually caused Sullivan to consider canceling the Beatles' appearances, although he quickly thought better of dumping the by-now hot act.) Top 40 DJs throughout the country breathlessly conveyed the news to their listeners that the Beatles-who had never been seen by most of their U.S. fans, except in the photo on their single sleeve-would be making their TV debut on "The Jack Paar Show."

The Paar appearance, when it is remembered at all, is generally considered a footnote. NBC doesn't brag about the appearance, being that Paar turned out to be on the wrong side of history, with Paar himself admitting he showed the Beatles "as a joke." But outside of radio airplay, the taped performance on Paar's show on Jan. 3 was the single most important event leading to the frenzy surrounding the band's "Ed Sullivan Show" appearance the following month. As Beatles producer George Martin commented to Variety in May 1964, it was Paar who deserves credit as the one who "aroused the kids' curiosity."

Paar's weekly program, which aired at 10 p.m., drew an average of 17 million viewers, most of whom were an older crowd. But with the Beatles set to appear, viewership swelled that week to 30 million. To put these numbers in perspective, Paar's show typically wasn't among the top 30 shows in the country, but his Jan. 3 episode had a viewership almost as large as the week's No. 1 show, which drew 34 million viewers.

The show's Beatles segment started with footage of fan hysteria at a U.K. Beatles concert, with Paar's mocking interjections-"I understand science is working on a cure for this"-eliciting laughter from his studio audience. Then, as promised, he presented the first full-song performance by the Beatles on American TV. The song was "She Loves You," and it was an in-studio performance shot for a BBC documentary. Paar's staff intercut the performance with footage of fans screaming at the Bournemouth show. Just a week after "I Want to Hold Your Hand" exploded into the marketplace, millions were now encountering "She Loves You." For the Beatles' American fans, the Paar performance was a revelation.

It was also a revelation for Swan Records. According to label president Bernie Binnick, "The record exploded the following Monday," and Swan rushed a proper rerelease. If "I Want to Hold Your Hand" took off in the marketplace based on radio play, Swan's rerelease of "She Loves You" had the advantage of an incredible-if unplanned-setup: The Paar performance turned the song into an instant hit, rivaling "I Want to Hold Your Hand" as the most-played song in the country.

Capitol wasn't amused, as the Paar broadcast brought attention to a song on a rival label. In a Jan. 20 press release, Capitol condescendingly referred to the Paar performance as "an obvious attempt to scoop arch-foe Ed Sullivan." The rollout of Beatlemania had never really been under Capitol's control, but this development ensured it never would be.