When America Fell for the Beatles
Springsteen, Dylan and other musical greats recall how the Fab Four’s arrival 50 years ago kicked off a new era of rock ’n’ roll
In late 1963, the Atlantic seemed impossibly vast. News from Europe arrived by way of long-distance calls, letters and telegrams. Telegrams!
Then, not long after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, an English band suddenly infiltrated the U.S. airwaves. "I Want to Hold Your Hand," with its tight harmonies and insistent backbeat, seemed to render almost everything that came before it obsolete. One hit followed another in swift succession — "I Saw Her Standing There," "She Loves You," "Please Please Me," "Twist and Shout" — forever collapsing the distance to Liverpool. And when the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964, they seemed to awaken the country from its profound, shattering grief.
Slideshow: Beatles "Fab Four" retrospective photos
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At the time, I was 12 years old. Later that year, when I was a committed Beatlemaniac, I appeared in a New York Times photograph of young women screaming and squealing behind a banner reading "Beatles Please Stay Here 4-Ever." Today, decades later, the Beatles are revered throughout the world. But they were never adored as directly and simply as they were by us, the very first wave of Beatlemaniacs, who chased them down streets and hotel corridors and drowned out every word they tried to sing.
In memory of that dazzling, electric time, prominent musicians and performers recall how the Beatles changed the country — and us.
Bruce Springsteen, musician
"I Want to Hold Your Hand" was the first Beatles song I heard. When you hear something like that, your hair stands on end on your arms, and it's having some strange and voodoolike effect upon you, and you can't figure it out.
I got out of my mother's car, which is where I heard it, and I ran down the street into the bowling alley and immediately into the phone booth, slammed the door behind me and got my girlfriend on the phone. I said, "Have you heard this song?" It stopped your day when it hit. It stopped your day. That just was a nuclear explosion.
Janis Ian, singer-songwriter
I grew up on classical and jazz and folk. Pop was really off my radar. When A Hard Day's Night came out [in the summer of 1964], I was 13 and attending summer camp with my friend Janey Street, who was a huge Beatles and Stones fan. We and a bunch of other campers took the camp truck into town to see the film. I came out of that film a convert. We sang Beatles songs all the way back to camp, and we all started learning them the next day on the guitar, and that was kind of it. The energy when Lennon and McCartney joined voices and harmonized or sang in unison was astonishing.
Berry Gordy, founder, Motown Records
One day my father and my three oldest kids and I stopped at the Pinewood movie studios in England, where we met the Beatles. I told them how thrilled I was with the way they did our three songs [Motown's "You Really Got a Hold on Me," "Money (That's What I Want)" and "Please Mr. Postman"] in their second album.
"We love all your artists," John said in his Liverpool accent.
My kids could barely speak, but Pop pulled two of the Beatles aside, telling one of his stories about how hard work always pays off. I tried to rescue them by telling Pop we had to go, but they said they wanted to hear more.
Billy Joel, musician
John F. Kennedy represented youth and progress and the future. And he was snatched from us. And the country really had the blues. Then all of a sudden there's this band with hair like girls'. They played their own instruments, and they wrote their own songs, and they looked like these working-class kids, like kids we all knew. And I said at that moment, "That's what I want to do."
Bob Dylan, musician
I had heard the Beatles in New York when they first hit. Then, when we were driving through Colorado, we had the radio on, and eight of the Top 10 songs were Beatles songs. In Colorado! They were doing things nobody was doing. Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid. But I just kept it to myself that I really dug them. Everybody else thought they were for the teenyboppers, that they were gonna pass right away. But it was obvious to me that they had staying power. I knew they were pointing the direction of where music had to go. In Colorado, I started thinking it was so far out that I couldn't deal with it — eight in the Top 10. This was something that had never happened before. You see, there was a lot of hypocrisy all around, people saying it had to be either folk or rock. But I knew it didn't have to be like that.
Cyndi Lauper, performer-composer
My sister, Elen, always wanted to be Paul, so I was John. By singing with my sister like that, and listening to John's voice, I learned harmony and the structure of songs. When I was 11 and the Beatles were coming to New York, my mother drove my sister, her friend Diane and me to the Belt Parkway where the Hilton Hotel is, by the airport, so we could see the Beatles drive by. We waited. And waited. All of a sudden we saw cars coming, and it was them. So I started screaming, and I shut my eyes, and by the time I realized I should open my eyes, I'd missed it.
Booker T. Jones, musician
The first time I heard the Beatles I was a student at Indiana University, and I'd already had a hit with "Green Onions." I heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand" on the jukebox at a pizza joint in Bloomington, Indiana. I loved it. I played it over and over.
One reason I liked it is that, even though it was coming from England, it sounded very close to what we were doing with the MG's — just bass, guitars and drums, just the song and the melody. I was really drawn to it. Ringo really reminded me of [MG's drummer] Al Jackson: sparse, direct, to the point, the tempo never speeding up or slowing down, a good, happy feeling on whatever the song was.
Later on, I realized how monumental they were musically. After Abbey Road came out, I decided to record a tribute to them called McLemore Avenue, the street where Stax Records was located in Memphis. It was a crazy idea, not a commercially viable project for me to bring to Stax. But I was really impressed because by that time the Beatles were the biggest group in the world. They had crossed boundaries and reached heights that no one else in rock 'n' roll had done. They had written timeless melodies. They had become socially significant. They had become spiritual. They had become funky. And they had done all that in six years! Musically, they had really lived. Then, after reaching that apex, they made Abbey Road. That's quite a tribute, because at that point, financially, creatively, they didn't have to do anything. Obviously, they were doing it for the love of it, and I so much respected that.
They're incomparable. It was just such a great gift — that we had them, and that the world appreciated them so much. They were so valuable — and so much fun.
B.B. King, musician
I wasn't exactly sure who John Lennon was. Later on, I knew their names, but in the beginning they were just these English boys with long hair and a rock 'n' roll beat that drove the girls crazy. A friend of mine happened to read an interview with John.
"Did you read what John Lennon said about you, B?"
"No. What'd he say?"
"He wished he could play guitar like B.B. King."
Hey, that was a nice thing to say. I listened a little closer to the Beatles' music, though I still couldn't hear any of my influence.
Steven Van Zandt, musician, actor
February 8, 1964, there was not one single rock 'n' roll band in the country. February 9, the Beatles played Ed Sullivan. February 10, everyone had one. If a spaceship landed in Central Park today, I don't think it would have as much impact as the Beatles that day. [When I saw them,] I saw hope for myself. It was like, here is something I've never seen before, I didn't even imagine existed, and suddenly, maybe there's hope for my life.
Except as noted below, all quotes excerpted from The Beatles Are Here! by Penelope Rowlands © Penelope Rowlands 2014. Reprinted by permission of Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill. All rights reserved. Additional quote sources as follows: Bruce Springsteen (the Underground Garage radio show); Berry Gordy (To Be Loved); Little Richard (The Life and Times of Little Richard: The Quasar of Rock, by Charles White); B.B. King ( Blues All Around Me); Steven Van Zandt (the Guardian, Esquire, CBS News); Booker T. Jones interviewed by Anthony DeCurtis.