Thursday, December 26, 2013

50 years ago today: The Beatles


On December 26, 1963, hastily pushed up in response to public demand, Capitol Records released their first Beatles record, a single of "I Want to Hold Your Hand" backed with "I Saw Her Standing There." It wasn't the first Beatles release in the U.S., but it was the first by the group's official label (or any major one), and the first properly promoted and distributed. The rest, as they say, is history.

by Noah

As a youngster in the early 1960s, I had a portable radio. You’ve heard of "a boy and his dog" going everywhere together. Well, for me it was a boy and his radio. And it was always tuned to one of the three mainstream rock-and-roll radio stations we had in NYC in those days. Fifty years ago this week that radio never left my side, because I heard something new and exciting and I wanted to hear it every time it was played.

Radio wasn’t entirely segregated by a bunch of Clear Channel wingnuts in Texas in those days, either.

New York’s WMCA (the smallest of the three and the first to play The Beatles in New York City), WINS, and WABC played a real mix of music that kids of various backgrounds would like. If you didn't particularly favor a blatant corporately contrived, deliberately safe, teener pop song, chances were the next song would be more real and very much to your liking. You might hear an instrumental, followed by a soul song, followed by one of Phil Spector's genius "3-minute pop symphonies," as he called them, followed by some classic street-corner harmony group from either a white Italian neighborhood or a black neighborhood.

There'd be The Drifters, Elvis, Gene Pitney, Brenda Lee, a Buddy Holly already-then-"oldie," the Isley Brothers, even the stray Johnny Cash or more obscure country crossover hit, oddball comedic novelty hits too -- all mixed together in one enjoyable pastiche.

Not everything was ideal, to say the least, but we had diversity back then, if only on the radio (and on some sports teams). The term "niche marketing" was, thankfully, unknown. The mix of styles may have been scary to the conservatives of the day, but not to the kids. "Shout" by the Isley Brothers was a celebration, not a cause for fear. Even the small R&B stations at the upper end of the dial would play a record by a white artist if it was big enough and good enough: audio race-mixing, the stuff of conservative nightmares.

Believe it or not, however, there were many parts of this country in those days where the adult world had sought to ban rock-and-roll, and not just in the South. Conservatives saw the music as subversive. and to some extent they were right. Tough shit. Once an open-minded white kid heard James Brown, it was all over. The horse left the barn. Same thing with a black kid hearing Carl Perkins singing "Blue Suede Shoes."

The Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly types of the day were apoplectic. Even the old tradition of having the teenage audiences in concert auditoriums and gymnasiums divided by, ironically, a rope, with white kids on one side and "coloreds" on the other side was breaking down. While some white kids, egged on by their idiot parents, were protesting about their schools being integrated, the music scene was having a profound effect, and, of course, Washington was slow to notice.


By 1963, something of immense importance was really brewing about 3500 miles east of New York. For years, white English kids had been seeking out American music of all kinds, particularly white rockabilly and black deep soul and blues. Sailors made a little money on the side by bringing back the American records to the U.K. port cities, especially Liverpool.

The English kids formed their own bands and played this music. Many of the original versions of such songs were not even heard on big-city stations like the New York ones I mentioned. They weren't even heard on most of the smaller stations. It never occurred to the U.K. kids that there was anything odd about performing this music themselves. Why should it? But it would have been more than a bit odd in most places in America. It would have scared the bejesus out of the so-called "grown-up" world.

During 1963, The Beatles were getting bigger and bigger in England, with a string of number-one hits and endless sold-out live shows in front of ecstatic audiences. In the U.S., we knew none of this. By then, The Beatles weren’t just covering American artists such as Arthur Alexander or The Shirelles, they were writing their own songs. That fact would have a tremendous impact on the American music industry. The Beatles showed that, if you could write good songs of your own, and be successful with them, you could cut out the Tin Pan Alley-style song-writing houses of the day. That was resented.

It was not all that The Beatles would change in mainstream pop music -- or the world, for that matter.

Before The Beatles hit the American airwaves, there were only rare appearances by U.K. artists on the charts. The 1962 instrumental hit "Telstar" by The Tornados was one example. At the end of 1963, The Beatles were about to kick the wall down and lead what seemed to be a takeover of the U.S. airwaves and charts by British artists. It was called the British Invasion. It was a sea change, but, interestingly, it didn't quite happen as overnight as it seemed back then, and is usually thought to have been even now.

By December of 1963, The Beatles had had four huge hits in England. They were "Love Me Do," "Please Please Me," "From Me to You," and "She Loves You." Hindsight is 20/20, but, incredibly, Los Angeles-based Capitol Records, who had the release rights to all four records, opted not to release them here. The American music industry had a lot invested, monetarily and taste-wise, in safer home-grown talent. It's hard to imagine now, but in 1963 and 1964 The Beatles were a bit unsettling to many. It was as if something about John Lennon's eyes and Paul McCartney's cuteness subconsciously threatened them and their precious status quo. To some, the sheer energy, enthusiasm, and exuberance that leaped off The Beatles' records was off-putting; don't want to wake up the kiddies, you know.

The band that would not only change pop culture, but change fashion, change the music industry, throw off the oppression of the prevailing conservative Pleasantville mindset, and simply change how so many of us think about things would have to wait.


The industry would determine what we would hear. They would determine what was good. They would determine what was safe for a country that was paranoid about foreign influence. These were conservative times. When Elvis had scared America, the industry responded with safe, sanitized, manufactured teen idols. Still, there was a lot of good stuff that got through. The radio stations had to play something, and it couldn't all be adult-approved crap.

All was not lost, however. Those first four Beatles singles did get released here, on small labels. The first three were released by Chicago-based Vee Jay Records, a record company that mostly featured an astoundingly brilliant array of American R&B and jazz, but also had one of the biggest white groups of the time in The Four Seasons. Unfortunately, Vee Jay was hugely overextended, and, although they recognized the talent of The Beatles, they didn't have the financial resources to promote them. Even so, "From Me to You" actually did get significant radio play in the Los Angeles market. The folks at KRLA got it. They saw that the song wasn't all that different from an Everly Brothers song. It just had a third harmony vocal. What was not to like? "From Me to You" reached number 32 on their chart. Too bad Vee Jay couldn't react fast enough. It might have saved their company.

One station on the East Coast was also aware of The Beatles: WORC, in Worcester, Massachusetts. For the week of December 6, 1963, both sides of the "She Loves You" single -- on Philadelphia-based Swan Records -- made their Top 10, with the B-side, the inventive minor-key "I'll Get You" being their number 1, the first number-one record by The Beatles on any chart in America! "She Loves You" was number 9. It was a portent of things to come.

Interestingly, none other than Dick Clark called the shots at Swan. They were smart enough to put out the record and even had the rights to future releases, but when Clark asked his promo people what they thought, he was literally told, "They're just a bunch of long-haired kids. Forget them." That answer alone goes a long way toward explaining the state of the American music industry in 1963. They even had the evidence at WORC, which based its charts just on listener requests. They just couldn't grasp the meaning. If you think things have changed all that much in today's music industry, guess again. As Jim Morrison once said, "The men don't know, but the little girls, they understand."

I had seen a clip of The Beatles on the Jack Paar TV show.

(I know the clip has a glitch in the beginning, but it's too meaningful not to include, warts and all.)

Paar was somewhat amused and bewildered by what was happening in England, but he thought it was of interest, so he showed it. Before that there was the old and staid CBS News with an idiotic and contempt-filled but informative report by their London correspondent, Alexander Kendrick. Walter Cronkite ran the Kendrick piece on 11/21/63, the day before the JFK murder in Dallas. Mike Wallace ran it on the morning of 11/22/63. To his credit, Cronkite reran the piece on 12/10/63, correctly thinking that events had overshadowed the report and that Americans could use a bit of lighter news.

To this day I generally feel that the corporate news people shouldn't even bother when it comes to reporting on popular culture. They incessantly prove that they are doomed to never get it. They live and operate in a parallel universe. Paar, who was an entertainer and not a news guy, despite his snark is honest and knows that something is going on. Kendrick would fit in just fine on Fox and Friends or any of the other network morning-show atrocities. Call him the Steve Doocy or Ron Burgundy of his day.


Ed Sullivan, on the other hand, ran his famous Sunday-night variety show not proclaiming to be an authority on art, but just knowing that if something was popular, it should be on his show. He considered that his job. So when he saw thousands of screaming kids as he walked through London's Heathrow Airport one day, he had the good sense to ask what was going on, and after meeting with Beatles manager Brian Epstein booked the band for three appearances starting on February 9, 1964. The Sullivan bookings convinced Capitol that maybe they had something. They scheduled The Beatles' fifth single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand," backed with "I Saw Her Standing There," for release on January 13th. They thought they were in control of the situation. They had no idea.

In Silver Spring, Maryland, a 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert had seen the CBS report. She was so impressed by The Beatles that she wrote an impassioned letter to her favorite local station, WWDC. She asked, "Why can’t we have this music in America?" Why, indeed? Well, you see, Marsha, when corporate bozos put on their expensive suits and enter the hallowed halls of corporate bozoland, they lose all common sense. As Morrison said . . . .

Back in those days, however, radio stations were not only locally programmed, they actually did things like respond to the mail. There was even an FCC that felt that local radio stations should reflect the needs and wants of the local community. Not every station using the same format played exactly the same pre-approved songs from some right-wing turd in Texas. Not only that, but local DJs had at least a bit of freedom to decide if they wanted to play a record that they thought their listeners might like.

Enter WWDC disc jockey Carroll James. James had a stewardess friend who worked for BOAC, the predecessor to British Airways. He asked her to get some Beatles records for him. A few days later, she brought him an English pressing of "I Want to Hold Your Hand." He played it, and the request lines almost literally exploded. Other stations heard what was going on at WWDC and acted accordingly. No one had to get approval from some yahoo whose idea of a good time is lunch with Karl Rove. Capitol was forced to move up its release date to December 26th, 50 years ago today. Unlike Vee Jay and Swan, they had the wherewithal to properly promote the record and -- more importantly, in this case -- had enough pressing-plant capability and a large enough distribution arm set up to meet the demands of millions of U.S. kids who wanted what they wanted. By April, The Beatles would have the top five records in the country, a feat not matched before or since.

That’s the way it was, 50 years ago today.

By April 1964, The Beatles had the top five records in the U.S.



At 11:05 PM, Blogger Cirze said...

When I read in the paper that the record was coming out, I begged my Mom to take me to Belks to buy my first Beatles' album (my first album ever), and after picking me up from grammar school she said, "Let's go get that record!"

I bought it with my saved allowance (about $2.00 or so) but it wasn't enough and when I was told the total, including tax, which I'd forgotten about, by the lady at the record counter, I had to borrow a quarter from my little sister who has never failed to remind me that she owns a part of it.

After purchasing it the lady told me I was the first in my town (very small Southern city) to buy it.

Wow! Boy, was I proud. I thought I'd discovered them (even though I was among the millions watching them on Ed Sullivan).

Thanks for the great memories!

Love you,


At 12:47 AM, Anonymous ap215 said...

Terrific article Ken the music industry is much different today than what it used to be i wish someone in congress had the guts to target today's music industry for their inexplicable corporate bad behavior & come up with a bill to fix & regulate the mess they're freely doing now.

At 10:09 AM, Blogger KenInNY said...

Thanks ap215, I think it's a terrific article too, but just to be clear, I only posted it. Noah wrote it, and it was clear to me as soon as I saw it that it was a labor of love.

And Cirze, thanks for sharing your story. Does your sister have anything to add?


At 3:13 PM, Anonymous Bil said...

Thanks Noah, and Ken, I did not know about the Paar Tape.

I went to a "Gaylords" to buy a Beatles Wig and did a lyp synch with Joel Michaels, in I think 4th grade, to She Loves You. WHAT happened to that wig, mom?


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