Bono, the frontman for the Irish rock band U2, once said, "Music can change the world because it can change people."
Looking back through Western civilization, historic transitions often have been connected to artistic evolution, music chief among those influences. Think of Mozart, Beethoven and then in the early 1900s, ragtime, and a half-century later, Elvis Presley. As one would expect, it's a conundrum: What came first, the music or cultural transformation?
Regardless, music was in the mix, as it was 50 years ago on Feb. 7, 1964, when the Beatles, four young Englishmen with mop-top haircuts, a soon-to-be No. 1 album ("Meet the Beatles!") and a No. 1 single ("I Want To Hold Your Hand"), landed at the newly christened John F. Kennedy International Airport in the New York City borough of Queens. It was to be the start of the band's wildly anticipated first American tour.
From the start, it was pandemonium. The city unleashed its police force to control the hysteria at the airport and in the street below the Beatles' hotel window.
Why this ecstatic reaction? The sound of the music was shockingly fresh. The band wrote and played its own compositions. Its members -- John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr -- oozed sexuality in a manner much more subtle than, say, Presley, whose suggestive hip action mortified parents in those repressive years of the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Two nights later, on Feb. 9, the Beatles revealed their talents on television's premier variety program, "The Ed Sullivan Show," and history was made. Following that performance, which more than 73 million Americans watched, music as we had known it began a rapid process of change. And the country, indeed the world, changed with it.
Beatlemania, as the band's frenzied popularity soon came to be known, was about more than music. It was about social upheaval, about the next stage in the evolution of culture, a movement fueled by the young. Suddenly, teenagers ruled the world. The pin was pulled from the hormonal hand grenade, and an explosion of sexuality and joy merged with a new kind of music to create a revolution.
Call it pop culture's version of shock and awe, a seismic shift that stopped the mid-20th century in its tracks and redirected its destination.
Take me back
Bob Spitz, a Reading native and the author of the well-regarded book "The Beatles: The Biography" (2005, Little, Brown and Co.), was 13 years old when the Beatles hit the ground running in the United States. An accomplished musician and journalist, he played with and managed Bruce Springsteen and for a time managed Elton John in this country.
However, he soon turned to his first love, writing, and when he decided to write about the Beatles, the group he considers one-third of rock's musical trinity (Presley, the performer, and Bob Dylan are the other two thirds), his goal was to find out "how they became who they were," he said.
"The Beatles' coming to the States and appearing on 'Ed Sullivan' redefined what a teenager is," he said during a telephone conversation from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "Before the Beatles, teens were the low-level member of the family. The day after that show, they had a new identity, a new life, a new look, a feeling that they were special. That they could be whatever they wanted to be.
"The Beatles changed everything. And they did it by changing teenagers. Two weeks after Sullivan, everyone was in a garage band."
Rather than sock hops, kids now danced to the music of neighborhood groups, Spitz said. Through what he called their "happy, identifiable" music, the Beatles got inside the heads of teenagers.
Waiting to take you away
"The Beatles were able to transfer their thoughts, their ideas through their songs, through their ever-changing appearance and fashion," Spitz elaborated. "They introduced drugs into the culture. And they were acutely political. All of this was instilled into the minds of young people around the world through who the Beatles were; in other words, through their music.
"They were the most powerful people of the 20th century. Anything they said made headlines. It had a ripple effect through young society. Most important, they changed music forever. They turned rock 'n' roll into rock music. When (the album) 'Revolver' came out, the music was more sophisticated and intellectual, lyrically and in terms of composition.
"That album especially opened the floodgates for everything that came out in the '60s. 'Good Day Sunshine,' 'Taxman,' those songs were structurally sophisticated. Everyone tried to copy them."
And so the British Invasion, an influx of musical acts from across the pond, began. Its first wave lasted from 1964 through 1966, impacting music not only in the United States but across the globe.
According to Spitz, the Beatles didn't set out to do this. It just happened.
"As a kid, Lennon said, 'We wanna become the best rock band in the world,' " Spitz said. "They just wanted to make great music, and they never deviated from that. Every album evolved into something new. Just listen to all the albums in succession. It will make your head spin.
"They were great harmonists, creating simple and direct lyrics. Those wonderful harmonic chord changes that they used, well, no one ever used them before. They had a good sense of who they were. They didn't care who told them what they could or couldn't do. They had an incredible belief in themselves."
There's a place
To write the book, Spitz spent two years commuting between the United States and the United Kingdom -- Liverpool, England, in particular. It took time, he said, for the important people in that city to trust him.
"I know rock 'n' roll inside out," he said. "After meeting musicians still in Liverpool, they soon understood I was one of them. They could talk to me in shorthand. It was like dominoes: one source leading to another until you connected with everybody.
"I soon got such an insight into who the Beatles were, that when someone told me a story, I knew right away whether it was accurate."
Spending that time in Liverpool was essential, Spitz explained.
"You must understand where they come from in order to know them," he said.
So why these four musicians? Why this city?
"They could have been living anywhere in the world," Spitz said. "It (their talent) came from something inside them that is inexplicable. Could McCartney have done it on his own? I doubt it. There was a chemistry that developed among them, a wonderful reaction."
Here, there and everywhere
This burst of genius emerged in a city that, during World War II, had been populated by American soldiers, Spitz explained. Those men brought over their music: the sound of the Everly Brothers, R&B, blues and jazz.
"Liverpool was alive with American music," Spitz said. "The Beatles feasted on that. And when the soldiers left, they sold their records to the kids there."
So what goes around, comes around: American music blending with British influences, coupled with the alchemy of four profoundly talented musicians. And thus the Beatles were born.
In February 1964, the Beatles knew they needed to succeed in the United States to make Lennon's dream of becoming "the best rock band in the world" come true.
America, still in grief over the assassination of President John F. Kennedy not even three months earlier, needed something to pull it back into the light. It was an ideal match; it was preordained. But the Beatles still had doubts.
According to Spitz, musician Cliff Richard, a huge star in Britain, had failed in his attempt to make it in the U.S.
"They thought, if Cliff couldn't do it, how could they?" Spitz said. "Lennon always said that the U.S. was 'toppermost of the poppermost.' "
The Beatles made plans for the tour. Their success quickly affirmed the band's status as a major rock group.
"And they taught us how to smile again," Spitz added.
A clue for you all
According to John Pankratz, professor of history at Albright College with a special interest in cultural history, the Beatles were among the two or three most formative influences that created what we think of as the 1960s.
"The Beatles introduced something new, something not previously being considered on the American scene," Pankratz said. "Their initial arrival was a shock and a surprise. It started people thinking in ways they hadn't before.
"After 1964, for the next five or six years, they were so experimental and open to new influences, things such as Eastern music and psychedelic drugs. And the culture just followed along."
What the Beatles did instantly became a part of the youth movement, Pankratz suggested, and baby boomers were coming of age. It was, in a sense, the perfect storm for change.
" 'You say you want a revolution,' right?" he said, reciting the lyrics to the band's song "Revolution."
It's interesting, he proposed, that the Beatles were not perceived as a threat.
"There was a quote in Life magazine, and these are the exact words, that their 'lyrics are clean and happy.' " Pankratz said. "The press loved them. Their albums received glowing reviews. The mainstream press gave them the imprimatur of approval.
"Their message, 'all you need is love,' was one the youth culture wanted to hear, what it was ready and willing to embrace. A simple solution to global problems."
Pankratz admitted that it took him some time to really love the Beatles.
"The hysteria frightened me," he said. "Their hair seemed indescribably long. Of course we all had butch haircuts. But finally it was the music that won me over. The songs were awfully cool.
"One of the charms of the Beatles was that the band was not a single entity. They didn't play one style of music. Lennon and McCartney couldn't have been more different. We couldn't wait to see what they would come up with next."
Time to say goodnight
So how did it all fall apart over several months in late 1969 and early 1970?
According to Spitz, it wasn't because of any alleged meddling in the band's affairs by Yoko Ono, Lennon's wife.
"It's really pretty simple," Spitz said. "They grew up. They found out they were different kinds of people. They were together 10 years, the perfect amount of time. Then they were finished. They moved on in life.
"You can't do the same things forever. At 28, you're not the same as you were at 17. McCartney and Lennon were two different kinds of people. They simply didn't want to hang out together anymore.
"It's called evolution, and it's what the Beatles were all about."
Contact Entertainment Editor George Hatza: 610-371-5075 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
(c)2014 the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.). Distributed by MCT Information Services.
Visit the Reading Eagle (Reading, Pa.) at readingeagle.com
Original headline: The Beatles: They came, they played, they conquered
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