WAKING A NATION IN A DAZE.
America was numb. Less than a month before, the nation’s young, charismatic leader fell to an assassin’s bullet. Any chance to make sense of the tragedy slipped away two days later when a nightclub owner killed the assassin. Many theorized that our Cold War adversaries, the Russians, somehow got to Kennedy in retribution for his handling of the Cuban Missile crisis. Then the invasion began, altering life as we know it. Wait, I do not remember that last point. Maybe because the invasion did not originate in Siberia. Instead, the attack launched from Liverpool, England. December 17, 1963 marked the start of the British Invasion that forever changed American music and culture.
The invasion’s cast of characters is memorable. A respected journalist, an overly educated disc jockey and his stewardess girlfriend, a typical American teenager, and four atypical British boys all played their roles perfectly. The immediate result was to move the America past the assassination; we still fell the long-term impact of the British Invasion today.
The Lads from Liverpool were not completely unknown in the States. Their record company, Capitol Records, was actually planning the British Invasion for early 1964. Beatlemania had swept England and the rest of Europe, so the colonies were the last frontier left. Still, no one knew how well the boys would stack up.
The nascent Rock n’ Roll scene was uniquely American. Of the scores of British acts who tried to break in, only Cliff Ritchie had found any level of success. America’s youth divided into camps. You had surfers and surfer wannabes following Jan and Dean and the Beach Boys; aficionados of Motown; the fan girls worshipping the teen idols of the moment; and everyone all in on Elvis. Our plate was full, it was hard to see where four goofy Brits would fit in.
Still, the star power was self-evident. Traditionally, when American headliners toured Europe, the hot English band of the moment opened the show. So it was the Beatles opening for Tommy Roe and Chris Montez, That only lasted a couple of shows and the order reversed. Outshining Chris Montez is one thing, but industry observers started to get excited when the same thing happened with Roy Orbison.
In any event, the Beatles and their managers ad picked 1964 as the year they would launch their British Invasion. What exactly would happen was anybody’s guess.
After Kennedy’s death, the man who delivered the somber news to much of the nation, Walter Cronkite, was somber himself. The assassination, the Oswald murder, the funerals and the intricacies of transferring power to Lyndon Johnson unleashed several weeks of distress like nothing we had seen outside of wartime.
By the middle of December, Cronkite wanted to lighten the mood. He searched for a story to end the nightly broadcast on an upbeat note. Something, he could smile about while giving his “and that’s the way it is” signature sign off line. He found what he was looking for in the stories that the network shelved when all hell broke loose on November 22nd.
Scheduled to run that day, but bumped by the events in Dallas was a story about Beatlemania. Something about the band’s quirky, humble attitude juxtaposed against the screaming idolatry rendered by their fans reached Cronkite. On December 10, he dusted off the recording and went with it.It was a fun story, no mention of a “British Invasion.”
There was a time when families sat down together and watched the nightly news, believing what they saw there. The Albert family of Silver Spring, MD. fit that description. The 15-year-old daughter was in her spot on the evening of December 10. She was the first of what turned out to be millions of girls who fell hard for the British invaders. The Fab Four mesmerized her, through the tiny, black and white set at the Albert house.
Marsha, however, was no mere screamer. She was a girl of action. So, the next afternoon, Marsha wrote her thoughts in a letter to local disc jockey James Carroll of WWDC, a powerhouse FM station broadcasting from the nation’s capitol. Her question was simple, but it captured the essence of the Beatles. Marsha asked Carol “why can’t we have music like this?”
THE INTELLECTUAL DISC JOCKEY.
Marsha not only asked the right question, she asked the right person. Carrol was just 26 at the time, but sure of himself. Princeton does not turn out a lot of disc jockeys, but that is where Carroll went to college. As a result, his view of the world was broader than most.
Carroll was already on to the Beatles. 99% of the disc jockeys in the country would have had to turn down Marsha’s request based on logistics. They simply did not have the record to play. As luck would have it, however, Carroll had asked his stewardess (they were “stewardesses” then) girlfriend to get her hands on a Beatles record; she had just returned with a copy of I Want to Hold Your Hand.
As a publicity stunt, Carroll asked Marsha up to the station and put her on the air. When she asked the question again “why can’t we have music like that?” Carroll’s answered that she could. With that he dropped the needle on the record and the switchboard lit up. The British Invasion was on.
TAKING AMERICA BY STORM.
Demand for the song was through the roof; the station instituted a rule that it must be played at least once an hour. At first, Capitol Records was upset; it is tough to have a hit record when you do not have copies to sell. But the boat had left the dock. The company scrambled and three weeks later the first American wax featuring the Beatles rolled off the presses.
A few months later the boys played the Ed Sullivan Show and it was a done deal. The Beatles were here to stay; the question now was not whether there was room for the Beatles; instead, we wondered whether there was room for anyone but the Beatles. In 1964, nine of Billboard’s Top 100 American singles belonged to the band from Liverpool. They just got bigger from there, driving our tastes in music, clothes and culture.
One measurement of how well we accepted the Beatles is how much we fell in love with the rest of the British Invasion. In short order, the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Kinks, Cream, the Yardbirds and others grabbed control of the American music market. Whether the British Invasion marked or caused a turning point in America’s global outlook is unclear. One thing is clear, though. For the approximately 20 years following World War II , Americans thought the world took all its cues from us. Starting at the end of 1963 we were taking our cues from abroad.
But the politics and the culture take back seat tot he music. I Want to Hold Your Hand still sounds great today, as do so many other Beatles’ classics. The quality and quantity of the Beatles’ production in the short seven years following James Carroll playing their record for Marsha Albert is astonishing. Empty Nesters have had the pleasure of a great soundtrack for their adventures; today is the day to be thankful that the leaders of the British Invasion successfully crossed the pond.