Friday 24 November 2017

Across the Universe

The fab four behind the Beatlemania that swept the US were not just a band, writes Aidan Coughlan

Back in the USA: The Beatles
Back in the USA: The Beatles

Aidan Coughlan

It's a sentiment that seems strange to us now, in an era where we view the Fab Four as the very definition of cultural icons. But 50 years ago, when Pan Am flight 101 was touching down in New York in front of a waiting mob of four thousand fans, the idea that The Beatles were 'just a band' seemed positively bizarre.

At that point it wasn't even a year since the band had hit the top of the charts for the first time -- and 1963 had been spent riding the wave of Beatlemania, powered by the successes of From Me To You, She Loves You and I Want To Hold Your Hand.

Due to their unprecedented success in the UK, there was a sense that this rapidly expanding force needed a new space to fill, and the US was the logical next step -- but were they really going to rewrite the rule book and succeed where so many before them had failed?

This was the country that had invented rock 'n' roll, after all; the country that had given the world Buddy Holly, Bill Haley and the Comets, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard and, of course, Elvis. These were the people who sent men into space, boasted of impending moon missions, and went nose to nose with the Soviets over nuclear missiles in Cuba.

What were they going to want with a bunch of melodic moptops from an industrial city in the north of England?

And while manager Brian Epstein might have boldly boasted that The Beatles would eventually usurp The King, no amount of screaming fans, royal variety performances or UK number ones would convince a young and overwhelmed Paul McCartney that he and his three pals were worthy of standing on a par with the American elite.

"They've got their own groups," he reminded the others during the flight over, in an uncharacteristic display of humility. "What are we going to give them that they don't already have?"

As it turned out, they were going to give them something they desperately needed: excitement, hope and a sense that the youth revolution of the late 1950s wasn't dead in the water.

After all, the kids of America had just watched as Elvis joined the army, Little Richard quit music to become a preacher, Jerry Lee Lewis became embroiled in scandal after attempting to marry his 13-year-old cousin while Buddy Holly perished along with The Big Bopper and Richie 'La Bamba' Valens on The Day The Music Died.

There was a sense of an abrupt halt; a gut-wrenching deceleration that convinced a generation that the revolution had just been a false dawn -- and this disappointment wasn't confined only to music.

It was only 11 weeks after John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas -- the airport where The Beatles were due to land had only been renamed five weeks previously -- and the sense of hope and progress that had been blossoming under his presidency had transformed into depression and disillusionment.

But here, almost out of nowhere, were four Scousers causing a national sensation just by virtue of their presence -- and two days later, when 73 million Americans tuned in to see the band perform on the Ed Sullivan Show, the very idea that rock 'n' roll was dead seemed every bit as laughable as it did when Elvis was in his pomp.

It kicked off a tumultuous relationship between The Beatles and the USA, which would provide the band with as many downs as it would ups. On the one hand, there was sellout gigs, meetings with Dylan and Elvis, White House invites (which the band declined) and a mania so intense that the band were able to carry a wave of British bands in their wake.

On the other, there were the stresses of touring life, the problem of the band not being able to hear themselves play in venues such as Shea Stadium and Candlestick Park, and -- most notoriously of all -- the raft of fury that followed the discovery of an old Lennon quote that suggested the band were more popular than Jesus Christ. That remark led to death threats, Ku Klux Klan pickets, city council bans and the threat of cancellation over what would be the band's last US tour.

But they weathered the storm, and proved Lennon's point in the process; the outrage of older generations, and the fury of God himself, was powerless to stop the youth revolution that these four kids had rekindled with such vigour. Just a band? Oh please.

  • The U.S. Albums, a new 13CD Beatles collection will be released January 17th


Hardcore music fans may baulk at the idea of One Direction being compared to The Beatles -- but when it comes to the subject of US invasions, the two acts have more in common than you might think.

Having finished third in the 2010 series of X Factor, it quickly became apparent that the five-piece were destined for a bright future. Their debut single, the poptastic What Makes You Beautiful, went straight to number one in the UK -- and within a year of the competition ending, the band had signed a US deal with Columbia Records.

In scenes reminiscent of the Fab Four's famous arrival in 1964, some 15,000 fans caused security headaches at the Rockefeller Center when the group made their debut television appearance on The Today Show. Meanwhile, their first album Up All Night went straight into the Billboard charts at number one -- the first time a British group ever achieved such success with a debut -- and their movie This Is Us topped the US box office.

Whether we'll be talking about their arrival in 50 years' time remains to be seen -- but for now, so long as they can resist the urge to compare themselves to deities, it's a good place to be for a band who want to live while they're young.

Irish Independent

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