It seems impossible to recall a time when the Beatles weren’t part of Americans’ collective consciousness. Yet exactly 50 years ago, on Feb. 7, 1964, as John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr boarded Pan Am Flight 101 in London for their first U.S. visit, they had little idea what lay in store for them.
John calculated the Beatles’ odds as the plane began its descent. He stared dolefully at the seat back in front of him, clutching the hand of his wife Cynthia. There were so many variables that would determine their success: whether “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” released in late December, would sustain its initial impact in the States; how tickets there were selling for their upcoming concerts; whether their appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show would capture the imagination of American teenagers. Sure Beatlemania had already gripped Britain, but would anyone in the U.S. even care?
Minutes before landing, news filtered from the cockpit through the plane that helped to put their minds at ease. As Paul remembered it: “The pilot had rung ahead and said, ‘Tell the boys there’s a big crowd waiting for them.’ ”
From the air, the terminals looked jittery, alive. A swarm of locusts? No. Wall-to-wall kids, who had scrambled over barricades and fences to get a look at the Beatles. Applause and cheers broke out inside the plane. Just before 1:30 p.m., Flight 101 taxied to a stop outside the terminal and the aircraft door popped open. An explosion of cheers and screams rang out as the crowd stormed forward.
“We heard that our records were selling well in America,” George noted (Capitol announced that they were the fastest-selling in the label’s history), “but it wasn’t until we stepped off the plane … that we understood what was going on. Seeing thousands of kids there to meet us made us realize just how popular we were there.”
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Everywhere, perhaps, but with the pool of hard-boiled reporters who had been waiting for hours to cover these British intruders. More than 200 of them were crammed into Pan Am’s smoke-filled lounge, grumbling about the lousy assignment, when the Beatles finally paraded into the room. Like a cavalry charge, the reporters opened fire, question after question without letup, until it all just fused into babble.
Brian Sommerville, the band’s new press officer, tried desperately to impose order but eventually succumbed to shouting back. “All right then. Shut up!” he insisted. “Just shut up!”
“Yeah, yeah, everybody just sharrup,” barked John, which stunned the crowd into applause.
What now? The press and the Beatles stared awkwardly at each other until a reporter managed to break the ice. “Will you sing something for us?”
“No! ” the Beatles shouted in unison.
“We need money first,” John shot back.
Wha …? These boys were witty. The frost in the lounge started to melt.
“What do you think of Beethoven?”
“Great,” Ringo answered, “especially his poems.”
It went on like that for almost an hour, a spontaneous Abbott and Costello–type routine, with the cynical press corps as willing straight men. Whatever the press expected from these boys, it was completely unprepared for what it got. The Beatles were irresistible; they made great copy.
As everyone prepared to head for the exits, Paul commandeered the mike. “We have a message,” he announced with great significance. The reporters flipped their notebooks back open, as photographers pressed in to get the crucial shot. “Our message is: buy more Beatles records!”
The Beatles were gobsmacked. New York City seemed a world unto itself, and as they limoed in from JFK, its wonders unfolded.
The radio, for one thing, symbolized the city’s fabulousness.
At the airport, Pepsi had given each of the Beatles a transistor radio, and throughout the trip in, they flitted from station to station, unable to wrap their heads around it.
“We were so overawed by American radio,” John confessed. In England there was only one station, the stodgy BBC, which basically ignored the type of music the Beatles craved. Suddenly it was all at their fingertips—a nonstop jukebox of those American R&B hits they’d been dying to hear: Marvin Gaye, Smokey Robinson, the Shirelles, the Ronettes. And sandwiched between each two, a Beatles record!
By the time the Beatles’ car made its way from JFK to Manhattan, word was out and fans had already begun to mob the posh Plaza Hotel on Fifth Avenue, where the boys were shown to a spacious 10-room suite on the 12th floor with commanding views of Central Park.
To the Beatles, it was heaven—a TV in every room, a fully stocked bar, no end of luxuries—and hell: absolutely no place to go. The fans outside had hemmed the boys in, making any excursion just plain foolhardy.
The sidewalks in front of the building were a solid block of humanity. Chants of “We want the Beatles! We want the Beatles! ” punctuated the New York din.
This is the first installment in a series of excerpts from the new TIME book, The Beatles Invasion: The Inside Story of the Two-Week Tour That Rocked America, by Bob Spitz. Copyright 2013, Time Home Entertainment Inc. Available wherever books are sold.
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