How the Beatles led the ‘British Invasion’ of America

How the Beatles led the ‘British Invasion’ of America

These days, you hear lots of talk about music acts ‘breaking America’. Over the decades, it’s become a certain rite of passage, a test of true success – and a mark of prestige for bands the world over. If there was ever a band that could make something like that look easy, you’d think it would be the Beatles. But oddly enough, despite all their UK success, it wasn’t looking too promising at first. Apparently, we’re a tough crowd to please!

 

In the early 1960s, so-called Beatlemania had yet to properly cross the Atlantic, and many people here in the US thought they’d be nothing but a passing fad. But just like Elvis Presley before them, they defied that characterization, and their success over here helped cement their status as one of the most successful music acts of all time. Today, their records are the mainstay of many a modern Rock-Ola jukebox! 

An unpromising start

1963 was a big year for the Beatles. In January they released their second single, Please Please Me, and before you could say Love Me Do, everyone was tripping over each other to book them. But for a little while there, it looked like their success would be mostly within the confines of the UK. In September 1963, George Harrison returned from a visit to his sister in Illinois. “They don’t know us.” he told his bandmates. “It’s going to be hard.”

At the time, they couldn’t blame him for the gloomy prediction. By that point, America’s enthusiasm for rock and roll was fading quickly from its recent all-time high. Lots of its key figures were out of the spotlight; Buddy Holly had died, Jerry Lee Lewis and Chuck Berry were industry personas non-grata, and Elvis had been drafted. Even Alan Freed was off the air.

Accordingly, the American music industry was highly skeptical of the band’s potential for success. At first, they struggled to get their songs to a wider audience in the States; even Capitol Records turned them down on numerous occasions. (Capitol Records was the US counterpart of the Beatles’ UK record label, EMI.) After much back-and-forth, the band’s management only managed to secure releases through virtually unknown labels – one of whom even spelled the band’s name wrong (BEATLES, in case you’re wondering).

Meanwhile, the American media at large was pretty bemused at the success of those funny-looking guys from way across the sea. Many viewed the band as emblematic of the perceived British tendency towards eccentricity – a view definitely influenced by the distinctive haircuts and suits that made up their trademark personal style. As far as most people were concerned, rock and roll had had its time over here, and the British were very late to the party. Thus, the majority of Rock-Ola jukeboxes at the time were being used to relive what was already tentatively being thought of as the heyday of rock and roll. But the Beatles were about to prove that those days were far from over.

 

The band becomes the phenomenon

When it finally happened, it happened quite suddenly. One man who proved instrumental in this was Carroll James, a disc jockey in Washington DC. He got his hands on their single “I want to hold your hand” in December 1963, and soon his station’s airwaves were jammed with listeners asking him to play it over and over again. That was the spark that ignited the flame, and stations all around the country started getting similar requests. American Beatlemania had begun. 

Fast forward to the 7th of February, 1964. The Beatles on the plane into John F. Kennedy International Airport, which had recently been renamed in honor of the deceased president, who had been assassinated a little over a month prior. According to the Beatles themselves, they were not as excited as one might expect. In fact, when they first heard the noise coming from the tarmac as they landed, the reaction was one of disbelief.

“We could hear this screaming,” John’s wife Cynthia Lennon later said. “We thought it was the engines, but the screaming was that of the fans.” As they disembarked, Paul McCartney was heard to ask: “Who is this for?”

A crowd of 4000 fans had gathered to greet them, as well as a platoon of 200 journalists. It was reportedly the biggest single gathering of people the airport had ever hosted, and the attending police struggled to keep order. A few people in the crowd were injured in the melee, and according to a reporter on the scene, “some of the girls had tried to throw themselves over a retaining wall.”

It was a prophetic start. The Beatles proved to be the vanguard of what would come to be called ‘the British Invasion’. By the end of 1964, British acts had accounted for a third of all top ten hits in the US.

 

The Sixties: The British Invasion - The Beatles arrive at JFK from Jonathan Buss on Vimeo.

 

Why did the Beatles capture so many hearts?

Contemporary historians have since theorized that a complex combination of factors cooked up the recipe for the Beatles’ success. The 1960s was defined by the epic tug-of-war between conformity and counterculture. For lots of teenagers at the time, the Beatles epitomized that counterculture. Through their image and their music, they imbued their fans with the freedom to rebel against rigid societal norms – and understandably, that message resonated with their legions of fans.

But interestingly, some people think that there was another oft-overlooked aspect to American Beatlemania: national grief. Three months before the arrival of the Beatles, the nation was plunged into mourning by the assassination of John F Kennedy, a man regarded by many as one of the most promising leaders the country had elected in decades. Recently Dr. Roger Fagge, a contemporary academic based in the UK, summed it up best: “As a country, we were in such a state of depression and melancholy and sadness. Then all of a sudden, along came these four guys – and they said, you know, it’s OK."

Of course, not everyone was quite so enamored with them. They angered many US Christians in particular – amongst them David A. Noebel, who urged his fellow patriotic Americans to “make sure four mop-headed anti-Christ beatniks don’t destroy our children's mental and emotional stability and ultimately destroy our nation."

Whatever you think of his position, it’s fair to say that the Beatles didn’t always help themselves against these accusations. You probably don’t need us to remind you of John Lennon, who in 1966 infamously remarked that the Beatles “were more popular than Jesus.”

Despite the ire of conservative Americans though, the juggernaut of the Beatles’ fame could not be stopped. If anything, one might say they became TOO famous. In fact, they began to find it almost literally impossible to travel between their concerts due to the immense crowds of fans pressing in from all sides, and it was this which ultimately led to their decision to stop touring altogether.

But while they may not be selling out whole stadiums anymore, their musical and cultural legacy has far from faded. They remain one of the all-time greats amongst all the countless music acts the world has ever produced, and their records are highly prized by the owners of Rock-Ola jukeboxes.

Speaking of which, we’re proud to have carved out our very own piece of music history here at Rock-Ola, with our Bubbler jukebox. With its curved top, entrancing colors and pristine oak exterior, the Bubbler has become an icon that defines an era – a true piece of modern Americana. Every one of them is handmade right by our experts here in California, and today our range includes some fascinating all-new designs! They’re waiting for you to explore…