‘Beatlemania’ was about to spread like an epidemic across America after the Fab Four touched down in New York on February 7th, 1964.
Their fame, and their music, had already migrated ‘across the pond’ from Liverpool to the USA and more than 3,000 teenagers were waiting at the airport to greet their heroes and heartthrobs. Many had skipped school or work to be there and officers from the NYPD, New York’s finest, were out in force to contain the crowds behind hastily erected barriers.
The screaming started even before John, Paul, George and Ringo, stepped off the Pan Am flight and descended the steps onto American soil… or concrete. The Beatles had scored their first American number one hit just six days earlier with “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and hysteria for the group was growing fast. Sporting their trademark mod suits and ‘mop-top’ hairstyles, they were certainly distinctive and different from anything on the American music scene at that time.
An American fashion company describing itself as “the only exclusive official licensed manufacturer of Beatle wearing apparel” was working overtime churning out T-shirts, turtle-neck sweaters, tight-legged trousers, scarves, jewellery and even nightwear, all bearing the Beatles logo or pictures of the boys. Official ‘Beatle wigs’ were also flying off the shelves at $2.99 apiece (or should that be ‘hairpiece’).
Latching on to the growing Beatlemania, and helping to fuel it, many radio stations targeting teenage audiences were playing Beatles records almost non-stop and teen magazines were filled with pictures and articles about the British pop sensation.
The first official engagement of their two-week tour was an appearance on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’, a popular TV variety programme syndicated across America. Sullivan had booked them to appear after seeing footage of crowds of screaming teens waiting to greet the Beatles on their return to London’s Heathrow Airport following a trip to Sweden a few months previously.
More than 5,000 fans applied to be part of the studio audience for the Ed Sullivan Show, but only 750 were lucky enough to get tickets. Even then, their hysterical screaming almost drowned out the Beatles’ performance on stage – something which would become the norm for their shows and which increasingly annoyed the group and contributed to their decision, a few years later, to stop touring.
Across America an estimated 73 million TV viewers tuned in to watch the show, around 40% of the national population. Later figures claimed the national crime rate dipped to a 50-year low during the show. Sullivan immediately booked them to appear again during their trip, with their two appearances still ranked as the second and third most-watched programmes in the history of US television, topped only by the final episode of Korean war comedy MASH, which aired almost 20 years later in 1983.
Also during the trip, the Beatles gave a number of live concerts, including one in Washington and two back-to-back performances at New York’s Carnegie Hall. All were sold out and needed large numbers of police to contain the crowds gathered outside the venues. Everywhere they went, the Beatles were given the kind of police protection usually reserved for visiting monarchs and presidents.
By the time they headed home, on February 22nd, Beatlemania had spread across America like wildfire. They were the first British band to truly break the American market and paved the way for many more to follow, in what became known as ‘the British invasion’. When the Beatles split up in 1970 there was an international outpouring of grief, but all four members went on to solo careers.
In 2004 they were given the President’s Award at the annual Grammys music awards to mark the 40th anniversary of Beatlemania hitting America. By then, two of the Fab Four were already dead – John Lennon from an assassin’s bullet and George Harrison from cancer – and the award was accepted by their widows. But their music lives on.