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‘Beatlemania’ and the legacy of Black Music

50th anniversary of ‘British Invasion’

Merdies Hayes | 1/30/2014, midnight
Next weekend will mark the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion, that seminal moment in Rock ‘N Roll history when ...

Next weekend will mark the 50th anniversary of the British Invasion, that seminal moment in Rock ‘N Roll history when the Beatles “hopped the pond” and landed on the Ed Sullivan Show. American teens had widely anticipated the Liverpool lads that Sunday evening, Feb. 9, 1964, with fanfare dwarfing any display of the popular arts in American history.

It was a good time for fun. Americans were still deeply mourning President Kennedy’s assassination 10 weeks earlier. Violent civil rights struggles in the South, worries that the U.S. and Soviet Union could at any moment blow up the world, and the encroaching quagmire in Vietnam made the mid-60s a time of national turmoil and social distress.

George Harrison

George Harrison

But not that night. In their slick Beatles suits, while donning “mop top” coifed hair and fancy Rickenbacker electric guitars, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr sang their biggest hits to the delirium of White teenagers who comprised most of the audience, and to the apparent dismay of Sullivan (”Alright you kids up there...you promised!”) in a landmark performance witnessed at home by an estimated 73 million people. These British performers introduced to Black America a relatively obscure take on Rock ‘N Roll that was wholly influenced by American artists from IkeTurner, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Fats Domino, to Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly and Carl Perkins. Conversely, the British Invasion introduced to White American teens a whole genre of American music they’d never heard, specifically Rhythm & Blues, Blues and the repertoire of tunes once referred to as “race music” in the waning years of segregation.

The Beatles and their British contemporaries the Rolling Stones, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Peter and Gordon, Chad and Jeremy, Herman’s Hermits et. al. were teenagers when the aforementioned American artists—along with Blues greats Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, John Lee Hooker and Elmore James—would tour Europe during the 1950s and introduce American music to impressionable youth. It caught on fast. The music of the British Invasion was less about Great Britain, and had more to do with African Americans. Up to that point, British Pop music sounded much like American fox trots of the 1930s: no grit, no edge...and definitely no soul. That’s when so-called “sciffle” bands had innovated the “Mersey Beat,” a syncopated, four-part rhythm arrangement which was radio-ready coming in at two minutes, thirty seconds; excellently suited for Hi-Fi sound, and, production-wise, economical with only four to five musicians.

Save for Peter Noone of Herman’s Hermits, and Gerry Marsden, most of the British Pop stars sang with an American accent—specifically a Black cadence—which they endeared so much that some singers (Mick Jagger of the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton, Robert Plant of Led Zepplin and later, Rod Stewart and Elton John) seemed to have undoubtedly practiced the accent of an old Black man in formulating their British Blues sound. Blues legend B.B. King said years ago that these White artists may have effectively saved the Blues on American radio because his form of music was gradually being supplanted by Rock ‘N Roll, R&B and Soul. Fans of the Rolling Stones, John Mayall and the Bluesbreakers, the Yardbirds, Fleetwood Mac, Alexis Korner and Alvin Lee began to trace their enchantment with British Blues back to the original African American artists.

Because these new acts were weaned on Black music—but obviously didn’t look the part—many of the players donned thick-rimmed glasses ala Buddy Holly. “That’s where we got that look...from Buddy Holly,” said Peter Asher late last year on “Good Day L.A.” “When I was a kid, all I could think about was America. I even had a poster of New York City in my bedroom. We’d listen to American Rock ‘N Roll from the time we arose until we went to bed. When we got the chance to come here, we wanted to look and sound like we belonged.” He and the late Gordon Waller’s biggest hit, “World Without Love,” was written by Paul McCartney.

Soon dubbed “Beatlemania,” the four faces were plastered in towns big and small that had any sizable population of teenage girls. As the legend goes, Sullivan had seen the crowds of Beatles’ fans at London’s Heathrow Airport and inquired about all the commotion. “I made up my mind that this was some sort of mass hysteria that had characterized the Elvis Presley days,” Sullivan told the New York Times years later. He booked them on sight—without hearing a single note—and today many baby boomers frequently ask one another: “Where were you when you heard the Beatles sing for the first time on Ed Sullivan?”

William F. Buckley Jr. in 1964 offered a sober assessment of the British Invasion: “I tell you, my friends, it [Beatlemania] is like a sickness, which is not a cultivated hallucinatory weakness, but something that derives from a lamentable and organic imbalance.”

Black elders gathered to hear what all the fuss was about; the familiar disdain for Rock ‘N Roll—irrespective of color—was explained: “I can’t understand a word.” “Look at that long hair!” “That’s not music. You take Count Basie, Louis Jordan...now that’s music.” “Why doesn’t the drummer sing?” White American artists had been copying the Black sound since the days of Paul Whiteman and George Gershwin who had parlayed “Symphonic Jazz” into the mainstream. If it not for Big Mama Thornton’s “Hound Dog,” Elvis Presley may not have had such a meteoric beginning. The Beach Boys’ “Surfin’ U.S.A.” owed a debt of gratitude to Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen.”

Chuck Berry

Chuck Berry

The British Invasion, for a time, knocked many American artists off the Top 40 chart, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis, Ray Charles and Little Richard. Artists like Aretha Franklin, Otis Redding and Wilson Pickett from Stax Records in Memphis, Tenn, and the Motown family in Detroit, Mich. did not experience a decline in record sales because of the new British sound. The Beach Boys had already carved a unique niche in Rock ‘N Roll; superstar James Brown may not have noticed the British Invasion.

The Beatles in the mid-60’s were the most publicized act in the business. Ringo Starr was asked in 1966 what he thought was the group’s biggest contribution to the music industry? “Records,” he said. The press endeavored to peel back their private lives, but Ringo may have said it best about the Beatles and all the young acts now in the forefront of Pop music: “There’s a woman in the United States who predicted the plane we were traveling on would crash,” he offered during a slew of interviews now taking place practically every week. “Now a lot of people would like to think we were scared into saying a prayer. What we did actually—we drank.”

Soon more British acts would capitalize on the African American sound, including smokey-voiced Dusty Springfield, sex symbol Tom Jones, the “blue-eyed soul” trio Bee Gees, Petula Clark and Ireland’s Van Morrison all favored the Black sound. Then came Eric Burdon of the Animals. Roger Daltry of The Who. Ray Davies of The Kinks. Each of these frontmen favored the volume-packed, “big” sound of the great Blues artists they had come to emulate.

In short order, the British Invasion would conquer American dance shows such as “American Bandstand,” “Shindig,” “Hullabaloo” and “Lloyd Thaxston’s Hop.” But despite the best intentions of TV teens Patty Duke and Sally Field in demonstrating the latest dance craze, Black teens began to speculate that their White brethren would only flail in vain in mastering the “Watusi,” the “Monkey” or the “Jerk.” By then the Beatles had been showcased in Hollywood with the popular 1965 film “Hard Day’s Night,” and had begun to outdistance themselves from other British imports. With the 1964 release of “I Saw Her Standing There,” musically curious Black teens found that the Beatles were better than the rest because now they were penning original songs with a harder edge and distinctive “hook” different from the Mersey Beat, thereby producing a more tough, “raw” sound which previously the domain of American artists. “Got To Get You Into My Life,” an homage to Jazz from 1966’s “Revolver” album, further built the Beatles’ popularity among Black teens. By the late 60s, the Beatles had earned their “street cred” among African Americans with “Revolution 1” from the “White Album,” and “Come Together” from “Abby Road.”

McCartney said his bass lines for “I Saw Her Standing There” was taken from Chuck Berry’s 1961 song “I’m Talking About You.” “I played exactly the same notes as he did and it fitted our number perfectly,” he said. “ Even now when I tell people about it, I find few of them believe me. Therefore I maintain that a bass riff doesn’t have to be original.”

Music fans have frequently questioned the similarity in lyrics between “Come Together” and Chuck Berry’s 1956 song “You Can’t Catch Me.” John Lennon’s opening lyric “Here come ol’ flattop. He come movin’ up slowly” copied almost verbatim Berry’s line midway through his song: “Here come ol’ flatop. He come rollin’ up with me.” One was an “anti-establishment song,” the other a “car song.” A court case ensued in 1975 which resulted in Lennon recording “You Can’t Catch Me” for his “Rock ‘N Roll” album.

Lennon explained things in 1980, not long before his untimely death: “‘Come Together’ is me, writing obscurely around an old Chuck Berry thing. I left the line in ‘Here comes old flattop.’ It is nothing like the Chuck Berry song, but they took me to court because I admitted the influence once years ago. I could have changed it to ‘Here comes old iron face,’ but the song remains independent of Chuck Berry or anyone else on Earth.”

In 1970, George Harrison became the first Beatle to have a number-one single, “My Sweet Lord.” In 1976, a lawsuit was brought forth by Bright Tunes Music which published the Chiffons’ No. 1 tune from 1963 “He’s So Fine.” The chord structure of both songs were virtually identical, so Harrison was ordered to pay Bright Tunes Music $587,000, but ended up owning both songs.

“When we were going to court the judge said there was no way that I copied that song,” Harrison said in 1979. “But the judge says: ‘because of the similarity, we must talk about compensation.’ Having to go to court and do these things, it’s terrible, it’s a pain in the ass.”

Early on the Beatles had many great American groups to sample and emulate, but no individual or group—outside of Chuck Berry—was covered as much as were the Isley Brothers. Beginning with “Shout” which they sang often in their early stage act in Liverpool as well as in Hamburg, Germany, the Beatles would also copy “I Want To Hold Your Hand” as well as their famous 1964 remake of “Twist and Shout” in which John Lennon’s sore throat accidentally gave the Beatles a more “gritty” sound, thereby ascending them onto a plateau with some of the best African American artists.

John Lennon

John Lennon

During a mid-90s television documentary of the Beatles, Ronald Isley commented: “Back then, everytime you turned around the Beatles were doing an Isley Brothers song.” Also during the early years, McCartney would frequently include Little Richard’s famous “wooo” in his lyrics, while Harrison and Starr teamed up often in covering Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Matchbox,” both songs steeped within the Southern Black music tradition.

“We liked Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Carl Perkins, Elvis, all the American stuff,” McCartney said in the 1994 book “The Lost Beatles Interviews.” All of our early Beatles albums were B-sides of Black artists, most of the stuff. So I think really we just wanted a ballsier sound because some of the people, for us, were getting too sloppy.”

Los Angeles had arguably the Beatles’ most productive publicity outlet with “Boss Radio” (AM-93 KHJ). It was the first local station to cater to the British Invasion, so much so that disc jockey Bob Eubanks took out a second mortgage on his home in order to help the station sponsor the Beatles’ 1964 concert at the Hollywood Bowl. Tickets went on sale four months before the concert and sold out in three and a half hours. Eubanks remembered hundreds of teenage girls who camped out overnight on Highland Avenue and the next day, he said, the line extended from the Bowl entrance to almost Hollywood Boulevard.

“The crowd was so loud, nobody could hear the music,” Eubanks recalled. “After the concert, kids mobbed the backstage area. The producers used a limo as a decoy while putting the Beatles in a Dodge Dart and getting them out before the kids realized they were gone.” The Beatles returned the next year, but this time producers hired a Brinks armored truck to shuttle the group from their hotel to the show and back again. KRLA (AM 870) in 1966 sponsored a second Beatles concert, this time at Dodger Stadium. Following this show, the Beatles would finish their tour and perform live for the final time at Candlestick Park in San Francisco.

Local Black teens in the mid-60s generally listened to radio station KGFJ (AM-1230) which supplied the full compliment of the “platters that matter” within Soul and Rhythm and Blues. Black youth would frequently tune the dial to “Boss Radio” just to hear the new sounds from those White British artists; radio programming was not as compartmentalized as it is today, and the resulting playlist variety encouraged more “crossover” listeners.

A second British Invasion took place in the 1980s, this time introducing such groups as Duran Duran, Pet Shop Boys, Tears For Fears, Spandau Ballet and Culture Club. These groups didn’t have the innovation nor mass appeal of the earlier artists, and ultimately faded from pop culture.

On February 9, CBS will air “The Night That Changed America,” a two-hour tribute to the Beatles’ appearance, beginning at 8 p.m.

In the end, the British Invasion was yet another White innovation of Black music. The staying power of the Beatles, however, proved this music campaign would be a lasting one. Today, age groups spanning three generations still hear those old British Invasion tunes and rejoice together about the good sounds and memorable moments and, occasionally, are in rare agreement: “All You Need Is Love.”