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Celebrate the 50th anniversary of The Beatles’ American breakthrough

If it seems like The Beatles were everywhere in 1964, it's because, well, they pretty much were. The Fab Four were on tour (nine countries); in the studio (35 new tracks), on radio and TV (42 performances) and starring in their first feature film. Here's a look back at this bustling year in Beatles history.

By Gillian G. Gaar

1964 was the year became international stars. Their success was more explosive than Elvis Presley’s in his breakout year of 1956 because unlike The King, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr toured the world, playing in nine countries, including their native Britain. The Beatles also recorded 35 new tracks, made 42 radio and television appearances (not including interviews) and starred in their first feature film, “A Hard Day’s Night.”

Much of this work was already scheduled when Jan. 1, 1964, dawned. In July 1963, Beatles manager Brian Epstein had set up a three-week run at Paris’ Olympic Theatre for January 1964. In October 1963, the schedule was set to start shooting “A Hard Day’s Night” in March 1964. And by mid-December 1963, Epstein had signed contracts for tours of Australia and New Zealand for the following June.

But most importantly, Epstein had scheduled The Beatles’ debut appearances in America. In November 1963, Epstein traveled to New York City and met with Ed Sullivan, arranging three appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” for the following February. As the top-rated variety show of its day, these appearances would provide a mammoth amount of exposure Epstein hoped would finally break The Beatles in America.

Beatles on Ed Sullivan Show

Ed Sullivan looks as though he’s shooing the neighborhood kids out of his yard as he appears onstage with The Beatles in 1964. The band broke through in America that year, thanks in large part to the Feb. 9, 1964, appearance on Sullivan’s show, the first of several that year. Courtesy Universal Music Group.Copyright CBS Photography/1964.

He’d also convinced Captiol Records to start releasing The Beatles’ records in the U.S. — arguably, the spark that finally lit the fuse. Capitol originally planned to release “I Want to Hold Your Hand”/“I Saw Her Standing There” on Jan. 13, 1964. But then Carroll James, a deejay at station WWDC in the nation’s capitol, began airing the song on Dec. 17, 1963, after receiving a listener request. He then sent a tape of the song to a fellow deejay in Chicago, after which it began spreading across the country. Demand for the track increased, and Capitol pushed up the release date to Dec. 26, 1963.

The Beatles spent the first 11 days of 1964 finishing up the run of “The Beatles’ Christmas Show” in London before heading to France. After a warmup date in Versailles on Jan. 15, the Fab Four opened in Paris on Jan. 16, where they performed two and sometimes three shows a day through Feb. 4.

The opening night did not go well. The audience reception was cool, and there were three power outages during The Beatles’ set. But when the band returned to its hotel, it all became irrelevant, as The Beatles learned that the Jan. 25 issue of Cash Box magazine would show “I Want to Hold Your Hand” in the No. 1 position on the Top 100. The American breakthrough had finally arrived.

The Beatles, Epstein and producer George Martin stayed up the rest of the night celebrating. “They were very, very, very happy,” photographer Harry Benson recalls.
The Beatles’ career momentum picked up immediately. During the Paris run, Epstein finalized details for U.S. concert appearances: Feb. 11 in Washington, D.C., and Feb. 12 in New York. The Fabs also made a quick trip to Pathé Marconi Studios on Jan. 29 to record German language versions of “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” and “Sie Leibt Dich” for the German market, along with a new song, “Can’t Buy Me Love,” in which you can hear the giddy enthusiasm in Paul McCartney’s lead vocal.

Beatles Ed Sullivan Show unused ticket Feb. 9, 1964

This unused VIP ticket for The Beatles' first appearance on "The Ed Sullivan Show" sold for $9,375 via Heritage Auctions.

British media and fans were out in full force when The Beatles flew to America on Feb. 7. Capitol had gone all out, investing $40,000 in a campaign to spread the word via ads, buttons, stickers and wigs to build on the growing excitement. Vee-Jay, which had acquired the rights to release some Beatles songs in 1963 when Capitol had passed on them, rushed out “Introducing The Beatles” on Jan. 10, with Capitol’s “Meet The Beatles!” coming out close behind, on Jan. 20. And Vee-Jay’s “Please Please Me” and “She Loves You” (reissued by Swan, who’d picked up the single when Capitol passed) were following “I Want to Hold Your Hand” up the charts.

Nonetheless, Benson, who accompanied the group on the trip, recalls The Beatles as being “a bit apprehensive” about their reception in the States. But worries about their reception were assuaged as soon as they arrived. An estimated 3,000 teenagers swarmed the terminal, and the reporters and photographers at the airport press conference weren’t much better behaved. It was the first sign of the frenzy that would accompany all of the band’s visits to America, which they quickly learned to take in stride. “Are you a little embarrassed by the lunacy you cause?” a reporter asked. “No, it’s great!” Lennon replied.

There was little time to rest; even Harrison’s sore throat didn’t interrupt the steady flow of interviews, photo sessions and receptions, not to mention rehearsals for “The Ed Sullivan Show.” After a morning rehearsal on Feb. 9 (the day of the broadcast), The Beatles performed for their first American audience at a dress rehearsal, which began at 2:30 p.m. The Beatles then taped three more songs for a future “Sullivan” show, which would be broadcast on Feb. 23. Finally, at 8 p.m., the live broadcast began.

beatles ed sullivan show

Those who missed The Beatles' original performances on "The Ed Sullivan Show" can still enjoy them on DVD:

The Beatles’ “Ed Sullivan” appearances have been officially released on DVD, and the years haven’t dimmed the visceral thrill of watching the band’s live debut. On that first show, they performed “All My Loving,” “’Til There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” nearly all of which highlighted the band’s rocking, energetic side.

This was the moment that galvanized America’s teenagers. Patricia King, then a 12-year-old fan, was one of the 73 million estimated viewers who tuned in that night. “I liked their energy and how they were laughing,” she says. “And I loved their accents. And their hair — no Paul Anka hair helmets and short military haircuts there!”

Two days later was The Beatles’ live concert debut at the Washington Coliseum in Washington, D.C. The 12-song set was filmed, and while songs later appeared on the “The First U.S. Visit” release, the show had never been released in its entirety. Given that The Beatles’ Feb. 12 shows at Carnegie Hall weren’t recorded or filmed (Capitol had wanted to, but was prevented by the American Federation of Musicians), the 1964 D.C. concert footage remains the only record of the live shows the group performed on that first U.S trip.

On Feb. 13, the band flew to Miami. Three days later, the band’s second “Ed Sullivan” live appearance was broadcast from Miami’s Deauville Hotel. The six-song set was performed in front of a live audience of 2,600. Though the band’s time again revolved around rehearsals, interviews and photo shoots (including a memorable one with boxer Cassius Clay, who had not yet changed his name to Muhammad Ali), The Beatles had more time to relax and enjoy the sunshine before returning to the U.K. Feb. 22.

By then, the documentary “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah! The Beatles in New York” had already been broadcast twice on television in the U.K. The film was a 36-minute edit of material shot by Albert and Davis Maysles, documentary filmmakers who were allowed extraordinary access to The Beatles during their trip, filming the band members in limos, trains and hotel rooms, all while capturing the craziness that surrounded the band. A a 45-minute cut, retitled “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the USA,” aired Nov. 13, 1964.

The Maysles’ footage is the best depiction of Beatlemania, American Style. At times, you feel like you’re watching a rough cut of “A Hard Day’s Night,” as the group waves at fans from the safety of its limo or escapes for a night out at the Peppermint Lounge. Neither the 36 nor 45-minute edits have been officially released, but footage was used in “The First U.S. Visit” — the 2003 DVD has bonus material — which helps to give a real feel of the era.

Following The Beatles’ U.S. trip, record companies flooded the country with new releases. It wasn’t just Capitol; Vee-Jay and Swan steadily reissued tracks they believed they had the rights to, while MGM and Atco issued the recordings The Beatles had made in Germany with Tony Sheridan in 1961 and 1962. All told, 21 singles, two EPs and 12 albums were released in the U.S. in 1964, compared with seven singles, four EPs and four albums in the U.K.

Despite the glut of records, chart positions and sales were astonishing. From Feb. 29 to April 25, The Beatles had the No. 1 and No. 2 spots in Billboard with “Meet The Beatles!” and “Introducing The Beatles,” respectively. That run continued the weeks of May 2 and 9, when “The Beatles’ Second Album” moved to No. 1 and “Meet The Beatles!” fell to No. 2.
On April 4, the band held the top five spots on the singles chart: “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves You,” “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “Please Please Me.” Each of those songs went on to become million sellers. “Meet The Beatles!” eventually topped 5 million copies; “The Beatles’ Second Album” (a hodge-podge collection featuring songs from the U.K. “With The Beatles” album, the U.K. “Long Tall Sally” EP and the “She Loves You” single) would sell 2 million.

Meet The Beatles

On Feb. 25, The Beatles began recording songs for the as-yet-unnamed feature film, completing “I Should Have Known Better,” “And I Love Her” and “If I Fell” before filming began March 2. The group was anxious that the movie not be a tacky jukebox musical in the vein of “Rock Around the Clock,” or like one of Elvis’ lackluster post-Army films. They were happy that their own film, scripted by Alun Owen (who had grown up in Liverpool) took a similarly irreverent approach as the band’s favorite rock ‘n’ roll movie: the 1956 classic “The Girl Can’t Help It.”

Beatles Hard Day's Night poster

"A Hard Day's Night" was the first foray into feature film for The Beatles. This 24-sheet poster (104 x 232 inches) for the 1964 movie sold for $1,673, including buyer's premium, via Heritage Auctions.

The plot revolved around the gimmick of McCartney’s grumpy grandfather causing problems for the group. But the real lure was that the viewers felt they were being taken inside The Beatles’ private world. The script also poked fun at the “older generation,” the manufactured “intimacy” of press conferences and the cynical marketing of new products to the teenage demographic, highlighted by George Harrison’s memorable scene with an advertising executive.

The Beatles A Hard Day's Night soundtrack

The music for the film also showed an increasing sophistication. When the title was decided on during filming, Lennon and McCartney quickly delivered a song written to order, one that showed a mature, world-weariness in contrast to the more teenage sentiments of “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” The band wrote enough songs to make the U.K. “A Hard Day’s Night” album (released July 10) — the first of all-original material. The U.S. version, which was released June 26 by United Artists, was more like a proper soundtrack, with just the film’s songs and additional instrumentals, as well as a rarity: a longer version of “I’ll Cry Instead.”

Lennon’s first book, “In His Own Write,” was published during filming of “A Hard Day’s Night.” The book featured poems and short stories with the kind of punning wordplay he’d written over the years to amuse his friends. Now he was hailed by the critics for this originality and dubbed “the literary Beatle.” And while the other Beatles weren’t involved with the book (though McCartney did write the foreword), it still gave the entire band an additional cachet; this was a group with hidden depths.

You can’t really appreciate how hard The Beatles worked in 1964 without taking a look at their day-to-day chronology. Consider this week in late April: After filming on “A Hard Day’s Night” wrapped on April 24, the band went right into rehearsals for a TV special, “Around The Beatles,” on April 25. There was a concert performance on April 26, another “Around The Beatles” rehearsal on April 27, the taping of the special on April 28, concerts in Scotland on April 29 and 30, and a radio session for the BBC on May 1.

The Beatles then took a well-deserved break. But no sooner were they back at work when Starr collapsed during a photo shoot on the morning of June 3 and was sent to the hospital. With a tour due to start the following day, it was imperative to find a replacement, and Jimmie Nicol, then drumming with Georgie Fame & The Blue Flames, was offered the job. Fortuitously, Nicol had also played on a series of records featuring cover versions of current hits, including Beatles songs, so he had little difficulty fitting in.

For the rest of the month, The Beatles toured Denmark, the Netherlands, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand, with Starr rejoining the band June 15. The crowds who turned out to see them in Australia were tremendous — 300,000 in Adelaide, by one account. That figured was quickly rivaled by loyal Liverpudlians who filled the streets when The Beatles returned to their native city on July 10 for the Liverpool premiere of “A Hard Day’s Night,” four days after the film’s July 6 world premiere in London. The film’s soundtrack and accompanying single (the title song) topped the U.S. and U.K. charts. The U.S. also released the long version of “I’ll Cry Instead” and “And I Love Her” as singles (reaching Nos. 25 and 12, respectively), as well as another hodge-podge album, “Something New,” drawing on songs from the U.S. and U.K. versions of “A Hard Day’s Night,” two tracks from the “Long Tall Sally” EP and “Komm, Gib Mir Deine Hand” for good measure. It reached No. 2 and sold 2 million copies.

After some scattered dates in England and Sweden, The Beatles’ first full-length U.S. tour began Aug. 19 in San Francisco; the final date was a charity concert held Sept. 20 in New York. It was to be the band’s longest-ever U.S. tour, playing to the biggest crowds they’d ever faced. In retrospect, this was also when touring began to lose its allure. The band played the same 30-minute set night after night, with the audiences more interested in screaming than listening.

The tour might also have produced the first live Beatles album. Capitol recorded the Hollywood Bowl show on Aug. 23, and prepared acetates for the group and producer George Martin to listen to. Ultimately, it was felt that the sound quality was poor, meaning that it would take another 13 years before some of the tracks were officially released on the album “The Beatles at the Hollywood Bowl.”

But an excerpt of “Twist and Shout” was used on another Capitol album that year, “The Beatles’ Story,” released Nov. 23. It’s one of the oddest releases in the band’s catalogue.
Described on the cover as “A narrative and musical biography of Beatlemania,” the group’s history is told via song excerpts, press conference sound bites, instrumental versions of Beatles songs by the Hollyridge Strings, and hokey narration (written by Beach Boys songwriters Roger Christian and Gary Usher). The album hit the Top 10 and sold half a million copies, showing how just about any record with the name “Beatles” attached would sell. “The Beatles’ Story” has never reissued, but remains a fine example of 1960s kitsch.
The group’s final tour of the year was a jaunt around Britain between Oct. 9 and Nov. 10, with “Another Beatles Christmas Show” following from Dec. 24 through Jan. 16, 1965.

The band also had to find time to record a new album and single. In contrast to the exuberance of “A Hard Day’s Night,” “Beatles For Sale” (released Dec. 4 in the U.K.) struck a decidedly downbeat note, from its cynical title (casting The Beatles not as a band, but mere product), to the group’s tired expressions on the front cover, to the gloom of the first three songs: “No Reply,” “I’m a Loser” and “Baby’s in Black.” The band also fell back on cover songs, suggesting the creative well was a bit dry at the time.

But the album still reached No. 1, as did the accompanying single; the heady pop of “I Feel Fine” (featuring a squall of feedback that had happened accidentally and was then refined for the song’s opening) backed with the gritty “She’s a Woman,” with McCartney in Little Richard, rock-screamer mode.

On the surface, it might seem that “Beatles For Sale” showed The Beatles in something of a holding pattern. But as with every Beatles release, there were signs of musical development. The acoustic tone of much of the album set the stage for next year’s triumph, “Rubber Soul.”

Beatles for Sale 2014 mono vinyl Capitol reissue

The U.S. counterpart was yet another hodge-podge collection, “Beatles ’65,” released on Dec. 15, with eight tracks from “Beatles For Sale,” the “I Feel Fine” single and the stray “Hard Day’s Night” track “I’ll Be Back.” By early 1965, “Beatles ’65” had topped the charts; it went on to sell 3 million copies.

While 1964 was a monumental year for The Beatles, it was a pivotal year for rock and roll, as well. There had been groups who wrote their own material — The Beach Boys come to mind — but no one had taken it to the spectacular heights of The Fab Four. The budding musicians who watched The Beatles on “The Ed Sullivan Show” or in “A Hard Day’s Night” didn’t just want to play instruments; they wanted to write songs, as well. This caused a shift in how rock bands were perceived. In the future, you’d have to write your own songs to be taken seriously.

The Beatles also earned the honor of being the first rock act to consistently sell out stadiums and ballparks, something that substantially altered the future of the music industry. The band also kicked off a craze for all things British, opening the doors for numerous British Invasion acts to follow.

But it wasn’t the record sales and sold-out shows that became the most important part of The Beatles’ legacy. It was the music. Despite the hectic pace of 1964, The Beatles were able to create classic, innovative work. And as their fans would happily discover, there was a lot more to come. GM