It may be impossible to overstate the cultural impact of the Beatles in the 1960s. Sales of their records shattered previous marks in the music industry, but the group’s significance cannot be understood simply in commercial, quantified terms. The music of the Beatles opened new artistic possibilities for every rock group who followed them, but their influence was more than just musical. When they first entered the media spotlight in 1963-64, the Beatles unleashed an intensity of emotion and elation among millions of young people, especially teenage and preteen girls, that concerned and confused adults—previous teen idols had provoked comparable outbursts, but nothing like this. Although no one could have seen it coming, the seemingly apolitical phenomenon of Beatleamania was in fact the precursor to a more threatening insurrection among young people in the years ahead.
The Beatles emerged from a working-class port city, Liverpool, that maintained the closest ties to American music and culture of any English city. During the Industrial Revolution, Liverpool profited immensely from trade with North America and the West Indies, especially as a midpoint in the flow of African slaves and American cotton and tobacco—in 1800, 85 percent of the slave trade came through its docks. By 1800, Liverpool had become the most diverse city in the UK, with sizable African, Asian, and West Indian neighborhoods. As a port city with strong links to the Caribbean, a cosmopolitan culture, and an atmosphere of debauchery, Liverpool became something like an English New Orleans. Then, during the mid-nineteenth century, a tide of immigrants poured into Liverpool from Wales and Ireland, including the ancestors of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, and George Harrison. A strong sense of solidarity and class consciousness solidified in Liverpool and across Merseyside, whose inhabitants proudly distinguished themselves from London and its monied classes—the city’s workers played a leading role in Britain’s general strike of 1926. John Lennon later claimed that growing up in Liverpool made him an “instinctive socialist.” In the post-war era, the city continued to suffer for many years from the destruction wrought by German bombing and the scarcity imposed by wartime rationing.
The sailors who regularly passed through Liverpool, nicknamed Cunard Yanks, were instrumental in bringing jazz, country, blues, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll records from the U.S. The Cunard Yanks’ influence on the Beatles has been made into a romantic mythology, but their importance in Liverpool’s music scene as a whole cannot be disputed. The popularity of American country music after World War II caused Liverpool to be labeled the “Nashville of the North,” for instance. Likewise, a thirst for the original forms of jazz from New Orleans, or “trad jazz,” led to the skiffle craze of the mid-1950s. Skiffle was a fast, fun, and relatively simple form of music that almost anyone could play—at one point, there were as many as 5,000 skiffle bands performing in the UK. The music’s popularity in Liverpool moved John Lennon to form his first band: the Quarrymen, a skiffle group that later included Paul McCartney and George Harrison.
Rock ‘n’ roll had a delayed impact in Britain. The BBC maintained a monopoly over the radio airwaves, and its gatekeepers dismissed rock ‘n’ roll as a passing fad. Whereas skiffle was associated with university students, the BBC’s cultural elites disparaged rock ‘n’ roll as the music of teenage delinquents and the lower classes. Britain also lacked the independent labels that were crucial for disseminating rock ‘n’ roll records in the United States. The sole medium for transmitting rock ‘n’ roll music in Europe was Radio Luxembourg, and in the 1950s its broadcasts of popular music were limited to two-hour segments on the weekends.
The look and rebellious attitude of rock ‘n’ roll proved to be as influential as its sound. American movies with rock ‘n’ roll soundtracks—especially Blackboard Jungle, The Girl Can’t Help It, and Jailhouse Rock—were crucial in personifying the sound and style for British youth. The subculture of working-class youth known as teddy boys, or teds, adopted the “quiff” hairstyle associated with Elvis Presley, mixing it with distinctly English fashion from the Edwardian period. The teddy boy subculture, as Dick Hebdige wrote, “came to mean America, a fantasy continent of Westerns and gangsters, luxury, glamour and ‘automobiles’.” As a teenager, John Lennon adorned himself in the ted style, inciting discipline from the headmaster of his school. McCartney and Harrison also emulated the ted look, as the Beatles maintained this style as a group through their initial stint in Hamburg, in stark contrast to the suits and mop tops that later defined them.
With their roots in Liverpool and youth subculture, the Beatles were the leading group in a larger musical movement involving great numbers of British working-class youth. By 1961, there were no less than 300 amateur and semi-professional groups in Liverpool alone. Throughout England, young men, mostly from proletarian families and neighborhoods, had begun to play music and form bands after being inspired by American blues, rockabilly, R&B, and rock ‘n’ roll. The Who, the Yardbirds, and the Animals emerged from working-class neighborhoods; the Rolling Stones, particularly Mick Jagger and Brian Jones, had more affluent backgrounds. Although Elvis Presley, Buddy Holly, and Gene Vincent were major influences for many of these groups, most of the musicians who provided the foundation for rock music in England were black: Muddy Waters; Chuck Berry; Little Richard; Robert Johnson; Bo Diddley; Elmore James; Fats Domino; Howlin Wolf; Sonny Boy Williamson. The guitar players from the British groups derived their sound mainly from the Chicago bluesmen who recorded for Chess Records.
One common thread connecting many of these young British musicians was art school. In contrast to American art schools, which tend to be private and more elitist, Britain’s art colleges were an alternative form of public education for working-class youth. In the words of Keith Richards, who attended Sidcup Art School after his high school expelled him for truancy, “It’s somewhere they put you if they can’t put you anywhere else.” Beginning in the fall of 1957, John Lennon was a student at Liverpool Art College, where he met Stuart Sutcliffe and brought him into an early version of the Beatles. Along with Richards and Lennon, some of the most revered figures in 1960s British rock attended art colleges during their late teens, including Pete Townsend, Eric Clapton, Ray Davies, David Bowie, and Jimmy Page. This environment encouraged these musicians to think of themselves as artists, not just entertainers. In the early 1960s, musicians encountered ideas from the Beats and existentialists through the young subcultures of beatniks and “exis,” thus connecting music with rebellious bohemian lifestyles. A decade later, art schools would have a comparable significance for the development of British punk.
After they started playing regularly in Hamburg, the Beatles began changing their look to emulate the style of young European bohemians. Their main link to this subculture was Astrid Kirchherr, the girlfriend of Stuart Sutcliffe and a photographer with a keen sense of fashion, who conducted numerous photo shoots with the Beatles during their time in Hamburg. Kirchheer began the process of softening their macho style of teddy boy rebellion, designing a look that borrowed from the more unisex style of German and French students who were known as exis because of their association with existentialism. The iconic Beatles mop top originated as the characteristic hairstyle worn by these exis, including the adnrogynous Kirchheer herself. The transformation of the Beatles’ look was completed by Brian Epstein, who took over as the group’s manager in early 1962. Epstein was the son of a businessman who owned one of the largest record stores in northern England, and when he signed the Beatles he was a columnist who wrote about pop music for Mersey Beat. Epstein was part of a larger network of gay men in England who worked in artist management, television production, and other aspects of entertainment media, whose job was in part to identify good-looking young men who might be attractive to an audience mostly made up of girls. When Epstein first saw them play at the Cavern Club in Liverpool, he thought “they were a scruffy crowd in leather.” As their manager, he got rid of the last vestiges of the Beatles’ teddy boy look, outfitting them in turtleneck sweaters and matching suits with European designs.
Following the guidance of an androgynous, bohemian woman and a gay man, the Beatles smoothed out the masculinity of their rebellious look in 1962. Their audience had also begun to change. At the Cavern Club, the Beatles regularly performed during lunchtime for workers on their break from the shop, office, factory, or warehouse. Women were a majority of the audience, and they tended to be younger workers who had recently left school, but they were still comparatively older than the teens who were becoming the Beatles’ main fan base. The phenomenon known as Beatlemania began in 1963 in Britain, the year they toured across the country four times and police were frequently called to keep order outside the concerts. Following the Beatles’ performance on Britian’s most popular television variety show that October, the press took greater interest in the hordes of “frenzied” female fans surrounding the group—the Daily Mail coined the term “Beatlemania” shortly thereafter. In the United States, the band’s performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in February 1964, viewed by a record audience, was the pivotal moment in launching the craze for all things Beatles. White teenage girls supplied the bulk of the intensity: a poll conducted by a Beatles fan club in late 1964 indicated that the average fan was between 13 and 17 years old, white, middle-class, Christian, and for good measure, a B-minus student.
The lyrics of the Beatles’ early singles addressed a singular female listener, a generic “you” or “she” without a specific first name. Their management went to great lengths to conceal the fact that John Lennon was married, and the other members were also supposed to uphold the impression that they were all single. The Beatles left a space for the audience to fantasize about being the subject of their songs, and even that someday they might marry one of them. The lyrics to their early hit singles expressed fidelity to distant lovers (“All My Loving”), affirmed the sacred, priceless nature of love (“Can’t Buy Me Love”), and told boys they better treat their girlfriends right (“She Loves You”); in every song, they communicated in the language of an exclusive and transcendent ideal of love. In just a few years, their ideal of love would become more communal. Musically, the Beatles didn’t just play rock ‘n’ roll, they also drew on the music of the girl groups, especially in the “yeah yeah yeah” of their backup vocals. On the first two albums, they covered several songs that were originally recorded by girl groups: “Chains” (the Cookies); “Baby It’s You” (the Shirelles); “Please Mr. Postman” (the Marvellettes); “Devil in His Heart” (the Donays). When Ronnie Spector of the Ronettes met the Beatles in 1963, she was surprised to discover that all four of them had such a deep knowledge of girl group songs; their producer, George Martin, once said they “sound like a male Shirelles.”
As much as the music, what got people’s attention was their hair. The length of their mop tops was, at the time, scandalously androgynous, and it disgusted and enraged millions of authoritarian patriarchs across the United States. When the Beatles performed, they shook and tossed their hair around in a show of liveliness, and when they did, the screaming always got louder. The hair was an essential element of the joyfulness embodied in a Beatles performance, in which they smiled, made faces, and laughed with each other while they played. Their outburst of exuberance came at the end of a long era of monotony and repression that began after World War II. For Americans, it was only months after the assassination of the nation’s most famous symbol of change and youthfulness. The group’s feminine look, cheerful sound, and endearing demeanor were cornerstones of their sex appeal —compared to the Fifties rock ‘n’ rollers, the Beatles were a much safer object for teenage feelings and fantasies. Of course, the bad-boy rebels still continued to have substantial appeal for many fans. When the Rolling Stones’ manager intentionally fashioned them into an antithesis of the Beatles, the Stones elicited a similar kind of passionate response from large groups of teenage girls, particularly during their performance on The Ed Sullivan Show in October 1964. Nevertheless, the Beatles’ fan base was substantially larger and much more intense—at least in 1964, the Rolling Stones didn’t have nearly the same cultural impact as the Beatles.
The news media solicited the views of numerous psychologists and sociologists to try to make sense of Beatlemania. Discourses about female hysteria resurfaced in scientific guise, but without directly acknowledging the sexual desire or sexual repression of young girls. Instead, they drew upon notions of the irrationality of crowds, particularly the way that groups can infect weak individuals to the point that they become incapable of rational thought and begin to engage in pathological behavior—sociologists of the time called it “collective behavior.” These scientific discourses mixed with the longstanding fears of elites and patriarchs about the role of music and dance in rituals of collective ecstasy—more than one critic made direct comparisons between Beatlemania and the Bacchanalian rites of ancient Greece. In the age of imperialism and slavery, these ancient fears of collective ecstasy grew into racist concerns about the rituals of natives and slaves, especially the hypnotizing effect of rhythmic music and dance. In this vein, a writer for the New York Times compared the power of the Beatles to “witch doctors who put their spell on hundreds of shuffling and stamping natives.” Another “child expert” managed to incorporate all of these familiar arguments about contagion, ecstasy, and hysteria, as he directly linked Beatlemania to the “primitive” rhythm of the music:
The music is loud, primitive, insistent—strongly rhythmic and releases in a disguised way (can it be called sublimation?) the all too tenuously controlled, newly acquired physical impulses of the teen-ager. Mix this up with the phenomenon of mass hypnosis, contagious hysteria and the blissful feeling of being mixed up in an all-embracing, orgiastic experience and every kid can become ‘Lord of the Rings’ or the Beatles.
Writing decades later, some of these former Beatles fanatics reflected on the social significance of such incidents for the girls of their generation, growing up in the 1960s. With the beginning of the women’s movement, it became possible to understand these frenzied outbursts from a different perspective. Evoking the protest marches that multiplied at the end of the decade, Barbara Ehrenreich and two coauthors asked how, in the presence of the Beatles, “a girl who might never have contemplated shoplifting could assault a policeman with her fists, squirm under police barricades, and otherwise invite a disorderly conduct charge.” The “problem with no name” that Betty Friedan identified in The Feminine Mystique—published just before Beatlemania swept across America—had its counterpart for teenage girls, who were forced to balance between the double standards of sexual relations—offering enticement without seeming cheap. The Beatles provided a safe outlet for teenage love and lust, but they also allowed fans to identify with the pleasure, freedom, and nonconformity they seemed to embody. As an interviewee told Ehenreich and her coauthors, “It wasn’t sexual, as I would now define that. It felt more about wanting freedom. I didn’t want to grow up to be a wife and it seemed to me that the Beatles had the kind of freedom I wanted.” The passion and pleasure unleashed by the Beatles was both an upheaval in its own right and a sign of things to come:
In a highly sexualized society…teen and preteen girls were expected to be not only ‘good’ and ‘pure’ but to be the enforcers of purity within their teen society—drawing the line for overeager boys and ostracizing girls who failed in this responsibility. To abandon control—to scream, faint, dash about in mobs—was, in form if not in conscious intent, to protest the sexual repressiveness, the rigid double standard of female teen culture. It was the first and most dramatic uprising of women’s sexual revolution.
Throughout Great Britain and the United States, the crowds screaming for the Beatles were predominantly, but certainly not exclusively, female. However, they encountered an exception when playing in France, where it was mainly boys in the audience, and these French boys engaged in the same sort of ecstatic, frenzied behavior. The Beatles could also embody an ideal of freedom for young men, and they represented a new model of rebellious masculinity. Their haircuts, immediately emulated by innumerable young men, were a dramatic rejection of the flat, square, and straight crew-cut, and they became a source of conflict for families across America. The Beatles also represented a less macho, more feminine alternative to the previous generation of rock ‘n’ rollers and juvenile delinquents. Countless young men suddenly realized that, instead of joining the football team or running for class president, lots of young women might be more attracted to them if they grew their hair and formed a band.
Whereas English pop had previously made no impact in America, the Beatles opened the door for a “British Invasion” that dominated the U.S. singles charts in 1964-65. Many of the light-hearted pop groups who scored multiple hits were soon forgotten and banished to the dustbin of popular music: the Dave Clark Five; Freddy and the Dreamers; Gerry and the Pacemakers; Herman’s Hermits; Peter and Gordon; the Searchers. But of course this extraordinary moment also yielded some of the most influential musicians in rock—along with the Beatles and Stones, the Who, the Kinks, and Eric Clapton and the Yardbirds—who would shape the development of its sound for decades to come. With the Beatles at the forefront, the British Invasion fundamentally transformed the music business by expanding the market for records and putting rock in the center of the industry. Record sales had been stagnant through the late 1950s and early 1960s, in part because of the payola scandal and the backlash against rock ‘n’ roll. After the arrival of the Beatles—who had 28 hit singles and 6 best-selling albums in 1964 alone—record sales increased by more than 10 percent annually for the rest of the decade, reaching $1.6 billion in 1969.
The main influences for these English groups were black musicians who played the blues or R&B. The blues guitar sound that drifted from the Mississippi Delta up to Chicago was especially influential for the Stones, Animals, and Yardbirds, whose black musical influences ran much deeper than the Beatles. These groups took rock ‘n’ roll to heights of mass popularity that black musicians, no matter how good they were or how clean their image was, could never have reached at that time. Unlike other white musicians who had previously covered black music, the British groups maintained most of the roughness of sound and irreverence of attitude that characterized the originals and originators. The cruelest irony was that the triumph of British rock ‘n’ roll shoved such a large number of black musicians off the charts—the proportion of songs on the year-end singles charts made by African Americans plummeted, from 42 percent in 1962 to 22 percent in 1966. Motown was the only major force in black music that continued to thrive during this shift toward white rock ‘n’ roll, as Barry Gordy linked his acts to the British groups and other trends among white youth–in 1964, the Supremes even released an album mainly composed of Beatles covers, A Bit of Liverpool.
White youth appropriated black music and black culture to satisfy a sense of lack, to remedy a collective alienation from body and “soul,” in the pursuit of authenticity. In rhythmic music and dance, they were shaking off the Fordist discipline that had been imposed upon, but was also internalized by, their parents’ and grandparents’ generation. Some sharp insights into this dynamic of white youth and black music, specifically with respect to Beatlemania, were presented by Eldridge Cleaver, later a prominent figure in the Black Panther Party. In Soul on Ice, his highly acclaimed collection of essays written in Folsom State Prison and published in 1968, Cleaver reflected on the ways that racism and capitalism have obstructed whites from their bodies in the process of overvaluing their minds, just as they have obstructed blacks from their minds in the process of overvaluing their bodies. He observed that with the onset of Beatlemania, white kids began “shaking their dead little asses like petrified zombies trying to regain the warmth of life.” The rhythms of music and dance enabled them to reawaken their neglected physical and emotional capacities: “the dead limbs, the cold ass, the stone heart, the stiff, mechanical, disused joints.” While driven by the desire to overcome alienation, the appropriation of rock ‘n’ roll involved not only financial theft by the music industry but a more general form of cultural theft by white people, the theft of a musical form that embodied a collective experience of oppression and resistance. Returning to the Beatles and their fans, Cleaver concluded:
For Beatle fans, having been alienated from their own bodies so long and so deeply, the effect of these potent and erotic rhythms is electric. Into this music, the Negro projected—as it were, drained off, as pus from a sore—a powerful sensuality, his pain and his lust, his love and his hate, his ambition and his despair. The Negro projected into his music his very Body. The Beatles, the four long-haired lads from Liverpool, are offering up as their gift the Negro’s body, and in so doing establish a rhythmic communication between the listener’s own Mind and Body.
The Beatles and the rest of the British Invasion changed the recording industry in 1964, but soon thereafter they also began to expand the artistic possibilities of pop music. Most of the early media stories about the Beatles focused on the manic behavior of their fans, and the few critics who did consider their music were generally dismissive and patronizing. While Beatlemania was in full swing, however, John Lennon published a book of poetry, In His Own Write, in an early indication of his artistic ambitions. When the film A Hard Day’s Night began showing in August 1964, it received a surprising amount of praise from critics, not just for its humor and entertainment value, but for the black-and-white, art film techniques of director Richard Lester—one critic called it the “Citizen Kane of jukebox musicals.” The Beatles had entered public consciousness as a pop act and teen sensation, but this was already beginning to change.
The question of whether the Beatles were legitimate culture or “real musicians” was at the center of an early dispute with the American Federation of Musicians (AFM). After the Beatles’ first tour of the U.S., the AFM considered trying to prevent the group from returning on the grounds that they were taking work away from American musicians. The basis for the AFM’s claim was that the Beatles weren’t uniquely skilled musicians and they couldn’t read music, and therefore they were simply interchangeable workers doing a job that Americans could just as easily perform—the union’s president argued that “We can go to Yonkers or Tennessee and pick up four kids who can do this kind of stuff.” The AFM adhered to a craft union ideal that separated skilled from unskilled labor, and they also upheld an elitist definition of culture that excluded popular music from the artistic forms of classical and jazz. The AFM’s opposition to the Beatles was indicative of an emerging divide that would eventually pit the cultural conservatism of organized labor against the hippie counterculture; in turn, rebellious youth came to view unions as part of the establishment rather than a force of opposition. Like other craft unions that excluded “unskilled” workers, the AFM would deteriorate in the years to come as a result of their unwillingness to organize rock musicians. Predictably, the rumor of an AFM ban on the Beatles triggered a firestorm of outrage from the group’s young fans, who bombarded everyone from the president of the union to the President of the United States with thousands of letters until the matter was finally dropped.
As evident with the release of Rubber Soul, the Beatles had adopted a more artistically complex approach to their music and lyrics by the end of 1965. A group of classical musicians even recorded an album of Baroque versions of Beatles songs. Popular musicians were developing artistic aspirations, while at the same time the Pop Art movement was dissolving the walls that separated the art world from commercial entertainment and the mass media. The aesthetic criteria of high culture would soon be applied to rock music, and a young cohort of writers and journalists were about to develop the discourse of rock criticism. As the boundaries of art and pop blurred, Bob Dylan’s electric turn in 1965 also created an opportunity to transcend the division between folk and popular music. With the influence of Dylan and folk, it became possible to make rock music with something significant to say about society, and to say it in poetic style. In 1965, the crossover of folk and rock was developing into a new musical style, in connection with a nascent counterculture based in Los Angeles and San Francisco.