Fifty years ago, on February 9 1964, that the Beatles famously played the Ed Sullivan Show, a top-rated coast-to-coast Sunday Night TV variety show in the USA, a show which drew an estimated 73 million viewers, at the time a record for US television. Within two months, week ending April 4 1964, 55 years ago today as I write, the Beatles held the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. The British had truly invaded
The British Invasion, as it as known, was where you could have a hit or even hits in America as long as you were British and could do a British accent. And it wasn’t just the pop music. Other aspects of British culture became disproportionately and excessively popular in the United States too. You can’t really look at the British Invasion without at least mentioning David McCallum as Ilya Kyriakin in The Man from UNCLE, Julie Christie in Darling!, Albert Finney in Tom Jones, Richard Harris in This Sporting Life and of course Michael Caine in Alfie. And let’s not forget James Bond and Julie Andrews.
Before 1964, UK acts had barely troubled the US chart compilers. In 1963, only 3 British records broke the US Top Twenty, but the Beatles changed that of course. According to Stones then-manager Andrew Loog Oldham: America was not even a possibility for anybody before the Beatles. The French stars used to say, “We’re touring America” but really, they were shopping. They might play Canada, but America wasn’t open.
Over the next 2 years, the invasion grew so that almost any UK act as long as they had the right accent and a record deal could get up the US charts. Most had talent and some didn’t but the only thing that really mattered was that they were British. In 1965, more than half of the 26 No 1 singles belonged to British acts – and this was the year of Mr Tambourine Man, My Girl, You’ve Lost That Loving Feeling and I Got You Babe. In addition to the Beatles and the Stones, you had the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Petula Clark, the Searchers, the Zombies, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Billy J. Kramer & the Dakotas, the Moody Blues, the Animals and even Freddie and the Dreamers dominating the US charts.
Some were good, some weren’t and there were some groups that were huge in the USA and genuinely British but unknown here. Ian Whitcomb and Chad & Jeremy were huge but failed to trouble the chart compilers back home, possibly because they were terrible, Ian Whitcomb in particular. Some changed pop culture and some were one-hit wonders, such as Tobacco Road from the Nashville Teens. They weren’t teens nor were they from Nashville. They were from Woking in fact.
On May 8, 1965, we almost had a clean sweep of the US Top 10, with nine of the slots taken by UK acts, only Count Me In by Gary Lewis & the Playboys being homegrown (Gary Lewis being the son of comedian Jerry Lewis). The Britsongs in the Top Ten were The Beatles’ Ticket to Ride, Wayne Fontana & The Mindbenders’ Game Of Love, Petula Clark’s I Know A Place, Herman’s Hermits’ Silhouettes, Freddie And The Dreamers’ I’m Telling You Now, The Rolling Stones’ The Last Time and at Number One Mrs. Brown You’ve Got A Lovely Daughter by Herman’s Hermits, proving they weren’t all great songs
By the middle of 1966 when US bands sort of caught up and made their own British-sounding music, although some of the bands, especially the Beatles and the Stones continued to release hugely successful – and hugely important – records of course.
What we had done was tap into the particularly poor state of US music in 1963. Some say it died in 1959 with Buddy Holly. Apart from the Four Seasons, the biggest stars of 1963 were the Singing Nun and extremely bland, clean-cut teen idols like Fabian and Frankie Avalon, who’d had hit singles but couldn’t really sing and were mainly in awful B-movies like Beach Blanket Bingo and How to Stuff a Wild Bikini
The truth is we were doing far more interesting things with the rock and roll that we’d pinched from the Yanks. Traditionally American pop music had been hip, where British pop music was not. Our homegrown acts like Lonnie Donegan, Tommy Steele and Cliff, were just cheap copyists of US acts and few UK acts had ever done well in America. It wasn’t until mid-192that we had our first Number One when Mr Acker Bilk’s Stranger on the Shore got to the top.
Acker Bilk aside, our music was new and exciting and aimed at the vibrant young people making America a huge success in the brave new decade of the 1960s. That optimism was shattered on 22 November 1963 when their young, energetic and good-looking President was shot dead in Dallas, Texas. TV and radio stations thought t it was unbecoming of American artists to perform with any kind of enthusiasm and exuberance in a period of national mourning. British acts did not have that guilt or that restriction so could be chirpy, bright, funny – and chock full of great pop tunes. America lapped it all up, still very much in mourning for John F. Kennedy, needing reinvigorating with a dose of fun, and, thus re-invigorated. First in of course were the Beatles.
On 31 October 1963, storied American broadcaster Ed Sullivan, his wife and his team were changing planes at London Airport (it was not renamed Heathrow until 1966) at exactly the same time as the Beatles arrived back from a tour of Scandinavia. Despite heavy rain, the roof of the Queens Building was packed with hundreds of them who were there to welcome them back. Sullivan and his wondered what all the commotion was. It’s the Beatles, he was told. Who the hell are The Beatles? he replied He didn’t necessarily like what he saw – he was a very conservative man in his 60s– but thought it might be good for his show.
The Ed Sullivan was America’s preferred viewing on a Sunday evening from 1948 to 1971 but the wily Sullivan was always looking for something that would keep him ahead in the ratings and knew that it was this pop music that could do that. He had famously outbid other TV shows in 1956 when he signed Elvis Presley despite having originally publicly called him lewd. He had Buddy Holly and the Crickets on the show in 1957 and again in January 1958.
Getting the Beatles became a priority for Ed Sullivan, especially after witnessing Beatlemania and reading about their turn at the Royal Command Performance. Beatles’ manager Brian Epstein flew to New York in mid-November and negotiated $12,000 for 3 performances (although Sullivan often paid $10,000 to a headliner for one show) although Epstein demanded they receive top billing and two spots (opening and closing) on each show.
The deal almost got cancelled. The BBC sold film of a Beatles performance to Jack Paar, a rival of Ed Sullivan who had a big primetime show on Fridays on NBC. Epstein had promised Sullivan an exclusive, the very first Beatles American television appearance. Epstein threatened to cancel The Beatles’ radio shows on the BBC if action was not taken and the BBC tried to rescind its licensing of the film, but Paar refused to budge. Sullivan was furious and phoned to cancel but fortunately, cooled off when he realized what a hot ticket The Beatles were becoming.
Ironically the Ed Sullivan show was not the Beatles’ first TV exposure in the USA. There was a news story about the phenomenon of Beatlemania sweeping England that was broadcast on the CBS Morning News breakfast show on 22 November 1963. The segment was scheduled to be repeated on the 6.30pm Nightly News show hosted by Walter Cronkite, but this was of course the day President Kennedy was shot and killed in Dallas so every other topic went onto the back burner
After two weeks of mourning, Cronkite started looking for a way to lift the spirits of the devastated American public with a cheerful segment. And he remembered that Beatles story the day JFK was shot. It was shown again on 10 December to a nation still reeling from the massive emotional trauma of the assassination, the film clip triggered an astonishing chain reaction that kick-started Beatlemania in the USA. The Beatles’ single I Want To Hold Your Hand was rush-released on 26 December 1963 (it was almost unheard of for US record companies to release new product over the holidays) and boosted by massive airplay now that American kids were off school, it sold over 250,000 copies in its first three days of release. By 10 January, it had sold over a million and was actually Number One when the Beatles landed in New York on 7 February 1964 to a crowd of 3,000 teenagers there to greet them as they stepped off their plane (Capitol Records had cleverly leaked details of the group’s itinerary to New York’s radio stations).
Their first Sullivan appearance on Sunday 9 February 1964 is considered a milestone in American pop culture. It drew an estimated 73 million viewers, the largest audience that had ever been recorded for an American television program to that point. It was just 77 days since President Kennedy had been assassinated. Watching were everyone who formed a band in the next 3 or 4 years.
Epstein had demanded that they be on at both the beginning and the end of the program in order to keep the audience tuned in throughout. The Beatles performed All My Loving and Till There Was You, which featured the names of the group members superimposed on close-up shots, including the famous Sorry girls, he’s married caption on John Lennon; and She Loves You. The studio was utter pandemonium, so it was a good job that the act that followed Beatles in the broadcast had been pre-recorded, rather than having someone perform live on stage amidst the chaos (incidentally in the same show was Davy Jones, later of the Monkees, then appearing in Oliver on Broadway who sang I’d Do Anything).
Thirty-five minutes later they played both sides of their latest single I Want to Hold Your Hand and I Saw Her Standing There. After taking their bows, John, Paul and George removed their instruments and Ringo jumped down from his drum riser. The group then headed over to Sullivan to shake hands and wave to the hysterical crowd.
They had perhaps given a grieving nation a much-needed reason to smile once again. There is an Urban Myth that during the Beatles’ appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, crime rates plummeted all over the USA on the basis that everyone was hooked to the TV and had no time or inclination to burgle or rob. Not even a single hubcap was pinched between 8:00 PM and 9:00 PM on 9 February 1964, says the legend. As it happens, like most legends, it turns out to be completely false. Not only that, but it actually originated with a comment that was intended as a backhanded swipe at the group rather than a compliment. The News Editor of the Washington Post – now owned by the richest man in the world, Jeff Bezos – a man called B.F. Henry quipped that the one good thing about the Beatles was that during the hour they were on Ed Sullivan’s show, there wasn’t a hubcap stolen in America.
His statement was actually a put-down reflecting the older peoples’ perception that the Beatles were a dumb fad that only appealed to the worst elements of American youth. If no hubcaps were stolen for an hour, it was because all the juvenile delinquents in the country who would normally be out committing petty crime if they hadn’t been glued to their television sets. That would have been that had Newsweek not re-published his comments and it national. The sarcastic origins of the comment became obscured and it became the truth, a legend that grew and grew as it was retold. Even the Beatles themselves came to believe it in time.
Sullivan had ponied up that $12k for 3 appearances, so they flew to Miami Beach, Florida and appeared live on the Ed Sullivan Show a second time the following week, broadcast live from Miami Beach where the then Cassius Clay was training for his title bout with Sonny Liston. The occasion was used by both camps for publicity. A third appearance on February 23 was actually taped on February 9 before that first live appearance. By the time it was shown they were back home in England.
Then America went out and bought Beatles records. In the week ending April 4 1964, the Beatles held the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart (to date, no other act has simultaneously held even the top three). 1. Can’t Buy Me Love, 2. Twist and Shout, 3 She Loves You, 4 I Want to Hold Your Hand and 5.Please Please Me. Their debut album sold 3.6 million copies in 4 weeks. That same month, four Beatles tribute songs also made the charts: We Love You Beatles by the Carefrees – based on We Love You Conrad from the musical Bye Bye Birdie about a pop star who gets drafted into the US Army – My Boyfriend Got A Beatle Haircut by Donna Lynn, The Boy With The Beatle Hair by the Swans and A Letter To The Beatles by the Four Preps who were actually an established group with quite a few hits to their name. All were dreadful.
By the end of 1964 the Beatles had sold 25 million singles and albums in the USA alone, including nine singles and six albums which sold at least a million. The single Can’t Buy Me Love sold 940,226 copies on the day it was released, March 16 1964. Capitol released anything they could. US albums usually had fewer tracks on them than they did here and in the UK the rule was you don’t add singles and B sides to albums. Capitol just released anything so for the next few years till Sgt Pepper the US versions of Beatles albums are very different than the UK ones and there are US albums that don’t exist here
If you thought the Rolling Stones were the second in the vanguard of the invasion? Nope. The day after the Beatles’ success on the show, Ed Sullivan called his people in London to ask who was Number One in England. The said it’s Glad All Over by the Dave Clark Five, so the five lads from Tottenham who barely been out of N15 in their lives were on the next plane to New York for an appearance on 8 March 1964, exactly a month after the first Beatles appearance. They went down so well that Ed Sullivan wanted them back the next week but they said no because they didn’t fancy flying all the way back to London only to return to a few days later. Sullivan countered with the offer of a week’s holiday anyway they liked. On the way in from JFK they had seen a billboard advertising holidays in Montego Bay, so they said Can we go to Jamaica? and they did.
Four months earlier they had been the house band at the Tottenham Royal, a Mecca ballroom at 415-419 High Road Tottenham, London, N17. They were all still semi-pro and working in factories and offices during the day. When they were booked to appear on Ed Sullivan, that was when they gave up their day jobs. They remain Gods in the USA to this day. They genuinely were second to the Beatles, certainly during the duration of the Invasion. They were the first British band of the British Invasion to tour the US, before the Beatles toured, and played to sell-out crowds and they made 18 appearances on The Ed Sullivan Show – the most of any British Invasion group. And they were as influential on US music as the Beatles or anyone else arguably, especially anything that involves big drums. They scored seven straight Top 20 singles in the USA in 1964, and four more in 1965 and had hits all the way to 1967. They also sold out 12 straight concerts in Carnegie Hall
The market in the USA was so large and wide open that British record companies started signing groups for the US market. Before it was all about the UK but the success of the Beatles changed all that, so you had British bands having hits in the USA without ever having been there. A Beatles link helped. Both Billy J Kramer & the Dakotas and Gerry & the Pacemakers were managed by Brian Epstein’s NEMS group who of course also managed the Beatles and their records produced by George Martin. Kramer’s hits were almost entirely lesser Lennon & McCartney songs like Bad to Me and From A Window. Gerry & the Pacemakers did at least write many of their hits, though not all. You’ll Never Walk Alone is actually from the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical Carousel.
Paul McCartney’s girlfriend throughout most of the Sixties was actress Jane Asher and in fact his London home until he bought a posh house in St John’s Wood was the attic bedroom of Jane Asher’s parents’ house at 57 Wimpole Street W1. Paul and Jane’s brother, Peter Asher, were great friends and Peter and his friend from Westminster public school Gordon Waller recorded a Lennon-McCartney song the Beatles didn’t was good enough for them called World Without Love as Peter & Gordon which went to Number One here and in the USA for 1 week in June 1964. They lasted till 1967. Peter Asher became the head of A&R for Apple Records, where he discovered James Taylor who was living in London at the time. When Taylor moved back to the USA so did Peter Asher basing himself in LA and managing and producing multi-platinum albums by Taylor and Linda Ronstadt, producing Andrew Gold and Bonnie Raitt and was instrumental in shaping that 70s LA sound. Which is not bad for a public schoolboy from London.
The biggest UK impresario after Epstein was Mickie Most, a former singer at the 2Is coffee bar who moved to South Africa to become a pop star and came back as a producer. Most was one of the first to make the effort to travel to NYC to trawl the Brill Building for songs UK artists could nick. British pop artists normally did covers of American records that had already been successful, but Most went to America to get the songs before they were recorded. In New York, he found a Gerry Goffin and Carole King song called I’m into Something Good, which he knew would be perfect for a band from Manchester he was handling called Herman’s Hermits. They were as polite and clean cut as the Beatles, fronted by Peter Noone, who was only 17-18 when they hit. Some of their hits were very good – No Milk Todaywas written by 10cc’s Graham Gouldman, who was their manager’s cousin – but not all were belters: extraordinarily in 1965, the year of Tambourine Man and Loving Feeling, their Number Ones were Mrs. Brown You’ve Got a Lovely Daughter and I’m Henry VIII, I Am.
If Herman’s Hermits were Mickie Most’s clean-cut Beatles-alikes, the long-haired Stones equivalents were the Animals, an R&B band from Newcastle who had had a residency at the Scene club in Ham Yard. They had been playing The House of the Rising Sun, which was an old folk song sung by Dylan on his first album Bob Dylan. The arrangement was by the whole band – especially the catchy organ melody, played by Alan Price on a Vox Continental keyboard – but only Price was credited on the label and he was the only person to receive songwriter’s royalties. Needless to say his bandmates were less than pleased and he left the group for a solo career the following year.
They recorded it in May 1964 at De Lane Lea which was opposite Kingsway tube station, having driven 300 miles overnight from a gig in the North East. After parking the van and a quick cup of tea and a cigarette at a café round the corner, they nailed the song in three takes, the whole session was over in under half an hour and the invoice from De Lane Lea for the studio time was £4 10s or £4.50. The record hit Number One in Britain in June and in the US in September. They weren’t writers and had further Price-less hits with Tin Pan alley tunes like Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood, We Gotta Get Out of This Placeand It’s My Lifebut gave up by 1967. There have been a few reunions and a version still tours.
The Zombies were very nice lads from St Albans, who were signed Decca in 1964. Decca thought their first single She’s Not There would do well in the USA so they were on the next flight. They toured the USA on a 7-performances-a-day package tour with amongst others the Shangri Las where the drummer Hugh Grundy played with the Zombies, then behind a curtain revved a motorcycle during Leader of the Pack. They had a couple of further hits like Tell Her No which got to Number 6. They continued recording but without chart success. Their 1967 slightly psychedelic album Odessey & Oracle failed to reach the charts so they split up. A year later the single Time of the Season was re-released after a DJ in Michigan started playing it and the record company re-released it. It got to Number 3, two years after it was made.
The Kinks hit big with You Really Got Me, All Day And All of the Night and Tired Of Waiting For You but in late 1965 they were banned for 4 years from touring in the US by the American Federation of Musicians, in which time they recorded what we might think of as their greatest stuff, but it never really charted in the USA. They were viewed as hooligans. Ray Davies and Dave Davies could not stand each other and the rest of the band did not particularly like either one of them. They would fight on stage, including a rather famous night in Cardiff where the drummer Mick Avory threw a cymbal at guitariot Dave Davies like a frisbee which left Davies in hospital and landed Avory in jail. They got a fight on a TV show called Where the Action Is and Dave Davies used the C-bomb on the radio in Boston when the DJ who was clearly American was talking with a Liverpudlian accent. He was dragged me out of the building.
The main problem was they fell out with their tour promoter who wanted them to play the hits, rather than the newer more complex stuff Ray Davies was writing. He refused to pay them so one night they played a 45-minute version of You Really Got Me. He filed a formal complaint with the American Federation of Musicians, who had the power to withhold work permits for British musicians, which they did. For 4 years. The Kinks not surprisingly lost their commercial momentum.
It was not just groups like The Yardbirds, The Searchers,The Hollies, Wayne Fontana & the Mindbenders, Manfred Mann, even Freddie & the Dreamers who hit gig in the States. We also had solo singers like Tom Jones, Dusty Springfield and especially Petula Clark who enjoyed a dozen huge hits crafted by Tony Hatch, another New Faces judge of the 70s. The one group whop couldn’t get a hit were the Rolling Stones, strange given that of all the Invasion groups they were doing the most obvious impression of American music, Herberts from Dartford singing with Estuary accents and reimporting it to the US with absolutely no irony.
It’s not that they didn’t try. Decca renamed The Rolling Stones, their debut album as The Rolling Stones: England’s Newest Hitmakers for the US market. A trip to the USA was announced in the press, so there were a few dozen screaming girls at London Airport on 1 June 1964 when the group were greeted at JFK by 500 fans, 4 months after the Beatles had 3000 fans turn up which gives you some idea of where they stood on the British Invasion pecking order. The Stones gave a press conference at the airport but in direct contrast to the Beatles clean and smiling look, they were dirty and rude. The PR filled the room with flowers and told the press he had done so to bring relief to their nostrils because he feared that the Stones might be too smelly. He also brought along something typically English and Hairy: two Old English Sheepdogs.
The next day they went off into America for a fairly disastrous tour. The US Press were scathing: The Stones wear their hair long and uncombed their clothes are dirty and they appear to be strangers to a bathtub. You see them roaming around in packs. It’s hard to tell the girls from the boys because they dress the same way. Our teenagers look like angels compared to them. In California, they appeared on the Hollywood Palace TV show introduced by an apparently tipsy Dean Martin, whose kids had asked him to get Stones’ autographs but kept cracking wise about their appearance like These singing groups are under the impression they have long hair: not true at all, it’s an optical illusion, they just have smaller foreheads and higher eyebrows’ or ‘These long-haired wonders from England, the Rolling Stones…they’re backstage picking the fleas off each other.
Their first US Top 10 hit late in 1964 was a cover of Irma Thomas’s Time Is on My Side but their manager Andrew Oldham knew that for the Stones to compete they would have to start writing their own material. After a tentative start, Jagger and Richards finally hit their stride in 1965 with The Last Time and the Number Ones Satisfaction and Get Off My Cloud. In 2019 they are still touring, or at least they will be once Jagger’s ticker gets better.
The one British band who were not part of the British Invasion were the Who. They had come in right at the death with My Generation, the single and the album. In fact, their US label Brunswick changed the cover for the US release. The UK cover is the band standing beside some oil drums on a rooftop in Surrey Quays. For the US release in April 1966, Brunswick wanted a quintessentially British image and nothing says London more than Big Ben so the US cover was a shot of the band standing on Victoria Embankment in front of what is Westminster Pier with Big Ben very obviously in the background. The album did not chart!
By 1966, the British Invasion was sort of all over. There wasn’t much left in Herman’s Hermits or the Hollies or even the DC5. After a little over 2 years, the US charts were full of groups who had been inspired by the British Invasion, so the circle was complete. Artists like the Mamas and Papas, the Young Rascals, the Byrds, the Beach Boys, Bob Dylan had gone electric, the Shadows of Knight, Johnny Rivers. English singers were rare on the US charts and American bands regained the mainstream and the wave of anglophilia largely faded as American culture shifted in response to the Vietnam War and the resulting civil unrest.
The Beatles were unassailable as were the Stones to almost the same extent but it is worth saying that each of those groups were prolific innovative and fast-changing and changed the culture on an annual basis. Rubber Soul is a leap from Help, Revolveris a leap from Rubber Soul. Similarly., the Stones’ Out of Our Heads is a huge leap forward from their previous album, and December’s Children and Aftermath are a huge improvement on Out of Our Heads. They were just the best groups in the world at that time. The only US groups who came close were the Beach Boys who had just made Pet Sounds.