'The Beatles Invade, Complete with Long Hair and Screaming Fans'
The Beatles, and Arthur, arrive at Kennedy airport: February 7, 1964. Photo by Bill Eppridge
Certain dates mean something to me. Some are birthdates: Jan. 11, 19, 23. February 25. April 28. July 4, 7, 8 and 13. October 30.
Some are assassination dates: April 4, June 6, November 22, September 11.
Then there's a date that doesn't have any contemporaries: February 7. That's the day the Beatles arrived. I'll always think of it as the day the Beatles arrived. Fifty years ago today.
I was always a bit backward-looking. I grew up with “Sgt. Pepper” and the White Album, and in the summer of '73, when I was 10, we got the red and blue albums, their greatest hits, and later, in junior high and high school, I picked up the remainder. I got them all. By college I was digging after scraps: “The Beatles Talk Downunder,” which is just that, recordings of press conferences from their 1964 trip to Australia. I read and re-read Philip Norman's biography “Shout!: The Beatles in Their Generation.” I was collecting what articles I could. Some of them I stole from the college library. Awful, really. But I had this need.
I remember my father having to explain to me that the Beatles were always considered long-haired. I think we were looking at the blue and red albums in the summer of '73 and I mentioned I liked the Beatles better short-haired, and he said, “Actually that was considered long hair back then.” I couldn't comprehend it. I couldn't wrap my mind around it. That's how much influence they had. Would hair have exploded that way without them? Would rock 'n' roll?
Our family friend Lynn likes to tell a story from about 1969 when her son Ben and I were both 6 years old. I had traveled with them from Minneapolis to their summer place in Charlevoix, Michigan, and Lynn was in the kitchen, and Ben and I were down the hall in the bedroom where she could hear us talking. Apparently it went something like this:
Me: Mine's longer.
Ben: No, mine's longer.
Me: How can you say that? See?
Ben: [Pause] Well, if I pull on mine, mine's longer.
At which point she hurried to the bedroom to end the game ... and saw us kneeling in front of the mirror and pulling our hair down our foreheads towards our eyes. We wanted to be Beatles.
The foreignness of the Beatles when they first arrived is the thing that's hard to grasp for people like Ben and I who came later. When they arrived they were the freak show to the establishment. But then they became the standard and it was the establishment—skinny ties and greasy hair and overall squareness—that became the freak show. You pick up intimations of how they were viewed from contemporary pop cultural artifacts. The Way Outs from “The Flintstones.” The Mosquitos from “Gilligan's Island.” The articles of the day, with their references to long hair and “buginess.” The title of this blog post was the title of the New York Times article from Feb. 8, 1964 by Paul Gardner. It began:
Multiply Elvis Presley by four, subtract six years from his age, add British accents and a sharp sense of humor. The answer: It's the Beatles (Yeah, Yeah, Yeah).
In college I wanted to write a story about February 1964. I thought of a kid in New York devastated by November 22, 1963, and fearful, looking up at the tall buildings and thinking an assassin could be in any of them. Then the Beatles arrived and swept it all away with their energy and yeah-yeah-yeah music. They arrived and he was part of that mad rush at them. He wandered New York looking up at the buildings and thinking the Beatles could be in any of them.
It was supposed to be a microcosm of the way historians wrote about the Beatles and our early interest in the Beatles. They swept away scandal and tragedy. In Britain, the Profumo scandal in the summer of '63 led to Beatlemania that fall. In the U.S., November 22 led to February 7. We needed to think about something else.
But it would've been nothing without the music to go with it. Everyone still likes the music. My nephews, the kids of friends, they all like the Beatles. The Beatles swept away 1950s rock 'n' roll but nothing's really swept them away: not punk, not grunge, not rap. It's still here after 50 years. Fifty years. Shit, you know how long that is? Fifty years before I was born, World War I hadn't even started. It was that world. But 50 years later we're still living in the world the Beatles created.