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Music

The impact of The Beatles on American culture

When one looks back to the early days of The Beatles, it can be hard to place a finger on the exact moment when history was set firmly on the rails, heading toward a world seemingly orientated around four lads from Liverpool. If I were to get in a Delorean time machine and head back to the early 1960s on a mission to stop the Beatles from ever having made it to the dizzying heights they reached, what moment would I be most effective in revisiting and sabotaging? Some will say that I’d need to find them in late 1962, at around the time their first single, ‘Love Me Do’, was released; others will say that the real turning point came when they entered the consciousness of the Americans; and others might argue that despite having been global superstars for three or four years at the time, without the release of their progressive masterpiece Revolver in 1966, the band would never have remained so musically relevant over the decades to come.

Of course, there is no definitive answer, so many factors led to the ultimate success of The Beatles that it’s impossible to single out the most pivotal moment in their rise to timeless fame and success. However, with the Beatles fronting what would later be known as the British invasion of the US charts, my money is on their arrival in America. 

It was on this day (February 7th) in 1964 that The Beatles first touched down across the Atlantic at John F. Kennedy airport in New York. They were greeted by swathes of screaming fans, a scene to which they had become quickly accustomed in the UK and Europe over the previous year. The news that the Beatles had entered the US was a seismic ripple following the success of their first number one hit on the continent with ‘I Want to Hold Your Hand’ just a few weeks before on January 17th. Just a year after their rise to fame in the UK, it appeared the jigsaw was falling into place on the global level. The arrival of the Fab Four in America in 1964 undoubtedly marked one of the biggest turning points in music history. 

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Prior to the Beatles’ success in the US, the charts had been dominated by early rock ‘n’ roll acts of the 1950s such as Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. It appeared that the rise of American recorded music in the 1950s established the eventual rise of a rock ‘n’ roll counter-culture that would later engulf the US and in the UK. Ironically, it seemed, the British invasion of the US charts began in the US. The Beatles had of course been inspired by the music of the 1950s American stars and shaped it into their own British form that apparently clicked with audiences in the most gainly fashion.  By the time the Beatles set foot onto US soil, the British invasion had ostensibly begun; there were thousands of Brits back in the UK who wanted to emulate these mop-top heroes and before long came the likes of The Kinks, The Rolling Stones, Small Faces, The Hollies and The Yardbirds, all ready to take the US by storm. 

It was only a few months before the band had played their biggest and most historic live US performance at the Hollywood Bowl and were beginning to equal the prominence of their hero Elvis Presley, who they would visit in his Bel Air mansion in 1965. It seemed The Beatles were on an unstoppable rise with an affable charm that parents and children alike could adhere to.

However, as the years of success wore on, The Beatles grew their hair out and their music began to take a turn toward the avant-garde; reports had begun to emerge that the family favourites had been experimenting with psychedelic drugs. It was around this time too that John Lennon would famously claim that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” in a US interview in March 1966. 

It appeared that the group had begun to change in the public eye and their popularity had become divided between virtuous fame and infamy. In the US particularly, Lennon’s statement attracted an angered backlash from Christian communities who claimed Lennon’s statement was blasphemous and conceited. Others, however, would follow their heroes into the modern age joining the counterculture that saw the genesis of the hippies – a group who would question the antiquated order of the world, calling for an end to global conflict, materialism and governmental and religious oppression and a rise of free love and free will. While the Beatles didn’t begin this new movement in society, they were without a doubt among the biggest catalysts in bringing it to a level of unavoidable gravity throughout the decade. 

The Beatles would also pioneer open-mindedness during their time in the spotlight as they sought spiritual enlightenment outside of hallucinogenic chemicals. Beginning with their first visit to the country in 1966, their odyssey in India under the mentorship of Maharishi Mahesh Yogi taught them the powers of Hindu teachings and the benefits of transcendental meditation. Over this period, the Beatles brought eastern beliefs and values to the Western culture, incorporating Indian influences into their music through the use of the sitar and lyrics inspired by Hindu incantations. This spurred a prevailing change in rock music as it encouraged people to open their minds to new ideas not just in life but to new innovative and creative ideas in music. This period marked the beginning of psychedelic and experimental music in the mainstream; something that would encourage people to push creative boundaries and has undoubtedly had a singular impact on the burgeoning evolution of abstract art over the past fifty years. 

Indeed, it’s difficult to imagine what western life would be like today without the enormous impact of the counterculture movement of the 1960s. To say the Beatles were the sole reason for this change would be a crass statement indeed, but, had they not added such a drive behind the changes – introducing modern ideas and outlooks to the realms of spirituality, creativity and of course the music industry – would the period have been as poignant and impactful. Without that Delorean time machine, we will never know, but I can say with considered confidence that America and much of the Western world would be quite different today had we not had the unavoidable presence of the Beatles for those eight years in the 1960s. 

Watch The Beatles’ first US performance on the Ed Sullivan Show just two days after their arrival on US soil 58 years ago today.