I think one of the cheekiest things we ever did was to say to Brian Epstein, “We’re not going to America until we’ve got a Number One record.” – Paul McCartney
The Beatles seemed to come out of nowhere to conquer America in 1964, but in fact, we knew they were coming. The Beatles’ extraordinary success in England was a big story in the months leading up to their arrival here, and some of America’s top news outlets took notice. The biggest among them was NBC’s Huntley-Brinkley Report, the leading network evening newscast of its time, and the forerunner to NBC Nightly News.
Fifty years ago today, on Monday November 18, 1963, Huntley-Brinkley featured a report by Edwin Newman on the Beatles phenomenon. It was the Beatles’ first appearance on American television. Nearly four minutes long, the piece was seen by millions of people across the country. Not the tens of millions that would see the Beatles live on Ed Sullivan three months later, but still the biggest single audience for the Beatles anywhere outside England up to that moment.
It’s hard to believe, but a copy of that broadcast does not exist in the NBC archives. An audio recording somehow did survive, and was recently discovered in the Library of Congress. It is presented here for the first time anywhere in half a century.
In just a few years’ time in the early 60s, the Beatles had grown from being a hot local band in Liverpool to the headlining act on package tours across Great Britain, with a crucial Hamburg residency in between. But 1963 was the year they really caught fire in the UK. Their debut album, Please Please Me, was released that January, followed by three successive number one singles: “Please Please Me,” “From Me to You” (in May), and “She Loves You” (in September).
On October 13, the frenzy surrounding the Beatles was given a name: Beatlemania, with the group’s landmark appearance on Sunday Night at the London Palladium. It was Britain’s top-rated entertainment program, the equivalent of the Ed Sullivan show. The Beatles were the main attraction, the closing act, and their appearance triggered pandemonium – inside the theater and out. They performed four songs to a rapt national television audience estimated at 15 million.
Ten days later, after a hectic series of radio, television and concert appearances, and the final recording sessions for their second album, the Beatles flew to Sweden for their first overseas tour. It too was a huge success, and their return to London on October 31 was greeted by more than a thousand screaming fans. In the crowd at Heathrow that day: Ed Sullivan, who soon booked the band for his show.
On November 4, at the outset of another marathon British tour, the Beatles were the main attraction at a Royal Command Performance in London. With the Queen Mother and Princess Margaret looking on, John Lennon famously asked for the crowd’s help: “The people in the cheaper seats, clap your hands, and the rest of you, If you’d just rattle your jewelry.” (He’d actually threatened to say, “rattle your f**king jewelry.”) With that, the band launched into their closing number, a blistering version of “Twist and Shout. “ The next day, British newspapers were beside themselves. The show was broadcast in Britain on November 10, bringing the Beatles to yet another enormous television audience.
In America, the news media took notice. “Thousands of Britons ‘Riot’ – Liverpool Sound Stirs up Frenzy,” headlined the Washington Post. Time magazine described Beatlemania in vivid detail in an article headlined “The New Madness.” That same week, NBC and CBS dispatched crews to cover the Beatles performing on Saturday November 16 at the Winter Gardens Theater in Bournemouth. NBC was the first on the air the following Monday with its report by Edwin Newman. CBS aired a story on its morning show later that week (with a script by correspondent Alexander Kendrick that was suspiciously similar to Edwin Newman’s).
It went on: Variety ran a story headlined “Beatle Bug Bites Britain.” The New York Times Magazine weighed in with “Britons Succumb to Beatlemania.” (“Their music is basically rock ‘n’ roll, but less formalized, slightly more inventive.”) Life magazine ran a photo of the Beatles meeting Prince Margaret. And on December 10, more than three weeks after NBC, the CBS Evening News ran its Beatles story.
It should be said that all this American news coverage, including NBC’s, took the same bemused, patronizing approach – dismissing the Beatles as a passing fad perpetuated by throngs of hyperactive teenage girls. The focus was on haircuts, noise and frenzy, while little attention was paid to the music itself. The mainstream media (circa 1963) knew something was happening, to paraphrase Bob Dylan, but it didn’t really know what it was. It wasn’t until later that most people were able to see this moment clearly as the beginning of a huge generational shift and a sea change in popular culture.
What the news coverage DID do was raise awareness of the Beatles, and that fed the growing appetite for their music among American record-buyers. Up until then, their hits in Britain had tanked here. But things had changed, and the assassination of President Kennedy, just four days after NBC’s report, left Americans hungry for something to feel good about. And so the spark of Beatlemania jumped the Atlantic and set fire to a huge American audience.
The Beatles’ next single – “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – was promised for American release in January. But demand was so great that it was pushed up to December 26. The song exploded onto U.S. airwaves, charting for 15 weeks, including a phenomenal seven weeks at Number One. On February 7, 1964, when John, Paul, George and Ringo landed at New York’s newly renamed John F. Kennedy Airport, the Beatles were at the top of the charts – just where they said they would be.