Marc Catone writes about how the arrival of The Beatles in America 50 years ago had a transformative effect on his young life.
Picture a 13-year-old boy in early 1964. His hair contains a thick layer of the world’s worst greasy kid stuff, shiny metallic braces criss-cross his upper teeth, and to top it off, he carries a briefcase to each of his 8th grade classes. Yes, that’s right … a briefcase. The only thing missing is a pocket protector.
In case you haven’t guessed, that boy was me. I was the most unhip and uncool kid in my junior high school. Although I liked rock ’n’ roll whenever I heard it, I had no idea what singers were popular, the names of their records, and which radio stations played their tunes. My record collection consisted of novelty songs like “The Battle of New Orleans,” “The Monster Mash,” “Itsy Bitsy Teenie Weenie Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and one Chubby Checker dance tune.
All of that changed in 1964.
Every Friday night, my parents watched “The Jack Paar Program” on NBC-TV. On Jan. 3rd, I was watching the show when Jack presented a film clip of a rock ’n’ roll group from England. He prefaced the film by rolling his eyes and making jokes about the band. Despite his teasing, what I saw that night changed me. I could not believe my eyes and ears as I watched four guys sing a song called “She Loves You.” They wore their hair like Moe of the Three Stooges, but they sang the most original sounding music I had ever heard in my life. The mostly female audience was screaming, swooning, and crying in response to them. The sound and image evoked pure excitement.
That was my introduction to The Beatles and the mania they created. I was captivated by everything I saw … the guys with strange haircuts, screaming girls, but most of all I was in awe of the music itself. The harmony was sweet, yet discordant. The tune was haunting, yet joyful. “She Loves You” charmed and mesmerized me. After hearing it only once, I remembered the tune exactly.
A week or so later, I was riding in our family car with my father. Dad was about 40 years old and not a fan of rock ’n’ roll. He had the car radio tuned to a local station that usually played songs for adult listeners. However, as we drove past the Old Oak Restaurant on Liberty Street in my hometown of Danbury, CT, the sound of pounding drums and wails of “she loves you … yeah, yeah, yeah” filled the car. Instantly, I recognized it as the song by that British band I saw on TV. Once again, I was transfixed by the sound.
I didn’t realize it, but The Beatles were starting to get a lot of radio airplay in America. Their song “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had been rush-released on Dec. 26. Originally, the record was set to come out on Jan. 13, but due to increased demand, Capitol Records moved up the date. By mid-January 1964, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was on its way to be the first No. 1 song for The Beatles on this side of the pond. “She Loves You,” the first million-selling record for The Beatles in England, had been released in the USA in mid-September 1963, but never reached the Top 100. When it was re-released in 1964, “She Loves You” soon became the No. 2 song behind “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” eventually rising to the top of the charts in March.
During the last week of January, I overheard kids in my 8th grade homeroom talking about The Beatles. I found out that the group was coming to America the following week. Every conversation was dominated by their imminent arrival. A girl named Aura showed me a teen magazine with a photo of The Beatles in it. Another homeroom buddy told me where all the New York City rock ’n’ roll radio stations were on the dial. Soon, I was listening to Cousin Brucie, Harry Harrison and Murray the K on WABC, WMCA, and WINS respectively. A whole new world opened up for me. Overnight, I went from “L7” to hip. But, best of all, in less than a week, The Beatles were flying from Great Britain to the newly named JFK Airport in New York. They were going to make three consecutive Sunday night appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Living in Danbury, only 65 miles from the Big Apple, all of our major media came from Manhattan. During the weekend of Feb. 7-9 in 1964, every newspaper, TV channel and radio station from New York carried nothing but Beatles. The group members were a breath of fresh air and won over the hearts of reporters at their airport press conference with their mocking replies and humor. They didn’t take themselves as seriously as we did. Although The Beatles came from a country across the sea, they could have been aliens from outer space. That’s how foreign they appeared to Americans in 1964 when they conquered New York, a city in a frenzy unlike any other before or since.
By the time they played the first notes of “All My Loving” on the Feb. 9th “The Ed Sullivan Show,” I knew all four Beatles by their individual names, and owned both the “I Want to Hold Your Hand” and “She Loves You” singles. Starting in February 1964, my life revolved around The Beatles, their music, concerts and movies. At age 13, I said goodbye to comic books and baseball cards and immersed myself in rock music, Top 40 radio, and the eventual change in my physical appearance. Gone was the grease in my hair and into the garbage went my briefcase.
And now it is 50 years since the arrival of the British Invasion on American shores. It was a very long time ago, but I can still remember that weekend when America fell in love with The Beatles and young people were transformed forever more. So, thank you John, Paul, George and Ringo for your music, being the catalyst for many changes in society, and adding to our collective joy.
But also, Fab Four, thank you for saving me from becoming a total nerd.