How The Beatles broke America

The foursome from Liverpool finally land in the US – and the reception is ecstatic

The Beatles with Ed Sullivan

By 1964, Liverpool quartet The Beatles had enjoyed a string of number ones in the UK and were on the walls of teen bedrooms across the country. Beatlemania – the term coined for the intense fan-following they quickly gathered – was in full-swing, but there was still that holy grail of cracking America.

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Due to their record label’s American subsidiary – Capitol Records – refusing to release their music, their hits didn’t reach US audiences until December 1963 and they still hadn’t performed stateside.

The Beatles were invited onto one of the biggest American variety shows at the time – The Ed Sullivan Show – which had featured Elvis Presley three times. Sullivan had realised they were something special after seeing the crowds that greeted them at London Heathrow in 1963 after their tour of Sweden.

It was clear that they weren’t completely new to American audiences, as a 3,000-strong crowd of screaming and tearful teenagers was waiting for them when they touched down in New York.

It’s believed that 73 million viewers watched their appearance on 9 February 1964 – around 38 per cent of the US population. It was stated at the time that cities across the country reported a drop in crime as people rushed to watch their TVs, though this turned out to be a swipe at the group by the editor of the Washington Post – he was trying to suggest that The Beatles’ fan base was made up of delinquents and criminals.

The screaming of the audience was so intense that John Lennon was quoted as thinking the crowd had gone mad. More than 50,000 people requested to attend the show, but the studio could only hold 700 people.

The US was still in mourning after the assassination of President John F Kennedy a few months previously and the performance was seen by many as a hopeful change in direction for the country. The long hairstyles of the Fab Four were universally mocked by adults everywhere, but it wasn’t long before they became a key element of the growing youth culture.

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This content first appeared in the February 2019 issue of BBC History Revealed