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British Invasion Wins Over America

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Good morning. It’s February 7. On this day in 1812, the last of four major New Madrid fault earthquakes sent people flying from their beds, opened frightening fissures in the earth, and produced a tsunami on the Mississippi River, which flowed the wrong way for miles.

On this date in 1904, a discarded cigarette in the basement of a Baltimore office building started a conflagration that leveled the city’s business district. High winds made the blaze nearly impossible to quell, despite the efforts from fire companies from as far away as New York. Some 1,500 buildings were destroyed, and another 1,000 damaged.

And on this day in 1964, another kind of force of nature hit New York. It came in the form of four mop-haired musicians from England who disembarked from Pan American Flight 101 at John F. Kennedy International Airport. The airfield had been renamed so recently that most New Yorkers still called it Idlewild. But there was no mistaking the name of the quartet that took the country by storm.

“Beatlemania” had arrived.

Looking back on the Beatles’ first U.S. visit today, it is striking to remember how young they all were. George Harrison was only 20, Paul McCartney 21. John Lennon and Ringo Starr were both 23. All of them had been born during World War II, while Great Britain struggled for its very survival against Germany.

The “British invasion” of America, musically speaking, didn’t happen overnight. Their first great hit, “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” had topped the charts in the U.K. for a year before doing so in the U.S. in January 1964. After that, there was no stopping them.

The group appeared on "The Ed Sullivan Show" two days after deplaning in New York. Although nearly drowned out by the incessant shrieks of teenage girls in the audience, the ratings were phenomenal: some 40 percent of American television sets were tuned in that night, prompting Ed Sullivan to book them for two encore appearances that month.

The Beatles’ first public concert on these shores was at the old Washington Coliseum, two days after their television appearance. The venue, designed as a hockey arena, was barely adequate as a concert hall – even without all the screaming. Yet, the 8,000 fans who braved the cold D.C. weather on February 11, 1964, could always say they were there when history was made.

The set list that night was short by modern standards -- nothing like the marathon concerts Bruce Springsteen puts on today, for instance – as the Beatles played for not much more than half an hour. But every one of those songs is a classic, including the cover tunes they played.

We think of the Beatles as not just the vanguard of the British invasion, but as the original article. Actually, their music was more of a re-importation, which they freely admitted. Fittingly, their first song that night, fronted by George Harrison, was “Roll Over Beethoven,” a 1956 hit by Chuck Berry. They closed the concert with Little Richard’s “Long Tall Sally.”

In a note earlier this week, I reprised Little Richard’s quote about the origins of modern popular music. “The blues had an illegitimate baby,” he said, “and we named it rock 'n' roll.” It’s a nice line, but it’s important to remember that rock has many influences, and that its roots are multiracial.

The great journalist Jack Newfield once took issue with a commemorative issue of Rolling Stone magazine that perhaps credited Elvis Presley excessively for inventing rock 'n' roll. Newfield noted that Elvis himself never made any such claims, and often talked about the influence on his music of black gospel and the blues he listened to growing up in Tupelo, Miss.

“No one person started rock 'n' roll,” Newfield wrote. “It was a black and white alloy of Fats Domino, Lloyd Price, Ike Turner, Hank Williams, Joe Turner, Louis Jordan, Ray Charles, Little Richard, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly - and Elvis Presley.”

Let’s not forget the British bands of the early 1960s, either, especially the four young men who got off a PanAm flight on this day 49 years ago today and conquered a country.

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