It has been 50 years since the Beatles arrived in the United States, forever altering the landscape of popular music. But contrary to the general notion that the mop-tops hopped off a plane in 1964 and were just so talented and lovable that they took the states by storm, the Beatles’ conquering of America was actually the result of a long and complex struggle. It was the end result of the actions of numerous people acting in their own interests, with little knowledge of or concern about what the other was up to.
While the Brits are credited with giving the world the idea of popular music through the comic operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan, after World War II British popular music was in a creative slump. Weak transnational relationships between record labels and the dominance of state-controlled media tended to keep out foreign records (particularly American ones), leaving British audiences to make do with British artists’ covers of American hits. As a result, recordings of American folk and rhythm and blues artists became almost contraband, complete with all of the cool rebelliousness the black market can provide.
There were some American records available and American artists occasionally performed in the U.K., but the best place for a young British teenager to hear American music was at the movie theater. From Blackboard Jungle, which had British teenagers rioting in the aisles to the sounds of Bill Haley & the Comets’ “Rock Around the Clock,” to The Girl Can’t Help It, which featured energetic performances by Fats Domino, Little Richard, Gene Vincent, and Eddie Cochran, film introduced U.K. teens to rock’n’roll. To British teenagers rock ’n’ roll was choreographed cool, and staging and imaging were part of the package. Removed from the racial and political context of the music in the United States, it is no wonder that the Beatles were able to project such a well-crafted insouciance into American living rooms on that momentous night in February 1964.