When 1962 ended the Beatles were a mildly successful, extraordinarily hard-working, primarily local band. When they won Liverpool's most popular band award, given by Liverpool-based Mersey Beat magazine, for two years in a row it should have come as no surprise. That year they played over 400 live shows, 160 shows at the Cavern Club alone. Nevertheless they still hadn't found widespread success. Their first single, "Love Me Do", peaked at #21, its sales buoyed by rumors of mass purchases done by manager Brian Epstein.
It was a different story when 1963 ended. With the Beatles was released in the U.K. on November 22, 1963 and shot to #1, displacing the Beatles' first album, Please, Please, Me. With the Beatles stayed at #1 for 21 weeks. Beatlemania was running rampant through England.
The U.S. release of Meet the Beatles! on January 20, 1964 was stage two in Beatlemania's American conquest. Stage one was the late-December, early-January release of their first U.S. single, "I Want to Hold Your Hand". The single jolted to number one selling 250,000 copies in the first three days and one million by January 13. Stage three came on February 9 with the legendary taping of The Ed Sullivan Show and a U.S. audience of 73 million people, at the time the most watched television program in history.
But how did it all happen and why? What was it about the Beatles that seduced the U.S. and the U.K. that winter? How could anyone's popularity mushroom at such an alarming pace, especially in a pre-internet, pre-cable TV, newspaper and radio-centric world?
The short answer is: I have no idea. Their amazing success is unimaginable to me today. The framework they worked in feels so foreign to me. They worked without corporate sponsorship, without an iTunes commercial, and without major monetary backing. In today's terms I could see them as a grass roots myspace phenomenon that an audience takes to. A Lily Allen, a Clap Your Hands Say Yeah, or an Arctic Monkeys. But these musicians don't sell one million copies in one week. 73 million people do not clamor to watch their television performances. They will never change the face of music and/or the world. Are their tunes as good? Maybe. Are the personalities there? Perhaps. Could we ever see another Beatles? Probably not.
Or have we already?
During the boy band craze of the early millennium 'N Sync, the Backstreet Boys, and even the Spice Girls garnered comparisons to the Fab Four. They sold mass records and they had screaming, adoring fans. The Spice Girls made an A Hard Day's Night-style movie, and the others surely claimed to be "bigger than the Beatles". Like the early Beatles, they all toured at a manic pace, flooded the world with publicity, and had ubiquitous catchy tunes. But they also carried a sheen of plastic professionalism; a non-organic distaste. They were never cuddly. They were a focus group-tested product aimed to be bought, consumed, and ingested by the 73 million.
You were going to like them and you had no choice. And we did. And we still do. We clamor for Justin Timberlake's faux-Michael Jackson, intoxicated stardom trip. We vote for Mel B on Dancing With the Stars and sell out a reunited Spice Girls tour in seconds. We wonder, "what happened to the Backstreet Boys"while we read article after article about their female artist doppelganger Britney Spears.
In January of 1964 did we really have a choice with the Beatles? Were we just sheep to Brian Epstein's master plan or should we just admit that our baby boomer parents had good taste and uncanny buying power. That winter, were the Beatles' tunes that irresistible and that perfect? Were they more Backstreet or more Arctic Monkeys?
The magical opening chords of Meet the Beatles! song one, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" answers that question. Neither. It's goofy, it's poppy, it's perfect, it's real. It's the product of years of constant touring and constant work. It's an amazing album and, at least now, my favorite in the Beatles famed discography. It's full of boundless energy, terrific tunes, and a remarkable succinctness. The album it most reminds me of? The Ramones. Sonically, historically, and emotionally. The fast songs, the great melodies, their seminal importance, and their nostalgic sweetness. Just shows how much the world changed from 1964 to 1976.