- Historic Sites
1964 - The Year The Sixties Began
Viewing a transformation that still affects all of us—through the prism of a single year
October 2006 | Volume 57, Issue 5
After clearing customs, the Beatles—John Lennon and Ringo Starr, age 23; and Paul McCartney and George Harrison, age 21—held a press conference (“bedlam,” The New York Times remarked), at which their already celebrated wit and irreverence were on full display. “We have a message,” McCartney announced, prompting 200 reporters and photographers, representing a full range of American and international publications, to fall instantly silent. “Our message is, buy more Beatles records!”
Soon the kids who listened to the Beatles would demand political control.
McCartney hardly needed to press the point. The Beatles had already sold six million albums in Britain and America and commanded fees upward of $10,000 for a week’s performance schedule. They were fast on their way to becoming the most popular music act in history. So far-reaching was their popularity that when the band members arrived in Washington, D.C., by sleeping car several days later, 2,000 frantic devotees all but broke through the glass barricade the police had put up at Union Station. “You can’t throw her out,” one of the teenagers protested as a policeman attempted to eject her overzealous friend from the adjacent concourse. “She’s president of the Beatles fan club!” Another police officer probably summed up the bewildered opinion of adult America when he noted, simply, “The world has gone mad.”
To young people like Danielle Landau, a 15-year-old Brooklyn native, the Beatles embodied a sharp and welcome break with the culture she had grown up in. “They’re different,” she said, “they’re just so different. I mean, all that hair. American singers are soooo clean cut.”
There was nothing new, of course, about rock music. Ten years earlier, when the Crew Cuts, an all-white band, and the Chords, an all-black band, recorded competing versions of “Sh-Boom,” and when Bill Haley and His Comets released “Rock Around the Clock,” music critics had noted the arrival of a new and dynamic form of popular song that fused country and Western traditions with rhythm and blues traditions. When a popular New York disc jockey began opening his show with the tag line “Hello, everybody, yours truly, Alan Freed, the old king of the rock and rollers, all ready for another big night of rockin’ and rollin’, let ’er go!” the emergent genre found its name. Then and since, few Americans realized that rock ’n’ roll was a black slang term for sexual intercourse.
The most popular rock act in the 1950s, of course, was Elvis Presley, whose electrified, hard rhythmic versions of black and white gospel music caught fire with America’s young. Presley’s record producer, Sam Phillips, had previously attempted to crack national audiences with recordings by black performers like B. B. King, but the rigid color line proved an insurmountable barrier to success. “If I could find a white man with a Negro sound,” Phillips reportedly told friends, “I could make a billion dollars.” In Elvis Presley he had his man.
Yet for all its popularity in the 1950s, rock never fully displaced softer variations on the popular song. Well into the early 1960s tunes like “Tammy,” by Debbie Reynolds, and “Mack the Knife,” by Bobby Darin, commanded top slots on Billboard ’s ranking tables, along with music by such clean-cut crooners as Pat Boone, Perry Como, and Frank Sinatra.
After 1964 everything changed. Within two years of their arrival in America, the Beatles dominated the pop charts, along with their harder-edged competitors the Rolling Stones, Motown groups like the Supremes, and folk-rock groups like the Byrds.
Ironically, the sound that the Beatles helped pioneer claimed deep roots in the United States. When John Lennon and Paul McCartney played their first public performance together on October 18, 1957, at the Conservative Club in Norris Green, Liverpool, the Quarry Men, as the band was then called, was self-consciously mimicking so-called race music, imported from the States, as well as white rock impresarios like Elvis, who were interpreting (or, depending on one’s perspective, appropriating) black music for white audiences.
The Quarry Men (soon renamed first Johnny and the Moondogs, then the Silver Beetles, and finally the Beatles) were also part of the skiffle craze that swept England in the 1950s. A contemporary English writer described the hybrid skiffle genre as “light-hearted folk-music with a jazz slant and a very definite beat—normally sung to a background of guitars, bass and drums only.” Its most successful practitioner in postwar Britain was Lonnie Donegan, a native Glaswegian who was raised in East London, where he learned to play the banjo and the guitar. His upbeat versions of blacks’ and whites’ traditional songs like “Rock Island Line” and “Cumberland Gap” were tremendously successful among Britain’s increasingly affluent teenagers, who snatched up three million copies of just one Lonnie Donegan single in the space of six months.