The Beatles reshaped American culture, explaining their enduring appeal
Peter Jackson’s nearly eight-hour re-cut of the 1969 film “The Beatles: Get Back” receives a lot of attention, along with its fair share of rave reviews and scathing reviews. The documentary, cleaned up with the latest technology, thwarts the usual story of the Beatles’ acrimonious breakup by showing them doing more than bickering. They collaborate, joke and get nostalgic in the studios and in their legendary rooftop gig. The film recalls that at the end of the 1960s, they were still writing innovative music that resonates today.
Just five years earlier, in 1964, the group had been the subject of another powerful film, which followed a pop revolution in the making. “What’s Happening! The Beatles in the United States ”showed the group not only making music, but also reshaping culture. Both documentaries reveal how the Beatles reoriented American music, helped the country shed the lackluster mid-century consensus conformity, and in so doing even sparked one of the first major battles of modern culture wars.
The Beatles first landed in the United States in February 1964, just over two months after President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas. That year, the exuberant Fab Four did their part to lift America out of a gloomy national depression by creating a new kind of cultural fellowship. The devotion of their acolytes confined to the religious. Fans wanted relics and totems: a piece of cloth, a guitar string, a lock of hair. Some spectators in the front rows, delirious with excitement, sometimes wet their seats or passed out. It was Beatlemania.
The screams of teenage girls – captured in touring footage in the Maysles film – were, as feminist scholars Barbara Ehrenreich, Elizabeth Hess, and Gloria Jacobs would later observe, cries of an on-going gender revolution. “Giving up control – screaming, passing out, rushing into crowds,” they wrote of these American girls, “was, in form if not conscious intention, to protest against sexual repression, double rigid standard of adolescent culture. “
The Beatles also revolutionized what it meant to be a young man. Their public image, thanks to manager Brian Epstein, lacked the savage machismo and growl of early rock-and-rollers like Gene Vincent or Jerry Lee Lewis. Beatles producer George Martin said the band “sounded like a male Shirelles.” Indeed, they covered songs from other “African American girl groups” like the Marvelettes, Cookies and Donays.
Their relative androgyny has forged a new way of being. Feminist writer Betty Friedan even believed that the long-haired young men of the Beatles “were saying ‘no’ to male mysticism.” For Friedan, they seemed to reject “that brutal, sadistic, pinched, round-cut, Prussian, muscular manhood of Ernest Hemingway” that was too prevalent in post-war American society.
In their style and with their irreverence, the group helped change American views of the British as being stifling and attached to outdated and rigid institutions and ideas. The Beatles certainly didn’t fit that stereotype. They were fun and with him, and their surprising and exuberant compositions sounded fresh and invigorating to young American ears.
Music critic Ian MacDonald once described American Beatles fans as “a generation raised in crew cuts, braces, hot rods and Coca-Cola” who “knew nothing about the blues or R&B and had forgotten the rock-n-roll that had excited their older siblings just five years earlier. Of course, there was a lot of amazing rock, pop, and soul acts in the pre-Beatles era. But just before the Fab Four arrived in the United States, the U.S. Top 40 rankings were dominated by fresh, bland-faced teenage crooners and successful wonders like Bobby Vinton, the Kingsmen, the Murmaids, and Bobby Rydell. One of the best-selling albums of 1963 was “Sister Smile,” the Singing Nun’s eponymous album, a parent-friendly record that a young pastor might recommend. Even Elvis Presley had lost some of his luster, becoming something of a self-caricature, making one forgettable movie after another.
But the Beatles turned these popular trends upside down. The Beach Boys, who had four successful albums and started the surf music craze in 1962 and 1963, began to fear that they too would become out of fashion. Brian Wilson was one of 74 million Americans who watched the Beatles’ first performance on the “Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964. He noticed how catchy their music was and said “they sounded like Good”. This especially seemed the case, he admitted, “compared to the striped shirts and silly, youthful white pants the Beach Boys wore on stage. I suddenly felt relaxed, like we looked more like shopping carts from golf than rock’n’roll stars.