On a summer afternoon in 1964 I went to a neighborhood movie theater to see the Beatles in A Hard Day’s Night. It was less than a year since John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. Kennedy’s death, and its aftermath of ceremonial grief and unscheduled violence, had if nothing else given younger observers an inkling of what it meant to be part of an immense audience. We had been brought together in horrified spectatorship, and the sense of shared spectatorship outlasted the horror. The period of private shock and public mourning seemed to go on forever, yet it was only a matter of weeks before the phenomenally swift rise of a pop group from Liverpool became so pervasive a concern that Kennedy seemed already relegated to an archaic period in which the Beatles had not existed. The New York DJs who promised their listeners “all Beatles all the time” were not so much shaping as reflecting an emergence that seemed almost an eruption of collective will. The Beatles had come, as if on occult summons, to drive away darkness and embody public desire on a scale not previously imagined.
Before the Christmas recess—just as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was finally breaking through to a US market that had resisted earlier releases by the Beatles—girls in my tenth-grade class began coming to school with Beatles albums and pictures of individual Beatles, discussing in tones appropriate to a secret religion the relative attractions of John or Paul or Ringo or even the underappreciated George. A month or so later the Beatles arrived in New York to appear on The Ed Sullivan Show and were duly ratified as the show business wonder of the age. Everybody liked them, from the Queen of England and The New York Times on down.
Even bystanders with no emotional or generational stake in the Beatles could appreciate the adrenaline rush of computing just how much this particular success story surpassed all previous ones in terms of money and media and market penetration. It was all moving too fast even for the so-called professionals. The Beatles were such a fresh product that those looking for ways to exploit it—from Ed Sullivan to the aging news photographers and press agents who seemed holdovers from the Walter Winchell era—stood revealed as anachronisms as they flanked a group who moved and thought too fast for them.*
And what was the product? Four young men who seemed more alive than their handlers and more knowing than their fans; aware of their own capacity to please more or less everybody, yet apparently savoring among themselves a joke too rich for the general public; professional in so unobtrusive a fashion that it looked like inspired amateurism. The songs had no preambles or buildups: the opening phrase—“Well, she was just seventeen” or “Close your eyes and I’ll kiss you”—was a plunge into movement, a celebration of its own anthemic impetus. Sheer enthusiasm, yet tempered by a suggestion of knowledge held in…
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