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Why Did the Beatles Take America by Storm 40 Years Ago


On August 15,1965, more than 55,000 screaming fans filled New York's Shea Stadium to hear the Beatles, the largest crowd ever to attend a concert. "You never forget something like that," says Larry Kane, author of Ticket to Ride. The only American journalist to travel with the Beatles for almost three years, Mr. Kane covered that concert and 63 others between 1964 and 1966 as a reporter for a Miami radio station.

"The truth is, in the beginning I didn't want to go," he says. "I thought why would anybody who is serious about news, covering politics, want to travel with a band. But I knew, a week into it, that it was a phenomenon that I had never seen before in my life."

According to some observers, the four young men from Britain became one of the most influential cultural forces of the 20th century.

In his book, Ticket to Ride, Mr. Kane recalls behind the scenes stories from his travels with the Beatles, and his personal experience dealing with the "Fab Four" on a daily basis. "I was 21 (years-old), Paul McCartney was three months older," he says. "John Lennon was two years older along with Ringo Starr. George Harrison was a year younger than me. He was 20 (years old). I was stunned and shocked at the maturity of the four of them, and the way they handled the world stage just five years after they were a 'garage' band. I was also truly surprised at their intellectual curiosity."

According to cultural historian Steven Stark, Americans loved the Beatles because they were smart, funny and -- unlike other stars of rock and roll -- they represented the middle class.

"Elvis Presley was a truck driver, the Beatles were not," he says. "They were middle class suburban kids. They knew who Beethoven was. That allowed them to influence the middle class in America in a way that had not been true with rock and roll groups until then."

To understand why the Beatles became the central force they did, Mr. Stark spent three years in Liverpool, England, where John, Paul, George and Ringo grew up. In his book, Meet the Beatles, he talks about the cultural environment that made this port town a very special place to live. "First of all, it created a matriarchal society," he says. "The men tended to be away for months, if not years at a time, at sea. Boys and girls tended to be raised by their mothers."

Both John Lennon and Paul McCartney lost their mothers when they were teenagers. That, Mr. Stark says, had an incredible influence on them in terms of writing songs that appealed to women. "Up until the time they arrived, rock and roll was still fairly sexist," he says. "You had songs like, 'I'm not the kind of guy who likes to hang around, I just go from girl to girl.' Girls were supposed to wait at home, like in the song Johnny Angel, and wait for boy friends to come back whenever they decided to. In contrast, the Beatles wrote songs in which they told boys to be nicer to their girl friends, songs like, 'she loves you, you're going to lose that girl.' They also wrote songs that were very sensitive to the concerns of women like, Lovely Rita Meter Maid."

Mr. Stark says the Beatles were also influential in changing the depiction of masculinity. "When they arrived in America in 1964, their hair, at that time, was shockingly revolutionary," he says. "The model for male look was the 'crew cut,' which was military prescribed; it was what the astronauts wore. When they arrived here, it radically began to change the way men looked and they way the thought about the way they looked."

The Beatles' influence pushed all kinds of boundaries … not just of music and fashion, but the outlook of an entire generation. Steven Stark says they had a universal message that appealed to young people everywhere. "They represented freedom, the idea that one person can make a difference, that the whole is greater than some of its parts," he says. "I mean, if you look at the titles of their songs, Come Together, All You Need is Love, All Together Now, We Can Work it Out. There is an optimism, a philosophy of freedom there; personal freedom and political freedom."

The Beatles broke up in 1970. Mr. Stark points to a number of reasons:

"One is the culture began to turn dark in the late 1960s," he says. "We have the assassinations, the riots in the streets. The Beatles who had always been optimistic, upbeat band found themselves somehow out of favor. It was an era, in which Rolling Stones who presented a much darker image in songs like, Sympathy for the Devil, tended to be more popular. Second, they had been together for a long time,15 years. Finally, they had worked very hard. They were exhausted both emotionally and physically. They put out two albums a year, constantly touring. I think they just couldn't move on any more."

John, Paul, George and Ringo each went on to successful solo careers… but the music they made together as The Beatles remains popular. And while some of today's acts may hope to achieve the same level of cultural influence as the boys from Liverpool, Steven Stark doubts any will.

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