The Beatles, the 'British Invasion' and that Jesus comment

The Beatles wave to fans after arriving at John F Kennedy International Airport, 7 February 1964

The quote in the title above was made by Paul McCartney whilst John Lennon paid the same tribute to Elvis Presley. Today, Carl Perkins is not a name that is likely to be too familiar with younger people but his 1956 hit Blue Suede Shoes reached No 2 in America's The Top 100 and No 10 in the UK. It exemplifies the rockabilly ("rock" from rock 'n' roll plus "billy" from hillbilly) sound made so popular by him and others like Bill Haley, Jerry Lee Lewis and, of course, Elvis.

It reminds us all of the debt owed to one of the early rockers whose influence on popular music changed the music industry on both sides of the Atlantic – the UK obviously but not forgetting too France's "the biggest rock star you've never heard of", Johnny Hallyday. If you're thinking he doesn't sound too French that's because his real name is Jean-Philippe Smet.

But getting back to the Beatles, it was on 7 February 1964 that John, Paul, George and Ringo set off on a Pan Am flight from Heathrow Airport, cheered by a few thousand fans, to restore a balance to some of that indebtedness after achieving phenomenal success in the UK during 1963.

"Beatlemania" had swept Britain. At the gigs, the group's songs could barely be heard above the screaming of several thousand over excited girls who would probably be rather embarrassed to see themselves today. In the United States however, until the very end of that year, they were unknown.

Jonathan Gould in his 2008 book Can't Buy Me Love: The Beatles, Britain and America mentions that the Fab Four were travelling with some trepidation and Paul exclaimed during the flight to New York: "They've got their own groups. What are we going to give them that they don't already have?"

Change, would be my answer to that. Not revolutionary upon reflection but nonetheless needed to invigorate a Memphis-based sound which seemed fixed by a repetition of tales of abusive husbands or fathers, or male singers whose 'baby' had run off with another man. Combined with lyrics highlighting poverty, especially in the South, one could be forgiven for thinking that the United States was poor and populated by adulterers.

True, this is an oversimplification but it could explain why American music, which had been so influential in the British music scene since World War II, had become somewhat staid by the early sixties and was beginning to lose its dominance. For the UK charts, and The Beatles, 1963 was a key year.

The Top 100 Most Popular Singles for 1963 was dominated with home-grown talent. The Beatles were No 1 and 2 with She Loves You and From Me to You with Gerry and the Pacemakers at Nos 3, 4 and 6. Americans of course were still well represented too but not like times past. Ned Miller was at No 8 with From a Jack to a King, Roy Orbison was next best with Nos 17 and 21, Elvis made only 28 (and 54) and to my surprise, Bobby Vee's The Night Has a Thousand Eyes only managed No 48.

Aiding UK talent was the popularity of the radio programme on BBC Light, Saturday Club with DJ Brian Matthew. Broadcast between 10 and 12 noon, by the early 60s it had an audience well in excess of five million. It was ITV however that produced a show which made the BBC sit up and take notice and devote more air time to a younger audience and pop music.

On 9 August 1963, Associated Rediffusion television broadcast the first Ready Steady Go!, a dedicated pop show presented by Keith Fordyce and Cathy McGowan with live acts who (usually) mimed their current hit or upcoming release. The show "discovered" Donovan in 1965 and shortly before it was surprisingly taken off air in 1966, introduced Britain to Jimi Hendrix singing Hey Joe.

The BBC's response was Top of The Pops first aired on New Year's Day 1964 and such programmes did much to boost record sales with a single purchased with typical pocket money.

The Beatles began the 1960s as a backing group, the Silver Beetles and had toured small-town venues like Inverness, Nairn, Forres and Keith – all these in northern Scotland – after which they would play in Hamburg, a fact still remembered with pride by the north German city's residents. Returning to the UK in 1962, they achieved their first hit late in that year with Love Me Do which reached No 17 in the charts.

This was a group of individual, outgoing personalities but which very obviously gelled in a way that one could not imagine any different line-up. Lyrics were usually accredited to Lennon and McCartney and though simple in their early pieces, could be unusual – She Loves You is sung in the third person – or reflect truly held feelings – I Want to Hold Your Hand as well as And I Love Her is Paul singing to his then girlfriend, the actress Jane Asher.

Both John and Paul however, acknowledged that the final product often benefitted from the fills of Ringo's drumming (She Loves You) where vocals and guitars left spaces, and George's backing harmony and frequent addition of chords and riffs made "a stunning difference to the song". These were very much four individuals who looked out for each other.

In December 1963 just after the assassination of President Kennedy, clips of The Beatles were aired on American TV by way of a pick-me-up. Britain's EMI owned Capitol Records and on the surge of interest and store demand for a record then unavailable in the USA, Capitol decided to release I Want to Hold Your Hand on 26 December 1963. The record went to No 1 on the Cash Box Chart on 18 January 1964 and on Billboard's Hot 100 on 1 February. Beatlemania and the 'British Invasion' had begun.

Some of the statistics during that time are truly breathtaking. Appearing on the Ed Sullivan Show on Sunday 9 February, The Beatles' estimated TV audience numbered 73 million, about two-fifths of the American population and by 4 April, the group held the top five positions on the Billboard Hot 100 single chart.

Later in the same year, between 19 August and 20 September, their first real concert tour kicked off at the Cow Palace, San Francisco by which time the British Invasion by other groups, led by The Dave Clark Five, was well under way. The Invasion really dented some very big names including Elvis, Roy Orbison and Chuck Berry, yet ironically, The Animals from Newcastle would take R&B right back to the USA with their hits House of the Rising Sun and - the originally composed for and released by Nina Simone who failed to chart - Don't Let Me Be Misunderstood.

In March 1966, John Lennon in an interview for the London Evening Standard quipped: "…We're more popular than Jesus now; I don't know which will go first, rock 'n' roll or Christianity…."

Hardly noticed in the UK - it was part of a long-running national discussion about the decline of Christianity - it marred the group's final US tour when it was reported months later in the American teen magazine Datebook and at many of the venues there were rows of empty seats.

Some particularly angry Americans organised Beatles albums bonfires and the Ku Klux Klan nailed a Beatles album to a wooden cross.

Lennon recognised the offence caused, although he also insisted that his comment had been taken out of context because it was in reference to the decline of churchgoing in England at the time. His apology at a news conference in Chicago revealed his bemusement over the level of public outcry in the US.

Barry Miles, in his 1997 book, Paul McCartney: Many Years From Now, details Lennon's comments to reporters at the press conference more fully.

He told them, "I suppose if I had said television was more popular than Jesus, I might have got away with it, but I just happened to be talking to a friend and I used the words 'Beatles' as a remote thing, not as what I think - as Beatles, as those other Beatles like other people see us. I just said 'they' are having more influence on kids and things than anything else, including Jesus. But I said it in that way which is the wrong way."

When one reporter asked him how he felt about teenagers mimicking him and now saying they loved the Beatles more than Jesus, he continued: "Well, originally I pointed out that fact in reference to England. That we meant more to kids than Jesus did, or religion at that time. I wasn't knocking it or putting it down. I was just saying it as a fact and it's true more for England than here. I'm not saying that we're better or greater, or comparing us with Jesus Christ as a person or God as a thing or whatever it is. I just said what I said and it was wrong. Or it was taken wrong. And now it's all this."

Asked if he was prepared to apologise, he commented: "I wasn't saying whatever they're saying I was saying. I'm sorry I said it really. I never meant it to be a lousy anti-religious thing. I apologise if that will make you happy. I still don't know quite what I've done. I've tried to tell you what I did do but if you want me to apologise, if that will make you happy, then OK, I'm sorry."

America was, and still is comparatively, a religious country.

The Beatles ended their last ever concert tour at Candlestick Park, San Francisco on 29 August 1966.

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