(c) Jerry Fielden 2000 

The Beatles and the British Invasion 

One day in 1965, my parents brought home a record from a pop music quartet from Great Britain that had been making news all over the world for the past year or so. From the beginnings of the first chords on the James-Bond style theme and the first line, “Help! I need somebody”, I was hooked. This album, the Help! film soundtrack, began the love of music in me that has lasted to this day. In those days of the mid-60s, my closest friends and my brother passed our leisure time by playing at being the Beatles rather than playing with G.I. Joe et al. 

A year or so earlier, on February 7, 1964, the band, composed of drummer Ringo Starr,[1] a.k.a. Richard Starkey, bassist Paul McCartney[2], and guitarists John Lennon[3] and George Harrison,[4] had alit on American soil and caused a social and musical storm which took years to abate. Here I will look at the social causes for both the inception of the Beatles and the teen movement in Britain and the resulting effect of Beatlemania in America. 

The generation that was born during and after the War was one of greater affluence than their parents’. Following Labour ‘s postwar lead, full employment and the welfare state caused a security leading to more consumerism.[5] The young had more leisure time and a bit of money to spend. They became a new group called “teenagers”, not quite schoolmarms but not quite working adults, which went on to found its own culture or subcultures, and which could be catered to as a part of a consumerist society and was well-covered by business interests as concerned fashion, music and other accessories, such as scooters, motorcycles, shoes, etc., even though their affectation was one of revolt, and this was especially prominent in the 1960s, but has its roots in the 50s, such as when Rock ‘n Roll movies were played or when bands such as Bill Haley’s toured England. The Beatles all came from working class families, and all of them had Rocker affinities, an image which descended from the Teddy Boys of an earlier era. John Lennon himself stated, “I was imitating Teds… I was never a real one… If I’d met a proper Ted, I’d have been shit-scared”.[6] The Teddy Boy subculture had evolved at that point in the later 50s and early 60s into two camps, the Rockers and Mods or Modernists, that were eventually to fight each other regularly in some well-publicized fisticuffs in various public places, such as Brighton, prompting national and international coverage.[7] 

The Beatles themselves lived through some heavy fighting in Hamburg, and also in Liverpool, when they used to play at the Cavern, but the leather garb that characterized them as Rockers was eventually to give way to a more-sanitized image inspired by their early bassist Stuart Sutcliffe’s girlfriend Astrid Kircherr,[8] and eventually presented to the world by their manager, Brian Epstein. 

The musical origins of what the Beatles played could be found in many styles, such as skiffle and pop, but the overall main influences were those of American rockabillies, rock ‘n rollers, country players, etc. The question is how did the lads hear this music in the first place? Well they were lucky enough to be living in a major port, Liverpool, where American sailors on the Cunard line, would bring over the records and instruments characteristic of the new styles.[9] Friends would learn these and show them to other friends and so on. Soon enough, Liverpool was bursting with bands that were both the Beatles’ friends and competitors. For instance, Ringo played in one of these, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes, which competed with the Beatles at the Kaiserkeller Club in Hamburg,[10] but Ringo still managed to record with the Beatles in 1960, as a friendly gesture.[11] Ringo eventually was hired by the band in 1962, for their first studio session, and remained on afterwards, to the anger of fans of the old drummer, Pete Best.[12] 

In 1963, England was ready for a bit of relief from the hardest winter it had suffered though in a hundred years. On January 12, ABC-TV showed the Beatles performing Please Please Me. Soon afterwards, the song hit number one in England. The Beatles were different in the way they wore their hair, the suits they had on, but the main parts that people noticed were the infectious grins, wit and good humour that were part and parcel of them and that were the main differences with all the other pop stars of the day.[13] Soon enough, their producer, George Martin, was helping them to release a quality first LP to capitalize on the success of the single. They recorded this LP in thirteen hours, with some original material like I Saw Her Standing There and covers of American Rock ‘n Roll tunes, such as Twist and Shout.[14] On November 4, the Beatles were playing for the Queen, and John Lennon uttered his famous “…those upstairs, just rattle your jewelry…” phrase which people actually found pretty funny.[15] All in all, the British reaction to the group was quite positive, even to the point that PM Alec Douglas-Home and the Queen herself complimented them in interviews.[16] Beatlemania, as it was known, was now in full swing in England; all that was left to accomplish was the conquest of America. 

In the United States, the roots of Rock ‘n Roll were a lot more explicit than in the second-hand aspect they had taken in Britain. This mixture of Black and White music styles (Blues and Country) had been created in the 50’s by performers such as Bill Haley, Elvis Presley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry into a genre that mainstream WASP America found threatening when their children came to embrace it as an expression of their culture. Alan Freed, the famous disk jockey, had actually renamed this form of Rhythm & Blues “Rock ‘n Roll”[17] in an attempt to sanitize the public image of the music, to make it less threatening perhaps.[18] But Rock ‘n Roll was still viewed as dangerous in the United States, and its performers were subject to various attacks and misadventures, for instance, when Chuck Berry was put in jail for “transporting a minor across state lines”, when Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran died, when Jerry Lee Lewis shocked England with his marriage to his 13-year old cousin. Even Elvis was out of service, doing Army duty. It was not a good time for Rock ‘n Roll. Such men as Dick Clark and his American Bandstand show had sanitized it to the point of blandness. At the time the Beatles were poised to invade America, the main line of music coming out of this style were dance songs such as the “Twist” by Chubby Checker, not exactly revolt-inspiring music. 

Then on November 22, 1963, the unthinkable happened. American President John F. Kennedy was hit by a sniper’s bullets in Dallas and died. The American nation was in profound shock and a sort of bleakness seemed to fill the air. The stage was, in a way, set for a dose of good humour and diversion such as that which the Beatles could provide. 

American TV show host Ed Sullivan had to been to Great Britain and had noticed the commotion the Beatles were causing and decided to bring the band on to his show. Their manager Brian Epstein agreed and prepared the way for the invasion. He organized a publicity blitz with the help of Capitol Records, whereas 5 million Beatles stickers were pasted everywhere in sight, and interview records were given to as many DJs as possible. The record company also managed to get the Beatles’ faces in Time, Newsweek and Life magazines, and this was excellent publicity. Indeed, the Life article said: “First England fell, victim of a million girlish screams. Then last week, Paris surrendered. Now the U.S. must brace itself.”[19] As the Beatles were considered safe enough, most of the media liked them. Only a few sour notes were struck at the time.[20] But I Want to Hold Your Hand was now number one in the U.S. and there was no going back. The marketing of the Beatles was now in full swing, foreshadowing today’s “logoing” campaigns by Nike et al., promoting the Beatle lifestyle, through Beatle wigs, Beatle tee-shirts, Beatle books, etc. One of these books described the effect of the Beatles on America thus: “For fourteen hectic days, they would bring a joyful madness to our shores... An uncounted number of teenage girls would faint away at the very sight of them... (Eeeeeeeeeeee-Eeeeeeeeeeeeee-EEEEEEEEEEEE-EEEEEEEEEEE-and plop!”[21] Notwithstanding these quite humorous lines and quite unfortunately, the Beatles would never see most of the profits on this merchandise, as Seltaeb enterprises, which was what the marketing company was called, was incredibly poorly managed.[22] Merchandise pirates also had a field day, both in Britain and in the U.S. 

America was by then totally conquered. In the early 60s, only a very few British artists had made the charts in the U.S. After the Beatle invasion, many British artists flowered. The Beatles themselves had 5 top hits in the Billboard charts in 1964, a feat never achieved before or since.[23] The Beatles were now considered the leaders of what was becoming a full-fledged invasion of America by British artists. They were followed by the Rolling Stones,[24] the Kinks, The Animals, the Dave Clark Five, etc. Critics were mostly pro-Beatles: “despite all the predictions of an imminent onslaught by other pretenders, they kept up their mastery to the count of nine encapsulated years… each step upward… was a natural and a major breakthrough…”[25] However, some critics were saying that the Beatles were just in the right place at the right time and that they were not leaders, but that “their job, and they have done it well, has been to travel a few miles behind the avant-garde, to consolidate gains and to popularize new ideas.”[26] This may be true, but it is undeniable that a band of lesser musical talent, notwithstanding the simple lyrics, and with less entregent would not have succeeded in revolutionizing an entire industry and the vitality of the youth culture of many countries as well. 

Later on in the year, they made a film called A Hard Day’s Night, which chronicled Beatlemania with a large dose of tongue-in-cheek humour. This was followed in 1965 by the movie Help!, that took them to various locales in a bit of a plot involving an attempt on Ringo’s life by a religious sect. Success had definitely arrived for the four musicians, and recognition from their own country too: in October 1965, the Queen gave each member of the band the award of the MBE (Member of the Order of the British Empire). Harold Wilson had presented the Beatles with Variety Club Awards when still the leader of the opposition, and some thought that when he came to power, “the country had elected its first Beatle Prime Minister.”[27] 

Thus, the Beatles had changed the mood in two countries, England and the United States, by their freshness, vitality, musicianship and overall attitude. It was a much-needed change by both societies that were undergoing a dark and dreary period in their history; for England, Suez and DeGaulle’s “non” were still fresh in mind, and for the United States, the shock of the Kennedy assassination. They inspired women to unparalleled adoration, and men to jealousy and desire to emulate them. Their utterings charmed or shocked[28] various levels of both societies but did not leave anyone (especially young people) untouched. They influenced many musicians, and even classical versions of their music were recorded. Indeed, the Beatles themselves were not averse to using strings in their own albums. 

The Beatles had paved the way for English musicians and several later British invasions followed: one in the late 60s based in harder-edged sounds, with Cream, The Who,[29] The Yardbirds then, of course, Led Zeppelin, Deep Purple and Black Sabbath, followed by the Progressive Rock invasion of the early 70s with Emerson, Lake and Palmer, Yes, Genesis, etc., and finally, what is called “The New Wave of British Heavy Metal” in the early 80s, with Saxon, Def Leppard and Iron Maiden, amongst others.[30] 

The Beatles had been, in all these cases, very important precursors and influences, whether direct or indirect, and had given to the youth of America (and other countries), a taste for things British which could not have been achieved by political means, and that was followed by the whole British fashion scene, for instance, Carnaby Street, Twiggy, etc. And the Beatles had given their own country a sort of jaunty confidence that had been lacking until then, and that seemed to be part and parcel of the “liberated 60s”, a bit of which was to survive in the legislation and youth mores and cultures that originated in that particular decade (some of this would be shown in movies of the period such as Blow-Up, and parodied later in movies such as Austin Powers). 

Unfortunately, the Beatles’ air of freshness and innocence had disappeared with the knowledge that they had taken drugs, with the debate over their awful financial affairs, with the disastrous Magical Mystery Tour movie, with the Maharishi and the Lennon-Ono “controversies”,[31] and ultimately, with their breakup. But the Beatles will always be remembered as the ones that gave the British and North American societies of the early 60s a breath of fresh air and for their groundbreaking musical and, yes, societal contributions. 


Burton, Thomas L. 
“Rock music and social change”, Loisir & Société 8 #2, 1985 

Cohen, Stanley 
Folk devils & moral panics, London, 1972 

De Blasio, Edward 
All about the Beatles, New York, 1964 

Gabree, John 
The World of Rock, Greenwich, Connecticut, 1968 

Green, Timothy 
“Here come those Beatles”, Life vol. 56 #5, Jan. 31, 1964 

Moore, Allan F. 
The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, Cambridge, 1997 

Norman, Philip 
Shout! The Beatles in their generation, New York, 1981 

Robinson, Richard et al. 
Rock revolution, New York, 1976 

Sullivan, Henry W. 
The Beatles with Lacan, New York, 1995 

Szatmary, David P. 
Rockin’ in Time, a social history of Rock-and-Roll, 4th Edition, New Jersey, 2000 

Walser, Robert 
Running with the Devil, Hanover, NH, 1993 


[1] b. 1940 

[2] b. 1942 

[3] 1940-1980 

[4] b. 1943 

[5] Allan F. Moore, The Beatles: Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, (Cambridge, 1997), 5 

[6] David P. Szatmary, Rockin’ in Time, (New Jersey, 2000), 104 

[7] Stanley Cohen, Folk devils and Moral Panics, (London, 1972), 30 

[8] She is the one who invented the Beatle haircut and the collarless suits the Beatles first used in 1960, then reused in the beginnings of Beatlemania; Philip Norman, Shout!, (New York, 1981), 99, 207 

[9] Moore, 9 

[10] The Hamburg experience is also important for the Beatles because they played up to 8 hours a night there, and thus had to learn a vast repertoire. This made them better musicians, with a knowledge of many styles, a fact that would help them incorporate many influences in their music later on. Also, all of them had to sing because the hours were so long and their voices needed a rest. This helped with their harmonies and gave the band four very distinct lead singers. An important factor was also that they wrote their own songs, which was quite unusual for the industry at the time. 

[11] Norman, 94-95 

[12] Norman, 163 

[13] Norman, 173-175 

[14] Norman, 177 

[15] Szatmary, 106 

[16] Szatmary, 107 

[17] Ironically, “to Rock ‘n Roll” meant “to have sex” in the jargon of that era 

[18] Henry W. Sullivan, The Beatles with Lacan, (New York, 1995), 24-25 

[19] Timothy Green, “Here come those Beatles”, Life, vol. 56 #5, Jan 31, 1964 

[20] For instance, by Billy Graham, the well-known American evangelist, who ironically spent his “sacred” Sunday watching the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show; Szatmary, 109 

[21] Edward De Blasio, All about the Beatles, (New York, 1964), 7 

[22] Norman, 208 ff. 

[23] Thomas L. Burton, “Rock Music and Social Change”, Loisir et Société 8 #2, 1985, 674 

[24] The Rolling Stones were almost as big as the Beatles, but their “scruffy” image deterred their acceptance by levels of society that had, sometimes reluctantly, accepted the Beatles. Indeed, the Stones first tour of the U.S. was not the success that their predecessors’ was. 

[25] Lenny Kaye, in Rock Revolution, (New York, 1976), 34 

[26] John Gabree, The World of Rock, (Greenwich, Connecticut, 1968), 18 

[27] Norman, 247 

[28] As in the “we are more popular than Jesus” incident, where John Lennon’s statement caused Beatle album burnings in the U.S., but no reaction in the U.K.; also the infamous The Beatles - Yesterday and Today album sleeve showing them as butchers amongst a pile of dismembered and decapitated dolls, and holding strips of bloody meat; Norman, 265 

[29] The Who were the Mods’ musical representatives of sorts 

[30] Heavy Metal music became the “dominant genre of American music” in the 80s, thanks to this invasion, which was deemed “as important for Metal as the Beatles and Rolling Stones had been for Pop fifteen years earlier”; Robert Walser, Running with the Devil, (Hanover NH, 1993), 11-12 

[31] Which demonstrated racism in some of the Beatles’ fans when they railed against Yoko Ono

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