When The Beatles first arrived in the USA, Beatlemania really commenced. Their arrival at JFK airport, and their appearance on the Ed Sullivan TV show were major show-business events! On vacation in Las Vegas, after watching their TV appearance Elvis Presley wryly commented “They’ve brought it back home”.
The Beatles were accepted in America as a breadth of fresh air. The music had become staid, much as it had been eight years earlier when Presley had first arrived on the scene. They were welcomed by the always worried parents of young teenagers, who saw them as clean, harmless fun, and certainly no threat to their offspring.
For years we were asked to believe that America’s infatuation with the Beatles, and the other British groups that followed, was because of disillusionment following the assassination of President Kennedy. That was a cozy analogy, but there was no substance.
When Presley first burst out of the South, back in 1956, there was massive opposition to him, musically and culturally, not only from the establishment, but from most sections of society. Newsreel images from back then remain as a constant reminder of that time, when the civil-rights movement was beginning to flex its muscles.
One kinescope image centres on a somewhat irate restaurant-owner, standing alongside his “we serve white customers only” sign, and declaring that he was going to ensure that Presley’s records would be removed from all juke-boxes in the area! One more image, has yet another establishment spokesperson advising us that this rock ‘n’ roll music “is obviously a means by which the white man, and his children, can be driven to the level of the negra!” Heady stuff! As far as the teenagers and Presley, were concerned, “It’s only a music”, although, in truth, it was more than that. It was, in fact, a revolution!
But there’s the rub, Presley was considered by most to be the devil incarnate, with Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, et al, not far behind. The music was black, the devils own! With church ministers and lay-people alike attacking him almost daily, the army must have come as a welcome interlude, and a golden opportunity to change musical tack. In any case, who knew if rock ‘n’ roll was going to last.
With the disapearance of Jerry Lee and Richard Penniman from the scene, and a shift to ballads by Presley and Buddy Holly, prior to the latter’s untimely death, things began to quiten down, musically and otherwise. Elvis, who loved his Mom and apple-pie, was beginning to mature! Then, the Beatles arrived!
Those cute little mop-heads caught the publics imagination, and the music did not have the dreadful lyric’s that the 50’s rockers had indulged in, that spoke of “One Night of Sin”/”One night With You”, and worse. These little English gentlemen sang innocently of “I Want To Hold Your Hand”. In the process, they revolutionized pop music. Their record-sales were remarkable, and they opened up the US of A to other British groups.
But the music was the same! The same old Rhythm and Blues, with the faster and more in-your-face tempo that the 50’s Rockers had employed. But now it was sanatised, cleaned-up, and re-invented, with no black connections. It was what the teenagers parents wanted, although some pretended otherwise. Maybe, in some convoluted way, by travelling back across the Atlantic without its excess baggage, it helped save the blues. But it was undoubtedly hijacked from the wrong side of the tracks, even though the original fusion of Country music with R & B had been a divine inspiration.