Assignment: 1965: The Beatles

It’s June 12, 1965. A little-known husband-and-wife pop act, Sonny & Cher, appear on American Bandstand. As previously spoiled, The Supreme are at the top of the charts with “Back In My Arms Again”. And two days ago, Elizabeth Hurley was born in England. But most importantly, the Beatles are appointed Members of the British Empire (MBE) in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

This ultimately caused a huge stink, since up to this point, the MBE honor was referred to civil servants and military heroes. Additionally, it’s believed that British Prime Minister Harold Wilson engineered the whole thing to score political points with young people (never mind that the legal voting age at the time was 21). However, the reason why the Beatles were given the MBE is in retrospect crystal clear: they were that popular and influential.

I’ll spare the usual lengthy biography of the Beatles and their four members, because quite frankly, the Beatles are still a huge deal some 50+ years later after they formed, and if you don’t at least have a general idea who John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison, and Ringo Starr are (or were, in the case of John and George), then I really don’t know what to say at this point. And in 1965, everyone knew who they were. Everyone. They were the first truly internationally famous musicians of the rock ‘n roll era, and akin to movie stars before actually becoming movie stars.

Part of this immense fame was kismet, pure and simple. The Beatles were already big stars in the UK in 1963, with their first album Please Please Me becoming a huge success, and two two tours where they were opening acts for American performers (the first featuring now-forgotten singers Tommy Roe and Chris Montez, and the second featuring the legendary Roy Orbison, with whom George Harrison would later perform with in the ’80s as part of the Traveling Wilburys). The Beatles first attracted attention in the American press when they were mobbed at Heathrow upon returning from a tour from Sweden, but the real fire started when Walter Cronkite re-aired a report on the “Beatlemania” phenomenon on the CBS Evening News December 10th while looking for any positive news to cover following the assassination of President Kennedy. (Ironically, the report had aired on the CBS Morning News the morning of the Kennedy assassination, and was expected to air on Cronkite’s program before the horrible events of the day took center stage.)

The story is of course all-too familiar from here on: the Beatles’ music was finally released in America (Capitol, the American arm of EMI, the Beatles record label, had refused to release any of their music in America for most of 1963), and their popularity exploded, with their arrival in the US in 1964 and subsequent appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show becoming cultural touchstones for hordes of (literally) screaming fans. This inspired the record companies to look for even more British acts with the same blues-infused rock sound, sparking the British Invasion, with acts like The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, and the Animals all finding massive success in the United States.

Being appointed as Members of the British Empire was the absolute apex of this initial wave of fame for the Beatles. With Help! (both the film and the soundtrack) on the way, their initial pop phase was nearing its end, and something very, very different was on the horizon. Already, the four had been introduced to marijuana by Bob Dylan upon their meeting in August of 1964 (and all four would later admit that they spent the making of Help! getting stoned off their asses), but now John, George, and Ringo were using LSD (with Paul not very far behind). This discovery of drugs by the band corresponded almost perfectly with The Beatles wanting to be something more than a pop act with screaming teenage fans, which is completely unthinkable in today’s music industry. In the weeks and months ahead, we’re going to see the effects of not only the Beatles having met Bob Dylan, but of the Beatles moving into more mature and adventurous territory.

Next week, however, will be the much-delayed look into one of the most controversial cartoons of the ’80s.

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