DID The Beatles play a part, however small, in American racial desegregation? It sounds like a tall claim.
I was reminded of it last week while watching Ron Howard’s new documentary, Eight Days a Week — The Touring Years. Back in 1964, when the United States was in the throes of civil rights unrest, public facilities in most of the southern states — those that had fought a century earlier to preserve slavery — were still segregated, from drinking fountains to restaurants, waiting rooms to washrooms. It meant separate seating at concerts for blacks and whites.
The Beatles had struck it big in America early in 1964 — among the rare footage incorporated in Howard’s film is the moment one of the songs was aired on US radio for the first time. It happened to be a single titled I Want to Hold Your Hand, which rapidly rose to number one on the pop charts once EMI’s American wing, Capitol, was persuaded to release it.
The four lads from Liverpool were already a phenomenon in their home country, and instances of British Beatlemania occasionally made their way into television news in the US, but until that point American audiences were largely unaware of what the fuss was all about. Capitol had refused to release their early singles and first album despite its incredible success in Britain.
America was instantly besotted by The Beatles.
I Want to Hold Your Hand changed the dynamic. A tour and television appearances were hastily organised, and an estimated audience of 73 million watched The Beatles’ first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. America was instantly besotted. Until then, popular music artists in the UK had only dreamt of making it big in the US. By breaching a cultural gulf, The Beatles spearheaded what became known as the British Invasion.
America at that point sorely needed a healing touch. Its president had been assassinated the previous November. The civil rights movement had brought to the surface a level of ugliness that shocked many Americans. Apartheid in the southern states closely resembled what the South African majority was rebelling against. At the level of popular culture, folk music was thriving, with youngsters such as Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Phil Ochs and Tom Paxton making their mark among university audiences and the like, but rock ‘n’roll desperately required rejuvenation.
Elvis Presley had been a huge hit in the mid-1950s, but on his return in the early 1960s from a stint in the US army, he sounded considerably less innovative. The Beatles adored Elvis, but much of their initial repertoire was borrowed directly from black Americans such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
In the event, it would have been incredibly hypocritical of them to partake, even indirectly, of any philosophy that denigrated non-whites. Gratifyingly, they did not. Their performance contract specified that the band would not play at any venue where the audience was segregated. In Howard’s documentary, a woman who watched The Beatles in Jacksonville, Florida, testifies that it was the first time she had mixed with whites. And it felt fine.
Other venues through the south were quietly desegregated for performances by The Beatles, and it soon enough became the new normal. Federal legislation in 1965 inevitably counted for a lot. But The Beatles certainly did no harm. “It’s a bit silly to segregate people,” Paul McCartney noted at the time. “I just think it’s stupid. You can’t treat other human beings like animals.”
None of The Beatles was particularly political-minded at that stage. They lived and learned, and looking back what is still amazing is the degree to which they progressed in two or three years from catchy but largely monosyllabic songs that elicited bouts of teenage frenzy to complex albums such as Rubber Soul and Revolver. The latter, often cited as their grandest achievement, marked its 50th anniversary in August, as did the band’s final concert — in San Francisco’s Candlestick Park, captured briefly in Howard’s documentary in previously unseen fan footage.
The afterlife of The Beatles, each of whom went his own way in 1969-70, has been quite a phenomenon, with periodic spurts of renewed enthusiasm for a band that, 50 years ago, was at the helm — alongside Dylan, above all others — of what was effectively a cultural revolution that had an impact way beyond the English-speaking world — and was hugely more liberating for youngsters around the globe than the Chinese events associated with that nomenclature.
The claim has even been made that the four Liverpudlians inadvertently were responsible for the decline and eventual demise of communist rule in Eastern Europe, not least the Soviet Union. This is, of course, a gross exaggeration. I can, however, testify to their enduring appeal. Back in 1976, a bunch of South Asian students in Moscow were obliged to speak at an academy for diplomats about home affairs. Apropos of nothing in particular, the first question I remember being asked is: Do people in Pakistan listen to The Beatles?
Published in Dawn, September 21st, 2016