They Love You Yeah, Yeah, Yeah – It Happened Today, February 7, 2017
"How small," Dr. Johnson rhymed, "of all that human hearts endure,/ That part which laws or kings can cause or cure." It’s a useful reminder, and one somebody ought perhaps to put to music, with a backbeat, in honour of February 7, 1964, when the Beatles arrived in the United States to spearhead the first really successful British invasion since the Seven Years’ War.
It was the eruption onto the main Western stage of an amazing array of musical talent and innovation that showed that Britain was far from exhausted as a cultural force. I do not think it is merely a reflection of my particular advancing age that I call The Beatles, the Who, the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, David Bowie and you can pick many others from the Yardbirds to Herman’s Hermits an exceptional flowering of brilliance. And it is certainly not simply a reflection of my own preferences to say that when these acts showed up in an America whose youth were growing sick of sugary pop songs, it changed the world in ways Elvis Presley alone could not have done.
"The Sixties" had many causes beyond a group of talented Brits giving voice and legitimacy to sometimes juvenile frustration. But rock was the backdrop, and once the Beatles and others had touched down and lit things up, nothing could ever be the same.
I would go further and say the Beatles in particular smoothed the path of social change by being so earnest, so "with it" as one could once say without irony or corn, and yet so decent, blowing the whistle on angry radicalism and somehow placing a kindly, steadying hand on the whole counterculture. "You say you want a revolution? … when you talk about destruction/ Don’t you know that you can count me out".
One can point to laws, kings and wars contributing to the upheaval of the 1960s including obviously Vietnam, the "imperial president" Richard Nixon and the civil rights acts. But politicians jump out to lead parades that are already underway, they don’t create or steer them. It was the ambiance of the period that made the anti-war movement so important, not the other way around. And it was the final, long-overdue change of heart among many Americans including Southerners that finally made formal civil rights a social and political possibility.
There were other contributors to the wildness of that decade including darker forces like the Weathermen and of course pharmaceuticals. And here I think "the pill" mattered more than things like LSD or even marijuana. So the Beatles were far from alone. But they were both surfing on and helping shape a massive social movement that changed what politicians could do or duck.
When you saw the way young people reacted to their arrival in the United States, you knew the world was changing radically and laws and kings would have to scramble to keep up with fast-beating hearts.