If you had stood in the southeast corner of Central Park 60 years ago today, the setting would have looked — for the most part — much the same as it did this morning.
Granted, there would have been more classic cars – quite a few Chevys and Caddys; no Teslas – easing along West 59th Street. And there would have been no Apple Store at the intersection of Fifth Avenue—its logo glowing with the promise of indispensable technology. But the essence of the scene would have been the same: a semi-skeletal bareness of the trees in the great green space of New York; oak, sycamore and beech branches swaying under a pale winter sky. And the grandmother in the photo would have been there too. As it has been since 1907; the Plaza Hotel, bustling with an aura of finesse and luxurious accommodation – bellhops and doormen attending to their arriving guests.
Of course, the crowd outside would have been a lot bigger. Much larger, due to four of the guests checking in that day; four young men from far-away Liverpool, making their first voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, bound by waves of excitement and goodwill.
If you ever have the urge to look at the calendar and mutter to yourself that ‘time flies’, the ‘news’ will be that it is exactly sixty years since the Beatles first landed in New York – on February 7, 1964 – sure to make you repeat the exclamation. If you were a direct witness to those events – the first footsteps of the ‘British Invasion’, where rock bands from these shores ‘broke through’ America in a way that few generations since have done – even if only through a television screen, all the following will sound very familiar. But if you weren’t there, or weren’t there, it’s a story that carries the retelling. Not least because, all this time has flown, it still echoes through the city.
The crowd outside the Plaza Hotel was not the first mass of bodies that Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr encountered as their fame skyrocketed. It wasn’t even the first that day. They had landed in the Big Apple a few hours earlier; the idea of a new era, underlined by the fact that even the airport had a new identity.
Just over two months earlier, John F Kennedy had been assassinated in Dallas, and as of Christmas Eve (1963), the former Idlewild Airport was now named in honor of the fallen president. There was a chaotic press conference here, with the four musicians dressed sharply, but visibly surprised by the many microphones and questions shoved in their faces – Lennon smoothing his hair with his hands, Harrison leaning forward to take a sardonically singing “let the party begin” as business got underway. And although the 5,000-person reception party at the airport was replaced by a more manageable group of 400 fans when the band reached the Plaza, they still required an escort of 50 police officers to enter Manhattan.
More interviews would take place in the hotel’s sanctuary under quieter conditions. On the morning of February 10, the four of them answered a series of pointless questions from a CBS TV reporter. McCartney in particular seemed to be in the mood to give a silly answer to a silly question, responding to a question about the meaning of the band’s name with “we could have been called The Shoes” and replying with ” quite a long time’. time; The last time I had one was 23 years ago” – when asked how long he left it on between haircuts. The twinkling joke inherent in this statement – he was only 21 – went unnoticed.
But by then the world had changed. Or at least it had changed even further. The night before (February 9), the Beatles had gone on to play on American prime-time television The Ed Sullivan Show. It wasn’t unprecedented for a rock ‘n’ roll act to appear on this Sunday night staple; Elvis famously did that three times, in 1956 and 1957, blazing a fiery trail that Lennon, McCartney, Harrison and Starr were now. as a sequel to. But eight years after Presley’s partially censored gyrations (infamously he was filmed from the waist up during his second Sullivan performance to hide the “suggestive” movement of his hips), this youthful music had taken root as a cultural force. The news that The Beatles would play for Sullivan at what was then known as Studio 50 led to pandemonium: there were approximately 50,000 individual requests for tickets to a theater with only 728 seats.
No wonder so many eyes watched the broadcast. Five songs were performed – All my Love, She loves you, I saw her standing there And I want to hold your handplus a cover of the song Meredith Wilson Until you were there – and America watched agog. On a normal night, Sullivan – a giant of light entertainment – would expect to draw 21 million viewers. Estimates put the total figure for February 9 at 73 million – 45 percent of television sets in use at night, and 40 percent of the U.S. population at that time.
This wasn’t the end of live music. The following Wednesday (February 12), the Beatles played a pair of concerts at Carnegie Hall, the Midtown Manhattan temple to classical music that had never been seen or heard before. Well almost. Just as when Presley shook his hips on the Sullivan stage, the oft-repeated claim that the Liverpuddlians had broken a sample that night is not entirely true: guitar pioneers Bill Haley and His Comets had plugged in under Carnegie lights in May 1955. But the former swing singer didn’t elicit the screams that greeted Lennon and co when they arrived at the venue, nor when they produced a pair of identical sets of twelve songs; one at 7:45 p.m., the second at 11:15 p.m. The five songs from the Sullivan broadcast were accompanied by another seven covers Roll Beethoven over (Chuck Berry), Turn and shout (The top notes) and Long long Sally (Little Richard), plus originals From me to you, This boy, I want to be your man And Please, please. The last chord sounded just before midnight.
Perhaps that is still the case. The Beatles played in three cities on their first foray across the ocean. But where the other two have lost their ties to that wild week at the end of winter – the Washington Coliseum, in the capital, which was played on February 11, has not been a functioning venue since 1970 and is now largely office space; The Hotel Deauville, on Collins Avenue in Miami, the scene of the tour’s closing performance on February 16, was not demolished until November 2022 – New York is still attached in some ways to the Beatlemania of 1964.
Carnegie Hall is still there, of course, as it has been since 1891. And it remains a neo-Renaissance shrine to orchestral maneuvers – although its legendary acoustics have enhanced the sound of a guitar many times over since then. I want to hold your hand bounced around his insides. The track will do so again on February 24, via a cover band celebration of the 60th anniversary of those two performances (carnegiehall.org – from £24).
Studio 50 also lives on, at 1697 Broadway. In 1967 it was renamed “The Ed Sullivan Theater,” four years before the Sunday night television program’s 23-year run ended in 1971. But although the presenter has changed, the goal remains: light-hearted evening entertainment. Since September 2015 it has been the main attraction The Late Show with Stephen Colbert – Colbert took over the chat show when David Letterman resigned earlier that summer after 22 years (see edsullivan.com and cbs.com for more information and tickets).
As for the Beatles themselves… John Lennon, of course, lingers tragically and unforgettably on the west flank of the park, a mile’s walk from the Plaza Hotel, where the Strawberry Fields monument stands guard – a few yards from where he fell. to the sidewalk outside the Dakota Building in 1980. McCartney is also still in town. Or, to be precise, will return to the Brooklyn Museum this summer, via “Paul McCartney Photographs 1963-64: Eyes of the Storm”; his own filmed memories of those manic days (Brooklyn Museum; May 3 – August 18). He may no longer be a wise 21-year-old, but the smile and the music remain — even if the need to answer questions about the length of time between his haircuts doesn’t exist.
Where to stay
Rooms at the Plaza Hotel (001 212 759 3000; theplazany.com) cost from £699 per night.