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How the Beatles Conquered the U.S. Without Playing a Single Note

Fox Photo, Getty Images
Fox Photo, Getty Images

When the Beatles left London’s Heathrow Airport on the morning on Feb. 7, 1964 – sent off by a swarm of well-wishing fans – they didn’t know what to expect.

Even though they had a No. 1 hit with “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” they’d heard enough stories about other British musicians who failed to connect in America to question whether or not their success in England would translate on the other side of the Atlantic.

But an estimated crowd of somewhere between three and five thousand greeted Pan Am Flight 101 at New York’s John F. Kennedy Airport. The group had been tipped off during the flight, but that didn’t make the Beatles any less incredulous about the scene.

“We heard about it in mid-air,” Paul McCartney said in Anthology. “There were journalists on the plane, and the pilot had rang ahead and said, ‘Tell the boys there’s a big crowd waiting for them.’ We thought, ‘Wow! God, we have really made it.'”

The Beatles were rushed into Pan Am’s cramped office for a press conference, winning over a condescending press – concerned mostly with their hairstyle – with their wit and charm. From there they were ushered into Manhattan, to the Plaza Hotel, where another mob scene was waiting for them.

Watch the Beatles’ Press Conference at JFK in 1964

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“I remember, for instance, the great moment of getting into the limo and putting on the radio, and hearing a running commentary on us,” McCartney added. “‘They have just left the airport and are coming towards New York City. …’ It was like a dream. The greatest fantasy ever.”

There’s a scene in the Maysles brothers’ 1991 documentary, The Beatles: The First U.S. Visit where the group are listening to 1010 WINS en route to the Plaza, fascinated by the patter of the DJ but bemused by his claim that the group would be stopping by the next day to recite their poetry (“We ain’t written no poetry,” McCartney jokes). The video is the real A Hard Day’s Night, which began filming shortly after the Beatles returned to England.

After watching the footage of themselves on the evening news, they went to the theater where the Ed Sullivan Show took place for a rehearsal. However, George Harrison brought a cold with him from England and, under doctor’s orders, couldn’t make it. In his place, road manager Neil Aspinall strapped on a guitar and stood in Harrison’s spot so that the proper camera angles could be set for that Sunday’s big event. Without even having played a note, the Beatles had conquered America.

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