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"You Say You Want a Revolution?" History by the Beatles

Authored By: 
Ian Rusten, History teacher

A generation of Americans remembers where they were when John F. Kennedy was shot, when Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the first time they saw John, Paul, George, and Ringo on TV.  Fifty years ago this month the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and, overnight, a social revolution began.

A history class might only study the first two events and skip the third—what a loss! Social history is often overlooked, but it is just as important.  History is about cause and effect. If we really want to understand historical events, we have to look beyond the political and economic history of an era and also focus on the social and cultural movements of that era. We must understand the mores, customs, and people of the generation.  The rise of the Beatles provides insight into the rise of the anti-war movement, the flower power movement, and Woodstock.  These events, like most in history, didn’t happen in a vacuum.  The appearance of the Beatles on Ed Sullivan on February 9, 1964 was one of those events.

When the Fab Four became icons, the counterculture of American youth was formed and exploded.   Of course, there had been rock-and-roll stars before the Beatles—Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, etc., but somehow this was different.  Elvis created the rock-and-roll movement, but the Beatles began a cultural revolution.  They came at a time when Americans needed a distraction. In November 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated.  The Cold War was heating up, and the United States was becoming embroiled in what would become the Vietnam War.  The country was mourning, and there was a fear of losing the optimism that President Kennedy had cultivated during his presidency: the youthful idealism that young people can change the world.

The Beatles, very popular in Britain at the time, had been trying to break into the United States for a while. EMI, the Beatles’ British record label, had been trying to get their American owners, Capitol Records, to release one of the Beatles' singles (“Please, Please Me” or “She Loves You”) in the United States to no avail.  Capitol Records was sure American audiences wouldn’t be interested in a British group.  Within weeks of the Beatles' appearance on Ed Sullivan, Capitol (and every other American record label) was racing to sign every British artist they could find.

The counterculture inspired by the Beatles was also a culture of youth.  Young people increasingly began to question the values and beliefs of the previous generation. They went from questioning what was wrong with long hair to asking why we were fighting in Vietnam.  They strove to understand the purpose of war, and asked why we couldn’t “give peace a chance.”  Young people had a renewed energy.  A belief emerged that they could make a difference: they could stop the war.  It was the Beatles that provided young people with an optimistic alternative, because “all you need is love.”

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