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Last Updated: Saturday, 7 February, 2004, 12:21 GMT
America's Beatlemania hangover
By Debbie Geller
In New York

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show
The Beatles appear on the Ed Sullivan Show
The arrival of the Beatles in America 40 years ago created an excitement still remembered by many. The mood in America today could not be more different.

America was still in mourning after the assassination of John Kennedy in November 1963. The nation was desperate for something entertaining and something light to replace the unrelenting presence of loss and grief.

Then along came the Beatles, this breath of British fresh air and merriment, to charm and divert America back to mental health again. So the story goes.


I was much too young to know anything about national moods or historical trends when I sat down with my sisters to watch the Ed Sullivan Show that Sunday night.

We were outcasts, treated more with suspicion than curiosity

All I knew was that we were excited beyond reason and couldn't wait to see what they were really like. Apart from a few photographs, for most Americans, John, Paul, George and Ringo were pretty mysterious.

So when they arrived in New York on February 7, there was pandemonium. It was a feeding frenzy media circus - even if those were cliches yet to be invented.

In the few weeks leading up to the Beatles' arrival in New York, they had already transformed my life. And I'll always be grateful.

Religious conformity

We lived in Levittown, Long Island, the archetype of American suburbia - the first step on the ladder for second generation Americans on their way out of the decaying cities.

Conformity and upward mobility were the most obvious features in the town.

George Harrison
It was respectable for George to be the "favourite" Beatle
And it was no place for a left-wing, atheist, divorced family like ours. We were outcasts, treated more with suspicion than curiosity.

Within days of moving to our new home, I was asked by some of the neighbourhood kids what religion we were. I had no idea of what they were talking about. I had never even heard the word before.

This show of ignorance was greeted by hilarity and frustration.

One girl finally begged me to just say anything. It didn't matter what we are, we just had to be something.

But I wasn't able to indulge even that simple request. And the role of local freak was given to us as a freehold. I wasn't so much bullied as barely tolerated.

Girlish democracy

But then a girlish democracy was created with the arrival of the Beatles. The old nasty prejudices suddenly melted away.

Girls who had once teased and mocked me for everything from bad hair to reading too much were suddenly curious to know which Beatle I liked best. Life was getting easier.

Most shared national moments are bizarre, at their most benign. Usually they are tragic and traumatic

So when the curtain came up on the Ed Sullivan Show and the unusually animated host introduced "these youngsters from Liverpool" to a cacophony of screams, I already loved them. They were my ticket to acceptance and all the normal pleasures of being young.

It is hard to describe how fresh and delightful they looked that night - so eager to please and so pleased with themselves in a way that was completely guileless.

I liked George best

When they sang Till There Was You, the boys were introduced by name. White captions appeared under each face to distinguish Paul from George and George from Ringo.

John was identified with the immortal tag line: "Sorry girls, he's married", a phrase that's still popular today.

That's how I learned that the one I liked best was George. It wasn't Paul after all - what a revelation!

During the post-mortem at school the next morning, I announced my discovery with confidence. Although Paul was the undisputed favourite, my choice was accepted with respect. And no-one ever made fun of me again.

There can never be another television moment like that one again - not in this 100 channel plus world. Forty percent of this country will never watch the same programme at the same time.

That's what made this event so unusual and so memorable.

Most shared national moments are bizarre, at their most benign. Usually they are tragic and traumatic.

Freeze in the air

But The Beatles' first appearance on Ed Sullivan is the rare, probably unique exception. It is the one shining, occasion when 73 million people enjoyed the same thing at the same time.

This has been a freezing winter. It obviously wasn't this cold in the winter of 1964 - you can tell by the photographs. No-one then looks as cold as they have in New York these days.

The old black and white familiar images of four English boys are a heartbreaking reminder of how hard it will be to ever feel so optimistic again
There is also a freeze in the air that wasn't there 40 years ago.

Candidates for President are talking about hope and promising to "take the country back".

I would like more than anything to believe them, but cynicism and distrust seem like the only realistic responses to politicians' words.

And there are no artists to capture the imagination either, no-one whose vitality and talent transform the world around them.

And that's what the Beatles did on that unforgettable night.

The old black and white familiar images of four English boys on a cheap looking stage are beyond nostalgia - instead they're a heartbreaking reminder of how hard it will be to ever feel so optimistic again.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 7 February, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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