American Idols

The follwoing article appeared in the May 2004 issue of Guitar World magazine. Written by Joe Bosso.

One winter night in 1964, THE BEATLES took over the U.S. airwaves. By morning, they had become America's conquering heroes. Forty years later, Tom Petty, Steve Vai and a host of modern rockers remember Beatlemania and how it changed they lives forever.

"Most our magic is a trick, an illusion," says Tom Petty. "But this was real. Man oh man, was it real."
Petty is recalling that one Sunday night 40 years ago-February 9, 1964-when he and more than 73 millions Americans saw magic in the forms of John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr on The Ed Sullivan Show. He was 13 years old and living in Gainsville, Florida. "I think the whole world was watching that night," Petty says, with a laugh. "It certainly felt that way. You just knew it, sitting in your living room, that everything around you was changing. It was like going from black and white to color. I remember earlier that day, in fact a kid on a bike passed me and said, 'Hey, the Beatles are on TV tonight!'-I didn't know him, he didn't know me-and I thought to myself, This means something."
Not even three months have passed since the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, and a shocked nation was gripped in despair. Legendary DJ Bruce Morrow, a.k.a. "Cousin Brucie," then working for New York City's flagship AM station WABC, remembers "a black cloud was hanging over everybody, we were all just walking around in a daze. We needed new heroes; we needed 'em bad. Who knew they'd be playing guitars?"
Not Dick Rowe, the Decca Records executive who, just two years earlier, had informed Beatles manager Brian Epstein that the company was rejecting the band based on its demo tape. "Groups with guitars are on the way out," Rowe deadpanned to a stunned Epstein. While it is not known how much and how often Rowe kicked himself in the ensuing years ("I hope he kicks himself to death," John Lennon later famously joked), his sentiments initially carried some prescience.
"It's true," says Morrow. "Around that time people were getting more and more into vocal harmonies. The rock and roll of Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly-good guitar-driven, exciting rock records-was getting watered down by the early Sixties, and the answer seemed to be 'Get rid of the guitars.' I gotta say, I never believed that myself, because to me guitars are the lungs of rock and roll. You take away the guitar and the music just doesn't breath."
Although history would suggest the Beatles hit America like an unseen meteor in 1964, Morrow recalls hearing their music and learning of the phenomena they were creating in England a year before. "I first heard the Beatles probably in '62, at a radio station meeting. Some of their early Vee Jay records had made they way to us. [Vee Jay was one of many independent American labels that released the Beatles' early records in the U.S. In 1964 Capitol Records became the exclusive issuer of the group's records in the U.S.] At first we were a little taken aback, like, Who are these Brits, these guys from Liverpool, taking our rock and roll? They can't do that! We even played 'Please Please Me' [The Beatles' breakthrough single in England] on our Make It or Break It spots, and nothing much happened. There didn't seem to be much of a response."
As the saying goes, timing is everything, and by late '63 the tide was turning, slowly at first, "and then whoosh!" says Morrow. "I got my hands on [the Beatles recording] 'Do You Want to Know a Secret' a few months before they came to New York, and the energy, the arpeggiated guitar really seemed like a giant leap forward."
Elliot Easton, best known as lead guitarist for the Cars, was by age nine already something of a guitar aficionado when the Beatles appeared on Sullivan's show. "I had an acoustic guitar-nobody had an electric, at least not in Long Island, where I grew up-and I was very much into instrumental surf music. To a guitar player, that was pretty interesting. There were girl groups too-the Phil Spector stuff," he says, referring to the man who produced numerous girl groups throughout the Sixties and later produced the Beatles' 1970 album, Let It Be. "That stuff was fine, but for a young guy that didn't take you too far. But then one day I started hearing the Beatles on the radio-'I Want to Hold Your Hand' and 'She Loves You'-and it was like a time bomb went off."
Easton sat spellbound in front of the TV as Sullivan, whose Easter Island facial features and stiff body movements made him an easy target for impersonators, tried to maintain order inside Studio 50. (Located at 53rd Street and Broadway, the 728-seat facility has since been renamed the Ed Sullivan Theater and it now home to Late Night with David Letterman.) A tsunami of teenage-girl screams threatened to drown him out as he announced, "Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles! Let's bring them on!"
And there they were: Lennon, looking way cool, almost bemused, his stance broad and authoritative; McCartney, all dreamboat eyes and boyish grin; Starr, a human bobblehead perched high atop his drum riser; and Harrison, two weeks shy of 21, peeling off liquid, Carl Perkins-esque guitar links with the ease of a seasoned pro.
After knocking the fans dead with the sure-fire "All My Loving," the group segued into an odd choice, "Till There Was You," a cover tune and one from the Broadway musical The Music Man, no less. It was the same song which they had serenaded Queen Elizabeth at the Royal Variety Performance a few months earlier, and with Paul's mellifluous voice gliding over the supple melody, it worked on the American audience as well. But the Beatles brought the hammer down with "She Loves You," and all hell broke loose. Belting out the jubilant "yeah, yeah, yeah" refrain, they were now the index of popular music, and the act against which all other rock and roll acts would henceforth be judged.
Easton would barely keep it together while watching the show. "My whole body was shaking. As corny as it sounds, I knew I was witnessing something that would be very important throughout my life. My mother seemed to tolerate it okay, but my father made it very clear that he didn't care for the Beatles at all, especially their hair. And he couldn't understand what the girls were screaming about. But I didn't care; I couldn't even sleep that night, I was so affected. It was like we went from B.C. to A.D. within one hour of televison."
Tom Petty was equally mesmerized. "They came out and just flattened me. To hear them on the radio was amazing enough, but to finally see them play, it was electrifying. They did those three songs at the top of the show and you had to wait till the end for them to come back on. It felt like an eternity, watching these comedy skits and, like, guys spinning plates. Remember, this was the biggest show on TV, but to us kids, we wanted the Beatles; so to have to watch a guy spinning plates, it was total torture. Plus, the girls screaming-I had never seen or heard anything like that in my life. Girls were going insane, crying and waving. You just knew the TV studio was being turned unside down."
The situation on the street outside Studio 50 was no less than seismic. "I think I had more fun than anybody that night," says Morrow. "I was broadcasting my show from outside the theater. The station set up a kind of mobile unit, and man, let me tell you, it was the biggest, most spontaneous party I'd ever seen. Just to be close to where the Beatles were drove the kids berserk. Hundred of girls were being held back by the police."
When the Beatles finally returned at the show's end to tear through "I Want to Hold Your Hand" and "I Saw Her Standing There," something other than hysteria was making an impression on viewers-it was the obvious talent that was on display. "Chops-wise, they were untouchable," says Easton. "See, we didn't know at the time how they busted their butts playing the Cavern Club in Liverpool and the Star Club [in Hamburg, Germany], how how, by the time we got them, they were already monster players. The head shaking, the cool suits-they had the whole package. But to see that they could deliver the good musically and go beyond your expectations, that's what really sold us on them."
"And they couldn't even hear themselves," marvels Petty. "The producers of the show didn't want amps in the shot, so all the band's gear was pushed to the sides. They didn't even have monitors! I suppose it was good practice for what they were going to face playing stadiums, when they really couldn't hear themselves."
Going to school that Monday after the Sullivan show was, at Easton put it, "like going to a new school, in a new town, in a new state, or maybe even a new land." Besotted teenage girls compared notes as to who they thought was the cutest Beatle. As for the boys, "All our hair suddenly went forward. It didn't matter how much you had. If you had more than a crew cut, you were trying to look like a Beatle."
Petty recalls a similar scenario taking place in Gainesville. "You either had a copy of Meet the Beatles [Capitol's first Beatles album release, now out of print] or you didn't. And if you didn't it was like something was wrong with you. Come to think of it, that was the first time an [album] was a significant thing. Up till then people only bought singles. But with Meet the Beatles, that was a record you really wanted to listen to-both sides of it."
Petty went to one of his first gigs soon after the Sullivan show, which unbeknownst to him or anyone at the time featured two now-legendary musicians who at the time were just getting their feet wet. "It was the Escorts, Gregg and Duane Allman's first band. They were playing in Gainesville. They were already pretty good, but what knocked me out was their hair-it was really long! This was only a few weeks after the Beatles played. Change was happening so fast, you could barely keep up with it."
For young boys like Petty and Easton, fueled by dreams of Beatles stardom, that change could come about only with the purchase of an electric guitar. "I got a Kay guitar," says Petty. "It was cheap but it was nice. The first thing you had to master was looking sharp with it, standing in front of the mirror and acting the rock and roll part. Learning to play was something else altogether. That separated the men from the boys." Petty quickly adds, "I switched to bass for a time, but eventually I moved back to guitar."
Easton spent the next few weeks in a daze. "All I could do was daydream about electric guitars. In school I'd either be staring out the window or drawing pictures of the Beatles' guitars on by book covers. I couldn't decide if I wanted a Rickenbacker or a Gretch, since those are what John and George were playing at first. But all of my time and energy were put into the acquisition of one of the two."
The next few months saw an explosion in guitar sales in America. During the late spring and summer of '64 is seemed as if you couldn't pass a garage without hearing the clang and clatter of teenage boys trying to emulate their newfound heroes. "That's what I found so liberating about seeing the Beatles," Petty says. "I was into rock and roll before them, but they were the first band I saw everything was so self-contained. They were so young and in control of what they were doing. They were the first people we could relate to who showed us that your dreams were within your reach."
Both Petty and Easton are among the lucky ones who eventually saw their rock and roll dreams come true. Petty, of course, went everybody one better by actually performing alongside George Harrison in the Eighties supergroup the Traveling Wilburys (which also included Bob Dylan, Sixties pop crooner Roy Orbison and Electric Light Orchestra leader Jeff Lynn). "That's one of those 'pinch me' moments in life," Petty says, and laughs, "getting to know George and actually being in a band with him. I'd try not to think about it, but there would be times when we'd be in the room playing together, and out of nowhere it would pop into my head: Oh my God, I'm playing with one of the Beatles! That's usually when I'd hit a wrong chord.
As much as Harrison tried to downplay his Beatles part, Petty believes he always knew the effect he had on people. "When you think about the Sixties you can't not think of the Beatles. George knew he was part of history, and he was pretty cool about it, as cool as a person could be, I imagine. I would ask him questions about what it was like: Shea Stadium, the Maharishi [the guru whom the Beatles briefly followed in 1968], Sgt. Pepper's-how could I not? The thing that surprised me, when I asked him about playing The Ed Sullivan Show was how nervous he said they all were. 'Seventy-three million people,' he said. 'That's a pretty big gig.'"
When asked if a phenomenon like Beatlemania could ever happen again, Petty, Easton and Morrow answer an unequivocal no. "To get four musicians with that much unique songwriting talent and personality," says Easton, "that's on the same level as all the planets lining up. How often does that happen?"
"I think it was as much us as it was them," says Petty. "I know I might sound jaded, but we were so innocent then. We're bombarded by so much now. I don't think anything could ever grab us in quite the same way."
He thinks for a moment before adding: "Plus, they were really, really great."

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