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Ed Sullivan with the Beatles on Feb. 9, 1964, during a rehearsal just before their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. (AP)
Ed Sullivan with the Beatles on Feb. 9, 1964, during a rehearsal just before their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. (AP)

‘It was 50 years ago today’: On half a century of Beatlemania Add to ...

If you felt a flicker of pride when reminded recently that we bested the Yanks in 1812, the 50th anniversary of Beatlemania may hold a similar retrospective thrill. The Beatles flopped initially in Canada, but they still caught on here before they became big in the United States.

Even if you don’t remember – or care – exactly when the screaming started, there may be something about this most recent marker in boomer musical history that goes beyond mere nostalgia. Fifty years is a long time, and Canada was a different place when the band from Liverpool became a puzzling phenomenon that everyone felt a need to explain.

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Almost nobody noticed their first Canadian appearance, on a single sent to radio stations in early 1963. Paul White, head of A&R at Capitol’s Canadian office, picked Love Me Do from his “maybe” pile of new releases and shipped it to DJs with several 45s by other bands.

“I thought Love Me Do was sort of a cute song, though not a classic by any means,” recalls White, an Englishman who still lives in Toronto. “I got absolutely no reaction to it, except from a few minimal stations. It sold about 170 copies.”

In those days, if a song didn’t play on the radio, it didn’t exist, White says. The radio market was fragmented regionally, and many small stations followed the lead of the big ones.

Two more Beatles singles sent out by White also went nowhere, except in London, Ont., and the Ottawa Valley – “the two main places where Beatlemania hit first,” says Toronto Beatles expert Piers Hemmingsen. A fourth single, She Loves You, became a smash hit in the fall of 1963, sparking interest in the previous songs and launching the band nationally.

Two weeks before the band’s first Ed Sullivan Show appearance (on Feb. 9, 1964), three Beatles singles were in the top 10 at Toronto’s pace-setting CHUM Radio, including I Want to Hold Your Hand and Roll Over Beethoven – the Beatles’ first hit in Montreal, according to Hemmingsen. “It appealed to people in the discothèques,” he says.

At that point, the Beatles became interesting even to non-fans, thanks to their Britishness, their hair and their unsettling power over their mostly young fans. Older folk regarded Beatlemania as an entirely new phenomenon, plumb forgetting that bobbie-soxers had responded in the same way to Frank Sinatra just 20 years earlier. Many mainstream newspapers had no pop-music writers as such.

The Globe’s first Beatles article, reprinted from The London Observer, appeared in November, 1963, as the singles were racing up the Canadian charts. “The Beatles are broadcasting the true and unique voice of Liverpool’s working class and this is what most people admire,” wrote Cyril and Peter Dunn, adding that the band’s Liverpool accent was “as crude as it can be,” and that the Communist Daily Worker had taken an interest.

That analysis probably made more sense in class-conscious Britain. Canadian media were fond of statements by psychiatrists and psychologists about the band’s appeal, including the observation (also printed in The Globe) that teens reacted because of “sex, both from the supposed erotic nature of the Beatles music and the way they perform it and from the appeal they seem to have to the mother instinct.”

But the big obsession was with the hair. The Globe published four articles in the week before the first broadcast on The Ed Sullivan Show, and all were about the “shaggy locks” of the “mop-headed” band, and about the Beatles wigs that “have swamped Europe.” Beatlemania, even in its earliest days, meant Beatle merch, including wallpaper, collarless suits and bubblegum cards that a company in London, Ont., began producing soon after the Sullivan show broadcasts.

“Those cards really helped propel Beatlemania in Canada,” says Hemmingsen, whose book The Beatles in Canada: The Origins of Beatlemania will be released later this year. Beatlemania! With the Beatles, released in Canada on Nov. 25, 1963 – just three days after the British release, and nearly two months before the first U.S. album – helped change the buying habits of a generation, White says.

“Teenagers bought 45s and adults bought albums,” he says. “When Beatlemania began, kids started to buy albums.”

A report published in several Canadian papers about the “hysteria” around the Beatles’ Carnegie Hall concert on Feb. 12, 1964, said the show “climaxed a day of near-riots, a day in which a strange and virulent malady spread over midtown Manhattan.” Victims, most of them young and female, “moved about the city in locust-like swarms.” The men didn’t know, but the young girls understood.

Paul White thinks the root of the Beatles’ early appeal was quite simple, like many of their early songs. By the time they were presented to North America, manager Brian Epstein had fashioned them into “presentable boys,” who made pleasantly exotic pop that helped take people’s minds off the recent trauma of the Kennedy assassination.

“It was a happy sound, and so fresh,” White says. “They sounded as if they were enjoying themselves, which is exactly how they seemed when you met them.”

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