The Beatles Fail, Fail Again

When we hear a great new record, we like to think that the artist recording the song just finished up in the studio and the record is so exciting that the artist is an instant, overnight success.

I don’t think that even happens in movies.  Most artists probably struggle for years without any success, and those that do find themselves on the radio probably just got lucky.  There are only a handful of important artists that have a lasting impact on popular music, and the most notable group is undoubtedly the Beatles.  Sure, the group spent years playing in clubs in England and Hamburg and was turned down by almost every record company before they got a recording deal, but everybody remembers how they hit the charts with a seemingly endless stream of hit records at the start of 1964 and overnight success.

Except that’s not how it happened.

While in Hamburg, one or more of the Beatles were used as the backup musicians for Tony Sheridan and were also allowed to record a few songs by themselves.  In June 1961 the song My Bonnie was recorded and eventually released as a single credited to Tony Sheridan and the Beat Brothers.  In April 1962, the record was released in the US but had little to no impact.

The Beatles started recording their own music in 1962 for EMI and had moderate success at first, but in February 1963, they reached number one on the British charts with Please, Please Me and Beatlemania began to take hold.  In England.

Sure, British recordings had already hit number in the US in 1962, but they were both instrumentals (Stranger on the Shore by Mister Acker Bilk and Telstar by the Tornados).  Neither group was able to follow those hits up with anything substantial, and there was a belief at Capitol Records that British groups were not fated to be popular in the US.  So instead of releasing Beatle records in the US, Capitol licensed several of the Beatle recordings to other, smaller record labels.

Vee Jay Records was a Chicago-based company that had found success with the Four Seasons, and they picked up several Beatles records.  Single releases started in February 1963 with Please, Please Me which simple got no traction – the best it did was reach #116 in August.  This was followed by From Me To You in May, which also climbed all the way up to #116.

She Loves You was released on Swan Records in September, but it failed to even reach the Billboard charts at all.  Dick Clark presented the record to the American Bandstand viewers as part of the Rate A Record feature of the show, but the two clueless teenagers gave the unfortunate record a rating of only 71.  The Beatles’ career in the US seemed almost over already.

Fortunately for all of us, disc jockeys succeeded where record labels had failed.  Several stations around the US obtained copies of British singles or their first album and began playing them on the air.  Virtually everywhere they got airplay, the Beatles were increasingly popular with listeners.  Instead of responding to increasing demand for the tunes, Capitol Records actually threatened to sue stations if they did not stop playing records that were not released for US consumers.  In December somebody at Capitol with a clue finally figured out that perhaps British musicians might have a future in the US.  I Want To Hold Your Hand was released on the Captial label the day after Christmas and hit number one on the US charts on January 18, 1964.

Suddenly all the record companies that had rights to anything by the Beatles were rereleasing records, and everything that was released was suddenly selling well.  On April 4, 1964, the top five records in Billboard’s Hot 100 were all by the Beatles, including three failed singles from 1963.

While Drake may have landed seven records in the Top Ten in 2018, they were all from the same album that had just been released; we may see something similar again in the future, but it is very unlikely that multiple failed records from multiple companies will ever dominate the top five the way the Beatles did.

Here the Beatles are performing Please, Please Me live, with some impressive lead guitar by George.

A great deal of  information about the early Beatles career in the US can be found at http://www.pophistorydig.com/topics/beatles-in-america-1963-1964/

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