1963 in the US and Canada

From: "Frederick W. Harrison" 
Newsgroups: rec.music.beatles.moderated,rec.music.beatles
Subject: 1963 in the US and Canada (was First U.S. Tour)
Date: 1 Jul 2001 03:10:51 GMT

BigStar303 wrote in message
>The point being that a great song in and of itself isn't always enough.
>Certainly the history of rock 'n' roll is littered with hundreds of great
>songs, ones that would seem to have been a perfect fit for the charts, not
>making it for one reason or another. There has to be some kind of
>undefinable momentum behind them to gain that first crucial push.
>I think this may partially explain the lack of success of PPM, FMTY and SLY
>upon their initial release. The old story is sometimes you have to whack
>the mule upside the head with a two-by-four to get his attention. Maybe
>this is what happened to me, and in the U.S. as a whole.
"If only..." has become an oft heard refrain, especially in Mojo of late. But one forgets that American radio in the early 60s was still recovering from the payola scandals. The establishment was convinced that without payola rock 'n' roll would shrivel up and die - which it didn't. There was also a shift to male vocalists and clean cut teen idols - think of all the Bobbys, as Jerry Lee Lewis referred to them. Rock 'n' Roll was still being recorded, played on radio, and sold in the stores - but it was now under attack and investigation. The FBI attempted to decipher the Kingsmen's "Louie Louie" because of alleged obscenities so they could ban the record - but got nowhere. The intensification of the Cold War and the aftermath of the McCarthy hearings led to a suspicion of anything remotely subversive or anti-authoritarian - which rock 'n' roll was. There was slander and lies from white supremacists who, fearing the growing civil rights movement, attacked the music because of it's "nigger" origins (echoing Hitler's prohibitions on jazz and blues in Third Reich Germany) and through that the black performers/promoters of the music. And many God-fearing Americans saw the end of the world fast approaching and were convinced that rock 'n' roll was the manifestation of the Antichrist in the Book of Revelation, and so fought against it with religious fervor. Despite this, the early 60s saw the rise of Brill Building pop, Phil Spector, the rise of Motown, the beginnings of garage rock, and a folk/blues music revival in which the brightest star was a young kid from Hibbing, Minnesota who styled himself after Woody Guthrie and became the voice of the protest movement.

Meanwhile, things were beginning to heat up in England. The skiffle craze had given way to rock 'n' roll and an appetite for American R&B. A struggling band from Liverpool was studying the A sides and B sides of every disc they could get their hands on, honing their craft as copyists until they were able to transform it into something new. Having learned the art of songwriting from the records they listened to, they incorporated influences from British working class and music hall, and came up with their own sound. By 1963 success was beckoning at home and those looking for new talent began to take notice of this new British phenomenon called the Beatles and their fellow rockers. Record labels in the UK began to record this new sound and offered the recordings to their parent or sister labels in the USA.

Capitol USA was given the opportunity to release the Beatles, but passed. Vee Jay and Swan picked up the right to release the records. Given the prevailing anti-rock bias and the impression that the British Beat movement was just a lacklustre copy of the original American sound (and hey, some of those late 50's British attempts at rock 'n' roll WERE lame) it was no surprise that the music was passed over by the majors. Why release some unknowns from Liverpool when Nat King Cole, Glen Gray & The Casa Loma Orchestra and other "adult contemporary" musicians were the label's bread and butter? (And adult contemporary WAS Capitol's cash cow at the time - as it was with most of the other majors.) The only thing from England that sold was comedy records - Flanders & Swann, and Beyond The Fringe, and Rolf Harris. Besides there were probably hundreds of bands in the US who could play circles around these Brit upstarts - why risk the money? Vee Jay had inroads to the R&B and teen markets and were more open to experiment with something new - so they took the chance.

In Canada, things were also beginning to happen. The ties with the Mother Country (Great Britain) were still close, although the new medium of television was beginning to direct the Canuck gaze southward to the Promised Land. Capitol Canada, under the direction of Paul White, set up two specific catalog number series to release other EMI recordings from around the world: the 6000 series for albums and the 72000 series for singles. This became the pipeline for British (and French via the Pathe label) culture to flow into Canada - often months before the USA took notice. And flow it did - everything from Scottish dance records (Jimmy Shand), choirs (the beloved Glasgow Orpheus Choir - the label's first hit album), comedy records, documentary recordings (the investiture of Charles, Prince of Wales), British folk, pop, and rock. The foremost exponent of British rock in Canada before the Beatles was Cliff Richard and the Shadows - the very band the Beatles claimed to despise. A whole generation of Canadian guitar players honed their musical skills on BOTH American rock 'n' roll AND the emerging British equivalent. Randy Bachman (Guess Who & BTO) and Neil Young both idolized Hank Marvin as a guitarist. Neil Young's first recording as the Squires was a Shadows derived instrumental titles "Aurora". Canadian radio was slow to respond to rock and roll (the first Top 40 station began broadcasting in 1957) but had quickly learned the American model - without the payola. And the American majors regarded Canada in 1963 (population around 16 million) as a minor market not really worth noticing as regarded trends or breakouts. As well, with one national radio/TV network (the CBC) and pockets of smaller, insular regional stations, the prospects for promoting a record across Canada were rather bleak. The US at least had Billboard which allowed the music industry to pick up on regional breakouts and follow what was happening in the rest of the country. In Canada, there was no equivalent of Billboard. with the result that something might sell well in one area of the country and not even be noticed in another.

Thus when the Beatles records were released in 1963, beginning with "Love Me Do" in Canada in February, followed by "Please Please Me" on Vee Jay in the US in March, the reactions were quite different. In the US there were some markets that playlisted the Beatles. saki has stated, with proof, that WLS in Chicago was the first station to playlist the Beatles back in March 1963. Their influence may have crossed the border and affected radio station CFGP in Grand Prairie, Alberta for they charted the "Please Please Me" single in their Top 40 by April 20, 1963, rising to 27 the following week (the only chart of the time to have surfaced provides these details). Then again, CFGP may have picked up on the record on their own - no one knows for certain in hindsight. (Capitol is the label given for the release, rather than Vee Jay.) So there was airplay to start the ball rolling in Canada as early as April 1963, and possibly earlier if some station picked up on "Love Me Do". The lack of a Canadian radio/record industry magazine at the time has frustrated any attempt at investigation of this possibility. But what happened next in both countries was different.

In the US each subsequent Beatles release had pockets of airplay, but no sudden swell of regional interest that would have driven the record onto the national charts or the band into the spotlight of the music industry. For all intents and purposes, to US radio the Beatles were also-rans, regional rumblings that didn't catch fire. It would take Ed Sullivan to recognize that the Beatles were the next big thing as he observed the crowds at a London airport on a trip to Europe. From his unprecedented act of signing the band to appear on his show in February 1964 came the impetus for Capitol US to get serious about the Beatles - failing to follow up on an act that appeared on his show was simply not done at that time, for the Ed Sullivan Show ruled Sunday night prime time television (and there weren't many other alternatives in most markets at that time.) In Canada, the public gradually became aware of the Beatle phenomenon through news reports from Britain which, at that time, made up a significant portion of Canadian newspapers and magazines. Canadians were well informed as to goings on in the Mother Country. The wave of immigrants to Canada from the UK also helped to spread the word. Capitol Canada continued to release each new single from the band (though Paul White maintains that they never achieved significant sales) and by November 1963 the momentum had built to the point where "She Loves You" was on the charts in the largest radio market in the country (Toronto); it would go Top 20 in December. The album "With the Beatles" was released as "Beatlemania With The Beatles" in Canada a mere three days after release in the UK, which is the surest indicator that something was already happening with the Beatles in Canada. The promotional push that erupted in the US in late 1963 only helped to solidify the popularity of the band in Canada; in fact, there was some identification with the Beatles as "our boys" due to the strong ties of the Commonwealth at that time. Canada would not begin to seriously disassociate itself from Britain culturally until the 1967 Centennial of Confederation, at which point Canada was forced to develop an identity of its own, in no small part due to its hosting of the World's Fair (Expo '67) in Montreal, then the most "happening" city in the country. (34 years later we're still trying to forge a Canadian identity.... C'est plus change, c'est plus que la meme chose...) Meanwhile in the USA, British musicians achieved the invasion that British armed forces had failed to achieve during the War of Independence and the War of 1812. Britain, which in the 50's watched helplessly as its Empire collapsed or gained independence, suddenly emerged as "Swinging England" and rock now had a second base of operations.

Frederick Harrison

" A stone may change the course of the river." C.S. Lewis