How the Beatles Became International Sex Symbols

History Hit

4 mins

10 Dec 2018

On 26 December 1963 the Beatles released I Wanna Hold your Hand and I saw her Standing There in the USA. As a result, this date has always been associated with Beatlemania reaching truly global levels.

In the age of Spotify and social media the extent of the band’s success seems perfectly natural, but at the time the spread of their new and exciting style across the globe was a groundbreaking cultural phenomenon.

Humble beginnings

The band’s meteoric rise to stardom began in 1957 when a sixteen year old Liverpudlian schoolboy called John Lennon got together with a group of schoolmates and began to form a makeshift band which called itself “the Quarreymen.”

Over the next year Lennon’s friend Paul McCartney, and his friend George Harrison also joined as Lennon’s older mates left him to pursue other careers.

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By 1960 the name had been changed to The Beatles, and they had known some limited success in Liverpool and after a brief tour of Scotland unofficial manager Alan Williams secured the group three and a half month’s residency in the notoriously seedy West German city of Hamburg.

There they played a huge number of gigs and perfected their skills as a guitar group – though not without various misadventures – such as Harrison being revealed to be underage and threatened with deportation.

The Beatles’ big break

Upon returning to England in 1962 they were signed up by EMI music publishing after initial rejection and began their first recording at EMI’s Abbey Road studios in June. There they were told to find a more skilled drummer, and the legendary foursome was completed when Ringo Starr, the drummer in a rival band, was persuaded to switch his allegiance.

Abbey Road Studios today.

1963 would prove to be their breakout year, as singles like She Loves You and From Me to You reached number one and began to fetch a great deal of interest in the band and its members.

After a year of phenomenal success by the end of 1963 it was decided that the time had come to tackle the biggest and toughest market in the world – America.

EMI’s American subsidiary – Capitol Records, had steadfastly refused to release the Beatles’ music in the US thus far, but after negotiations with the independent US label Vee-Jay their first singles were finally unleashed on the American market in December. Hysteria followed.

Stardom and sex-symbols

By the time the group set off on their first visit across the Atlantic in February 1964, I Wanna Hold Your Hand was at Number One, and 3,000 people had gathered to greet their plane at John F. Kennedy airport in New York.

The Beatles arriving at John F. Kennedy International Airport, 7 February 1964.

When they have their first live performance on the Ed Sullivan Show two days later, a staggering 34% of the population of the USA tuned in to watch in an age where TV’s were still something of a novelty. What was being called the “British Invasion” had began in earnest.

The term Beatlemania had been coined a little earlier back in England, and was first seen in print when the Daily Mail published an article called BEATLEMANIA: It’s happening everywhere…even in sedate Cheltenham.” 

Particularly after the trip to the US, Beatlemania became charcterised by the high-pitched screaming and near-hysteria of the vast crowds of teenage girls who came to see the band as the four lads from Liverpool with floppy hair became unlikely international sex symbols.

After one gig in Hull in the UK it was reported that over 40 pairs of knickers had to be cleared away.

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The reasons for this explosion of almost manic obsession with the band have been debated and analysed ever since. Some ideas have been their coinciding with the post World War Two baby boom, when there were far more teenage girls than there had ever been before, even in the recent days of Elvis or Frank Sinatra.

Another has been the non sexually-threatening long hair, youth and British charm of the group, far more appealing to the new generation of girls than the sexually voracious Elvis or other older performers. There are a multitude of other ever more wacky explanations, though in the end the novelty and brilliance of the Beatles’ music is perhaps the most convincing.

Exporting culture

Beatlemania also embodies the 60s and its rebellious counter-culture. The fathers and elder brothers of Beatles fans scorned what they saw as their unmanly appearance and music, but that made their appeal even stronger, particularly after they took a darker and more psychedelic path later in the decade.

Furthermore, this phase not only starts the global era of musical history, but also the dawn of Britain as the world’s foremost “soft” power as its empire collapsed. Since the Beatles, other British exports from the Rolling Stones to One Direction have taken the US and the world by storm.

Another successful Great British export…The Rolling Stones.

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