Fifty years ago last night – February 9, 1964 – the Beatles made their first appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It was the culmination of a half-century of cultural changes, making early 1964 a genuine tipping point launching the British Invasion.
Many Americans became aware of the Beatles in the fall of 1963. The Huntley-Brinkley Report aired a two-minute segment on them on November 18th. The CBS Morning News followed up on November 22nd. With the Kennedy assassination later that morning, the planned repeat of the story that evening was canceled. It was aired on December 10th. A 15-year-old girl named Marsha Albert of Silver Spring, Maryland, watched that report.
Marsha wrote a letter the following day to disc jockey Carroll James at radio station WWDC in Washington D.C. “Why can’t we have music like that here in America?” Seven days later she introduced “I Want to Hold Your Hand” live on the air. WWDC’s phones lit up. D.C. record stores were flooded with requests for a record not in stock. On December 26 Capitol Records released the record three weeks ahead of schedule.
That was fortuitous. Kids were on Christmas break. By January 25, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” soared to #1 on the Cash Box list. A week later it was #1 on Billboard. A week later, on February 9th, 73 million Americans, an estimated 45 percent of U.S. television viewers, saw the Beatles on Sullivan. The British Invasion was underway.
By the first week in April, the Beatles held the top 5 positions on Billboard’s Hot 100 singles chart. But they would spend the next few years jockeying for first with other Brits, including Peter and Gordon, The Animals, Petula Clark, Herman’s Hermits, The Dave Clark Five, The Yardbirds, The Troggs, The Zombies, The Hollies, and Gerry and the Pacemakers. That’s why the early weeks of 1964 were a genuine tipping point.
Malcolm Gladwell coined “tipping point” in his 2000 book, The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference. He claims cultural change is driven by the efforts of a handful of exceptional individuals, what he calls mavens, connectors, and salesmen. They “tip” culture in new directions. But Jonah Berger says that’s just plain wrong. “Gladwell is great at telling stories,” he allows, “but sometimes the stories get ahead of the facts.”1
Berger is an Associate Professor of Marketing at the Wharton School and author of Contagious: Why Things Catch On. He says Gladwell tries to discount other contributors to culture change. Take the dramatic fall in crime in New York a few years back. According to Gladwell, the tipping point was Mayor Guiliani’s crackdowns on subway car graffiti and fare-beating. But Berger says this overlooks other contributors, including “increased police presence, tougher sentencing, and, above all, a vibrant economy that lowered unemployment drastically among the underclass, those who commit crimes.”
This is the same mistake the faith community often makes. Like Gladwell, it often overlooks the institutional conditions necessary to “tip” cultures, believing instead that a handful of passionate individuals are sufficient. The British Invasion challenges this view.
In many ways it dates from 19th century ideas of Freud, Nietzsche, and Darwin. Darwin believed humans are advanced animals. Freud jettisoned scripture’s take on sex as repressive. Nietzsche said there is no God, so individuals ought to be free to express their own “values.” These ideas were insufficient for changing the world, however.
In February 1912, Life magazine reported on a new dance craze called Ragtime, which the editors described as “animal dances” where “sexual restraint is almost unknown, and the wildest latitude of moral uncertainty is conceded.”2 In his book Teenage, Jon Savage traces how Ragtime was a forerunner of 1950s rock n’ roll.
Ragtime grew in the Roaring Twenties. So did drug abuse, cigarette smoking, divorce rates, and crime syndicates. Sensuous movies lit up the screen, including Greta Garbo’s silent films in 1926 and 1927 – Flesh and the Devil, The Temptress, The Torrent, and Love.3 In 1921, “teenage” became a class of kids, creating a new consumer group that accelerated consumer spending. Radio sales doubled in 1923, then tripled in 1924. So did car sales. Ala Freud, back seats for necking replaced parlors for courting.
The Stock Market crash slowed all this. During Depressions, people are good because they can’t afford to be bad. Behavior is also depressed during a World War. People make sacrifices. But by mid-1954, when the Stock Market returned to the level it enjoyed in October of 1929, sacrificing was over. The next ten years – 1954 to 1964 – completed the cultural conditions necessary for a tipping point.
Raised in a robust economy, the Baby Boom (1946-1964) created 81 million conspicuous consumers. Introduced in 1954, the transistor radio made music mobile. In 1956 President Eisenhower established the interstate highway system. By 1962 the first Boomers were driving, enjoying rock n’ roll on their car radios. Boomers created a culture that would characterize successive generations, what the late sociologist Robert Bellah called “expressive individualism.” They didn’t want Elvis. In 1964, the Boom was over. The first wave of Boomers was off to college. Enter a new sound. The Beatles.
The British Invasion reminds us that a tipping point doesn’t happen when a handful of impassioned individuals come together. The first weeks of 1964 were indeed a genuine tipping point, but they were based on more than the Beatles. It required institutional conditions that didn’t develop overnight. In seeking to “tip” cultures in the right direction, the faith community would be wise to remember this and broaden its strategy beyond influencing individuals to include institutional change as well.
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1 Dannielle Sacks, “Fifty Percent of ‘The Tipping Point’ is Wrong.” Fast Company, April 2013.
2 Jon Savage, Teenage: The Prehistory of Youth Culture (New York: Penguin, 2007), pp. 124-126.
3 Frank Partnoy, The Match King: Ivar Kreuger, The Financial Genius Behind A Century of Wall Street Scandals (New York: Perseus Books Group, 2009), pp. 91-93.