Did JFK’s Death Really Make It Possible for Beatlemania to Live?

Chris Willman
Yahoo Music

It's either one of the great truisms or great myths of pop culture and politics in the last century: When President John F. Kennedy was assassinated on November 22, 1963, it created a depression in America that could only be cured by a massive outbreak of hand-holding.

As in, "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

The Beatles/JFK connection is one that won't die. Would we still have needed them — would we still have fed them, with our dollars and screams— if, when they were '64 breakouts, the President had still been alive? Would moptops have taken over the world anyway, even if the king of Camelot hadn't been taken out before America's very eyes?

Only Rod Serling himself could come up with the alternate reality in which we could say for sure how the Fabs' career (and the counterculture they subsequently ushered in) would have gone if it had been business as usual through a Kennedy administration. But clearly America was living through its own Twilight Zone in the funk that followed 11/22/63. And for 50 million adolescents in search of an exit, there was nothing to replace a shining young role model in a suit like four even sunnier and even younger heroes in suits.

The Grateful Dead's Jerry Garcia is among those who remembered the Beatles' emergence in those dark days as "a happy flash, post-Kennedy assassination. Like the first good news."

The late rock critic Lester Bangs, writing in the June 1975 of Creem magazine, declared that Beatlemania was "intimately tied up with the assassination of President John F. Kennedy... [a] dream world [that] was shattered with the president's skull... They were perfect medicine... a sigh of relief at their cheeky charm and a welcome frenzy to obliterate grief with a tidal wave of Fun for its own sake, which ultimately was to translate into a whole new hedonist dialectic." And Beatles biographer Ian MacDonald spoke conventional wisdom when he wrote that their breakthrough hit's "energy and invention lifted America out of its gloom... High on gratitude, the country cast itself at the Beatles' feet."

Is this too simplistic a reading a history, though? Some revisionists would have us think so.

A controversial essay from Slate this month sought to debunk the JFK/JPGR (John, Paul, George and Ringo) connection. Writer Jack Hamilton even quoted the famous Lester Bangs article — dismissively — in which Bangs claimed it "was was no accident that the Beatles had their overwhelmingly successful Ed Sullivan Show debut shortly after JFK was shot" (on February 9, 1964). Hamilton calls Bangs' assertion "a choice of words that might as well put John and Paul in the book depository."

"History is more fun if it happens in turning points," scoffs Hamilton. "If the musical side of the Beatles/JFK turning point seems bogus, the historical side feels like mythologists leaning too hard on coincidence." To bolster his case — or his anti-case — Hamilton cites critic Greil Marcus saying that "for me there was never at the time any connection between the malaise or shock over the assassination and the arrival of the Beatles." He also puts Beatles expert Mark Lewisohn on the record as saying that "the coincidence only became apparent with hindsight."

Then again, both Hamilton and Lewisohn are English, which may make them less than experts on how Americans felt in the weeks following the Kennedy assassination. Perhaps it's a case of "You had to be there"?

It's hardly a provable case either way, but there's plenty of anecdotal evidence to support the connection from American kids of the early '60s. Perhaps they are doing their own Monday-morning mythmaking 50 years later, too; perhaps not.

Writing at WBUR.org this week, Molly Howes puts her own memories on the line, making the ubiquity of both events on the black-and-white TVs of the time as central a connecting factor as anything. "Fifty years ago this week, when I was nine, we watched grownups crawl over President Kennedy in his big, open convertible. Their scramble, in black and white, made it hard to see exactly what was going on," writes Howes. "A TV had been rolled into our classroom on a tall-shelved dolly and all the fourth-graders sat together on the floor, our heads tilted back, our eyes straying to the ashen-faced teachers for clues about the meaning of the shooting. How were we supposed to feel? Like most people I knew, I loved JFK because he seemed like a nice, handsome leader and he had a beautiful wife and kids about our ages." Days later, she adds, everyone gathered around the TV again — this time, at home, not school — because it was a National Day of Mourning for the funeral procession...

"A couple of months later, in February of 1964, we were again allowed to watch TV at a special time," continues Howes, referring to the Fabs' debut on the Ed Sullivan Show, which drew about 75 percent of the viewing eyes in America. "The sunniness in their smiles and their love songs poured directly into my darkening spirit. They weren’t ridiculous at all. They smiled while they played and, when they shook their shaggy heads, the lucky girls in the audience screamed. We didn’t scream; we held our collective breath. They became for me, as for millions of others, a model for joy and lightness... Rock and roll became the best antidote to despair and loneliness.... The death of an important man and the possibility of innocent excitement were the opposite poles of my early life and their order suggested that the darkest times can be followed by lighter ones."

Are there good reasons to resist the JFK-grief-begat-Beatlemania theories? For some music buffs, it's dismissive of the Beatles' talent to suggest they wouldn't have broken out at all if America hadn't required a musical Valium.

I talked with Benmont Tench, the keyboard player for Tom Petty & the Heartbreakers (and hundreds of great non-Petty records), who first tipped me to the revisionist Slate essay by tweeting a link. He's disinclined to put too much stock in the post-assassination connection because it doesn't give the Beatles themselves enough credit for the mania.

"On reflection I think the connection is a bit facile," says Tench. "If anything, the Beatles' embodiment of joy, youth, and hope would've fit right in with the spirit, and image, of the Kennedy years. So in a way it's a slighting of the power of the Beatles and their music, and in some ways a cheap use of the tragedy of the assassination, to say one depends on the other. And I like to imagine a JFK/Beatles hang, like the time they met Elvis. But with lots of photos this time! And Jack woulda totally rocked a Beatle wig, you know it."

That's a Rod Serling alternate-reality moment we can all agree to regret missing.