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