Browse The Decades
Mr. Pop History Presents 1964 Week-By-Week
Overview by Robert Neill
To summarize Pop History in 1964, all one really has to do is type the words: "the Beatles." While that might seem lazy and flippant, it wouldn't really be all that inaccurate.
The rock n' roll quartet from England dominated, or at least played a huge role in, just about every form of entertainment in the year 1964: record sales and radio music play; television; live concerts; cinema.
Pop Historians who genuinely are lazy often perpetuate one huge myth about popular music in the era of Beatlemania: that the ensuing "British Invasion" of the United States by English musical groups so completely dominated pop music, that American artists were prevented from having hits in their own country. That's just not true. A look at the pop music charts for any week in 1964 reveals that it was also a year in which many American performers were selling records. American surf music artists like the Beach Boys or Jan and Dean were thriving during the British Invasion, as were New Jersey's "Four Seasons" vocal group, the various Motown recording artists, American acts produced by Phil Spector and a wide assortment of American pop stars ranging from Louis Armstrong and Bobby Vinton to the Kingsmen to Chuck Berry, Lesley Gore and Elvis Presley to instrumentalists like The Ventures and Al Hirt to pop-country crossover acts like Roger Miller. The Beatles often had numerous recordings in the Top 40--or even Top 10--all at the same time, with the remaining chart positions occupied by both British Invasion and American artists.
It's true some of the teen idols of the early 1960's may have found a dwindling market for their music when the British Invasion occurred, but isn't that the ephemeral nature of teen idols, regardless of where the next teen idols come from?
And in 1964, the Beatles really were primarily perceived as an act appealing to teeny-boppers. Decades later, the Beatles are universally hailed as a brilliant, innovative, seminal musical group, with John Lennon and Paul McCartney revered as one of the great songwriting teams of the 20th Century, but in 1964, only a few music scholars took the Beatles seriously as artists. Their main appeal was on the same level that teen idols such as Ricky Nelson or Fabian had been appreciated. The Beatles of 1964 inspired as much sneering hostility as they did screaming adulation.
The folk music explosion of 1964 also began to downsize a little in 1964, but still remained a force in musical entertainment. What the arrival of the Beatles in the USA did lead to was the aforementioned "British Invasion," in which a seemingly endless supply of English musicians became a part of the American music scene within a space of a few years: Manfred Mann, The Kinks, Herman's Hermits, The Rolling Stones, The Zombies and other British bands followed the Beatles to varying degrees of success in the USA. British duos (like Chad and Jeremy or Peter and Gordon) and solo British pop singers (like Dusty Springfield) were also welcomed by American audiences. A few English groups did either fail to catch on right away (such as The Who, whose success in the USA got postponed to 1967) or ever (such as Dave Dee, Dozy, Beaky, Mich and Tich, whose popularity in Europe did not repeat itself in the USA, despite a small, bemused group of loyal American followers), but these were rare compared to England-to-America success stories.
During this period, some American musicians even tried to increase their chances of success by pretending to be English. For example, beginning in 1965 The Beau Brummels caught on by creating a faux British image for themselves, despite being from San Francisco.
The distinctive look and sound of the Beatles inspired a great deal of parody and lampooning. In the mid-1960's, it wasn't unusual to turn on the television and find veteran performers or popular sit-com characters making fun of the Beatles, usually by wearing comic wigs patterned after the Beatles' famous mop-tops, speaking in broad, unconvincing "English accents" and strumming (usually equally fake) guitars while repeating the words "Yeah, Yeah, Yeah." Although multiple "Yeah's" had been a part of the rock lyric lexicon for years, they became inextricably linked to the Beatles in the minds of many fans.
Television's tendency to mock the Beatles may have been inspired both by xenophobia and jealousy. When the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show, it became a landmark event in Pop Music History and drew enormous attention both to the group and the TV show. Other television programs may simply have wanted to latch onto some of that magic for themselves.
By late 1964, prime time television was beginning to look more and more like the melange of gimmick, novelty and fantasy shows that many people think of in connection with "60's TV." Among the shows that fit that designation in 1964 were "Bewitched," "The Outer Limits," "My Favorite Martian," "The Twilight Zone," "My Living Doll," "Flipper," "The Addams Family," and "The Munsters," many of them making their debut in Fall of 1964, while others were carry-overs from previous seasons. One popular science-fiction series that debuted in 1964 was "Voyage To The Bottom of the Sea," the first of four consecutive fantasy-oriented TV series to be produced by Irwin Allen, whose enormous impact on Pop History from the 1960's onward should neither be ignored nor underestimated.
The popularity of the James Bond spy movies inspired a similar TV series: "The Man From U.N.C.L.E." This 1964 program and the other spy / secret agent shows that followed became a beloved phenomenon of 1960's television. Fall of 1964 also saw the debut of one of the most enduring gimmick programs in TV history: Gilligan's Island. Often dismissed as one of the worst and / or most brain-dead programs ever produced, "Gilligan's Island" has also proven to be one of the most phenomenally popular. Generations of TV viewers have been captivated by the tale of the seven stranded castaways and references to the show's characters and themes continue to weave their way into the matrix of pop culture and everyday conversation. For people born after 1950, Gilligan, Skipper, Mary Ann, Ginger, the Howells and the Professor have equaled Jungian archetypes as a common reference point.
More traditional television genres also continued in 1964: shows featuring dedicated, hard-working doctors, lawyers or schoolteachers; Westerns; military dramas; military comedies (including the new "Gomer Pyle, U.S.M.C."); musical-variety shows; non-gimmick sitcoms; game shows; crime thrillers; cartoons, etc. etc. Those with revisionist memories may associate the mid-1960's solely with novelty shows, but in 1964 The Donna Reed Show, The Adventures of Ozzie and Harriet, The Ed Sullivan Show, The Andy Griffith Show, My Three Sons, The Lawrence Welk Show, Daniel Boone, Bonanza, Bob Hope Presents Chrysler Theater and numerous other old-fashioned series were still thriving. One 1964 TV phenomenon that hasn't had the staying power of some of those other shows is "Peyton Place." The prime time sex-and-scandal soap opera so captivated contemporary TV audiences that at one point in the mid-1960's it was airing three nights a week. Unlike some of the other aforementioned hit 1964 series, it does not seem to have retained its cult following and is seldom run in syndication. Perhaps its once-controversial subject matter has been so thoroughly eclipsed by the smuttier dramas of more recent years, that the once-steamy series seems tepid and archaic by today's standards.
The Beatles carried over their success to movie theaters, too, starring in the hit 1964 romp "A Hard Day's Night." Hollywood had always exploited the latest, hottest musical stars and trends by rushing them into hastily-assembled movies that were quickly-released to cash in before the fad ended. In the case of the Beatles, the film not only proved to be a lucrative box-office winner, but an enduring cinematic achievement, too. Decades later, "A Hard Day's Night" is still regarded as a great movie. Films featuring Chubby Checker doing 'The Twist' or Bill Haley & The Comets in action may still provide quaint, nostalgic glimpses into bygone eras of pop music or serve as historical documents of talented artists at their peak, but such films themselves seldom hold up as entertainment or art beyond the musical performances.
For rock n' rollers not quite ready yet to latch on to Beatlemania, there were three new Elvis Presley movies in 1964. A large percentage of the other hit films of 1964 were lightweight comedies built around popular comic actors and comedians, such as Peter Sellers, Doris Day, Jack Lemmon, Shirley MacLaine, Don Knotts, Bob Hope or Jerry Lewis. In 1964, foreign movies and foreign actors continued to be popular with American viewers. In fact, the 4 major acting Oscars for 1964 movies went to non-Americans. Three were British: Julie Andrews (Best Actress for "Mary Poppins"); Rex Harrison (Best Actor for "My Fair Lady"); Peter Ustinov (Best Supporting Actor for "Topkapi"). Russian actress Lila Kedrova won a Supporting Oscar for "Zorba The Greek." "My Fair Lady" also won the Best Picture Oscar, with its director George Cukor winning the Best Director Oscar and proving that Americans could still win American Academy Awards in 1964.
Lavish Hollywood musicals like "My Fair Lady," "Mary Poppins" and "The Unsinkable Molly Brown" were still being made in 1964, but that era would be drawing to an end within a very few years.Increasing in popularity were musicals aimed at younger audiences who expected less in the way of production values. Especially successful in the mid-1960's were the beach movies, usually featuring swimsuit-clad, good-looking young people seeking waves, love and sex at the beach. These films were often cheaply and quickly produced, usually featuring numerous musical performances by the latest pop, rock and soul music stars. Also appealing to young people in 1964 were lots of horror films, many of them equally low-budget.
1964 was also a year that produced some highly-acclaimed, very serious dramatic movies: "Becket," "Night of the Iguana," "Seven Days In May," "The Americanization of Emily," "Dr. Strangelove," "Zorba The Greek," "Fail Safe," and "Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte" among them. Considering the passage of time, a surprisingly large number of these films still hold up now as gripping, powerful entertainment. By 1964, Hollywood movies were dealing with some very adult, mature themes. Mainstream films still weren't as sexually explicit as they were soon to become, but at least the characters were already talking about such formerly taboo subjects..