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Civil liberties lawyer John Whitehead recalls Beatles' social, political impact

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Sunday, February 9, will mark the 50th anniversary of the Beatles' first appearance on American television. That evening in 1964, the Fab Four – John, Paul, George, and Ringo – were guests on The Ed Sullivan Show. In the studio audience were hundreds of screaming teenagers but across the country, 73 million viewers tuned in, almost twice as many as had previously watched a single television broadcast.

Charlottesville civil liberties attorney John Whitehead reminisced on February 7 about that night and what followed that decade in an interview on WCHV-FM's “Inside Charlottesville.” On Friday afternoon's program, host Coy Barefoot asked him to recall the beginnings of Beatlemania and its subsequent impact on society.

Taken by surprise

Whitehead, founder of the Rutherford Institute, began by noting that, according to their photographer, when the Beatles landed in New York on February 7, 1964, “and they heard all this yelling and stuff, they thought the President had landed, or some dignitary. They didn't realize [until] they went down the ramp that all those 5,000 teenagers” who crowded the runway “were there for them. They were taken totally by surprise.”

They should not have been so surprised, however, because the Beatles' popularity had preceded them to America.

“They had the top five tunes in the Top 40” in February 1964, Whitehead explained. “No one's ever duplicated that, which is amazing. I think that seven out of the top 10 songs were Beatles songs when they landed in the country.”

So many people were indoors that Sunday to watch the band on Ed Sullivan, he said, the country experienced its lowest crime rate in something like ten years. George Harrison later quipped that “even the Kremlin was tuned in,” Whitehead recalled. “It was amazing.”

The Sixties begin

Reflecting on the Beatles' later impact on politics and society, he suggested that “the Sixties, in my opinion, started that night on The Ed Sullivan Show.”

That performance began “all that upheaval” that continued with the worldwide broadcast over the BBC of “All You Need Is Love” (with 400 million viewers) and culminated with “the summer of love” and Sgt. Peppers Lonely Hearts Club Band in 1967.

The Beatles, he said, “captivated the world with peace, harmony, and love, which was their great message.”

He added that John Lennon “took off on his own and started his worldwide campaign for peace, and anti-war.” In reaction to that, he said, “the FBI went after him, collected 400 pages” of intelligence on Lennon's activities “and tried to intimidate him and get him deported. Richard Nixon considered John Lennon his number one enemy at that time. It was really weird.”

Horrified parents

Asked by Barefoot where he was that night 50 years ago, Whitehead recalled that he “watched the show” and his “parents were horrified.”

Years later, he continued, shortly before his mother passed away, “I asked her, what was the worst thing that ever happened to America? She looked at me and said 'The Beatles.'”

His mother was not alone. He also remembered attending a conference in “1983 or 1984” when a prominent minister took the stage and said to the audience of 10,000, “I want to tell you what has really destroyed America: The Beatles.”

Whitehead looked around at the young people around him and they all had the same puzzled looks on their faces. The minister “never explained what he meant” but he was probably referring to “the youth rebellion” of the 1960s.

That rebellion, Whitehead went on, “was focused.” It “brought down a crooked president” and the protesters “stopped the Vietnam War.”

Youth in rebellion

He expressed his admiration for the youth rebellion of that era.

“I'd like to see all that again, folks. I've often said, if you've got a picket sign and you're out there active, I don't care what you believe. I may not like what you're saying, [but] I'll go to my death to defend it," Whitehead said. "I just like activism."

John Lennon, he pointed out, “epitomized” the spirit of youthful rebellion and was even vilified by some on the Left for his idealism.

When Lennon released the song “Revolution” (on The White Album) and said “if you want destruction, count me out,” Whitehead remembered, “The Village Voice actually criticized him for being too peaceful.” Lennon's response was along the lines of, “What do you want to do, kill people? Why would we destroy anyone if we want peace?”

It's that kind of idealism that Whitehead would “like to see all that again but I don't see a lot of it.”

Expressing some frustration, he added: “Here's the thing. A guy like Lennon, the other Beatles -- they took their fame and tried to advance an agenda, a very positive agenda, but I'm looking around for entertainers today like that. Justin Bieber? I don't know.”

John Whitehead, author of A Government of Wolves, has also published an essay, “50 Years After the Beatles: Isn’t It Time for Another Political & Cultural Revolution?,” on the Rutherford Institute's web site.

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