Global appeal: the Beatles

Street scene outside CBS TV studio with large sign listing guests on the Ed Sullivan Show: 'The Beatles, Georgia Brown and Tessie O'Shea'

The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show in the US, 1964
© National Museums Liverpool collections

The Beatles are perhaps the most obvious example of music and musicians that have achieved global appeal, providing an enduring symbol of global culture. In 1998 viewers of Britain's Channel 4 television voted for the Beatles as the ultimate music of the millennium. But what kind of impact have the Beatles had on audiences and on other musicians? And how has this affected tourism and the Beatles' home city of Liverpool?

The Beatles were by no means the first popular musicians to achieve international celebrity. Composers such as Händel and Mozart, and virtuoso performers such as Paganini and Liszt, were known throughout Europe. But genuinely international musical celebrity as we now think of it only became possible after the onset of the mass media, especially recording and radio.

Before the Beatles a number of US musicians had become famous around the world and adored by their many fans. Perhaps the most famous of these were the singer Frank Sinatra in the 1940s and the 'king of rock 'n' roll', Elvis Presley, in the 1950s. In the early 1960s the Beatles became the first rock band to achieve global appeal and the first to make their place of origin a key part of that appeal.

On 9 February 1964, 70 million Americans (60 percent of the US television audience) watched the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan show. That one event not only opened the eyes and hearts of another nation to the four Liverpool musicians, it also triggered a phenomenon now referred to as the British invasion. Before the Beatles few British records reached the US charts. In 1963 just one song out of 114 was a British hit. By 1965 the British invasion had reached its peak and 36 out of 110 songs were by British acts. By 1967 however US tastes had begun to change and the first wave of the British invasion had begun to ebb.

  • 1962: 2 UK artists, 96 US artists, 98 total
  • 1963: 1 UK artists, 113 US artists, 114 total
  • 1964: 32 UK artists, 68 US artists, 100 total
  • 1965: 36 UK artists, 74 US artists, 110 total
  • 1966: 30 UK artists, 97 US artists, 127 total
  • 1967: 22 UK artists, 90 US artists, 112 total

By achieving this kind of success in the US and then across Europe and the rest of the Americas, the Beatles opened the way for other British bands to follow. US tours and hits were achieved by bands like the Rolling Stones, the Who, the Dave Clark Five, The Kinks, the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers and the Searchers.

How can the Beatles' global appeal be explained? Popular theories have usually pointed to the genius of the individual members of the band and to fate, luck and destiny. But more critical and scholarly explanations have also emerged.

Some musicologists, for example, argue that the Beatles' global success had a lot to do with how they incorporated the sounds of many different traditions, religions and cultures into their music whilst still making these sounds accessible to popular music fans. George Harrison's use of the sitar on songs like 'Norwegian Wood', for example, belied his more sophisticated understanding of Indian raga music (Moore, 1997). Others have sought explanations for the social and cultural impact of the Beatles, including their impact on Western popular culture. The band's films, for instance, revived film musicals, and their songs helped popular music of the 1960s to become the soundtrack for political, social and cultural upheaval, particularly in the US (Inglis, 1996).

The impact of the Beatles on the global music industries has also been examined (Womack, 2006). The Beatles were one of the first rock groups to have their own production company, Apple, and to attempt to manage their own career after the death of their manager Brian Epstein. They also pioneered new recording techniques and ideas, forgoing live tours and performances to develop a new, more sophisticated studio sound. Today, Beatles collectables and original albums are amongst the most profitable sectors of the antique and memorabilia industries.

Follow the links below to explore the appeal of the Beatles for:

  • Beatle fans around the world
  • Early Beatles and Merseybeat cover bands around the world
  • Tourism, not just in the Beatles' home city of Liverpool but also in other parts of the world.