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How Did the Beatles Go Viral 50 Years Ago? Here's the Book That Solves the Riddle

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On the night of February 9, 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show introduced the Beatles to a mass audience and Beatlemania officially erupted in the United States. But was their first major U.S. television appearance really the catalyst that fueled their immense American popularity and ignited a youth revolution that rocked the '60s? Record executive and producer Steven Greenberg has a more original take on what kick-started Beatlemania. In his provocative and thoroughly researched e-book single How the Beatles Went Viral in '64, Greenberg cites a number of other factors in the hockey stick surge in the group's popularity during the winter of 1964. A key driver, according to Greenberg (who discovered musical acts such as Hanson, Baha Men and Jonas Brothers), was an exciting new and inexpensive technology that allowed teenagers to listen to music on-the-go. We caught up with Greenberg during a break in his duties as CEO of S-Curve Records to conduct this email interview, part of the Thin Reads interview series with the world's most interesting e-book single authors.

Thin Reads: The hottest consumer electronics product during the 1963 Christmas season was the transistor radio. What role did that portable, personal content-delivery device play in helping the Beatles go viral?
In 1964, the average American teen listened to the radio for slightly more than three hours per day. The most common stocking-stuffers received by teens that Christmas were transistor radios, which had become cheaper than ever due to the proliferation of off-brands. Sales of transistor radios that Christmas were nearly double those of the year before. The Beatles' single came out the day after Christmas, and was heard repeatedly on those brand-new radios by teens on Christmas break from school, which was a period when radio listening hours increased dramatically. So, a perfect storm resulted when this exciting new music intersected with brand-new radios and lots of time to listen to them.

Thin Reads: What led to your decision to write a book about how the Beatles went viral in the early months of 1964? Surely there's easier ways to make a buck -- or better ways to spend one's time than as a scribbler.
I'm fascinated with how pop phenomena occur and there's never been a pop phenomenon as big as the Beatles. Usually, these things happen due to a confluence of a great product and some technological development, and I wanted to see if that was the case with the Beatles. Indeed it was. I felt I had a unique perspective on certain aspects of the story; I tend to approach the study of pop phenomena using the diffusion of innovations paradigm, which looks at how new ideas or technologies spread through society. The Beatles' story is a great one to tell through that lens.

Thin Reads: Did you find the tone of early U.S. network television coverage condescending, offensive and just plain ill-informed? (Example: CBS reported that the Beatles "make non-music and wear non-haircuts.") Do you think that coverage reflected the generational war that was starting to brew at the time?
Adults disliked rock 'n' roll in general back then and thought it had no musical merit. Ed Sullivan used to introduce rock bands as being "for the kiddies." The coming of the Beatles was certainly a watershed event in the widening of the generation gap. Alan Kendrick, who presented the CBS piece, had been a top war correspondent during WW II, but was ill-prepared to understand the emerging mindset of British teenagers. He completely dismissed the possibility that the music might be good and instead presented the story as one of a silly teen fad, on par with, say, goldfish swallowing, or cramming into a phone booth.

Thin Reads: How significant is it that the Beatles commercial success in the U.S. followed -- by a matter of just a few weeks -- the shocking assassination of President Kennedy? Were American youths looking for something to help heal their wounds?
The JFK assassination sent all of American society into a depressed stupor. And probably no societal group felt more crushed than the nation's youth, to whom JFK was a hero. Young people needed something new to cheer them up. Something different, exotic, joyful, exuberant, euphoric. As Lester Bangs (an influential music journalist and critic) wrote of that moment, "We needed a fling after the wake." And in retrospect it's clear it needed to come from outside the U.S., because there was nothing euphoric to be found here.

Thin Reads: You conclude your book stating that the 60s began when the Beatles first appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964. Couldn't you make the argument that the 60s began with the assassination of JFK, or the release of Bob Dylan's first album or the widespread availability of the birth control pill?
I would suggest that the JFK assassination was the end of the old world -- the part of the '60s that looked and felt a lot like the '50s -- and the arrival of the Beatles was the true beginning of the whirlwind to come. Dylan's prophetic The Times They Are A-Changin' came out in the U.S. the same month as the Beatles' first album, which was quite a nifty coincidence. Of course, there were earlier signs that change was imminent -- Norman Mailer's essay The White Negro, which predicted the '60s counterculture, was published in 1957, for instance. But the wholesale spread of these ideas to the mass of young people really started with Beatlemania.

Thin Reads: What are your three favorite Beatle songs?
My favorite Beatles song is a weird choice: "I'll Follow The Sun," which no one ever lists as one of his or her favorites. But I'd also name in my top three "Hey Jude" and "I Want To Hold Your Hand," which are actually the two biggest Beatles hits of all.

Read the complete Thin Reads interview with Steve Greenberg.