In early 1963, the Beatles released their second single, “Please Please Me,” in the United Kingdom to rave reviews. It was their first single released stateside. Some might argue this paved the way for the so-called “British Invasion.” After all, by early 1964, Life magazine had this to say about the Beatles: “In  England lost her American colonies. Last week, the Beatles took them back.”
But it’s easy to forget the real story of the Beatles’ first US single release in the glare of the band’s later successes. In reality, “Please Please Me” was a resounding flop. Here’s the inside scoop on how the bowl-cut band went from unknowns with a less-than-stellar single to America’s hottest ticket (and merch seller).
An Unlikely Birthplace for Rock & Roll’s Saviors
February 25, 1963, should be a date to remember. At least when it comes to the history of the Beatles. After all, that’s when the first single by the band hit America’s airwaves. In the larger context of “Beatlemania,” it should’ve been a slam dunk, foreshadowing the uber-famous “British Invasion” to follow. But that’s also an anachronistic way of looking at history.
Despite what Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly started in the 1950s, rock & roll appeared in a death spiral by the early 1960s as folk dominated the scene. England was the last place on Earth people looked for potential saviors. After all, London’s Denmark Street music publishers and the BBC maintained a stranglehold on the British music industry. And they fastidiously obsessed over clean-cut Elvis and Buddy wannabes. Hardly the environment for innovation.
Liverpool’s Vibrant Music Scene
However, that doesn’t mean the Beatles came out of a cultural vacuum. Their location in the coastal city of Liverpool proved fortuitous. You see, Liverpool had a fascinating and unique scene of performers. In fact, it’s a testament to these other performers’ talent that the Beatles took so long to gain a foothold.
Local bands like Rory Storm and the Hurricanes and the Big Three dominated with a unique blend of beat music and R&B known as skiffle. (Incidentally, Rory Storm and the Hurricanes featured a drummer named Richard Starkey, who soon reinvented himself as Ringo Starr.) Skiffle, in turn, was inspired by Liverpool’s merchant seamen who imported R&B records from the United States.
From Skiffle to World Fame
Another misnomer about the Beatles is that they represented an overnight success. But this was far from the case. In truth, they paid their dues, commuting between Liverpool and Hamburg from 1961 through 1963, performing clad in black leather at dives like the Star Club, the Cavern, and the Kaiserkeller. Skiffle proved among their primary influences.
Along the way, the band’s lineup changed substantially, and they picked up manager Brian Epstein, a local record-store manager. Ringo Starr came on board, providing a new solidity to the group as they bid “hasta la vista” to the black leather. (No offense, Judas Priest!) Having played nearly 300 performances by August 1963, the band boasted two well-received singles: “Please Please Me” and “From Me to You.” That is, well-received in their homeland.
The British Invasion Begins
But America would prove a tougher sell. Even as their third and fourth singles inspired the Daily Mail to proclaim the band’s rising popularity as “Beatlemania,” fans in the US remained sparse to non-existent. However, something funny took place in December 1963. That’s when the Beatles’ single “I Want to Hold Your Hand” made the Washington, DC, radio station WWDC. Audiences were entranced!
The band followed this more favorable debut with a strategic campaign in preparation for their first American tour. Set to begin in February 1964, the Beatles went all out. Think campaign-style buttons, bumper stickers, and even “Beatle wigs.” By February 19, more than 1,000 pounds of these Beatle wigs traveled to the United States to satisfy the new mania for rock-related merch. Sure, it was a far cry from Hot Topics but still a significant step in music branding. By 1964, things got really weird with the Fab Four’s board game, “Flip Your Wig.”
Marketing a Cultural Revolution
It’s hard to imagine the cultural revolution of the 1960s taking place without the Beatles. Yet, it’s also disheartening to acknowledge much of the hubbub surrounding the band can be chalked up to clever marketing rather than a looming “Age of Aquarius.” Nevertheless, the Beatles’ jaw-dropping performance on The Ed Sullivan Show on February 9, 1964 cemented their fame. More than 70 million tuned it, making it the boob tube’s most successful broadcast up to that point.
As the “British Invasion” swept the United States, the Beatles reigned over the parade, contributing countless chart toppers. By April, their hits dominated the Top 100. They included “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Twist and Shout,” “She Loves Me,” and the song that paved the way for fame, “I Want to Hold Your Hand.”
So, what happened to “Please Please Me?” The song finally became a contender, topping America’s charts. While it appeared that the Beatles had become the United Kingdom’s number one export overnight, bringing them to the former colonies required calculated strategy, years of hard work, and plenty of wigs. Nowhere is this slow and steady trajectory better attested than “Please Please Me’s” circuitous rise to popularity in the New World.
By Engrid Barnett, contributor for Ripleys.com