The Beatles are back in the news now that rumors have surfaced that Michael Jackson may have to sell their song catalog. The pop star is on trial in California on child molestation charges and purportedly hard up for cash.
It was in 1985 that Jackson bested a bid by Paul McCartney and acquired 260 of the group’s songs for $45 million. In its Aug. 14 issue of that year, Daily Variety pointed out that the deal, concluded in London with “pubbery” ATV, was “the largest song catalog buy by an individual in history.” In recent times the Beatles catalog has been estimated to be worth 10 times what Jackson paid for it.
That page-one story, however, masked an intermittent and unfortunate lacuna in Variety‘s coverage of the entertainment biz.
While Weekly Variety was born in the shadow of vaudeville and while both Weekly and Daily routinely chronicled and reviewed niteries, concerts, Broadway musicals and big bands through the 1940s, the paper had a tin ear when it came to emerging teen tunes. The paper famously declared in the ’50s that rock ‘n’ roll would never catch on.
The paper in those years was better at dissecting the mechanics of the entertainment biz than it was at identifying the latest pop cultural phenom or shift in the zeitgeist.
Moreover, the two papers were not in sync in their approaches, with each more closely tied to the town in which it was rooted: in Daily‘s case, Hollywood; in Weekly‘s, New York.
Thus when it came to the Beatles, who made their major initial American impact in New York, the Tinseltown-based edition was late to the party.
Take the group’s historic appearances on “The Ed Sullivan Show” in 1964.
On Monday Feb. 10, the day after the quartet’s first live perf on TV, Daily Variety had zilch on the subject. That TV show drew a record 73 million viewers, and almost every teen in America was tuned in and turned on.
A few days later, a few snippets: The Beatles were to make two more films for United Artists; a mention of other bands doning wigs in imitation.
Weekly Variety, however, had a much more immediate grasp of Beatlemania.
In its Feb. 12, 1964, issue, a front-page story with a bolded headline proclaimed “Britain Exports a Mania”:
“Yank showmen knifed their memories this week to recall a parallel to the four mad youths from Liverpool. None came to mind. Elvis Presley is the nearest comparison during the first orgiastic-hysteric reaction to his unique swivel-hip brand of song.”
But the coverage sounded stilted, almost certainly written or inspired by older journalistic hands who simply didn’t get it.
The paper was back on safer ground the following week, as it analyzed the biz implications.
The banner: “Rocking Redcoats are Coming.” The story out of London: Thanks to the Beatles, British pop singers (Dusty Springfield, the Caravelles, the Dave Clark Five, etc.) were being lined up by agents and managers for an invasion of the U.S.
That week and many more to come, Variety‘s music charts summed it up. “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was the No. 1 single and “Meet the Beatles” was the bestselling album.