Sunday, February 09, 2014

It Was 50 Years Ago Today, The Beatles Taught the World to Play: The Impact of Their First Appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show

(Note: This piece was started on Feb. 9, 2014, but revised & completed on Feb. 10.)

February 9, 1964 is one of the most important dates of my life.

Even if I wouldn't be born for another 4-1/2 years.

While I certainly can be prone to hyperbole, especially in the case of creative heroes, and I won't pretend that I can appreciate the impact with the same acuity of those who saw it as it happened, it is hard to overstate how musically, culturally and historically significant the Beatles' first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show--50 years ago today--was.

I have the entire show on DVD--commercials and all--and watched it again on Sunday night, along with the CBS Special, The Beatles: The Night That Changed America, which was only sporadically great, but featured Paul and Ringo playing together at the end. The show was worthwhile, but was more a celebration of The Beatles in full and not the specific explosion fueled by their first Sullivan appearance.

Though I have watched the show before, and seen clips from it countless times, even in viewing it at 7:00pm on February 9th, 2014, I realize that I could really never know the novelty of witnessing it, largely or completely uninitiated, as it occurred, live, at 7pm (Central Time) on February 9, 1964.

Still, I think calling it "The Night That Changed America," as CBS does, actually sells it short.

My perception, secondhand as it may be, is that that night changed the world.

I will do my best to explain why via specific reasons below, aided by numerous articles on the topic and insights I sought from friends.

While the two are inextricably linked, in some ways that can't, shouldn't and won't be divorced, trying to explain "why the Beatles on Ed Sullivan changed the world" isn't the same as "Why the Beatles changed the world."

Though I've long considered February 9, 1964 (and the 7th, when they arrived in America to screaming throngs at JFK Airport in New York and conducted a brilliant news conference) as the demarcation of Beatlemania--and even, connotatively, "The Sixties"--that Sullivan show was far from the genesis of The Beatles.

I'll defer to Wikipedia and untold billions of other words for the Beatles' biography, but the band's origins date to 1957. While the "Fab Four" weren't locked into history until mid-1962, when Ringo Starr became their drummer, John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and early bandmates had--as The Beatles--played hundreds of shows in their hometown of Liverpool, England and in Hamburg, Germany between 1960-62.

By 1963, they were humongous stars in England, topping the British charts with "Please Please Me," "From Me to You" and "She Loves You."

And before they hit CBS-TV Studio 50 in New York, they had already written, recorded and (in most cases, at least in the UK) released "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," "All My Loving," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "Can't Buy Me Love," along with many other now classic songs.

Though its ascent was rapid, in January 1964, "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" became the #1 song in America, a couple weeks before the boys got to New York. 

So it's not like being introduced to America via Ed Sullivan is what made the Beatles great, or what even "got them on their way." The unbridled creative ambition that led them from mastering cover versions of songs by heroes like Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly and myriad others to writing their own songs to constantly expanding their songwriting capabilities to only recording original material was already well underway, and this artistic thirst would lead to considerable greater invention after 1964 (including using recording studio techniques as part of their musical creation, creating the "album as art form" with Rubber Soul, etc.).

And February 9, 1964 wasn't even the first time the Beatles were seen on American TV. CBS had done a news feature on them in late 1963--initially the morning of November 22, 1963, but as that was the day President Kennedy was assassinated, again on December 10, the latter leading to the initial U.S. airing of "I Wanna Hold Your Hand"--and on his popular NBC show, Jack Paar had shown a clip of The Beatles performing, about a month prior to the historic Sullivan show.

So the Ed Sullivan Show--a television staple since 1948 that was regularly watched 50 million people each Sunday night--didn't represent the start of the Beatles, and even in America, their first appearance on it and two more that February, was only the beginning of the greatest rock music legacy in history.

So why did it--and does it still--matter so much?

(Disclaimer: Some of the following is simplified or technically overstated for the sake of space, and it's also possible I'm just wrong about some stuff. Feel free to correct me.)

1. The show was watched by a then-record 73 million people in the United States, proportionally--approx. 38% of the population--still the largest audience for a scheduled program. At the time, there were only 3 networks (CBS, NBC, ABC), no cable and very few multi-TV households. So while much has been made, correctly and echoed below, about the Beatles' effect on "youth culture," their watershed moment was decidedly cross-generational.

2. Much of pop culture, and particularly pop music, was rather tepid before the Beatles appeared. Please see my disclaimer before you take this completely literally, for I know there were many great movies, television shows, stage works, etc., prior to 1964. And yes, just in the pop/rock realm, there had already been several greats such as Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Beach Boys, the Four Seasons, Motown groups and many others creating songs that still hold up well today. Not to mention that Bob Dylan had already made the scene with other folk stars. But take a look at the top songs of 1963. While there are a number of iconic artists and songs, there are also many by people that probably weren't quite seen as hip, even then. And Ed Sullivan's variety show featured all sorts of acts that I imagine many people now, and likely younger folks then, would consider rather tame, perhaps even lame. Heck, after the Beatles essentially opened the Feb. 9 show, they were followed by a guy, Fred Kaps, who did an old card trick and something involving a salt shaker. There was also a performance by the Broadway cast of Oliver, which include future Monkee, Davy Jones, and a funny routine by Frank Gorshin. These were the highlights, and other acts that night--Tessie O'Shea (a large woman singing with a banjo), McCall & Brill (a comedy duo whose remembrances of the night are worthwhile) and Wells & the Four Fays (an acrobatic troupe that closed the show)--probably all the more made The Beatles seem like martians, both to young viewers and older ones.

3. The songs they sang were terrific. This is certainly an opinion, but I still love hearing "All My Loving," "She Loves You," "I Saw Her Standing There" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand," along with their cover of "Till There Was You" from The Music Man. And while I am not a musician and can't cite music theory, enough trusted sources have noted how novel the Beatles' songwriting was, even early on. Though it seems simple, the chord structures and choices are supposedly rather complex, and certainly unique at the time.

4. It wasn't really about hype, but the Beatles were even better than it. In retrospect, it may seem that Beatlemania was the result of a publicity machine, but throughout 1963 as the Beatles were selling millions of records in England, Capitol Records--the American subsidiary of EMI--repeated refused to release any songs in the U.S. The first DJ to play "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" had to have a copy brought to him by a stewardess who had visited Britain. It exploded because people who heard it, loved it, and while some degree of frenzy briefly preceded the Ed Sullivan appearance, much of the reason it still matters is because the Beatles were the real deal.

5. Relatively few Americans had previously seen a rock band, a group not from America or even a band logo. While several had backing bands, most of the rock 'n roll pioneers were solo acts. The Four Seasons was more of a "vocal group," and to a degree, so were The Beach Boys. Nobody from England or anywhere else had made much of a dent in America. And if (m)any prior rock acts--such as at the local sock hop--had a band logo emblazoned on the bass drum, I'm not aware of it.

6. Bruce Springsteen, Tom Petty, Billy Joel, Ozzy Osbourne, Gene Simmons and myriad other musicians have traced their inspiration to seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. See this article.

7. The British Invasion was spawned. Once the Beatles broke in America, The Rolling Stones, The Kinks, Herman's Hermits, Dave Clark Five, The Who, The Zombies and many more would follow. Although several of these British bands' origins precede February 9, 1964, awareness of them in the United States certainly didn't.

8. America was in a malaise after the JFK assassination. I've read sensible commentary about how this is overstated, that the screaming teens at the airport, in the Ed Sullivan audience and throughout the country weren't still in a funk. But I had asked a co-worker old enough to remember and he validated that there was a palpable sorrow following the President's murder, and that the Beatles provided something of an acute antidote.

9. Fashion, and hair, changed. It's a bit hard for me to believe, but as their initial American news conference attests, one of the most noteworthy things about the Beatles to the press--and presumably the public--was the length of their hair. Everything you can envision about the 60s and hippies with long hair came after February 9, 1964 and not before it.

10. The seeds of uprising were sown. A friend of mine, Susan Doll, wrote the book Elvis for Dummies and in it shares how in the '50s, for the first time, teens claimed musical heroes distinct from their parents'. So the Beatles didn't establish the idea of an American youth culture, but Doll suggests (to me) that The Beatles "ignited and brought together a new generation that would tie rock music to the politics of the counterculture."

This meshes with the thoughts of my friend Ken, who said that "once young people found a common music, they found a common voice. Four years later that voice would shout 'Hell, no, we won't go.' For the first time in U.S. history, a generation of young American men refused to fight a war."

I should also note here that while great rock 'n roll music existed in America before the Beatles arrived, the genre was already in a down slope, if not outright doldrums. In 1962, Decca Records in England rejected The Beatles, saying "guitar groups are on the way out."

So as my friend Brad succinctly puts it, beginning by being seen by 73 million people on Feb. 9--they also appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show the following two Sundays:
"The Beatles made rock 'n roll permanent."
Also, early 1964 coincided with the first Baby Boomers coming of age. This might explain why the Beatles made even more of a sonic boom than Elvis had.

11. The frenzied hysteria seemingly surpassed anything before, or since. Here I'm talking about the high-pitched shrieking of teenage girls at the show's taping--beyond that which accompanied Elvis' Ed Sullivan appearances and teen idols since, from Duran Duran to New Kids on the Block to N'Sync, etc.--and which may, as others have suggested, have had sexual undertones that would further define how "The Sixties" differed from "The Fifties."

But I also mean that, while I have seen and noted a few televised musical mega-moments--Michael Jackson doing "Billie Jean" on Motown 25, The Clash on Fridays, LiveAid, highlighted for me by Queen and the Led Zeppelin reunion, Nirvana's first appearance on Saturday Night Live--I don't think any of these quite captured, or changed, the zeitgeist like the Beatles on Ed Sullivan. Perhaps because of the degree to which the Fab Four had already changed it.

Summing up, I'll reference an article by Fred Kaplan on that was actually written to commemorate the 40th anniversary of that memorable night. Providing some of the insights and information I used above, he wrote:
"The timing of the Beatles was perfect. 1964 marked the emergence of the Baby Boomers as a social force—and the Beatles were the vehicle for their ascendance as a cultural force. What records were the No. 1 hits on the pop charts before the Beatles took over the slot and stayed there for years to come? Bobby Vinton’s “There! I’ve Said It Again,” the Singing Nun’s “Dominique,” and Dale & Grace’s “I’m Leaving It Up to You.” The Beatles changed the charts forever. You can draw a line in the historical sands of popular culture at 1964. A lot of pop music that came after that point still sounds modern today. Almost all the pop music that came before that point sounds ancient. 

On Feb. 9, 1964, The Ed Sullivan Show was the stage on which this change was dramatized."

1 comment:

Ken said...


As someone who lived through it, I think your thoughtful and thorough analysis has really correctly deconstructed what happened at that turning point in history. I can see how this essay would be very difficult to write, I extend my congratulations on a well written piece.

Now, if you can only tell me whatever became of rock and roll the last ten years...I'd be forever grateful.

Although I don't miss the Viet Nam war I do deeply miss the 60s for one thing:


Where is the hope today?