It was fifty years ago yesterday that the Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show and changed American pop culture forever.
I wasn’t sure I wanted to write a post on this subject, given that everyone on the planet with an internet platform, blog, Facebook or Twitter account, or Big Chief pad is weighing in with their nostalgic memories of the Big Event... but why not? After all, I was there to see it.
In February 1964 I was in sixth grade. The tragedy of John F. Kennedy’s assassination, less than three months before, was still fresh in everyone’s mind. The eagerly anticipated opening of the New York World’s Fair was still over two months away. And suddenly, in the midst of the winter, these effervescent British boys showed up, radiating enthusiasm and light.
I had no idea who the Beatles were; at the time, I was completely oblivious to popular music. But there was all kinds of buzz having to do with the arrival of the group in the States, mostly being passed along from one pubescent girl to another. It seemed like that was all anyone wanted to talk about. The Beatles! They’re gonna be on Ed Sullivan!
The Ed Sullivan Show was, at the time, a Sunday evening staple, the quintessential exemplar of the Television Variety Show, a genre of entertainment that has completely vanished from our airwaves. Today, cable, satellite, and streaming Internet television offer whatever kind of narrowcasted entertainment you might wish, served up on a ridiculous plethora of channels. But try to imagine what it was like with only three major networks, when broadcast signals floated through the ether without cables and satellites to help them. Then, you didn’t have whole channels devoted to 24/7 sports, or news, or cooking, or cartoons, or music, or home renovations. You watched what was on, whatever the hell it was. And if that happened to be a variety show, you had a veritable three-ring circus of vaudeville-style entertainment, from stand-up comedians to musical acts to jugglers to ventriloquists. Like the weather in Texas or Georgia, if you didn’t like it, all you had to do was wait five minutes and you’d have something different. Ed Sullivan was the king of variety, an impresario from whom a single word could determine whether an entertainer would flop or become a household name.
Like millions of other families, the House of Eli would have the TeeVee Set tuned to Ed Sullivan on any given Sunday evening. And on February 9, 1964, I made sure I was parked in front of that set, although I didn’t really know what to expect.
And then Ed announced them... “Ladies and gentlemen... the Beatles!”
As the group launched into “All My Loving,” my first thought was, “Hey, these guys aren’t bad!” They certainly didn’t sound quite like anything I had heard before. The lyrics weren’t what grabbed me as much as the somewhat off-kilter melodies. As they played on, I grew more and more fascinated with this new (to me) sound. Damn catchy, it was! By the time they got to “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” I had decided that I really liked the Beatles. At the time, of course, I didn’t realize that they would practically rebuild popular music and transform the culture of the 1960’s to an unprecedented degree. (How many of us did?)
The band’s breakup in 1970 coincided roughly with my graduation from high school. My old life was ending and a new one was on the verge of beginning; it was, perhaps, an appropriate time to say farewell to the group that provided so much of the soundtrack for my coming-of-age years.
But we never really have said farewell, have we? Two of the boys are gone forever, but their music lives on. And against the backdrop of the ages, fifty years is but a drop in the bucket.