Yeah, yeah, yeah, everybody loves the Beatles, and it’s always been that way. Old news, for old people. Right?
Well, no, actually.
Though in the 50 years since Ed Sullivan introduced them to this country on his Sunday evening variety show, the Beatles have come to be accepted as omnipresent and innocuous, in truth, their video arrival here a half-century ago today was met with hostility by more than a fringe few.
Witness CBS News London Bureau Chief Alexander Kendrick, in the first major television report on the band, which can be viewed from a forgivingly ironic distance in the present tense, via YouTube.
“Some say they are the authentic voice of the proletariat … some say the Beatles represent authentic British youth, or British youth as it would like to be. Self-confident, natural, direct, vital, throbbing. The Beatles themselves seem to have no illusions. They symbolize the 20th century non-hero as they make non-music, wear non-haircuts and give no ‘Mersey.’ And meanwhile … the fan letters keep rolling in, and so does the money.”
You could pretty much cut the “snarky and condescending” with a knife here, yes, but Kendrick was far from alone in his opinion. America, fresh from enduring the assassination of its commander in chief, and perhaps getting a prescient glimmer of the massive cultural upheaval that was howling outside its gate, was in no mood for a bunch of British girly-men who had the audacity to let their hair touch collar, earlobe and forehead alike. Though today, the Beatles seem utterly harmless, a band whose music routinely crosses generational barriers and is safely ensconced in the museum of the classic, at the time, they were viewed as invading marauders, dirty hippies before anyone even knew the term, purveyors of a strain of music bearing significant markings of what many bigots still might’ve referred to as “race music,” and clearly out to turn the country’s daughters into tea-smoking sexual deviants.
In the America of 1964, the ’60s, as we now understand them, hadn’t really started yet; What was happening culturally was really more like a hangover from the conservative, buttoned-down and crew-cutted ’50s.
Enter into that world four shaggy-headed, working-class kids from the port of Liverpool, a quartet of musicians who’d cut their teeth playing six-hour sets seven nights a week in the sleazy environs of the Reeperbahn in Hamburg, Germany. The Beatles were a band with a capital B, not some superstar standing in front of a backing group no one cared about. They weren’t selling sex, but sex, liberation, self-confidence and virtuosity were being celebrated when they played, both implicitly and explicitly.
On Feb. 9, 1964, white bread America got a heavy dose of Beatle magic. It came blasting right into its living rooms. And short of turning off the television and sending the kids to bed, America was powerless to stop it.
“Seeing the Beatles on the ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ for the first time was like being shot out of a cannon and landing on a bed of roses,” says Buffalo-born, internationally respected singer/songwriter Willie Nile. “It was a wake-up call if ever there was one. It was a revolutionary and life-changing experience.”
“We had never heard or seen the likes of these boys from Liverpool,” says 97 Rock DJ and Beatles scholar JP, aka John Piccillo. “Sitting cross-legged on my grandmother’s living room floor, I kept saying to her, ‘I really like these guys, Nana.’ That was the beginning of a love affair that has lasted 50 years.”
What made the band’s appearance on the Sullivan show – which started with the harmony-heavy gallop of “All My Loving,” proceeded through the rearranged show tune “Till There Was You,” and then slammed home a game-changing reality with the trio of “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want To Hold Your Hand” – stand in such stark contrast to the countless other musical acts who’d appeared on Sullivan’s stage?
“Up to that point, live music on television was usually a lead singer backed by some musicians, more often boring than not,” said Nile.
“Here were four unique looking, long-haired jesters, all playing together as one and singing their hearts out, as if they had nothing to lose. To hear the raw power and energy of the music blasting out of the TV speakers while the four of them played together was magic. There was a joy and a camaraderie they had together that was palpable. You could feel it, and you could hear it in the voices, the guitars and the great songs. They were happy to be alive and not afraid to show it.”
That happiness was contagious. One didn’t merely tap one’s foot and dig the beat when the Beatles played – one fell deeply (and in many cases, permanently) in love with both the music and the young men who were making it.
Interestingly, you needn’t even have been there watching the Sullivan show in real time in order to fall head over heels for the Beatles. The band transcended its own milieu rather handily. I, for example, fell hard for the band just as it had broken up, via the release of the farewell offering “Let It Be,” an album played by my parents in what I remember as a consistent rotation. At 3 years old, I’d stare at the “Let It Be” album cover and listen, overwhelmed by the music and the photos. By 5, Beatles posters adorned my walls, and with my 7-year-old brother equally enthralled, the band’s music became the soundtrack of my life. By 8, I’d seen the Sullivan Show footage for myself, and what I felt cannot have been much different than what the thousands and thousands of kids of various ages who’d seen the show live in 1964 felt. It was love. As corny as it sounds, it is no less true for that fact.
What separates the Beatles from the hosts of other bands and performers who, in the time since, have encouraged Beatlemania-like behavior in young audiences, with young women fainting and expressing undying love, and the screams of the faithful threatening to drown out the music itself in the live concert setting? What makes the Beatles different than Justin Bieber, or Justin Timberlake, or any other pop star of the moment?
It’s the music. Yes, the Beatles were good-looking guys, and sexuality was part of the package. And yes, what they were playing was ostensibly pop music. But its sophistication, its radical assimilation of so many things that had come before it, its seemingly endless ability to surprise with shifts in chord progressions and harmony – even if listeners didn’t know what they were hearing, the nuance in this music was affecting them.
“They were doing things nobody was doing,” Bob Dylan was quoted by writer Anthony Scaduto, regarding his first impressions of the Beatles. “Their chords were outrageous, just outrageous, and their harmonies made it all valid.”
Dylan nailed it. The masses huddled around their television sets on that Sunday evening 50 years ago today may not have noticed how the harmony kept shifting and leading everything back to the G chord throughout “I Want To Hold Your Hand,” or how the “middle 8” changes key and makes the later return to the original key feel like something a lot more intense than mere hand-holding. Yet, they didn’t need to intellectualize it – they felt it in a primal, direct, incredibly exciting fashion. Considering this, statements like “Hearing the Beatles for the first time changed my life” are stripped of hyperbole, stop sounding like the wistful remembrances of senior citizens, and become reasonable statements of fact.
For all that has been written about them, for all of the millions and millions who have listened to their music, and despite all the “museum-ification” of their work, hearing the music of the Beatles remains an intense, visceral, sensual game-changer of an experience. At first, the Beatles changed the way the listener felt. Later, they’d go on to change the way those listeners thought. In the process of achieving this, the Beatles in a sense ruined things for everyone else – once you’d felt and experienced that magic, it was impossible to avoid demanding it in everything you listened to.
The Beatles were the right four men with the right talents in the right place at the right time. They were the perfect storm, and they arrived in America at the perfect moment.
“Coming 77 days after the Kennedy assassination, their ‘Ed Sullivan Show’ appearance was a real light in the darkness,” Nile says. “They played together like a band of brothers who had a secret that they were willing to share with the rest of us.”
Today, perhaps more than ever, that secret is worth passing on.