I do remember seeing the Beatles on Ed Sullivan because I’m old. And yes, I do shudder to think that all of these 50th anniversaries (and they’re just starting…yikes!) are happening so now I know what it must have felt like to be the last surviving soldier from the Civil War. Fun fact: The last verified Civil War participant died a mere 6 months before I was born. I digress.
The Beatles. I remember the anticipation of their appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show. It’s difficult to explain to a young person today what TV was like in 1964. Try this. Go to your cable TV listing and look at the 200 or so channels you have available. Now, pick your favorite 4. Not so fast. One of them has to be the local PBS affiliate. There! That’s TV in 1964. Of course that’s not completely accurate because we didn’t get to pick our “favorites.” There were just a handful of stations and you got what you got. And in my little white, suburban Wonder Years-like existence, it was only a few years earlier that not everyone even had a television set at all. So in 1964, TV was entrenched but it also had the newish novelty factor.
Sports was on TV but only sporadically…a couple of games a season if you were lucky. Of course there was no internet, VCR or anything that could deliver moving pictures to you on demand. There were two ways to see a sports or entertainment performance: Live and in person or on television. Fandom lived on the radio and in the printed word and picture.
I do remember getting my own copy of Meet the Beatles. I remember the shiny cellophane with the four stonefaced yet slightly bemused guys looking out at me. I remember reading the notes on the back of the album over and over again and of course listening to the music that had previously only poured out of the tiny speaker in the dashboard of our Buick. I remember seeing pictures in magazines of Beatles, screaming girls and wondered why no boys went to see them and whether it was the kind of thing I should be listening to.
At my tender age, I was basically listening to nothing but the Mary Poppins soundtrack so The Beatles were a big jump. I don’t remember my mother being upset by it. The hair, which was only thing that was remotely counterculture about the boys (they wore suits to work ferchristsake) was a novelty rather than something to be afraid of. Other than that, they made girls scream and sang in perfect harmonies. A case could be made that Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis seemed more dangerous at the time. The Beatles were packaged, huggable sex appeal and you could not fault the catchiness of the songs.
By the time of the The Ed Sullivan Show appearance, we’d heard all about them, read all about them but had not seen them. The pent up pressure to actually see them play music in front of our eyes had built to the point that WHAT they performed or HOW they performed was immaterial. We wanted to see the energy and we wanted screaming girls and that’s what we got.
After the appearance, The Beatles were absolutely a big deal. The biggest. But the average Joe on the street saw what the fuss was about and went back about his business. Other bands got popular immediately and over the next few years (The Rolling Stones, Herman’s Hermits, The Animals, Dave Clark Five even The Monkees) so the The Beatles as the sole standard bearers for white rock and roll waned just a bit.
But on Sunday, February 9, 1964 on live TV (if you were in the east), all of that energy and curiosity was funneled through one medium and event that anyone in America would have had to work very hard to avoid.
And few did.
It was a time when the country could have a shared experience orchestrated and unveiled in a way that 200 channels, youtube and social networking would not allow today.
Throw in the jadedness that we wear like a badge of courage nowadays and it’s easy to see why The Beatles could not happen now and will never happen again.
Our cultural phenomena now happen in quick hits. They are reported live and unfiltered and are dismissed as quickly as they come because there are so many ways for them to come at us.
This isn’t necessarily bad but it’s not nearly as much fun.