Rob Lowman, Los Angeles Daily News
Could a phenomenon like the Beatles’ appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” on Feb. 9, 1964, happen again? No way.
In today’s multiple-screen world of entertainment, it would be impossible to draw that level of interest for a musical act. Numbers tell one story. An estimated audience of 73 million people, about 40 percent of the U.S. population, tuned in to see the American debut of four lads from Liverpool, England. At the time it was the most-watched TV program ever.
That audience number would eventually be passed, but not until the next decade. Even the most-watched event in U.S. TV history — 2012’s Super Bowl at 111.5 million — was only about 35 percent of the population. Nothing like a variety show or a scripted show comes close to those numbers anymore.
The recent Grammy Awards show attracted a comparatively paltry 28.5 million viewers (about 9 percent of the population) and that was filled with some of the biggest-name acts in the world and included a pairing of the two surviving members of the Fab Four.
The Beatles’ arrival in the U.S. 50 years ago created an unprecedented sensation that hasn’t been matched since, but had they been a different band, it might have been an footnote. After all, they seemed like just another hyped act being thrown up the pop charts. However, what may not have been evident as audiences watched swooning teen girls as the band performed was the Fab Four’s drive, ambition and talent. The Beatles weren’t going away quietly. They would have a huge impact on a nation beginning to tear apart culturally. Not that anybody may have realized it at the time.
It is often said Sullivan’s show helped launched the Beatles in this country, but that is looking at the situation somewhat backward. Variety shows, which had ruled TV in the 1950s, were beginning to wane in the 1960s as more scripted shows came on the air. Getting the Beatles to come on his CBS hour was a coup for Sullivan, who had been on for 16 seasons. The showman needed hot acts to keep the program on top and was hoping for the same lightning in a bottle he had gotten from Elvis Presley’s first appearance in 1956, which had set a record for viewership at the time.
While Beatlemania had already swept Britain and rumblings had already started in America, no one really knew what to expect from the Fab Four’s arrival. Back in September 1963, Dick Clark had played the English disc of the band’s single “She Loves You” on “American Bandstand” and the three Philadelphia teens asked to rate it gave it a lukewarm 65, 70 and 77 out of 100. Shown a picture of the Beatles, they laughed at the haircuts.
On Nov. 22, 1963, President Kennedy was assassinated. Vietnam was rumbling, and a pall was hanging over the country.
Then on Dec. 26, 1963, “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was released and by Jan. 10, 1964, a million copies were sold in the U.S. — a staggering number for today. By Feb. 1, it went to No. 1 in the charts.
When the Fab Four arrived at the just-renamed John F. Kennedy International Airport on Feb. 7, 1964, for the first of three straight Sunday appearances on “Sullivan,” they were greeted by some 3,000 screaming fans who nearly caused a riot. With their mop-top haircuts and mod suits, the Beatles were cute as pie and full of witty quips. Paul McCartney, 21, Ringo Starr, 23, John Lennon, 23, and George Harrison, 20, may have seemed like fresh-faced youngsters, but in reality, they were already polished musicians who had been working in clubs for years. Behind them was a calculating manager, Brian Epstein, who knew what he was selling.
Sullivan had been willing to pay the band a headliner’s salary for one appearance on the show, but Epstein had opted for less money for three Sundays. He knew what he was doing. When Americans turned on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that first Sunday, it was sheer joy. The boys opened the show with the poppy “All My Loving” and followed with “Till There Was You” — from the wholesome musical “The Music Man.”
The Beatles knew how to please and seemed nonthreatening. Unlike Presley’s first appearance, when he was shown only from the waist up, the Beatles didn’t draw any of the same outrage from parents. Mothers thought they were sweet; fathers may have hated the long hair, but tolerated it. Teen boys wanted electric guitars, and teen girls picked their favorite Beatle. Close-up shots of each had their name, and there was even a “Sorry, girls, he’s married” when John came on-screen.
On Feb. 11, the Beatles drew 20,000 fans to their first U.S. concert in Washington, D.C., Then during two sold-out performances at Carnegie Hall, New York City police were forced to close surrounding streets because of unruly fans.
While this seemed innocent fun at first, the country was already poised for change, especially the younger generation, which was beginning to chafe under the dress codes and rules of etiquette left over from the Eisenhower administration. The Cuban Missile Crisis in October 1962 and under-the-desk drills in case of nuclear attack reminded us that oblivion was a button-push away. The civil rights movement was growing, and deaths of activists made front-page news. The revival of the folk movement started around 1958 as something college kids politely took part in, but by 1964, singers had taken a notably more political stance and were giving voice to an early protest movement.
The second “Sullivan” show featuring the Beatles was broadcast from Miami Beach as a promotion for the heavyweight championship fight between the champion, Sonny Liston, and a young underdog then known as Cassius Clay. The Beatles visited Clay’s camp and jokingly sparred with the fighter, who not only went on to the upset win but shortly afterward joined the Nation of Islam and changed his name to Muhammad Ali, creating a fury in establishment America but inspiring both young blacks and whites. It was another indication of how the country was dividing.
“The Times They Are a-Changin’,” sang Bob Dylan on an album of the same name that came out in January 1964, just before the Beatles’ arrival. Dylan was already becoming a musical force, having moved on from folk music and charting his own form of self-expression. Unlike the boys, Dylan had rejected a spot on “Sullivan” when the conservative host didn’t want him to sing one of his political songs.
When the Fab Four appeared on “Sullivan,” they weren’t thinking about politics. They were simply talented musicians with growing ambitions. As teens they had gone to Hamburg, Germany, and did five sets a night at strip clubs for nearly two years. They grew up fast, working every day among near-naked women. It gave them an outlet for their wit and cheekiness. In a Dada-esque move, Lennon once screamed out “Dizzy Miss Lizzy” with a toilet seat around his neck.
Along the way they also became a marvelous band, able to play nearly anything. By the time they got back to England, the Beatles were not only an exciting live act, but were brimming with musical ideas, which no one at first wanted to listen to. Epstein understood their potential and got them a record contract and began to shape their image. Colonel Tom Parker had done that for Presley, tamping down his rock ’n’ roll instincts, and Presley, a vocalist and not a real songwriter, ended up in bad movies.
Once the Beatles would have been happy to be as big as Buddy Holly and the Crickets, which was inspiration for their name, and later wanted to be as big as Presley, but by the time they left the U.S., they were in their own stratosphere and didn’t need to take Presley’s path.
The Beatles were astute enough to do what was necessary to get ahead, but they were very much their own men. Lennon and McCartney insisted to their producer, George Martin, that they do some of their own songs on their record. Martin hadn’t been impressed at first, and thought — as was common in those days — they should hire songwriters. But after seeing the power of the band live, Martin began to understand what he had and changed his tune, eventually helping them create the likes of “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” and “Abbey Road.”
The Fab Four’s entrance into the U.S. created the British invasion, and everybody, including Sullivan, tried to jump on the bandwagon. At the recent Television Critics Association meeting in Pasadena, British rocker Dave Clark talked about how Sullivan went out of his way to book his group, the Dave Clark Five.
Clark says he got a call from Sullivan while his bandmates “were still working in factories and offices.” Their hit “Glad All Over” had knocked the Beatles from No. 1 on the British charts. So Sullivan flew them over and had them on the show, and kept them for a second week, paying for a week’s long-sold-out concert tour they had in England. The group ended up on the show 18 times, far more than the Beatles, who by 1965 didn’t need Sullivan’s show.
While the Dave Clark Five had a few hits, they were not the Beatles. Neither were Herman’s Hermits, the Animals, Gerry and the Pacemakers, or any of the other British invasion bands that would appear on the show, although the Rolling Stones would grow immensely popular and wield music influence to this day.
By contrast, “The Ed Sullivan Show” would end blandly in March 1971. Two months earlier on CBS, “All in the Family” debuted, a show only made possible by the cultural transformation that had taken place during the previous seven years since the Beatles’ arrival.
Perhaps a more significant visit to New York City for the Beatles came in August 1964 when they returned for some concerts. One night, a friend arranged for the Beatles to meet Dylan at a hotel. It was reportedly a drug- and alcohol-fueled party. By the next year, the Beatles were writing grittier songs such as “I’m a Loser,” “You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away” and “Nowhere Man,” and Dylan had gone electric with “Like a Rolling Stone.” “I get high with a little help from my friends,” the Beatles would sing in 1967.What the the Fab Four did on Feb. 9, 1964, on the “The Ed Sullivan Show” was open a counterculture door, and a large segment of America went rushing through. More Americans began to expand their musical horizons (blues and jazz were rediscovered), grow their hair long, break dress codes, protest the war, tune in, drop out and do hundreds of other things. That sense of freedom also became part of the sexual revolution, women’s liberation, the gay liberation movement.
None of this was the Beatles’ intention. They just wanted to be stars. Eventually, many of the cultural and political changes may have happened in other ways. History is a confluence of disparate factors. Television —limited at the time to three major networks — was one of them in 1964, and it gave Americans a way to have a common experience.
The only thing close to the Beatles on the “Sullivan” show is the Super Bowl, four-plus hours of mostly commercials, babble and some 17 minutes of grown men in helmets and pads actually playing football. It doesn’t rock and you can’t dance to it and then it’s over.
When the Fab Four first played in America, it was only the beginning.