The fiftieth anniversary celebration last weekend of the Beatles debut appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show was the kind of nostalgia that resonates with those old enough to remember and raises curious interest in those too young to have known. Here, for everyone, is what it was all about.
In their home country of Great Britain, the group had been soaring in popularity for a year, but in the U.S. they were only barely visible in the adult world before they arrived in New York City for the Sullivan gig. The hipper teens had already discovered them, of course, but even mainstream youth were only vaguely familiar with the earliest singles they had released, on the Capitol label, by the end of 1963. It’s important to remember that in late November the nation had suffered the assassination of its young president, John F. Kennedy. Thus, the Beatles were something of an antidote to the mix of sorrow, shock, and confusion that griped the nation as a whole, and its impressionable youth in particular, when the fab four, fun-loving and seemingly irreverent, arrived.
And arrive they did. With screaming girls shouting their first names – John, Paul, George, Ringo – and newly pubescent boys studying their hair style, the group caught the country by storm. And when they were introduced by the oh-so-square Sullivan (who had also debuted a young Elvis Presley some eight years earlier), who hosted the most watched Sunday night TV show of the era, they commanded an audience estimated at 30% of the country’s entire population.
They sang, “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” (a cover of the Meredith Willson tune from “The Music Man”), and “She Loves You,” to open the show and then “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Wanna Hold Your Hand” to end it. (Sullivan’s show that night also featured an impressionist, a team of acrobats, a comedy duo, and Georgia Brown and the cast of “Oliver!,” the season’s big Broadway musical, but nobody really cared about the filler entertainment.)
Within days, everyone under 18 knew who the Beatles were. They were as hot as any act had ever been. The adult world was less convinced. Newsweek’s cover story on the group (in its February 24 issue) described them as, “a near disaster: guitars and drums slamming out a merciless beat that does away with secondary rhythm, harmony, and melody.” The lyrics were described as, “a preposterous farrago of Valentine-card romantic sentiments.” The review ended with the prediction that the group would, “fade away, as most adults confidently predict.”
Suffice to say, they didn’t fade away. In fact, the Beatles hadn’t even discovered their true genius yet. That genius, and the legacy it created, developed and took shape over the next seven years as their music moved from the playfulness of “Yeah, Yeah, Yeah,” to the more thought-provoking tease of “Norwegian Wood,” to the plaintive lyrics of “Yesterday,” to the laments of “Eleanor Rigby,” to the wondrous creation of “Sgt. Pepper’s,” to the mournful cry of “While My Guitar Gently Weeps,” to the contemplative musing of “You Say You Want a Revolution,” to the magic of the “Mystery Tour” and the message of “All You Need is Love,” and to the symphonic rhapsody of Abbey Road, with its “Golden Slumbers,” “You Never Give Me Your Pillow,” and “Carry that Weight.”
And so there was the music, ever evolving from three-chord takes on Chuck Berry licks to sitar-laden mixes to complex orchestrations with electronic overdubs making anthems like “A Day in the Life” all the more iconic. But there was also the cultural impact the four members of this group evoked. It wasn’t that the Beatles invented or even preached “free love,” but their music quickly became associated with it, as it did with the psychedelic drug scene and the peace movement. It wasn’t that any of the four were especially focused on changing the world, but through their music and in their relation to their fans, they did.
That they endure is a credit, certainly, to each of them. John stands out as the philosopher, the thinker; Paul was the premier tunesmith, the melody-maker; George was the virtuoso musician, the musical explorer; and Ringo was the backbone, the rallying force, if not the inspiration for the others’ commitment to the whole. As Paul noted in a recent interview, any group with just one of the four would be pretty good; put all four of them together, and for as long as the chemistry worked, the result was unique and ever-lasting.
It’s hard to imagine what music might become over the next several hundred years, even harder to predict what society will look like a millennium from now. But just as Bach and Mozart and Ludwig van are still as appreciated now as they ever were, so too will much of the Beatles repertoire resonate for generations to come. And while war and peace may always be with us, so too will the yearning for something better, something that can be captured in a song or in a feeling or in a moment’s reflection not of what is, but of what can be.
The Beatles gave us that. They grabbed a generation that had lost its innocence and led it to a new sense of existence. Yes, memories fade, and age, ultimately, has its way with all of us, but the legacy of the Beatles is intact. It is timeless and eternal.
Relive it now. Think about what the joyfulness of youth can mean for an entire generation. Ponder what power can flow from ebullient melodies and sanguine lyrics. Rediscover the very special presence that each of us can command to make the lives of those we touch just a little bit richer.
“She loves you, and you know that can’t be bad”
“In my life, I love you more”
“All you need is Love, love; Love is all you need.”
“Whisper words of wisdom; let it be.”
“Take a sad song, and make it better.”
“You know I believe and how.”
“Life goes on, within you and without you.”
“I’d love to turn you on.”