Sunday, February 09, 2014

50 Years Ago Today

Tonight marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles first appearing on THE ED SULLIVAN SHOW.  I wrote about that night in my book THE ME GENERATION BY ME... GROWING UP IN THE '60s.  Here's my account of that memorable evening... along with a plug to buy the book

It’s bad enough I grew a foot in my thirteenth year and weighed less than a plastic lawn flamingo. I was still reeling from a shattered love affair (well, I was in love, she had no idea) and only beginning puberty. Girls became my singular focus. On the night President Kennedy was shot I took time out from grieving to ogle photos of actress Diane Baker in a LOOK magazine layout. But getting girls – while clueless and looking like a Q-Tip with eyes – that was a near impossible task.

And then the Beatles appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show.

It was Sunday night, February 9, 1964.

At the time I didn’t know they were a threat. Like everyone else I was curious to see them. They had first burst upon the scene a month before. It seemed like every hour a new Beatles song was premiering on Color Radio, KFWB. “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” “Love Me Do.” “She Loves You.” They even started playing German versions (“Sie Liebt Dich”). That’s when you knew you had a phenomenon on your hands (although German versions of Nazi anthems would be better than the Bobby Vinton schmaltzfests that were topping the charts back then).

I was almost 14, living in a ranch style tract home in an upper middle class suburb of the San Fernando Valley called Woodland Hills. I was part of the ideal American Dream family unit – two parents, two children (picture Ozzie & Harriet but with Jews).

Back in 1964 there were only three networks and we watched whatever crap was on. Human-robot Ed Sullivan hosted a weekly variety show tolerated by the entire family. I can’t tell you how many three-legged dog acts and Szony & Claire dance teams I suffered through just to catch three minutes of the Four Seasons or dancer Abby Lane in leotards.

The Beatles’ timing couldn’t have been better. The country was still in a giant funk over JFK and we needed something to lift us out of the doldrums. But why couldn’t it have been a girl group?

I was already a little skeptical. Beatles songs were fine but this was Southern California. We already had our group – The Beach Boys. They connected with our lives and our lifestyle. The beach, surfing, hot cars, that whole California dream. It was real! We were living it. Okay, well, I wasn’t living it. I don’t think I could lift a surfboard at that age. And beach bunnies seemed more impressed with Corvettes than Schwinn ten-speed bicycles with raised handlebars.

But that was unimportant. The Beach Boys were singing our anthems. “Surfin’ USA,” “Surfin’ Safari,” or the one I identified with, “In My Room” – where you locked out all your worries and fears by retreating to your cell.

In my room Ann loved me. If only she loved me anywhere else.

So I watched the Beatles that Sunday night. Me, and 72,999,999 other folks. They were dazzling, electric; unlike anything I’d ever seen. Words can’t explain why. You look at the footage today and it’s just four English guys with surprisingly decent teeth in matching dark suits and helmet hair bouncing around singing “Yeah yeah yeah” in harmony, but I could sense, right then, that something big was happening. I could just feel it. Not just big, but huge, seismic – a national coming out party for my generation.

The start of a revolution!

My euphoria lasted maybe thirty seconds because then I saw all the girls in the audience. They were being driven to complete madness. Shrieking and crying, and practically throwing their training bras onto the stage. What the hell? I had never seen this either.


Wendy M. Grossman said...

Well, you've nailed my bafflement at the time. I *think* it was that appearance on Ed Sullivan, but it might have been their appearance on another show (I only saw them on TV once) where I sat there going: "What is the point of screaming like that? You can't *hear the music*!" To this day I don't understand the sort of fandom that drowns out the object of the fandom.

In fact, I never did fall in love with the Beatles' music, as great as I can see some of it is. The one thing they did that I really love: YELLOW SUBMARINE. That movie I've seen at least a dozen times - always straight, sober, drug-free. I only learned when I got the DVD last year that the JPGR voices were provided by four other guys - the Beatles were so dubious about the movie (until they saw it) they didn't want to be involved. The bit featuring them at the end is their only contribution.

(I realize you have no control over this, but the latest series of captchas are impossible to decode. It's taking me 3-5 tries most days.)

Hamid said...

I know for some it's sacrilege to say this but I really think The Beatles are overrated. And Paul McCartney's solo stuff has mostly been so awful, I do wonder how much of a contribution he really made to their songs. George Harrison had a better singing voice than Lennon and McCartney anyway. Ironically, Ringo, the butt of so many jokes, has ended up the happiest and most fulfilled of all of them, marrying a hot Bond girl and they're still together.

Going off topic, the Woody Allen - Dylan Farrow saga rumbles on and I'm really at a loss on who to believe. He makes some valid points which throw doubts on her account, but equally, she too makes valid arguments which suggest his guilt. Whatever the truth, I'm still cringing from the speech Diane Keaton made at the Golden Globes, especially when she started singing.

Lastly - Clint Eastwood saved a man who was choking by doing the Heimlich maneuver. Even in real life he's a hero. Go Clint!

Hollywoodaholic said...

Wow. Not a lot of Beatle love here, yet. Always some Contrarians, not to be confused with Rastafarians (no secret which religion I'd join).

Hey, I had two older teen sisters when we watched that show and the house quaked. And I loved them. And my 17 year-old musician son today loves them (and I never once tried to indoctrinate him to them).

But the best story I heard about the Sullivan show was they practically had to hose down the seats after the performance because all those screaming pubescent teenage girls who had waited in line all day to get in, lost complete control... and wet and peed their panties.

VP81955 said...

Ken, there were some of your SoCal compadres who boarded the Beatles bus some time before you did. Had you listened to KRLA rather than KFWB in August 1963, you may have heard these then-unknown Britons perform "From Me To You" (which you might have thought a cover of a Del Shannon record, since he'd toured with them in England earlier that year and cut a version that beat their in the States and was a minor hit).

In August of '63, the Beatles' "From Me To You" was No. 32 on the 50-tune KRLA "Tune-Dex," above debut songs "If I Had A Hammer" by Trini Lopez and the Crystals' "Then He Kissed Me," both of which would race past the Beatles on the chart. (The top three that week were "Surfer Girl" by the Beach Boys, "Puff The Magic Dragon" by Peter, Paul and Mary, and "Wipe Out" by the Surfaris.) If you had journeyed into the Inland Empire for whatever reason, I understand Beatles records also charted in San Bernardino.

One wonders how the group's history would have changed if Capitol had heeded parent firm EMI and released Beatles records from the get-go. (Label executive Dave Dexter reportedly declined because "Please Please Me" and "From Me To You" prominently featured a harmonica, which Dexter didn't like.)

I've written more on the Beatles, pre-Capitol, at

LADins said...

I can't comment on their initial performance since I wasn't alive to see it. They stopped touring the year I was born, so needless to say I missed the impact of their music.

Sure I know every song, but they aren't a "desert island" pick for me. I understand and respect that they changed the musical landscape forever and in a big way, but I honestly don't get it.

The fact they are considered the best ever is not even a debatable point to those who grew up in the 60s. Believe me I've tried. When you admit to being "meh" about them they stare at you in abject horror and clearly believe you have impaired judgement...especially in music.

I don't get the enduring appeal of Elvis either, but perhaps my opinion would be different if I grew up with the young and saucy version instead of the fat and sluggish one.

I have to wonder of the timing of their American debut, when the country was in such shock and looking for something to break the doldrums, contributed to part of their overwhelming appeal.

Not a hater, just not a true believer.

blinky said...

In 1964 I was in 6th grade and as clueless as any boy of the time. At 10:30 our teacher would take her morning break (to smoke a cigarette out of sight of impressionable eyes) and leave us to study quietly. This of course meant some girl would pull out Meet the Beatles or Introducing the Beatles and put it on the industrial strength portable turntable. We would all get up and mill about feeling the joy of rebellion. Fifteen minutes or one side play later the teacher would return and we all scurried back to our seats and returned to conformity, but the seeds of revolt had been planted.

Lairbo said...

Right on the money, Ken. As another SoCal native, I felt the Beach Boys were ours (and ours alone). I liked the Beatles' music I'd heard on the radio well enough but was miffed when my older sisters insisted we watch the entire Ed Sullivan show ("They might be on again! We don't want to miss it!") and the TV was switched over from The Wonderful World of Disney in the middle of "Dr. Syn the Scarecrow", starring future Secret Agent and Prisoner Patrick McGoohan.

Bobby said...

I don't get it. There is little the Beatles did that is of interest to me. I was never into musical nostalgia, though.

Michael said...

Walter Cronkite told a great story. His newscast aired the first report on The Beatles, and the minute it ended, his private line rang and it was Ed Sullivan saying, "Who are those crickets, gnats, whatever?" Walter put him in touch. Then Walter said that his daughters often resented his job and how much time it took, but sometimes they felt otherwise. Then he held up a photo of his two daughters sitting backstage that night with John and Paul. Yes, that would do it.

Ken, you mentioned Szony and Claire. Claire was and is Nancy Claire Houssels, who wound up performing with Szony in Las Vegas, marrying a casino owner, and then helping to start and endow our ballet company. More than 40 years later, she's still a community cultural leader, having continued with the ballet theater and been a key fund-raiser and contributor for our major new performing arts center. It's a small world.

Trey said...

What is it about getting old that makes people so inclined to revisit their youth? My grandfather has gotten to where he does that a lot.

John said...

Reaction to the Beatles -- pro and con -- was similar to the reaction 20 years earlier to the arrival of Frank Sinatra on the pop culture scene, in that young girls shrieked and swooned and others reacted with anything from snarky parodies to open hostility. But the technological advancements (everything from television to Telstar), the bigger numbers of the Boomer generation and the fact that there were more outlets in need of original material (to attract viewers/listeners and sales revenue) meant that the Beatles debut became one of the great media circuses of all time.

But the upside was the had talent -- there was style, but there also was musical substance that makes their music re-listenable 50 years later. However, the substance part is harder to find, so ever since the 70s, you see efforts to create the same sort of media frenzy, but it's based almost all on style, with only a dollop of substance at best (I eagerly await the future Bay City Rollers/Justin Bieber nostalgia concert tour coming to a dinner theater near you...).

willieb said...

Random (maybe Friday) Question: I see where they're mounting a play about Carole King on Broadway. I always thought Nancy Travis would be perfect to play Carole -- I always saw a remarkable resemblance. As someone who's familiar with Carole and Nancy, what do you think?

gottacook said...

Did not see the Sullivan show, but at my JCC day camp 4-5 months later, our poolside afternoons included near-constant Beatles singles on the PA system The entire backlog of British singles starting with "Love Me Do"/"P.S. I Love You" (which was more than 18 months old by then) were hitting the U.S. Top 40 at more or less the same time, as I learned years later. In that respect, the delay in getting a major U.S. label was really to their benefit.

Long family car trips always include at least one Beatles CD, but generally not Abbey Road or Let It Be, nor the Anthology.

The goofy side was what appealed to me, especially at the time: for example, "You Know My Name" (the flip side of the "Let It Be" single) and "Christmas Time Is Here Again" (the 1967 Christmas record for fans, which turned up on a bootleg LP that circulated in my high school).

Cap'n Bob said...

Loved them then, love them now. They didn't just influence music, they influenced every aspect of culture and politics extant and literally changed the world.

RCP said...

My older sister liked The Beatles but was more of a folkie - no screaming from that quarter. I've always loved The Beatles - especially their Revolver period. Hype or not, I think they made an indelible mark on music - Peggy Lee (one who would know) once remarked that when she heard "Eleanor Rigby" she knew music had changed.

One of the funniest photos I've seen was from an issue of Life during that era, of a teenaged girl holding up a clump of grass and sobbing: "Ringo walked on this...he walked on this."

Pamela Jaye said...

Though I'm no longer a huge Beatles fan (I liked their early stuff and I still like Paul but did it go to him 90s concerts with my husband :-( for worries f being surrounded by pot (the smell makes me nauseous)) I was a huge fan when I was.... 4. I was 2 months shy of 5 when they were on Ed Sullivan and I, too, wanted the screaming to stop, so I could hear.
I don't quite get why they are considered geniuses, but then, I hopped off around Rubber Soul. But when I was 4, 5, 6... I've had many other crushes since - including Scott Bakula for the past 20 years now.
If CBS replays it yes, I'll watch again.

Breadbaker said...

I was seven and had no idea what was going on, but my more culturally savvy older brother started combing his hair over his eyes. Didn't take long before mom was asking, "Are you going to listen to that in 50 years?" Yes, mom, and so are you.

DBenson said...

A decade or so ago at Epcot I saw a very decent Beatle tribute band performing. I noticed most of the audience weren't boomers like me but grinning 20- and 30-somethings with little kids.

My theory: For them, Beatle music wasn't the music of revolution but what their parents played when they were toddlers. That's what made them wheel up their own toddlers when they heard "I Want to Hold Your Hand."

Anyone of those younger generations care to comment?

Wendy M. Grossman said...

Hamid: it's entirely possible they both believe they're telling the truth. Read Elizabeth Loftus's work on the malleability of memory and the ease of implanting stories.


Trent said...

The Beatles changed music and changed the world....

Blah blah blah....

My Grandpa said the same thing about Benny Goodman and my Dad said it about Elvis

jbryant said...

Of course it's easier to understand a phenomenon when you're living through it, rather than just reading about it 50 years later. And when some young people listen to Beatles songs, I'm sure they don't hear the innovation, because those songs have influenced just about every type of pop music since. But even if you don't care about their music, surely anyone can appreciate the incredible range of talent necessary to go from "Please Please Me" to "The White Album" in five short years, when most artists were hammering their own shtick to death. Their achievement is impossible to "overrate," regardless of one's personal opinion (outside of which the word is meaningless anyway).

And no offense, Hamid, but as much as I love George Harrison, anyone who thinks he had a better singing voice than Lennon or McCartney is pretty hard to take seriously. My subjective opinion of your subjective opinion, of course.

jbryant said...

Trent -- doesn't mean it's not true, whether you like it or not. They've been saying it about the Beatles for 50 years now. What other bands or artists since then have had that kind of cultural impact? Opinions about the music are subjective, but the enormity of their influence and impact is not. It's a simple fact.

Trent said...

Blah blah blah...

Mike said...

I think it's great that Britney didn't know who the Beatles were.

Not that she has musical talent, but the Beatles are definitely overrated.

Mike Barer said...

Youth grew up with the Beatles, it is hard to put in words the impact The Beatles had on our culture. Would anyone care if one of today's pop stars made a religious comment, no, because it would not have been heard. Where as Justin Bieber had to be caught with drugs to make headlines, the Beatles could do it with a song.
I believe the Beatles will be remembered alongside of Bach and Bethoven. They were an oasis of happiness during a tough, depressing time of history. They were so charismatic, they were popular before America was aware of how talented and creative they actually were.
Paul McCartney performed in Safeco field last July and thousands got up and screamed and sang, it was history revisited. The Beatles Forever!

Liz said...

You people do realize that most people feel the same way about the music they grew up listening to.

No, I don't suppose you do.

Because you'll insist your generation was different and the Beatles really were the one musical group that truly changed the world and we young idiots just don't have the sense to appreciate that.

So if that makes all of you feel better as you grow old, then go with it. You guys were unique and the Beatles changed everything and long after all other music has been forgotten the Beatles will be honored as gods and your generation as the pinnacle of youthful achievement.

Dale said...

This is a message for Hamid.

Hello Hamid. It is hard to understand why the Beatles are considered so important at this time, Febuary 2014, without a bit of knowledge as to why. I shall try to give you a little idea in this small space as to the reasons.

To understand their importance we have to go back to the early 1950's. Rock music did not exist, Race music, known as RnB had been developing and gaining momentum since the mid 1940's. A new sound embrassing a more rollicking driving feel was being heard from people such as Louis Jordan. Alongside the more intellectual bebop, this RnB was taking over. All the while being driven by a swinging boogey woogey groove.

As the white population caught on, people such as Bill Haley and his comets came to the fore. Little Richard then helped, through drummer Earl Palmer, to make the straight 8th pulse more popular than the swing of the day.

All this did not fail to go unnoticed in England. The guitar being cheaper and eaiser to transport helped Skiffle grow. People could not even afford drum kits, let alone pianos. Most people were riding public transport and so wash boards and boxes provided the rhythm along with accoustic guitars.

The English, took their influences from the States and made it their own. And it was The Beatles, more than any other, who radically changed the pop music of the day.

There is a distinct line that divides pre and post Beatles in pop music history. Pop changed. Kids took up instruments in the millions as a direct result of that one tv show. The Ludwig drum company had to increase production by 24/7. All of a sudden the idea of "The Band" not the band leader, was fully embraced. Bands were formed all over the globe because of the Beatles.

Song writing changed. Band members were contributing their own material. Bob Dylan then helped add to this by story telling in the first person. The sixties, driven by The Beatles, changed everything.

Sergeant Pepper went on to open the paths for bands like Yes and King Crimson to experiment in the studio to discover what may or may not work.

Suffice to say, the massive contribution felt to this day shows The Beatles remain as the most influential and important pop band in history.

When I entered the business as a naive drummer who grew up on Art Blakey and Gene Krupa, I was shocked by how many people in the industry referenced The Beatles.

They are anything but over rated.

DwWashburn said...

Fifty years ago tonight I was at church so I missed the premiere. However the next week church was cancelled because of snow so I was home. And speaking of snow, the closest CBS station to our home was 110 miles away so anytime you watched CBS, you watched through the snow.

As for the comments about this being simply nostalgic, I guess you could use that argument for other historical eras. I guess the people who enjoy Shakespeare or Bach are just longing for a time when chicken pox and smallpox were all the rage and not because his works were enduring.

Mike said...

>because those songs have influenced just about every type of pop music since.

That's not an achievement.

Their songs are more enduring than the current fare, but still not much.

RobEB said...

I've got the compleat Ed Sullivan show on DVD, so we watched it, in it's entirety, starting exactly at 8:00 pm last night. It was interesting to see the other acts (impressionist and future Riddler Frank Gorshin was a standout) who all received slightly less of an ethusiastic reaction from the audience as did the Beatles. For authenticity, at 7:30 we even watched the episode of My Favorite Martian that preceded The Ed Sullivan Show. I know...I need help...

jbryant said...

Tim said: "Blah, blah, blah..." Well, I guess you told me, Tim. Hard to argue with that.

Mike: You're perfectly entitled to think the Beatles are overrated. It's a matter of opinion. But you can't say "definitely overrated," because no one's opinion is the definite one.

Liz: Um, I don't think any of us who grew up in the 60s is saying our generation was different. But the Beatles WERE different. One doesn't have to like their music to acknowledge their impact on cultural history, an impact much greater than that of any music act since. It's just a fact; nothing to get angry about. On the other hand, if I'm wrong, please list the musical acts since the Beatles who have had anything approaching their overall cultural impact. I will concede that the cultural landscape is more fragmented these days, with everyone having so many more choices than three TV channels and a couple of radio stations (but of course this also speaks to why the Beatles had such a broad cultural effect). Anyway, it's a serious challenge, so I hope you or somebody else will take a stab at it, without hurling insults.