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60 Years Later: How The Beatles Met the Moment on Ed Sullivan

Bettmann/Getty
Bettmann/Getty

In the days before everyone cut their cable because no one had cable yet, there were these things called networks. Only a handful of these networks existed, which meant that people couldn’t help but watch the same things. Sometimes there was a very big thing, and just about everyone who was able to would sit down to watch.

The Beatles’ debut on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, 1964, is the first seismic event in American television history. Americans had been wedded to their sets the previous November in the aftermath of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, but there hadn’t been an event like this, one that people knew was coming.

So people gathered. And gathered. People of all ages. Kids tended to be frenzied with excitement for something novel and new, as kids always have been. Whereas, members of the older crowd seemed determined to practice tolerance for the follies of youth and set the good example, or perhaps conjure an anecdote for how things were better in their day.

A picture of Ed Sullivan talking to The Beatles

Ed Sullivan talks with The Beatles, on the set of The Ed Sullivan Show in 1964.

Bettmann/Getty Images

Certain things will simply never change. Popular culture, though—and, really, the world—did change on that winter night when most of America met these four young men from Liverpool.

The Beatles had touched down at New York’s Kennedy Airport two days prior. Only one of them—George Harrison—had been to America before. These were guys who worshiped American culture. This was where the gods, in their view, had originated: Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and, most of all, the god of the gods, Elvis Presley.

Think about this for a moment: You come to this place, all eyes are on you thanks to one of the most successful, buzz-generating marketing campaigns in history. You’ve never played a note in this new land, and then you appear on TV to perform for seemingly everyone across four dozen states.

We know what happens next. The Beatles became as huge as any entertainment act in history, though they would not have done so without being able to deliver the goods—never underestimate the staying power of those who are both given a chance and able to deliver the goods.

Here’s a question that is somehow seldom asked: How good were The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show?

There were three initial appearances. That first one on Feb. 9, a second on Feb. 16, and a final performance broadcast Feb. 23, until The Beatles’ return to the program in August 1965.

George Harrison was sick with tonsillitis upon the band’s arrival in New York, which meant that at the rehearsals on Feb. 8 and the morning of Feb. 9, road manager Neil Aspinall took Harrison’s place so that the camera set-ups could be determined. To two different audiences on that day of Feb. 9, The Beatles played a total of eight songs. The three from the afternoon’s filming were then used for the appearance of Feb. 23. The Feb. 16 appearance was taped at the band’s hotel in Miami.

An estimated 73 million people saw The Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show on Feb. 9, and though they couldn’t have known it, they were experiencing a band that had become a confident, driving beast of a unit born of beer-and-puke splattered clubs, constant gigging, and who-knows-how-much rehearsal time.

The much-needed final piece of their puzzle—in drummer Ringo Starr—had only been put in place a year-and-a-half before, but if ever there were four people born to make music together, here they were, and you can play, and replay that music that they made on The Ed Sullivan Show just as you can a proper album.

An elevated view of The Beatles performing on an episode of 'The Ed Sullivan Show'

The Beatles performing on The Ed Sullivan Show.

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

They start with “All My Loving,” one of Paul McCartney’s first big-time compositions, but with a tricky rhythm guitar figure requiring these very fast triplets from John Lennon with virtually no let-up. Lennon nails the part, and of course you want McCartney standing front and center winning over these Yanks. Harrison plays the country-and-western infused guitar solo to chiming perfection, while Starr—who cannot receive too much credit for what he brought to this band—drives them all forward.

The Beatles made beat music—hence the pun in their name. And it was as if here they were making sure no one ever forgot it, never mind that everyone was just getting acquainted.

“Till There Was You” served as the romancer and charmer for those who thought these “boys” might otherwise be too wild with that hair going over their collars, and then we have “She Loves You.”

Arguably, there is no finer, better written Beatles song, or rock ’n’ roll song by anyone. It’s mostly in second person. Know many songs like that? It’s a song about looking out for a friend, possessed of a wisdom that will never date. And it just happens to start with a chorus to die for and a transition into the verse that can honestly make for one of your most exciting moments of existence the first time you hear it.

You cannot beat “She Loves You” so far as musical energy goes and it was with that song that The Beatles had conquered America. You can pinpoint that occurrence. Now, they could have been forgotten six months later had The Beatles not done what they were able to do, but here in the winter of 1964, this country was all but theirs.

Following a break, The Beatles returned for two more songs: “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” Rock ’n’ roll, which had largely vanished from the American scene in the early 1960s, was back, but it was different. Rock had been a driving musical idiom; what The Beatles instead presented was an alternate musical world of chords and chord changes that created a unique sense of the euphonic. Yes, they had the power, but they had something that went beyond finesse. It was theirs, and no one else’s.

Much has been made about America needing what The Beatles offered after the death of Kennedy. The Beatles certainly had many gifts, but one of them—as their producer George Martin said—was not of their choosing, and that was their timing.

The Beatles were ambitious. Lady Macbeth could have looked at the four of them and felt intimidated. The Ed Sullivan Show was a start, a first move, and it had been successful. It is no coincidence that Lennon and McCartney kicked their writing up another level after this first American visit. It was go time. Things were unfolding.

You can’t fault anyone who watched that first American TV appearance and thought this was the best anyone would ever see from these guys. Whereas The Beatles themselves would have thought, “We’ve only just started, mate.” We listen to those Feb. 9 performances now, and what we hear is not just the sound of a start, but the sound of guys who were already well on their way.

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