Advertisement

Archive for Sunday, February 8, 2004

40 years after Sullivan, Beatles endure

February 8, 2004

Advertisement

— It was black and white, and watched all over.

In the days when hardly anyone had color television, on Feb. 9, 1964, the Beatles appeared live in the living rooms of 78 million Americans -- four out of every 10 -- on "The Ed Sullivan Show."

The Sunday night shindig incited a massive pop culture upheaval.

"People put seeing the Beatles on 'Ed Sullivan' with memories of where they were when Kennedy was shot, or when man first walked on the moon," said Bruce Spizer, author of "The Beatles Are Coming." "It was the first time Americans got to see the Beatles perform live. For that reason, this is the image embedded in our minds."

Those iconic snapshots of John, Paul, Ringo and George remain familiar today: The black suits and moptop hairstyles; McCartney and Harrison sharing vocals and a microphone; their still, almost formal bow forward after they played.

The Beatles' five-song performance was nothing less than a life-changing experience for many, said Steven Van Zandt, Bruce Springsteen's longtime sidekick and disc jockey extraordinaire.

"This was the main event of my life," recalled Van Zandt, whose Sunday night syndicated radio show will feature mostly Beatles songs this week. "It was certainly the major event for many others, whether or not they knew it at the time.

"For me, it was no less dramatic than aliens landing on the planet."

The Beatles had only beamed down from Liverpool, and they landed on a Pan Am flight at Kennedy International Airport. But their arrival in New York, capped by the Sullivan appearance, was beyond most anything that preceded it -- bigger than Sinatra, like Elvis to the fourth power.

The Sullivan show received 50,000 requests for tickets, while its Broadway theater (now the home of "Late Show With David Letterman") held just 728 people. Beatlemania was in full roar, thanks mostly to screaming girls.

By the second weekend of February, "I Want to Hold Your Hand" -- three weeks after its release -- was No. 1 on the U.S. charts. The country was waiting for a glimpse of the band.

The Beatles perform on CBS' "The Ed Sullivan Show" Feb. 9, 1964, in
New York. From left, front, are Paul McCartney, George Harrison and
John Lennon. Ringo Starr plays drums.

The Beatles perform on CBS' "The Ed Sullivan Show" Feb. 9, 1964, in New York. From left, front, are Paul McCartney, George Harrison and John Lennon. Ringo Starr plays drums.

In an America without cable television or pay-per-view or niche audiences, there was just one place to see them: the Sullivan show on CBS.

"There's no equivalent of that today, TV shows that literally everybody watched," said Van Zandt, who was 13 at the time. "All ages, all ethnic groups, all in black and white on a 14-inch screen."

At 8 p.m., Sullivan opened the show with these words: "Ladies and gentlemen, the Beatles. Let's bring them on." His voice disappeared amid the screams, and the Beatles began.

They opened with "All My Loving," then launched into "Till There Was You" -- a ballad from the Broadway show "The Music Man." Next was "She Loves You."

Once the Beatles exited, the show's hip-o-meter dipped considerably. Impressionist Frank Gorshin did a bit and Tessie O'Shea played the banjo, followed by the comedy stylings of McCall & Brill.

And then the Beatles returned. They closed the show with their chart-topping single and its B-side, "I Saw Her Standing There."

Throughout their New York stay, the Beatles remained preternaturally calm -- even as they were overrun by delirious fans. British photographer Robert Freeman remembered arriving at the Sullivan theater, where Beatlemaniacs engulfed the Fab Four's car.

John Lennon eventually escaped and slipped inside, where he was asked about the insanity outside.

"He said, 'I'm not concerned. It's not our car,'" said Freeman, whose exclusive pictures of the band were assembled in "The Beatles: A Private View."

The British lads quickly charmed the typically taciturn Sullivan, who put on a Beatles wig and posed for publicity shots.

Documentary makers Albert and David Maysles joined the Beatles' small entourage to create a British television special about the first wave of the impending British Invasion. Albert, like Freeman, recalled the band as unaffected by the enveloping frenzy.

"Thousands of people were showing up to see them," said Albert Maysles. "Anyone else would be so inflated, their egos. But as long as I knew the Beatles, they remained the same: regular guys."

By the morning of Feb. 10, it was clear the televised performance by those regular guys had produced a cultural cataclysm.

The Beatles would do four more Sullivan gigs, none more important than the first. Six years later, the band was history. But 40 years later, with Beatlemania now middle-aged, the impact of that first Sunday night with the Beatles still resonates.

"It was their sound, their looks, their attitudes," Van Zandt said. "It was so many things. A time to look at things differently, question things a little bit. All kinds of things were new."

Commenting has been disabled for this item.