You say you want a revolution, well you know, We all want to change the world.
— The Beatles
I might have been only one of 73 million viewers — an insignificant, 8-year-old blip on the radar — on this day 50 years ago when The Beatles were introduced to America on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” but even a half-century later that event remains clear in my mind.
And why wouldn’t it? It changed my life forever.
Sure, I — like so many millions of other Americans — had already fallen in love with The Beatles’ music before we got to see them play Sullivan. Their “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was everpresent on American radio and had climbed to the top of the U.S. charts. Beatlemania was indeed alive and well by the time the Fab Four flew into the country for the first time.
But there was something about seeing John Lennon, Paul McCartney, George Harrison and Ringo Starr play and sing their songs live that announced to the millions of fans and curious TV viewers looking on that a new day had dawned in popular music. Little did we know that The Beatles’ first Sullivan appearance also ushered in, initially, a shift in pop culture and, ultimately, a cultural revolution that replaced the post-WW II boom with a new Age of Reason whose leaders were young artists and thinkers miles removed from the previous generation’s ultraconservative standard-bearers.
All that was too much for me to grasp in real time. Even then, for me, it was all about the music.
That a son of the deep, deep South who was raised on hardcore country, bluegrass and gospel music would fall so quickly and completely under the spell of four musicians from Liverpool, England, was no small wonder. That parents whose hardscrabble existence was developed around a soundtrack provided by Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs, Jim and Jesse and the Virginia Boys, Hank Williams, Tom T. Hall and Waylon Jennings would allow for this foreign invasion to infiltrate their home so completely was no less a wonder.
With the advantage of 50 years of hindsight, I realize now that The Beatles were, for me, about much more than music, even though that music was the greatest ever created in the history of the rock and roll era and, some would argue, among the greatest ever created, period. The Beatles were the bridge that allowed me — and a generation or two of others like me — to realize that life had moved on from the time of our parents, that a new day had indeed dawned. Sure, we could move our bodies and sing along to the tunes as each new Fab Four release hit the airwaves. But on a deeper level we started to understand that “being different” and striving for the new were no longer bad things.
The Beatles sang five songs on “The Ed Sullivan Show” 50 years ago: “All My Loving,” “Till There Was You,” “She Loves You,” “I Saw Her Standing There” and “I Want to Hold Your Hand.” All were classics. By the time they’d appeared on the popular variety show two more times, history had changed. Proof can be seen these five decades later by the hoopla surrounding the Beatles/Sullivan anniversary, including a CBS special “The Beatles: The Night That Changed America,” which will air tonight. (The show, incidentally, will include appearances by both surviving Beatles, McCartney and Starr.)
By the end of the ’60s, The Beatles’ run as a band was finished. It’s not that their music had grown any less significant; on the contrary, the group’s amazing knack for reinvention carried it to ever newer heights with each transformative release. No, it was the reality of being a Beatle that became too much for the four individuals who wore that mantle. That the music those four created a half-century ago — and subsequent post-Beatles music that includes some of each’s most significant work — is as revered today by each new generation is testament to the once-in-several-lifetimes phenomenon that will forever be the band’s trademark.
And, no doubt, 50 years from today, there will be just as much hoopla.
When The Beatles were about to land on American soil for the first time, heroic native sons already in Britain, they worried that their success would not carry over in the colonies. Noting that the U.S. was overrun with popular musicians, many of whom had inspired The Beatles, McCartney famously wondered, “What are we going to give them that they don’t already have?”
As it turned out, Sir Paul, you gave us a whole new way of looking at our world. And it’s that evolution, as well as your unmatched music, that burns on in us as brightly today as it did all those 50 years ago.